Titanfall: too little of a good thing

TitanfallTitanfall may be the most widely anticipated video game of 2014. The first game from Respawn Entertainment, the studio founded by the people who used to run the mega-popular Call of Duty franchise, Titanfall is also an exclusive title for Microsoft’s new-ish XBox One console — meaning that its creators would be able to throw much more computing power at it than has been usual for titles that had to run on the relatively constrained XBox 360, allowing, in theory, for graphics way beyond the norm. So lots of people were looking forward to seeing what it could do.

Well, now it’s here! So how is it? The answer is…  it’s complicated.

On one level, Titanfall is a pretty standard first-person shooter. You’re dropped into a big map with a gun, and run around shooting other players who are trying to shoot them with their own guns. But then you run into a Titan — a robot, two or three times as tall as a human, festooned with cannons and missile launchers and looking to make your life miserable.You have some weapons that can help you take on a Titan by yourself. But a few minutes later, the game offers you your own Titan, which takes all that intimidating power you were just running away from and puts it in your hands, for as long as you can keep it from being overwhelmed with damage. You spend the entire round this way, jumping between the speed and agility of fighting on foot and the steamrolling power of fighting in a Titan.

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: the game makes a hell of a first impression. The graphics are amazing, the gameplay is fluid and finely balanced, everything comes together so tightly that you’re convinced you’re experiencing a masterpiece. It all works, for a while.

The problem is that “a while,” in this case, is not very long. Once you’ve played for a few hours, you start to notice something: there’s not a whole lot of game in there. The base game comes with fifteen maps, but there’s not a lot of difference between them — they’re all vaguely generic sci-fi-ish environments, metal walls and long corridors. They’re well laid out, but there just aren’t enough of them; match lengths are short, so you’ll quickly have cycled through them all many times. They’ve started rolling out DLC add-on packs, but those only add a couple of new maps each, which makes their $9.99 asking price hard to swallow. (For comparison, maybe the best multiplayer game ever made, the original Battlefield 1942, shipped with more than twenty maps, ranging from jungles to deserts to rubble-strewn cities, and each add-on map pack added more than five more.)

Titanfall tries to inject some variety by offering several different game modes, such as Attrition (straightforward deathmatch), Hardpoint (capture and hold points on the map), Capture the Flag, and so forth. The problem with these is that I can never find anyone playing them. The only game mode that I have consistently been matched with other players to play is Attrition; on all the other ones the matchmaker just sits there, showing a little spinning progress wheel and periodically bumping you to another (also empty) server. So while modes other than Attrition may be fun, I couldn’t tell you myself, because I have yet to find a way to play them.

The most frequent complaint lodged against the game by the gaming media has been its lack of a traditional single player campaign to complement the multiplayer. Me, I’m not turned off by the idea of a multiplayer-only game; the aforementioned Battlefield 1942 was also multiplayer-only, and I happily played that one for years. And many other games’ single player campaigns are so obviously afterthoughts that they could just as easily have been skipped.

But the thing is, Titanfall‘s designers didn’t have the guts to actually omit a single player campaign completely. Instead, they provided something that’s called a single player campaign, but really it’s just a bunch of multiplayer games strung together with voice-overs. The result isn’t particularly compelling. Even worse, since campaign levels are multiplayer rounds, you have to be able to find other players online wanting to play the same level in order to play them — and the matchmaker has as much trouble finding these people as it does finding people who want to play multiplayer modes other than Attrition. The cherry on the top of all this is that the only way to unlock some Titans is to complete the single player campaign; given how hard it is to find other players, and the fact that you can’t play through a level until you do, this feels a bit like adding insult to injury.

All of which probably makes it sound like Titanfall is a worse game than it actually is. There are a lot of really good, really well-done things to enjoy in this package, and the out-of-the-box experience is amazing, and it takes a fair bit of time for the annoyances to start outweighing the good bits. I’m still playing, if not with the “this is the Game of the Decade” feeling I had in those first couple of hours. But the small amount of content and the non-trivial number of problems make this a game that feels like a missed opportunity.