Titanfall 2 has a lot to live up to. Its predecessor did a pretty good job of shaking up and reinventing the multiplayer first-person shooter with its multi-layered gameplay, revamped movement, and countless small innovations along the way. Titanfall 2 couldn’t hope to do the same again, but developers Respawn have set themselves just as ambitious a task this time around: to fix the first-person shooter single-player campaign.
Single-player, once the bastion of the FPS, has fallen out of favor in recent years as the Battlefields and Call of Duties of the world have seemingly proven that online multiplayer is where the players (and the money) are. There have been notable exceptions – this year’s Doom is an obvious one – but for the most part the days of games like Half-Life 2, driven primarily by its campaign mode, are behind us.
Titanfall 2 doesn’t entirely buck this trend – the focus is still squarely on the online multiplayer, and the 6-hour campaign occasionally feels like preparatory work to get the player ready to head into the big, bad world of online gaming. But equally this is no throwaway mode to tick off a checklist or throw a bone to fans of cinematics – in both narrative and gameplay, Titanfall 2’s campaign pushes the FPS forward, and contains depths, mechanics, innovations it doesn’t even feel the need to share with the multiplayer.
You play as rifleman Jack Cooper, a grunt in the thinly sketched war between the Frontier Militia and the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC). One violent opening level later and you’ve been given a field promotion to pilot and are in charge of your own titan: a 30-foot tall mech exoskeleton, capable of fighting independently or under your control.
For the rest of the campaign, you and BT-7274 (or BT as he comes to be known – no obvious relation to British Telecom, but who knows) battle across the planet Typhon against IMC forces and mercenaries. At times you’re on your own, using your pilot’s enhanced mobility, cloaking, and array of standard FPS weaponry to take out your enemies. Other times BT is at your side offering support, or you can hop inside the chassis to take full control of the array of big guns and novelty gadgets the titan can equip.
A repackage of the base mechanics of the first Titanfall alone would be enough to make this campaign feel like a pretty singular experience. With double-jumping, wallrunning, sliding and more, Cooper is the most mobile FPS protagonist since Faith in Mirror’s Edge, and each fight is a fresh exercise in using the space itself as a weapon, making the most of your moveset to pull off increasingly convoluted attacks. The titan fights provide a fresh wrinkle, with all the crunch and heft you’d expect from a giant, fully-armed robot, and the slower-paced, tank-like fights are a welcome counterpoint to the dizzying speed of the main gameplay.
But Respawn apparently weren’t content to just slap a story on what they’d done before, and have instead layered in new mechanics and challenges to the campaign. In the manner of the best of Nintendo’s titles, these innovations pop up one at a time, are iterated and elaborated on throughout an hour or so of gameplay, and then promptly abandoned once they’ve been pushed to their limit. The clear highlight comes in the game’s midsection, as you explore a ruined IMC facility and gain the ability to hop back in time to its prime. You have to hop back and forth between time periods to avoid obstacles – a fiery pit in the present, a laser defense grid in the past – often at speed, and often in the midst of complex acrobatics. At the level’s peak, you’re darting between past and present to make a series of jumps and wallruns, all the while dodging and fighting different enemies in each time period, having to keep track of the geography and tactics of two fights simultaneously. A lesser developer might take a full game to explore the mechanics here; Respawn adopt it and abandon it within an hour, clearly satisfied that they’ve done what they came here to do.
All this, and I’ve barely mentioned the part of the campaign that struck me the most: BT. He’s no mere lifeless tank, but a fully-fledged character, and the game does a remarkable job of forming a genuine bond between pilot and titan. BT and Cooper’s brief interactions may seem slight in isolation, but across the campaign they build into a relationship with depth and weight. Like the best buddy cop movies, the game finds a way to evoke emotion without the characters themselves ever getting bogged down in discussing it.
Sure, the story hits some pretty predictable notes along the way to pulling this off, and it’s certainly less impressive than the likes of The Last of Us, but it’s surprising just how much it works. There’s a point late in the game where it looks a bit like BT may or may not have kicked the proverbial bucket (like I said, predictable notes). Left on your own as Cooper, the game flashes up an immediate prompt: “Survive.” Given the context, the implication seems pretty clear: get the hell out of there. But the first thing I did was run straight over to BT, survival be damned. Not because I thought he could help. Not because I thought that’s what the game wanted me to do. But because I needed to check on my giant robot death machine best friend and make sure he was OK.
In that moment, and in others, Titanfall 2 made me cry. Great, big, heaving sobs over my PS4 controller. The kind that made me glad my flatmate was out that afternoon and couldn’t see me bawling over a game and shouting, “BT! BT!” at the screen over and over again. I could sit here and talk about innovative mechanics and multiplayer balance tweaks all day long, go into how the new grappling hook and titan batteries subtly shift the online gameplay, or moan about the slightly unsatisfactory ending to the game’s narrative.
But none of those are what I’ll take away from Titanfall 2. I went in expecting fun combat and a few clever puzzles, I came out tear-soaked because I loved my sentient tank too much. I can’t think of a much stronger recommendation than that.