The bond shared between a Titan and a pilot has always been hinted at, from the promotional materials for the original Titanfall to the campaign story trailers for Titanfall 2. We’re told they’re nothing without each other, a dynamic duo whose dependence on the other is essential to their mutual survival. Good storytelling starts at the rule “Show, don’t tell,” and whereas Titanfall was quick to tell you how important this relationship was, Titanfall 2 definitely makes a point of showing it by dedicating its entire single-player campaign to exploring the relationship between a boy and his Titan.
My Shadow and Me
Titanfall 2 doesn't make a great first impression. The opening mission is rather dull, presenting little more than a collection of military shooter tropes from the initial start screen. You're a grunt soldier with dreams of being one of the esteemed Titan pilots in the militia, stranded on a planet after the death of a character that should be tragic but barely registers because we're given no reason to care about him. You take control of his Titan. You chase down the bad guys and shoot them. Wash, rinse, repeat. In fact, I found myself starting to become bored with it a few hours in, when the game suddenly makes good on its sci-fi roots and makes a hard, jolting turn for the better.
The downside to this, of course, is having to wade through several hours of a so-so story filled with cliches explored in so many other futuristic military stories. Evil corporations have hired mercenaries to do their bidding, planets are at risk of invasion, etc. Even protagonist Jack Cooper commits the sin of being a bland soldier character archetype who, by a twist of fate, is thrust into becoming a pilot of an older series Titan when its original pilot dies.
This Titan becomes the story’s second savior. BT-7274--called “BT” for short--is a semi-sentient machine who serves as Jack’s mentor and companion throughout the campaign. BT’s programming makes him entirely literal, which leads to great exchanges between the two as they become more familiar with each other. In one instance, Jack asks BT how long he served with his previous pilot. BT reveals it was over 900 days, to which Jack responds by jokingly saying “That’s longer than any relationship I’ve been in!” BT humorlessly replies “Noted” in a deadpan robotic voice which becomes a regular phrase of his whenever he doesn’t pick up on humor. It’s a small thing, but watching Jack attempt to interact with BT on a human level and seeing the awkwardness of a man and machine becoming friendly was endearing and gave the story an extra ounce of levity beyond the bland, machismo-fueled bonds often seen in military shooter campaigns.
The only downside, of course, is that we're still saddled with Jack as our main character, who is basically every dramatic action hero distilled into one uninteresting do-gooder with no seeming personality traits beyond wisecracks, tattoos, and a good aim. Had Jack been a charcter with an arc, who learned and grew beyond merely going from "zero to hero" throughout the course of several hours, the relationship between Jack and BT might have been even more memorable.
Still, the connection shared between the two manages to be a sweet mix of The Iron Giant and buddy cop comedies from the ‘80s and ‘90s mixed with gritty sci-fi militarism. It especially emphasizes the necessity of a connection between both the pilot and the Titan, playing on our natural tendencies to connect with other beings. This campaign isn’t perfect, but it does enough right to keep me interested and caring about the well-being of its heroes, and it's especially impressive in its ability to craft a new string of fiction within an already-established franchise.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot
Titanfall 2 mixes several styles of gameplay and combat together in a way similar to more off-beat shooters like Starbreeze' s Syndicate and even Mirror's Edge. Missions are made up of fairly standard “Go there, shoot this,” objectives, but the way they're executed is what makes it stand apart. Shooting is finely-tuned and crisp, punctuated by sharp sound design and carefully tuned firing patterns and kickback screen effects. And even more fun than shooting is the brilliantly fluid and frenetic platforming movement Cooper is able to use to traverse the world. During a combat encouner, it was not uncommon to sprint forward, wall run and hop between structures, hit the ground, slide into an area while firing into surrounding enemies, then jumping up to launch a vicious melee attack on a nearby foe. The explosive energy that can be harnessed simply from moving around is what makes Titanfall’s gunplay feel more distinct from other shooters of its kind.
Titans are incapable of moving in the same way as a pilot can on foot, but what they lack in agility they make up in pure grit and firepower. BT picks up weapon loadout upgrades fast and often throughout the course of the campaign, each with their own unique set of abilities, weapons, and charged "core" ultimate moves. One loadout provides a massive katana-like melee weapon that can be used to deal massive damage to enemy titans, while another grants the use of semi-atuomatic burst rounds. Some include temporary shields that either block fire or collect projectiles and launch them back at enemies, while others arm the titan with trip wires and other items to slow enemy titans down. It appropriately feels different from being on-foot as a pilot, as it should. You are, after all, piloting a multi-ton walking war machine.
It’s also beautifully rendered, with highly-detailed textures adorning the surface of environments, a bold and vibrant use of color, and fluid combat animations whose weight and movement add a sense of savagery to the fighting on display. Titans pull back and lurch forward violently toward each other, bullets punch through enemies in brutal death animations, and feral creatures on the surface of the planet are lithe and deadly. Life can be found in these movements, and it only bolsters Titanfall’s already impressive visual fidelity.
Me and All My Friends
Where the campaign takes old ideas and remixes them to make something new and interesting, the multiplayer feels like a slightly more matured version of what was in the previous entry. There are multiple Titan types and loadouts available from the start in multiplayer (all of which are encountered throughout the campaign, giving you ample time to experiment and see which one best serves your interests), which already adds a new layer into the strategy and combat. But the modes themselves only shuffle around a few rules to make each one different, leaving it feeling like a competent, but lackluster experience.
Most modes follow the same flow; pilots begin on the map without Titans, running around and gunning down others while they build their meters up enough to call in their Titan. Once the giant machines show up on the map, everyone else is pushed toward cover, still gunning each other down in a mad dash for dominance.
Modes are mainly comprised of standard shooter fare like Capture the Flag and Team Deathmatch (called Skirmish), whose outcomes are largely determined by how many eliminations each team accumulates. It works fine, but in a year where games like Overwatch have redefined what the multiplayer shooter can be, it feels a bit uninspired.
Through no fault of its own, of course. But Titanfall 2 is wedged in between both Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. It shares DNA with both of those blockbuster titles, and while its multiplayer is serviceable and even does a few inventive things with its use of titans and weaponry, at its core Titanfall 2's multiplayer is more of a fresh coat of paint on old conventions and ideas.
Titanfall 2 realizes the dreams of its predecessor. It looks amazing, plays fantastically, and is finely tuned in virtually every aspect, from the crisp sound design to smooth platforming. But, it also is held back by some of the conventions of its genre; namely, bland characters, a shallow Oo-ra space marine plot, and a multiplayer mode that is god, but still ventures into the same familiar territory as its contemporaries. The addition of a single-player campaign was a huge positive for this series, especially due to the bizarre twists and turns it takes throughout. In a year filled with outstanding shooters in both the single and multiplayer fronts, Titanfall 2 does just enough to prove it can hang with the others, even if it is re-treading old ground.