I didn’t see it coming.
The giant robots? Yes, saw those coming a mile away. They’re giant robots. They’re hard to miss. I’ve been on the lookout for those since I saw Johnny Soko control one with a wristwatch back in 19 [mumble, mumble].
But while I knew “Titanfall 2” would have plenty of giant robots, great mechanics and deliciously fast-paced multiplayer — that’s what made the first Titanfall a breakout hit in 2014, and of course, EA and developer Respawn Entertainment would do their best to deliver more of what worked — I didn’t know exactly how thoroughly they would fix what was broken.
Specifically, I’m referring to the original game’s anemic single-player experience. Everyone dinged it for this. I was aware that Respawn would attend to it, and I knew we would learn more about the bond between pilot and Titan through a story-driven solo campaign.
But one of the best I’ve ever played?
I didn’t see it coming.
Perhaps I should have. Respawn is the brainchild of the co-founders of Infinity Ward, the original developer of “Call of Duty.” They know how to craft a single-player game, and it doesn’t take long for the muscle memory to kick in.
You play Jack Cooper, a rifleman fighting for the Militia against the big bad IMC. Despite your terribly generic name (sorry, other Jack Coopers), you wind up being integral to the success of the Militia the moment your mentor, a master Titan pilot, is killed in action. Once you figure out how to power it up, a giant mech named BT-7274 – just “BT” to you — becomes your partner, guardian and comic relief.
You’re here to bond with a Titan, and bond you will. Though relatively short on dialogue, BT plays the logical Spock to Jack’s bewildered Captain Kirk, and it works wonderfully. Respawn periodically separates the two, throwing Jack into increasingly harrowing situations that help establish BT’s value as a protective suit and stabilizing force in the midst of some pretty insane firefights. It ain’t Shakespeare — the tragedy is telegraphed — but for a game largely about blowing stuff up, it crams in surprisingly effective relationship building. When all’s said and done, you will kind of fall in love with a giant, digital robot.
If BT’s the heart, the level design is the soul of “Titanfall 2’s” solo experience. Nine punchy, tightly written chapters take you on a whirlwind tour of the game’s sharp mechanics. It never stays put; within a few hours you’ll wall-run across mountain gaps, chase after BT through a nefarious assembly line that delightfully toys with scale, and even zip back and forth through time in one of the most casually brilliant bits of alternate-reality shooter shenanigans since “Portal.” It serves up one unexpected thing after another, eschewing traditional shooter beats in favor of hard turns that transform each new level into a little experimental slice of shooter genius.
Where did this come from? How did EA not scream about this from the rafters of every press event? A compelling single-player game was the original “Titanfall’s” weak spot, and here, out of nowhere, comes one that not only rights that wrong, but legitimately competes with the best shooter campaigns in recent memory (yes, that includes “DOOM” and “Battlefield 1”). Its one problem? Length. But sometimes leaving the table a little hungry is better than leaving it overstuffed.
“Titanfall 2’s” solo campaign also serves as the perfect reintroduction to the game’s exemplary mechanics. Much is made about the various features packed into a shooter, but what really separates a good one from a great one is the feel of its controls.
“Titanfall 2” soars here. Shooting is crisp and punchy and laser blasts land with a satisfying thud. Getting around is joyful, whether by wall-running and double-jumping as an impossibly nimble Pilot or stomping around as a powerful, lumbering Titan, the latter of which seems to be a bit quicker this time out.
It helps that Respawn’s engine runs like a dream, rivaling “Call of Duty” for the smoothest in the world. It’s bright and colorful and explosive, accompanied by a rousing score that lends drama to the game’s otherworldly vistas. It’s a beautiful game both in look and feel.
It’s also deadly, particularly if you hop in multiplayer. And of course that’s where you’re headed. “Titanfall,” after all, was pretty much a multiplayer-only game. Its sequel sticks to the same general plan but adds some much-needed depth in the form of new abilities.
Pilots can now earn a number of different perks that change up the way the game is played. A default grappling hook makes them even more mobile and leads to countless share-worthy clips; leaping off a building, running along a wall, grappling onto an enemy Titan, doing some damage and double-jumping off to safety looks as cool as it sounds. Some abilities, like a stealth suit, are a bit overpowered, but tinkering with loadouts is more fun than it was.
Titans come in various models and also enjoy deeper customization, though the big fellas have been hamstrung a bit by a curious change: they no longer regenerate health. Instead, fellow Pilots can grab batteries and climb aboard to patch you up, but that’s easier said than done. The result are Titans that, while more potent offensively, seem a little more fragile. To counter that, anti-Titan weapons have been nerfed, so it’s not like Titans are suddenly flimsy. Get a few gathered together when the enemy has none and you will still dominate the map.
A typical assortment of modes are here, including a terrific new one called Bounty that pits two sides in a war against each other and waves of enemy AI, with the added twist that to score, each player has to periodically bank cash at a limited number of terminals. It’s basically your worst ATM nightmare come true, and it’s great.
So is “Titanfall 2” as a whole. Respawn went all out with this sequel, patching up its biggest hole, tightening its loose screws, and delivering the game I think we all hoped for when we first caught wind of the original back at E3 2013.
But as much as we like to think that cool games sell great because they’re cool, that’s not really accurate. “Titanfall 2” is undoubtedly one of the year’s best shooters, but it’s sandwiched between two much bigger ones, launching a week before “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare” and a week after “Battlefield 1.” There is a very good chance that despite its quality, “Titanfall 2” will struggle to break through and make a mark on the sales charts.
That would indeed be a bummer, because EA and Respawn they did much more than just update an already-fun shooter. They did what any giant robot worth his weight in Johnny Soko wristwatches would do: they saved it.
What’s Hot: Gloriously creative single-player campaign; unrivaled feel; superb delivery; deeper multiplayer customization
What’s Not: Questionable changes to Titan potency in multiplayer; campaign runs a bit short
Platform reviewed: Xbox One
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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.