When I review a game — and over the last decade, I’ve reviewed hundreds of them — it’s not my job to demand or request that people buy the games that I like. The number down the bottom (or the ‘yes/no’ that Zam offers, which I love, by the way) is a simple synthesis of opinion, a final, unmathematical expression of how worthy of your time the game is likely to be, as far as I’m concerned. As a critic and writer, I want the reader to enjoy my words and consider my opinion, but it’s not my job to insist that they should run out and spend their money.
This is not a review of Titanfall 2, though. This is me, straight up, telling you that I think you should buy and play it if you have the means to do so.
Listen: in 2010, Vince Zampella and Jason West were fired from Activision for breach of contract following the release of the critical and commercial behemoth Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It was, by all accounts, a dick move on Activision’s part, the end result of a disagreement over whether or not the two men should be allowed to work on their own projects following that game’s completion. Without getting into the case too much, by mid-2010 Zampella, West, and 38 other previous employees of Infinity Ward were working under the name Respawn Entertainment, and were being funded by EA under their Partners Program.
In March 2014, when Titanfall launched as a Microsoft exclusive, it felt like a happy ending to the story that opened with West and Zampella’s dismissal. The team had delivered something both new and excellent, although there were a few issues that held Titanfall back from being the game-changer the Xbox brand was banking on — beyond its console exclusivity and its need to work across two console generations, it didn’t feature a single-player campaign and relied on players investing in a season pass, a model that only a handful of multiplayer games can really get away with while maintaining an audience. Titanfall was popular and sold extremely well, but most of the game modes were deserted pretty soon after the game’s release.
Let’s talk about Titanfall 2, then. The game, which launched last week, has done almost everything right. Bigger and better than its predecessor, Titanfall 2 includes a full-and-proper single-player campaign, expanded multiplayer options, a promise of all DLC being free going forward, a visual upgrade, and a cross-platform release (I’ve been playing it on PS4). It has done the things that a sequel is meant to do.
But what has perhaps escaped a lot of people’s attention, what has slipped under the radar somewhat despite the good reviews and word of mouth, is just how damn good this game actually is. I’ve been playing Titanfall 2‘s campaign, which I was, honestly, just barely aware of the existence of before launch. I knew the game had one, but I knew this only as an abstract concept; the first game had no campaign, but the second one does, and thus it’s an improvement. It’s a box that the sequel has ticked.
Titanfall 2’s single-player campaign is maybe the best I’ve played all year.
But here’s the thing: Titanfall 2‘s single-player campaign, based on the time I’ve spent with it (I’ve not yet finished, because again, this is not a review) is incredible. Like, ‘maybe the best single-player thing I’ve played all year, one of my favorite FPS campaigns of all time’ incredible. It’s a campaign that absolutely commits itself to testing out ideas, to devising interesting arenas, and to pushing itself more than it pushes you. The concepts the game works with are never hard to understand or appreciate, but they’re consistently clever and exciting. More than just about any FPS campaign I’ve played recently, it feels like the primary concern of Titanfall 2 is your entertainment.
The true genius of the campaign is how little time you actually spend inside BT-7274, your likeable Titan companion — you jump in for the occasional battle, but most of the time you’re running around as his tremendously versatile pilot, engaging with enemies and ignoring the perfunctory plot. You’re never given the chance to get bored of a setting or an idea, and in this way, the game reminds me of Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, two games devoted to working through a constant string of new concepts. In other ways, I like to think of it as an alternate universe sequel to Mirror’s Edge, in which the development team didn’t ask ‘how do we cut out gun combat’, but instead asked ‘how do you make the gun combat the most fun thing in the world?’.
There is a section in Titanfall 2 where you gain the ability to travel between two distinct periods of time, letting you pull advanced flanking manoeuvres in combat and navigate a building that differs slightly between time zones. There is another where you run along walls, flitting back and forth between different surfaces while using a gun to shoot switches to alter the path ahead of you, all the while either fighting back against or outrunning a heap of enemies. There is a bit where you progress through a factory assembly line, traveling on a house that is being carted around and slowly built around you. These are the set-pieces, but there’s a thousand smaller, personal moments that are all yours — the perfect run-to-slide-to-melee combo, a cloak-enabled escape, that one time you escaped a deadly situation with the perfect wall-run combo.
Titanfall 2 makes movement a pure pleasure, nailing a formula of clambering around that the third-person Assassin’s Creed series has tried, in vain, to conjure up for about 85 games in a row now. It makes your every action pleasurable in a way many games try for, but few come close to. The run-to-slide motion is…everything.
— James O’Connor (@Jickle) November 2, 2016
And then there’s the multiplayer, which I’d love to tell you more about… but I haven’t had much of a chance to play it, because Titanfall 2 has been struggling with numbers post-launch. At the time of writing, just six days after launch, the total online population on PS4 has been peaking at around 19,000. On most game types — most – I have been unable to find enough ‘local players’ (I live in Australia) to start a game. It’s not unusual for a game’s audience to gravitate towards a handful of fairly vanilla modes, but it shouldn’t be such a huge issue in the very first week. Reports indicate that the game has failed to improve on the first-week sales of the original Titanfall, and that it may struggle to hit even half the number of sales its predecessor achieved.
There are, of course, reasons why this is happening, the most obvious being the weirdly symbolic release date. Titanfall 2 released in the week between Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, the competing military online shooters from, respectively, the publisher that allowed them to ‘respawn’ and the publisher that burned them in the first place. Made with the money of one, and from the bones of the other, Titanfall 2 simply doesn’t fit and can’t compete.
It feels like a phenomenal game sent out to die.
This brings us to an absurd set of circumstances in which an EA-published big-budget military shooter feels like a scrappy underdog, a game that I, a critic and journalist with the privileged access to Zam’s audience, feel insistent on defending and championing. This is simply not the done thing — an article like this would usually be written about a game with an important message, or a game developed by a team that needs the exposure, which is unlikely to be noticed and respected unless sites like Zam publish articles like this. Titanfall 2, the sequel to a game that sold over ten million copies, isn’t a hidden gem that our audience will not have heard of.
But still, I feel a strange attachment to this game’s potential for success. Part of that — a large part — is that multiplayer Titanfall is tremendous fun, and I want the community to thrive. My reaction is also prompted by shock, though — not only am I shocked at how amazing this game is, but I’m also shocked that I didn’t anticipate this. Titanfall 2 was, somehow, under the radar. It feels like a phenomenal game sent out to die, with little hype or discussion.
I think that what I really want is the happy ending that Titanfall 2‘s success would represent, though. I want the feeling of seeing an amazing game getting recognized for what is has achieved, and I want the game to get there despite having released a week before the latest Call of Duty from Zampella and West’s old studio, Infinity Ward (although it’s worth noting that West is no longer at Respawn). Titanfall 2 feels like the realized dreams of a team that has worked very hard to make the game they always wanted to make, but it also feels like the start of something new. When I saw Mad Max: Fury Road last year, I found myself thinking ‘it will be hard for action cinema to stand out for the next few years now;’ I think I’m going to feel something similar when I play shooters that don’t let you run along walls or pilot giant mechs now.
So yes, please, buy Titanfall 2. And then track me down online and shoot me, because I’m not actually very good at it just yet.