I punched a giant robot and pulled a wriggling human being out of its chest. Then I tossed the soldier aside, stomped on a few of his buddies, and fired a barrage of rockets at some snipers hiding on top of a building. And I'm not even very good at this game.
Titanfall represents a lot of firsts. It's the first major exclusive for the Xbox One, Microsoft's next-generation console (it’s also available on PC and, in a lesser capacity, the Xbox 360). It's the first game from Respawn Entertainment, a new studio formed by the creative brains behind the biggest shooter franchise around, Call of Duty. It's the first blockbuster console shooter to forgo a single-player campaign altogether, instead focusing entirely on competitive multiplayer action that requires an internet connection. These are all big things, but what makes Titanfall so special is a different, more personal first: it's the first multiplayer shooter to make me feel constantly like an absolute badass.
At its most basic, Titanfall is essentially Call of Duty with mechs. It’s a first-person shooter that takes place in a somewhat generic war-torn sci-fi universe, where two opposing factions are caught up in a long-running conflict, though the bare-bones story is really just an excuse to throw you into battle after battle. Titanfall eschews a traditional story-based campaign in favor of focusing exclusively on online multiplayer: every time you play, you'll be going up against a team of other real-world players in a variety of different modes. For someone like me — the kind of person who dies nearly instantly in a round of Call of Duty: Ghosts death match — this sounds horrible. But Titanfall gets past this with some smart design and a couple of important gameplay additions.
You're always only a few minutes away from getting into a robot suit
At the heart of the game is the interplay between the soldiers (or pilots, as they're called) and the titans. You start out each match on foot, but a few minutes in you'll have the option to have a titan drop out of the sky so you can hop in. Killing opponents and completing objectives can speed up this process, but even if you're having a bad game, you're always only a few minutes away from getting into a robot suit. Run up to it and jump, and it grabs you with its metallic hand and shoves you inside.
The mechs might be the focus, but there's no single, sweeping innovation that makes Titanfall work as well as it does. Instead, it's a series of seemingly small tweaks that make it feel both incredibly fresh, and surprisingly approachable. Perhaps the most important part of the game is simply how good it feels to play. When you're not in a titan, movement is incredibly fast and fluid: pilots can run along the walls, double jump to reach crazy-high areas, and sprint at ridiculous speeds. It almost feels like Assassin’s Creed, but in first person, and much less automatic. And the streamlined, simplified controls mean that you can hop through the second-story window of a building with little effort — I often found myself searching for high ground just because it was so much fun to jump around. The titans, meanwhile, are surprisingly agile; you can dash around the level, and unleash on foes with some really cool weapons. Simply walking around and seeing the ground shake beneath you is fun.
But a titan isn't the all-powerful, omnipotent weapon it might seem. Though the mechs are bigger and more powerful than the pilots, strapping into one turns you into a target: everyone can see you, and there's nowhere to hide. I often found myself lasting just a few minutes in a titan before being forced to hit the eject button. In that brief window of time I'm usually able to do quite a bit of damage, whether it's firing a few rockets off at enemy titans or stomping on a few soldiers. But titans aren’t simply a reward, because even when you're out of the suit the game is incredibly fun. The speedy pilots are able to get places the titans can't, and the levels are expertly designed around this fact: you'll find plenty of small spaces to hide from titan fire, and if you're careful, you can even hop on the back of a titan and shoot its robotic brains out.
The balance between the titans and pilots is incredibly well-tuned, so you never really feel at a disadvantage either way. Just as important is the fact that, even if you aren't particularly skilled, you can do a satisfying amount of damage. It's pretty likely that you'll be able to take out at least a few enemy pilots and titans each match, but you're also able to boost your numbers by killing computer-controlled grunts that litter the battlefield. These AI soldiers help fill out the rather small teams of humans that square off in each match. And in a mode like attrition — essentially a team-based free-for-all, where you're trying to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible — it lets you contribute even if you spend a lot of time getting shot in the head. There’s a smart pistol that can lock on to enemies to help players who can’t aim all that well, though it requires a bit of patience, as you’ll need to wait for it to lock on. The smart pistol is a lot like the titans themselves: it gives you an easy way to have some fun, but nothing feels overpowering.
The game goes out of its way to make you feel good
In fact, Titanfall seems to go out of its way to help make you feel good, even when things aren't going your way. When you die, it only takes a few seconds to get back in the game; when your titan is about to explode, you can frantically hit the eject button to fly high above the level. Even when your team loses a match, there's still something to strive for: each round ends with an "epilogue," where you're racing to get to a drop ship so that you can escape the battlefield. The game also has a very generous progression system. You'll level up pretty quickly — I hit level 16 after just one solid day of playing — and with each level comes new satisfying features to use. You'll get new weapons to outfit both pilots and mechs, and special one-time-use "burn cards" that give you temporary ability boosts like faster legs or a quicker recharge time for a new titan. Really good players will unlock this content much more quickly, but you don't have to be amazing to get the good stuff.
The one potential drawback is that there isn’t a whole lot of variety at the moment. Aside from attrition, Titanfall has a handful of game modes, including mainstays like Capture the Flag. The most interesting is "Last Titan Standing," which tasks you with destroying all of the other team’s titans first. It’s not just the only mode that really feels unique to Titanfall, it’s also the most challenging, as it’s one where you can’t re-spawn. And while there’s no single-player mode, Titanfall does technically have a campaign, though it’s pretty disappointing. You’ll play through multiple missions, but each one is simply a regular multiplayer match with some underdeveloped story elements tacked on to the beginning and end. There seems to be an interesting fiction to Titanfall, but you’d never really know it from playing the game. The really cool stuff, like the lumbering dinosaur-like aliens or the swarms of tiny dragon creatures, is simply relegated to background material. You can look but you can’t touch (I tried).
Of course, there are also the inevitable issues related to an always-online game: if your internet goes down, or the servers are having problems, you simply can't play. Titanfall launched last night, and Xbox Live went down the same day, leaving many gamers unable to check out their new game for hours. The troubled life of the new SimCity is proof of just how hard it is to pull off an always-on experience.
The most important thing about Titanfall is how it makes you feel. Whereas most multiplayer shooters make the really skilled players seem superhuman and everyone else like cannon fodder, Titanfall evens the score. Those superhuman players still exist, and they'll still kill you, but Titanfall provides enough tools for you to have fun anyway. You'll be able to get in some kills and contribute to the team-based skirmishes in a meaningful way, and you'll also get to do some pretty thrilling things along the way. I can think of few other games that let me ride on the back of a giant robot or run along the side of a skyscraper. I can’t think of any where I can use ancient alien bones as cover while I methodically creep up on enemies and shoot them with a smart pistol.
Playing Titanfall is a lot like slipping into a mech suit: it makes you feel incredible, even if it only lasts for a minute.