Titanfall 2 [official site] doesn't quite have my favourite FPS campaign of the year but it's so close that one extra burst of power from its jump kit might have boosted it into first place. To even be close to the gold in the year that brought us id's blisteringly-paced reinvention of DOOM is a hell of an achivement though. Respawn have crafted a singleplayer story that shifts gears more often and more efficiently than a top notch rally driver.
Before getting into the good stuff, a quick note on length. I haven't quite finished the campaign, code for the game only having arrived today, but I fear I'm already close to the end. I'm only four hours in but reviews on Eurogamer and elsewhere (console code went out earlier) reckon the whole thing is around five hours long. I'm taking my time and trying to find what few collectibles there are - mostly because the levels are attractive enough and movement is satisfying enough that I enjoy exploring every nook and cranny – but I doubt I'll break into double digits.
That means I'm going to find it hard to recommend Titanfall 2 on the strength of its campaign alone right now, given the price. Yes, how much you're willing to spend for a few hours of top notch entertainment is entirely your choice, and depends how much cash you have, but strong as it is, the campaign here is a supplement to the bulky multiplayer offering, and I'll be digging into that for a full review that you can expect next week.
Brief it may be, but the campaign has more ideas packed into its running time than many singleplayer games more than twice its length. It's one of those games that has never found an idea that it isn't willing to discard once you've had some time to play with it. The level design reminds me of Portal 2 in a weird way. It's not built around puzzles, but it jumps from one idea to the next in a similar fashion. Unlike Portal 2 it never lingers on one mechanic or situation long enough for the cracks to start showing. If anything, Respawn behave like over-enthusiastic gallery attendants, hurrying visitors from one room to the next to ensure they see everything before leaving. I'd have been happy to linger for a while longer in some of what I've seen.
With a minimum of fuss, the opening establishes who you are – a rifleman who wants to be a Titan pilot – and then drops you onto a planet full of baddies. The plot deals in the expected, using familiar beats to lead you through a war that is well-used as a backdrop for some brutally efficient militaristic sci-fi. I don't remember the name of any characters - apart from my Titan who is named after my ISP and the first boss who is called Kane as if Respawn just selected randomly from the big box of evil names - but there are dozens of memorable moments.
The level design isn't thrilling throughout, though even such FPS staples as 'Long Corridor With Pipes #560' and 'Some Kind Of Powerstation With Crates?' are livelier than you'd expect thanks to movement and shooting that feel fantastic. Despite your early bond with a Titan, you spend a lot of time on foot for various reasons, and walljumping and shoot-sliding are so entertaining that jumping back into the bot's belly is sometimes a drag. Respawn have made a game with giant robots in it that manages to make being an infantry soldier one long highlight reel.
Whether you're using your cloaking ability to sneak up on enemies and punch them in the back of the head so hard they fall off a cliff, or pinballing around a room while bullets kick up dust behind you, Titanfall constantly reminds you that its environments are playgrounds. There's not quite enough freedom at times, with a tendency to place deadly hazards and too-steep walls around the place, but you are in control of a kinetic bundle of energy. If you want to play the game as a sort of cover shooter, you can, but the lure of giddily jumping from wall to wall while swivelling and headshotting entire squads is always there. It's not easy to turn on the style effectively but making the attempt is simplicity itself – accurate shooting from the weird angles you find yourself propelled into by double-jumps off the scenery comes with practice.
I should talk about guns. You'll find plenty of different firearms quite early in the game and you can pick up weapons dropped by fallen enemies and allies at any time. Rather than organising them into tiers, so that you're moving from peashooter to Titankiller, Respawn give you options. When you pick up a weapon, you're told what to expect from it - “fully automatic shotgun” “burst fire assault weapon” “semi-auto sniper rifle” and so forth – and you could probably get through most situations using just about anything you find. If you want to sprint toward an armoured position with a shotgun and a handful of incendiary shuriken, you can probably make that work, but if you'd rather lob a couple of ARC grenades and then snipe from a distance, that's your call.
To have made such exquisitely crafted areas and ensured that they do support different playstyles is admirable. That flexible approach isn't quite intact when you hop into your Titan. While there are different loadouts unlocked throughout the campaign, forced Titan sections are often the most limiting sections of the game. While on-foot you're combining your prowess with weaponry and mobility, in the Titan you're locked into slower-paced battles of attrition. It's enjoyable, throwing down shields and using abilities to disrupt enemy Titans, but I often felt as if I was blasting my way through a fun interlude while looking forward to the next bit of on-foot action.
I referred to 'forced Titan sections' because the game's strongest moments let you embark and disembark at will. I don't think I'll ever get tired of leaping out of the cockpit (it's more of a bellypit given its location in the torso) and then realising that my big lovely robot chum is still stomping around, providing cover, and taking out anyone who tries to do me harm. I still expect the Titan to become a big solid static lump when I leave the controls but there it is, beautiful and mighty and WHAT A GOOD BOY.
Let me be clear that BT, my Titan, really is A GOOD BOY THE BEST BOY OH HE'S SO GOOD YES HE IS. The dialogue between Titan and pilot occasionally has fun with the friendship between them - “Are you in love?” asks the pilot when BT finds a new loadout, to which he receives a dry logical response – but I wish the characters were having as much fun as I am. Tone-wise, it's serious business with a side order of war horrors and military glory, and I sometimes wished for either more of the grim or more of the buddy movie quips.
I spent quite a lot of time thinking that Respawn would make a fucking great Imperial Guard game as well. The Call of Duty legacy is felt, in the best possible way, in how well Titanfall 2 captures the small details of combat. Soldiers sometimes die at first impact but they're just as likely to stumble, crawl and struggle to fight back.
It's not just military matters that Titanfall 2 captures so well though. There are scenes that make an artbook of these sci-fi settings and designs seem incredibly desirable, and neat alien flora and fauna alongside killer robots that are plucked straight from the jerkily animated horrors at the close of The Terminator. That goes back to the way the campaign moves through ideas; though it never switches genres entirely, it explores so many areas within its military sci-fi setting that it never gets tired. In fact, I'd argue it burns through its ideas too quickly, if anything.
A couple of duff but not catastrophic boss battles aside, I've enjoyed just about every minute so far. This is the game that Shogo: Mobile Armor Division wanted to be all those years ago, and that Monolith took another swing at with F.E.A.R. 2's mech sections. For all of its very modern beauty and technical smarts, it has the feel of an FPS from an earlier generation, rewarding skill and placing the player in well-constructed areas rather than vast shooting galleries.
More than anything, I'm reminded of a time when people spoke in amazement of specific levels in FPS campaigns, sections that stood out for both their brilliance and their boldness. You will have a favourite section of Titanfall 2. I can probably guess what it is already.
I'll cover further details of the campaign and the full extent of the multiplayer in my review next week. For now, mark me down as a bot lover. I've fallen for Titanfall.
Titanfall 2 is out now for Windows via Origin for £50.