Impressions: Titanfall 2 Tech Test

The original Titanfall, released in 2014 by Respawn Entertainment and Electronic Arts, was one of the best first person shooters of the current console generation. When most other titles in the genre rehashed the hits of the XBOX 360 era, Titanfall innovated. Instead of delivering a product that merely extended on their work on the Call of Duty franchise as the former core of marquee developer Infinity Ward, Respawn took advantage of their clean break from Activision to offer a game with two essential — and dramatically different — types of gameplay: on foot as a pilot and behind the controls of a massive Titan mech.

Most of the game was played as a pilot with a constant countdown clock running in the HUD until the player’s Titan was ready to drop from an orbital spacecraft. Titans are as slow and powerful as the pilots are fast and fragile. It was a satisfying gameplay contrast, made even more interesting by the unique nature of the game’s multiplayer maps.

In addition to the player-controlled pilots (and Titans), the maps were heavily populated with ordinary soldiers called grunts, as well as slightly more powerful robot Spectres. These AI-controlled enemies and allies gave you the sense of being the decisive factor in a massive battle. While combat raged between pilots, Titans, grunts and Spectres, characters in space would radio in to update you on the current state of the fight. As a whole, Titanfall represented a break from the eSports-focus of most other shooters — especially Call of Duty — by giving each match a narrative.

The map design was especially noteworthy — many of the people working on Titanfall had been together since working on 2002’s legendary PC game, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. With Allied Assault, they innovated in creating maps that felt like real places, but also served as engaging multiplayer arenas. They continued to iterate on those ideas with Call of Duty, and applied what they’d learned to the hard science fiction settings of Titanfall. Set in space colonies, the maps still felt like real places — buildings had real purpose. No other developer can make maps that both feel like a lived-in space, but also work well in a variety of multiplayer play modes, with plenty of spaces for players to use their pilots’ parkour skills. And the size of the maps was nearly perfect — not too big for pilots, or too small for Titans.

Suffice it to say, I adored it. But it wasn’t the huge hit Electronic Arts, Respawn and Microsoft were expecting. While not necessarily a flop, Titanfall wasn’t the killer app its developer and publisher had hoped it would be.

First, Titanfall was an XBOX One exclusive — a sound business decision based on the massive success of the XBOX 360 console, but one that became a poor choice after Microsoft’s new console initially failed to catch on due to bad press and an unfortunate focus on using voice commands to change TV channels in its initial marketing. Although EA released both a PC and XBOX 360 port of the title, its audience was naturally limited by console’s small user base.

Second, as a startup in dire need of a new IP, Respawn Entertainment made the decision to launch Titanfall as a multiplayer-only title. This saved enormous amounts of money in the development of a single player campaign and allowed fora relatively quick release, but resulted in a game that appeared incomplete as a $60 experience. This considerably wounded the game’s reputation in the FPS community, further reducing its potential audience.

When the game finally launched, it was well-reviewed and mildly successful, but over the months, the player base dwindled. Rather than become a new commercial heavyweight from the original creators of Call of Duty, Titanfall was instead a cult hit. Efforts were made to shore up its support — including making its premium DLC available for free on its first anniversary and building a wave-based co-op mode. But a year after its launch, Titanfall’s player count was typically in the low thousands, if not the hundreds. Some of its game modes had less than a dozen regular players.

So with Titanfall 2, Respawn has gone back to the drawing board. The game will be released on Playstation as well as XBOX, greatly expanding the potential player base. A story-based single player campaign now sits at the center of the experience, and presumably the successful base of the original Titanfall will provide a competitive multiplayer experience.

I’ve been optimistic about Titanfall 2 since its announcement — and was delighted at the opportunity to try the recent Titanfall 2 Multiplayer Tech Test. Ostensibly released to test their network infrastructure, in reality the test is a demo designed to get gamers to take another look at the game.

After spending several hours with it this weekend, I unfortunately have to say that Respawn took the wrong lessons from the original Titanfall’s commercial difficulties.

Overall, Titanfall 2 is a more polished package — even in a so-called “pre-alpha state,” which Respawn says represents the state of the game as of late June. It lacks none of the technical issues that plagued the original title. Screen tearing is gone, the frame rate is solid, and the maps have are rendered in a lively, almost painterly style. But Titanfall 2 has done away with what made the previous title unique.

Battles are no longer kinetic, exciting bouts of fast-moving hard science fiction combat. The maps are larger, the combat slower, feeling much more like the recent Call of Duty titles. Nearly gone are the AI grunts and Spectres who once filled the battlefield. They only appear in one game mode — Bounty Hunt — and they lack the lively banter of their predecessors, or even the personality of the AI aliens that appear in Halo 5’s excellent Warzone mode (which, incidentally, rips off the original Titanfall in a big way). It’s sad to say, but most of your time in the game is spent hunting for people to fight.

The NPC’s who once updated you constantly about the state of the battle and served to keep the momentum going in the original game have been reduced to occasional background voices with less personality than most FPS in-game announcers. Gone as well are the collectible burn cards that provided players with useful buffs whose strategic use could make or break a match. Some of the burn card features appear in other forms (such as through “Amped Weapons”), but overall their omission is glaring problem.

To add insult to injury, the Titan countdown clock has been replaced with a killstreak-style meter that puts all the weight on kills, though thankfully it doesn’t drop or reset when you die. The Titans were originally created as a way to get all players to experience the coolest in-game reward — piloting a giant robot. But by shifting away from a clock that was sped up by racking up kills and claiming objectives, they feel more like Call of Duty’s middle-end score streaks— mostly out of reach for all but a few elite players. A casual player may get one Titan drop a game — two if they’re lucky — while more adept players will get multiple Titan drops. This leads to increasingly one-sided battles and players quitting the server as a single team of high-level players steamrolls the opposition with a continuous force of Titans.

I’m not about to laud myself as some savant of FPS gaming — I’m in my early 40’s after all, and I haven’t been at the top of my game since I was a hardcore Halo 3 player. However, I’d consider myself to be a high-mid-level competitive FPS player — my Overwatch stats are respectable. But on several occasions, my Titan was ready to drop just as the game was ending. In the original, I usually had three drops per match, and sometimes successfully finished with my first Titan still up and kicking.

Which brings me to another disappointing fact about the game: Titans have much lower survivability than they did in the original, with no reliable way to regain health after they’ve taken a lot of damage. Although you can pick up batteries dropped by Titans that have been successfully rodeoed by pilots, they’re no sure thing. So even when you get your Titan, don’t expect it to last long.

That said, the good news is that Respawn can still make improvements to the game before it ships in October — although the big maps can’t be scaled back in size, the Titan timer can be restored, and other tweaks can be made to the overall balance of the game. Titans can be made more resilient, which would greatly improve the experience.

This isn’t to say that Titanfall 2 as it appears in the Multiplayer Tech Test isn’t a failure — it’s still a very strong title. But it lacks the high-energy focus of its predecessor, and I’m skeptical that a more conservative approach to gameplay will win it more converts in a crowded FPS market. Given the fact that the past two Call of Duty titles borrowed heavily from Titanfall’s bag of parkour tricks, I don’t know if COD diehards will be willing to give up their annual Madden-with-guns franchise for something new, particularly since Titanfall 2 lacks the extensive customization and eSports focus of its competition. Especially given the fact that the sci-fi setting of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare hasn’t exactly thrilled its vocal base. Would they really switch to something even more scifi?

And then there’s Overwatch. As much as I enjoyed diving back into Titanfall 2’s universe, I felt the pull of Blizzard’s massive hit throughout the weekend. As with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Overwatch plunders many of Titanfall’s best ideas and implements them even better. D.Va is effectively a miniaturized Titan, and let’s be honest — Overwatch is both more fun and more polished. It has a massive loyal following, and I’m not sure players are going to want to defect to another title.

Despite my gloomy outlook, I think Titanfall 2 still has a shot this fall. I asked a friend, who spends a lot less time playing FPS games than me, what he thought of the tech test. He said he enjoyed it and would plan on getting it when it’s released. And since he never played the original (because, let’s face it, few gamers have), he has no idea what he’s missing. Titanfall 2 may not be perfect, but it might be good enough.