On Thursday afternoon, I spent about an hour in the Ace Hotel here in New York City with some folks from Respawn Entertainment, where I got a chance to play three different chunks of the single-player campaign mode of the forthcoming “Titanfall 2.”
Needless to say, it was a bit intimidating to play through one of the most highly-anticipated games of the year surrounded by the company’s CEO, Vince Zampella, its COO, Dusty Welch, and its art director, Joel Emslie.
These guys are first-person shooter royalty: All three have deep ties to Infinity Ward, a studio responsible for a little franchise called “Call of Duty.” Zampella is the former CEO of Infinity Ward, Welch was a long-time producer of the franchise, and Emslie worked as a lead artist.
In 2010, many employees of Infinity Ward left — in a somewhat turbulent move — to start Respawn Entertainment. Its first game was the mulitplayer shooter “Titanfall,” which came out in 2014 for the Xbox One. It was well-regarded for its fast-paced multiplayer, in which you play as a super-soldier who can run on walls and strap into giant robot suits called “Titans,” but its complete lack of a single-player campaign left some fans wanting.
Respawn Entertainment hopes to change that with the series’ sequel, which will have a dedicated single-player campaign that centres around the relationship between Jack Cooper and his Titan — a giant, hulking robot named BT-7274 — as they fight back against the oppressive colonizing forces of the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC).
In total, I played through three different areas of the “Titanfall 2” campaign. Here’s what I thought.
“Trial By Fire”
The first area I played through was a mission called “Trial By Fire,” which I’m told is actually quite far into the story. It took place in a wide, open battlefield, where I started on the top of a hill, looking down the slope at an enemy encampment guarded by turrets and a smattering of enemy Titans.
Right off the bat, it’s worth mentioning that “Titanfall 2” is gorgeous. There’s no denying it. On my left, the battlefield was framed by dramatic, craggy mountains. In the distance, the sky was filled with billowing storm clouds drenched in rich sunset tones of red, orange, and purple. If it weren’t for the flurry of bullets plinking off my Titan’s armour — and the expectant looks from Zampella, Welch, Emslie, and their fleet of PR — I could have easily just looked around for a while, mouth agape. (If you want to see the area I played through, Geoff Keighley showed off the same chunk of gameplay on his YouTube show.)
I had a mix of tools at my disposal, including a pretty standard assault rifle-style gun, and a secondary weapon that could lock onto several enemies at once, unleashing a barrage of explosive missiles that hit their targets with a satisfying pop, pop, pop. I liked to mix that secondary missile fire with a dash ability to get behind cover when things got tough, which was always.
I’m used to the shooting gallery feel of something like “Destiny,” where a few well-placed shots on just about any enemy will make them explode in a fountain of shiny loot. Not so in “Titanfall 2.” Each enemy was a force to be reckoned with, requiring a good amount of attention and firepower to finally take down.
That became pretty obvious when I got a little cocky and charged ahead of my computer-controlled companions. I died almost instantly.
The second time around, I got a bit further, this time actually breaking through the first wave of enemies, only to be quickly downed by the second (Right around the spot where Geoff Keighley’s preview of that level cuts out, if you watched the clip. Just imagine much less graceful manoeuvring and it will be like you were there with me.)
When the colourful, painterly skies of that particular battlefield suddenly faded to muddled grey tones upon my character’s second death in a span of a few minutes, Welch gently said, “Let’s show him something else, for variety.”
Which was basically a very nice and diplomatic way of putting me out of my misery, because I was getting completely owned.
What excites me most about the “Titanfall 2” campaign is the sheer diversity of experiences it seems to offer. In total, I played through three different chunks of the “Titanfall 2” campaign, each of which employed the abilities at my character’s disposal in totally different ways.
For example, the beginning of “Titanfall 2” takes place in a lush jungle. At this point in the story, you don’t yet have your Titan or any high-level gear, so it plays like a pretty standard first-person shooter. Hide behind cover, fire off some headshots at the bad guys, push forward, repeat.
In the second area I saw, I started off in my BT-7274 Titan, but had to split off from him temporarily. While BT was off shooting up other enemies on his own, I was free to sneak around using a mix of stealth abilities, wall-jumping, and good ol’ fashioned assault rifles to pick off enemy combatants. This section felt much more like an action/stealth platformer than a shooter.
That third area, the wide open battlefield I described previously, was pure Titan-based mayhem. And, well, you know how that went.
In short, it seems like Respawn understands how to make gameplay both in and out of your Titan interesting, maximizing those differences to provide depth and variety. Being free of BT means you can use stealthy, guerrilla-warfare tactics to get the jump on your enemies, but being strapped into a giant mech suit means slower, deliberate, raw power.
Each mode of play offers something different, and Respawn seems to be designing levels around those particular differences to keep things from getting stale.
The (potentially) not so good
It’s no secret that single-player campaigns for first-person shooters are usually pretty rough. They tend to be hyper-macho shooting galleries, filled with well-worn war story tropes we’ve seen a million times over.
In his pitch of the game’s story, Welch kept referencing beloved campaigns like that of “BioShock” and “Half-Life” when talking about the quality of “Titanfall 2,” and while I really want to believe it will usher in the second coming of great first-person shooter campaigns, I’ll have to reserve judgment until I play the game in full.
The main reason his over-emphatic comparisons to “Half-Life” give me pause is that we’ve seen a rash of AAA games whose marketing campaigns assert that they’re offering mature, nuanced takes on issues plaguing the modern world (Hi, “Deus Ex: Mankind Divided!”), but actually just use modern issues as set dressing, not actually engaging with those topics in a meaningful way. They use the vocabulary of social awareness without actually saying anything.
So, the story of “Titanfall 2,” which in some capacity will deal with themes of colonialism, the frontier, militaristic regimes, and man’s reliance on technology, has the potential to mishandle some really thorny territory. More likely, it simply won’t engage those themes at all. I hope to be proven wrong.
On the micro level, to center a story around the relationship between a man and his mech suit — like “The Iron Giant” but with the buddy cop sensibilities of “Rush Hour” — is certainly a tantalising premise, but whether “Titanfall 2” will actually deliver on that is another question.
So, we’ll see.
Either way, I’m excited to find out for myself when “Titanfall 2” comes out on October 28, if for no other reason than to get revenge on those giant robots who wrecked me the first time around.
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