The original Titanfall was missing something. The 2014 multiplayer shooter managed to stand out among its contemporaries with its breakneck pace and weapons and levels that were designed to be more forgiving of new players. The multiplayer maps offered a glimpse into an intriguing sci-fi universe filled with towering robots, warring factions, and a Wild West slice of space known as the Frontier. What Titanfall lacked was true story mode. You were never able to really interact with that universe in a satisfying or meaningful way. You never learned about the important events that shaped it, or the characters that dwelled within. It was background.
With the sequel, developer Respawn has produced full-on single-player campaign. The story itself isn’t exactly unique or original, pulling heavily from blockbuster sci-fi and buddy cop movies, but it’s still a fun (if fleeting) romp. And it adds a texture that Titanfall as a franchise desperately needs to compete with increasingly large and expansive shooters.
If you played the first game, you’ll already have a vague idea of the setup of Titanfall’s world. Two sides wage war in a little-explored area of the galaxy. On one side you have the wealthy and presumably evil IMC, a powerful corporate conglomerate. On the other there’s a ragtag group of soldiers known as the Militia. It’s basically the Empire vs. the Rebels, but with mech suits instead of the Force. Dubbed titans, these massive mechs are the staples of this ongoing war, and each one is operated by a seemingly superhuman soldier known as a pilot. The core of Titanfall 2’s new story is exploring the bond between pilots and titans.
The game puts you in the role of Jack Cooper, a lowly militia soldier with dreams of one day becoming a pilot with a titan of his very own. It happens much sooner than he would’ve imagined: when his commanding officer is killed out in the field, Cooper and his boss’ titan have no choice but to join forces in order to survive. Over the six or so hours the campaign lasts, you’ll learn more about the two factions and their war, as you venture through IMC facilities, track down high-ranking officers, and even jump back in time to learn more about one of the key plot points.
The central titan BT-7274 — or BT, as he prefers to be called — is the highlight. In a lot of ways BT feels like a mishmash of robots you’ve seen before in movies. At times he’s warm and gentle, like the Iron Giant, protecting Cooper’s comparatively frail body from high drops and heavy artillery. Other times he’s a cute oddball like R2-D2 — at one point he kneels down, in clear homage, to display a holographic projection of some important plans.
But most of all he reminds me of Optimus Prime. BT is brave and considerate, and is slowly learning how to interact with humans. He parrots his friend’s catchphrases and gives cheesy thumbs-up, trying to be more human, it would seem, than death bot. A large part of BT’s humanness comes not just from his actions and growth as a character, but also from a seemingly minor physical attribute: he has a large glowing eye. This allows you to follow where he’s looking, which, most of the time, is directly at you. It’s a lot more intimate than gabbing at Siri or Alexa.
Titanfall 2’s story borrows from film a lot, to the point that it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn James Cameron or Neil Blomkamp had consulted on the game — or that the creators dwelled on every word of the directors’ DVD commentaries. There’s the almost fetishistic level of detail lavished on the futuristic military gear like in Aliens, the aggressive alien wildlife ripped right out of Avatar, and the plentiful worker robots that would look at home in Elysium. But what Titanfall 2 lacks in originality, it makes up with heart. At times the story falls into cliche, and it’s often predictable — you’ll see the big, emotional climax coming from a long way out — but it still, broadly speaking, works, if only for its robo-star.
One of the main reasons the dynamic between BT and Cooper gels is because of how the game is structured. Just like in Titanfall’s multiplayer, the campaign has you splitting your time between being on foot and piloting a titan. There are huge swaths of the campaign where you’ll need to venture into buildings solo — BT is too big to fit inside many structures — but your partner is always in your ear, guiding you along. Titanfall 2’s electric parkour-style action and tight gunplay make for some great platforming and shootout set pieces, but these moments can also make you feel vulnerable. You’re often going up against huge numbers of enemies, and tasked with navigating seemingly impossible environments. When you’re finally reunited with BT, it instills a sense of relief. Inside the mech is a safe place, one where you’re safe from radiation and can easily stomp on infantry soldiers.
Titanfall 2 had a solid foundation to build from in its predecessor: well-tuned and exciting shooter fundamentals, housed in a gritty but beautiful sci-fi universe. The sequel’s story campaign, while not the deep dive I’d prefer, is a solid first step into this rich world. As much as I loved the white knuckle action of the original game, it never managed to fully grab me, and I lost interest not long after it came out. With Titanfall 2, I finally have a reason to care about what happens — and it’s all thanks to a goofy robot.
Titanfall 2 launches on October 28th on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. We’ll be checking out the game’s multiplayer portion next week.