Titanfall 2: How Design Informs Speed
Titanfall 2 does so many things well. It has surprisingly robust character-building for a shooter, creating an endearing and believable camaraderie between pilot Jack Cooper and his iron giant buddy BT. Its single-player campaign is short, varied, and intense, packing more into 5 hours than most games do in 15. But perhaps the most impressive feat that Respawn Entertainment’s metal gnashing fun-fest has accomplished is unifying all of the game’s design systems to incentivize one core feeling: speed.
For the uninitiated, Titanfall 2’s premise is simple. Militia rifleman Jack Cooper gets a pilot’s life foisted upon him after his mentor dies in battle, leaving Jack and his robot BT-7274 (the thing he ‘pilots’) to go on all manner of death-defying high jinks in an attempt to defeat the evil IMC. The game’s not winning any awards for its story, but you hardly pay attention to the occasionally hackneyed tale when the gameplay is so breathlessly enjoyable.
Let’s take a look at how Titanfall 2 uses all the weapons in its game design arsenal to make being a pilot feel so fast.
For a game built around rapid motion as one of its lodestones, design decisions around player movement are critical, and Titanfall 2 hits it out of the park.
The basic move set lays the foundation: the pilot can use his suit to double jump, wall run on vertical surfaces, slide on the ground, and cloak for short periods of time. But the game deliberately subverts industry design norms while implementing these features, incentivizing you to chain these forms of movement into an offensive orchestra during both platforming and combat.
Wall runs: When the pilot wall runs, his speed increases with time. This encourages you to chain wall runs with other forms of movement, use wall runs to both attack and evade enemies, and, most importantly, look to start the next wall run as soon as the current one is done. You’re safest when you’re at speed, and wall runs (against conventional logic) help you gain speed.
The level environments are also generously sprinkled with surfaces to wall run on, both during scripted story sequences and otherwise, leading you to find creative ways of downing enemies.
Slides: Just like wall runs, when the pilot slides, his speed increases with time before coming to a stop. This, coupled with the long duration of a single slide, means that you can use this game mechanic as an offensive maneuver rather than just a retreat to find cover.
Again, just like with wall runs, the sine wave of increase-then-decrease of slide speed makes you want to start the next slide that much sooner.
Cloak: The pilot can cloak for a vanishingly small amount of time. Titanfall 2 — at least the single player campaign — is not a stealth game, so it was important not to unintentionally hand players a ‘safe’ combination of mechanics that could be used to finish most missions (think MGS Phantom Pain and the silenced pistol).
The limited cloak time and the much longer time it takes for the ability to recharge means that you either use it to get out of a jam or to get a drop on unsuspecting enemies. But then the cloak is gone (at least for a while) and you’re back to the usual trapeze artist madness.
Other nice touches like being able to change direction in mid-air during double jumps and choosing an ‘always be sprinting’ option from Settings also add to this fast, movement-chain friendly navigation.
Not to diss any other shooters, but you know how enemies in many modern day FPS games are often the same basic unit with more armor and perhaps different weapons? When there’s minimal distinction between the various enemies you encounter, your mind naturally gravitates towards the single optimal way to defeat them. This leads to repetitive combat, which leads to an ultimately monotonous gaming experience.
Titanfall 2 circumvents this trope wonderfully through the use of orthogonal unit differentiation. This design principle basically refers to multiple game elements having different functions, forcing you to adopt varying strategies and behaviors while encountering each element. Titanfall 2 has enemies that differ in their speed, damage quantity, and type of attack, and this makes you evolve and adjust with each enemy encounter.
Grunt: The most basic enemy in the game, this unit is a foot-soldier with limited ability and intelligence. They have a hit scan attack, which means you can’t dodge their bullets when you’re in their sights.
Although individually not that dangerous, Grunts can be formidable in groups, will call for backup, and sometimes have shields that force you to navigate (again, at speed) around them for a hit.
Stalker: This is a robotic enemy that differs from grunts enough for players to employ new strategies while fighting. They do more damage and are faster than grunts. Rather than just hang around, Stalkers come right at the player, forcing them to get out of cover and showcase that speed. They also have projectile weapons that can be dodged.
Drones: These are flying robots that, just like Stalkers, are fast, come right at the player, and fire projectiles that can be dodged. But also, just like Grunts, they attack in groups. By combining bits of other enemies’ behavior, you have a completely new one that must be dealt in a unique manner.
Prowler: Lizard creatures that are insanely fast and rush to bite and maul the player. I’ve categorized them in the graph as CQC or Close Quarters Combat. A different enemy in design and behavior, not just in graphical veneers and name.
Tick: Robotic arachnids that make a beeline for the player before exploding. They have huge speed and damage, but from a tactical standpoint, their damage hurts other enemies too.
I could go on and on, but the central thesis is this: when you’re in a massive arena with all these enemy types, the battle is almost like speed chess on steroids. Because there are enemies that rush directly at you, sniping them all away while sitting behind cover is useless. Because many enemies have projectile attacks that can be dodged, you feel confident jumping and sliding their way around them. And because each enemy has a unique set of attacks and behaviors, your mind (and your character) is whirring at mach speed as you make decisions while bunny hopping your way to victory.
If these core mechanics weren’t enough, Titanfall 2 also has delightfully unique levels that are all geared towards making you take faster decisions and navigate the landscape quickly.
So you will be time traveling in one level, taking on different enemy sets in both the past and the present…
…and jumping from wall to wall while also traveling through time.
Another level has you in a manufacturing facility, traipsing your way through the interiors as the level literally moves around you.
Two levels later, you’re armed with a retrofitted weapon that can move platforms and you basically create the level as your rush to your escape.
Two things to note here:
- Although the themes of these levels are separate, they all feed into the central game feel of breakneck speed by making both navigation and combat faster and more challenging.
- The themes are abandoned after the levels are complete, preventing any feeling of drudgery or sameness and leaving you wanting more.
Titanfall 2 is not a perfect game. There still are environments that feel similar and enemy encounters that make you think ‘I did something like this two hours ago’. But these foibles pale in comparison to its most towering success: the conceptualization and execution of a distinct game feel. A game feel of speed.
You feel like a maverick pilot with a planet-hopping jumpsuit every second, from initial training to dramatic denouement. And all of the game’s systems — movement, enemies, level design, and more — coalesce with the aim of making you feel that way.
Know any other games that have executed game feel successfully? Any other things in Titanfall 2 that I missed out? Let me know in the comments!