There’s a huge gap between what Titanfall is, and what the games press will tell you it is.
The first game from EA subsidiary Respawn Entertainment has already been preordained a winner, having been baptized in the waters of ad buys and pre-purchased Game of the Year awards. This state of affairs should come as a shock to nobody: The games press lost any credibility or notion of independence long ago; today they operate as nothing more than a glorified extension of a publisher’s marketing arm.
Yes, it is true that every now and again games do manage to get bad reviews if they are unplayable (but not always), or if they dare to titillate in a way that isn’t signed off on in triplicate by a pansexual panel of gender studies professors. Still, when it comes time to review the biggest games by the biggest advertisers of the year, the games press is always down, baby. Down for at least a 7. The reason publishers are all but guaranteed such results is that the press is reliant upon them to trickle information. Without early access to preview builds, interviews with developers, and pre-release review copies, these press outlets are royally fucked. If the publisher-enforced embargo for a game’s review ends the day before it hits stores, you’re going to lose a ton of revenue if you’re the one who has to go out and buy it the day of release because you honestly evaluated a bad game from the same publisher.
As the games press has become more Internet focused over the years, the community has become more aware that this goes on. Still, on both sides, they’ll tell you this doesn’t happen. Blowhards on both sides will tell you they aren’t for sale, or that they aren’t selling anything to you but a great product that stands on its own. They are lying to you.
Anyway, Titanfall. The setup is 6v6. Each player has access to customizable loadouts, like every other shooter to come out in the past forever. It’s pretty bog standard stuff that, again, you’ll get the hang of pretty quickly if you’ve ever touched a controller in the past ten years.
The titular Titans (say it 10 times fast) are the game’s version of killstreaks — bonus abilities players get for doing well. Except in Titanfall, they are extremely easy to get (and to destroy). If you don’t want to get into a Titan (and you’ll often be better off by staying on foot), you can set it to follow you around the map for the 30 seconds or so before it inevitably gets blown to shit by other players. Everybody gets to use a Titan for simply being in the game for three minutes, and that number can go down as you deal damage to (not necessarily kill) other players, Titans, and AI grunt soldiers.
AI bots and auto-aim to attract casuals is a slippery slope for online shooters
Yes, you read that correctly: To compensate for the fact that Titanfall runs a 6v6 game in a world where Battlefield 4 can do 64 players on next-gen (and even Call of Duty pulls down 18), the map is populated with swarms of cannon fodder. These are essentially bots, placed there to pad out the maps to give the illusion of a more epic battle. The big elephant in the room is that these bots have all the difficulty of a single player mode’s lowest level AI. In short, they exist so that players that suck at multiplayer games can feel like they’re good at multiplayer games — even if they can’t pop off a human player, they’ll be able to slaughter dozens of bots.
This focus on everyone getting a trophy just for showing up to the lobby extends to the weapon loadout, as well: Titanfall’s basic sidearm is a smart pistol that essentially auto-kills AI grunts, but can also take out a careless player who stays still too long. Most players will undoubtedly eschew the pistol for another weapon, but the fact remains: Respawn has pushed the genre onto a slippery slope, having brought blatant auto-aim to the online multiplayer space. From what we know to be true of the game industry, this means that if Titanfall’s massive ad campaign works, we’ll be seeing an entire generation of online-only shooters that are engineered to be easy as pie, even if you’ve never touched a game controller that wasn’t also your phone. This, to us, is an awful proposition.
Titanfall isn’t ugly, but it doesn’t inspire
Now let’s discuss the game’s graphics, with the understanding that since its reveal, Titanfall has been positioned as the reason to invest in Microsoft’s $500 game console. It’s been clear from day one that Microsoft would really, really, really like you to link Titanfall with Xbox One in the same way that Halo was linked with the original Xbox. But that’s hard to do when the game is also being released day-and-date on PC and, yes, the 360. All this cross-platform development makes it hard to optimize for what is ostensibly a “next-gen” title, and it shows: Titanfall isn’t ugly, not exactly, but nobody is going to be inspired by its visual presentation. Its near-future military motif remains fairly indistinguishable from its genre contemporaries, while its technical presentation is decidedly last-gen: Titanfall is locked at 720p resolution, and all its assorted bells and whistles (shadows, lighting, etc.) seem so goddamn muted when compared to what we naturally expect from a flagship shooter for a shiny new console. In short, the game has the aesthetics of a very high end Xbox Live Arcade game, not a premium $60 shooter.
Even still, based on my time with it, I can tell you Titanfall isn’t a bad game underneath its flaws. If you are willing to deal with flaws in its visuals and casual-pandering structure, there is fun to be had. A great deal of this has to do with the movement, which is legitimately fantastic. Incorporating parkour-style running into the FPS genre results in a game so fluid that going back to other shooters feels downright sluggish. While the weapon set is a bit lacking (no lasers in a futuristic FPS?) Titanfall does its best to reconcile the refreshingly lightning pace of old school arena-style shooters with the fact that games with guns have to at least somewhat resemble Call of Duty if they wish to sell in The Year of Our Lord 2014.
Titanfall will not justify a $560 purchase
In short, Titanfall seems to be a somewhat shallow, visually sloppy genre exercise that scores points for being marginally different from every other shoot-the-man game on the market. Whether or not a multiplayer-only twitch shooter works out to $60 of fun is up to you and your wallet, but if you haven’t been sold on an Xbox One already, it’s absolutely not worth paying $560 when the visual upgrade over a machine you already have seems to be minimal at best. (*) In a sane world, Titanfall would be a pleasant surprise on the XBLA download circuit, a fun little $20-30 arena shooter with an infusion of mecha flavor. Instead, it has been hyped to death as The Biggest Game In The Known Universe, positioned as the messiah for an underpowered, rushed-to-market system in desperate need of one. Based solely on beta impressions, I am telling you that Titanfall is not the game to singlehandedly justify a $560 purchase, but it’s probably worth picking up a 360/PC copy at a steep discount.
(*) One caveat: It is possible that these visuals will be updated in the full retail product. If this happens, we will address it in our review.