Titanfalling Short of Expectations

Last time I wrote about Titanfall 2 it was to praise its ability to tell a story through gameplay. However, now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. While Titanfall 2 received heaps of praise for having one of the most compelling shooter campaigns of the decade I’m still of the mind that it felt lacking. The reason for this is quite simple: Titanfall 2 fails to utilize its core mechanics in meaningful and interesting ways. It relies heavily on unique level gimmicks and excellent pacing to carry an otherwise standard shooter. A bold statement, but let me make my case here.

Titanfall 2 starts off, as many games do, with a tutorial level where you’re taught the basics. Firstly you’re walked through your different movement based abilities. Sprinting, wall-running, sliding, and a double jump are all at your disposal and chaining these abilities together helps players to build and maintain momentum. Afterward you’re taught how to shoot with a quick firing range. Then both of these things are brought together in a final gauntlet where you’re tested on your ability to shoot while maintaining your speed. Fairly standard stuff all things considered.

So what does any of this have to do with Titanfall 2’s campaign? Well tutorials aren’t just a teaching tool: they’re also a player’s introduction to a game. Good tutorials help introduce new players to the mechanics, world, and story of a game. They also help set expectations about the kind of experience on offer. Titanfall 2’s tutorial does this quite well, but what is unfortunate is that sets expectations that it never manages to live up to.

While the tutorial demonstrates how Titanfall’s movement works in combination with the shooting, the campaign rarely provides players with opportunities like the opening gauntlet. The overwhelming majority of firefights are easier if played from the safety of cover thanks to the abundance of it and regenerating health. Furthermore, most environments are open despite the mobility skills being more effective in close quarters. This is Titanfall’s biggest failing: the mechanics that make it compelling aren’t utilized. The campaign absolutely has great pacing, excellent narrative design, and a handful of interesting levels, but could have just as easily been a Call of Duty game. Nothing about what players are doing feels uniquely Titanfall and that’s a shame.

As a point of comparison I’d like to bring up Doom (2016), which released in the same year as Titanfall 2. Its central mechanic is called glory kills which is introduced, much like Titanfall’s mobility, in the tutorial. Doom then spends the rest of the game forcing the player to make the most of this mechanic. The environment and enemy design in every encounter is such that players are pushed into situations where they can only play effectively by engaging with this mechanic. ID Software, the developers of Doom, knew how fun glory kills were and made sure that players had every possible opportunity to use it.

The really awkward part about all of this is that were it not for the design of Titanfall 2’s tutorial the campaign would be excellent. It’s just that by introducing shooting and mobility together the player is told how they’re meant to play the game, but then proceeds to play through about four hours of something entirely different. Though, credit where it’s due, there is one level that does require players to shoot while making use of their mobility. However, the most effective way to get through this level is to run through the combat encounters with minimal engagement because of how good your mobility is, which might hint at why more of the campaign doesn’t look this way.

What’s especially damning is that Titanfall 2’s multiplayer does manage to play around the pilot’s unique skills. Maps are designed to encourage the use of different mobility skills for navigation. Unlike the single player, everyone has access to these abilities and thus no one has an unfair advantage like the player does against the AI. Furthermore, the addition of a grappling hook helps to further increase the emphasis on the game’s mobility elements. It’s not that Respawn was incapable of designing levels that marry mobility and combat, but rather that their skillset and the design of their game favoured including them in the multiplayer component, which is probably why the first Titanfall was a strictly multiplayer game.

I feel it prudent to point out that I understand why people enjoyed Titanfall 2’s single player, but I found it underwhelming. It’s a shame because the core mechanics are really interesting, but they’re constantly relegated to the background in favour of throwing unique level gimmicks at the player. While this gives Titanfall 2 an excellent sense of pacing the whole thing fails to resonate as strongly as other games, or even its own multiplayer, where the core mechanics are utilized more effectively. Obviously I’m not the only person who realized this because Apex Legends saw Respawn returning to a multiplayer focus and was an overwhelming success.

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