Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Titanfall 2

In my slow journey back into video games, I’m discovering interesting byways—lesser walked paths of online media—that are proving more valuable for trustworthy, consistent content than the mainstream outlets. As such, games the mainstream media do not cover, or cover poorly, are being brought to my attention—sleepers, future cult classics, and indie hits. Included in this list are good games that, for whatever reason, got the short end of the stick upon release, and therefore did not gain the popularity they deserved. Rarely discussed in the same light as such repetitive titles as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Destiny, etc, is Respawn Entertainment’s 2016 Titanfall 2. Possibly the best first-person shooter ever developed, likely many gamers aren’t aware of it, but should be.

Titanfall 2 is a two mode game: single and multi-player. My internet connection is shit, not to mention I tend to gravitate toward single-player experiences, which means I did not try the multi-player mode. I would say, however, it appears the game was designed to primarily be a multi-player experience, not to mention the single-player impressed me so much that I thought of trying to log in. More later…

Though clocking in at only 7-8 hours of total gameplay, the single player campaign remains very solid. The story arc evolves naturally and is nicely low-key in that it doesn’t, like Mass Effect, Destiny, and numerous other sci-fi shooters, attempt to tell an epic tale of galactic destruction. The player starts the game as Cooper, a mech Pilot in training, who is taken on what is supposed to be a simple mission to a quiet planet, only to have things go sideways when a group of heavily-armed mercenaries attacks. Forced to take over piloting duties when his captain dies, Cooper and his mech BT are thrust into battle and must reunite with their squad. In the course of reuniting, however, they discover just how unquiet the planet is.

Calling the single-player campaign a tutorial for the multi-player would be an injustice. But it is perhaps somewhat inevitable given the above premise: a fresh recruit is forced to learn the ways of combat, and slowly rises through the ranks. The storyline has been done before in many books, and does lend itself to evolving the player’s skills toward a more complex, multi-player experience. And there are couple interesting skills to master. Foremost is wall-running. Vertical surfaces tactile, players are able to get from point A to B by sliding/running along walls. In terms of close-quarters gun combat, this adds a whole new dynamic, not to mention gave developers the option to add non-standard puzzle-platforming to break up gun combat in the single-player campaign. Another skill is sliding. Players able to switch from a dead-run to knee slide (a la 80s rock guitarists on stage), it is another option for maneuvering around the game’s environments and avoiding shots than just walking, jumping, and sprinting. Combined with the variety of guns and grenade-like explosives, gameplay is fresh and dynamic.

But those skills pertain only to the time the player spends as Cooper the ground soldier. A significant portion (40-50%?) of the single-player campaign is spent as Cooper inside BT operating the exoskeleton and blasting away at other mechs and soldiers. Mech combat is slower (as it should be) in terms of mobility, but there are considerable more options for fighting. From thermal shields to lasers, chain guns to hover-pods, missile batteries to smoke fields, etc., etc., there are eight total loadouts for BT that feature an assortment of options for attacking and defending. Playing as Cooper alone is satisfying for the speed, variability of movement, and precise gun play, but being BT’s operator is just as fun for the amount of pounding that can be delivered and taken. Mech play in Titanfall 2 does not possess the level of complexity and customization as say Mechwarrior, but it perfectly delivers the clunky, claustrophobic feel of being in a giant metal exoskeleton, blasting at enemies across a futuristic battlefield.

And this is all not to mention the reason why Titanfall 2 may—may—be the best FPS game ever made: the controls. The details and textures of the various environments are not the greatest ever made, but where Respawn clearly did invest their time is game mechanics. Suffice to say, controls are responsive, smooth, kinetic, precise, and just feel right. I played Titanfall 2 after having played Uncharted 4, and it made Uncharted 4’s combat feel clunky and dated. Enemy hit zones are generous, but not too generous, just as aiming is a loose affair, but not so loose as to require exquisite focus. Movement is fast enough to do what you want, but not so fast as to be uncontrolled. Having a minor climbing mechanic, jumping to higher platforms is never an exercise in finding just the right spot (as with many FPS games). The balance between all these elements is such that zipping around the environments, double-jumping to take down an enemy, running along a wall to launch a grenade, dashing away to find cover is all velvety effortless but never feels as if an AI assist is turned on, which, as far as I have read, it’s not. To be fair, I have not played every shooter game out there, but in terms of pure mechanics of movement and shooting, Titanfall 2 is the best I have played.

As mentioned, I did not play multi-player mode. Watching matches online, however, it seems a frenetic, fast-paced affair that requires mega finger twitch to keep up, stay alive, and accomplish the various objectives. According to Wikipedia, there are eleven different options for multi-player, which is huge. Thus it would seem that Respawn invested just as much time, if not more, in developing the multi-player mode to ensure balance, variability, fairness, and enjoyment are all present in gameplay. Certainly arena combat with both soldiers and mechs is not something seen in any other franchise that I know of. My old-man muscles are likely not up to the task of keeping up with younger players who’ve trained their whole lives on FPS, but the thought of testing the limits of my internet connection has crossed my mind more than once to see how the superb controls work in the multi-player arena.

If I had any wishes for the game, one would be a boss fight or two with another human (all boss fights are with mechs), such that the Pilot’s movement mechanics could be put to the test. Another would be a slightly longer single-player campaign. What exists is good, satisfying, and defines a clear story arc, but in the end I was left wanting for another two or three hours—I don’t know where developers could have added it, but here’s hoping Titanfall 3 will have a 10-12 hour campaign that exercises the mechanics they’ve built (not to mention a certain, really interesting cause-effect switch).

And all this is to get to the elephant in the room. Why is Titanfall 2 not more popular? Why did I pay only $15 for a used copy two years after it was published when Grand Theft Auto 5, Uncharted 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Dark Souls 3, and other such games years after release retain a relatively high price point? There are of course reasons, and I won’t go into them here. But as mentioned in the intro, gamers should at least be open to going back and taking a look at this title. Given its quality compared to a lot of other, more popular shooters, I think there is a chance it could rise to the heights it was intended for. To be clear, Titanfall 2 is not the greatest game ever made, and I am a tiny voice in a big field, but take this as a recommendation to at least check it out if FPSs are your thing. Good games deserve to be played.

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