The first Titanfall wasn’t so much a revolutionary game, as the setter of a new trend in shooters: mobility. Running across walls and leaping through the air was relatively unheard of in multiplayer shooters at the time, and the idea that you could seamlessly transition from infantry combat into full-blown mech mayhem was something that had never been done before.
It was exciting, it was new, and after a few weeks in the wild, it kind of fizzled out. Something about Titanfall failed to resonate with players. Perhaps it was, as developer Respawn Entertainment thinks, the lack of a single player campaign or meaningful social interaction, but I think it goes deeper than that. There’s something innate about Titanfall’s brand of online warfare that just isn’t working: the titans.
Each player in a 6v6 match up has the potential to call in one of the eponymous robots. Once a certain point threshold has been reached, the iron giants will drop from the sky at your earliest convenience and vaguely follow you around the map, engaging, somewhat ineptly, with their surroundings.
Titans aren’t just for Christmas, of course, and you can commandeer them manually if you so chose, but it is in doing so that Titanfall’s underwhelming gameplay starts to become apparent; piloting them just isn’t as fun as it ought to be be.
Stomping around in a 20 foot mech should feel heavy and impactful, like a tank on two legs, but there is very little about the experience of piloting a titan that is different from that of being a foot soldier. If anything, controlling these incredibly complex war rigs is less complicated and less interesting than being on the ground: you don’t have to worry about cover, movement is stripped back to the essentials and your primary targets are brain dead NPCs who pose no threat.
It may very well be by design (the transition between play styles could be jarring otherwise), but by not making the experience of piloting a titan markedly different from pilot gameplay, there’s no thrill in stepping into their shoes.
Given that titans are Titanfall’s core mechanic (pun intended), when playing as one isn’t fun, nothing else is. The purpose of being a pilot is to earn enough points to unlock a titan, after all. Titan gameplay feels more like a gimmick than an integral part of gameplay, then: you aren’t relieved when one shows up and you don’t care when one is destroyed. For a game that is reliant on your emotional connection to these machines, that is a huge problem.
Such issues aren’t easily remedied but, first and foremost, titans need to feel titanic. They are incredible heaps of metal and driving them should feel as weighty and powerful as you’d imagine. Without that heaviness behind them, titan fights are forgettable and inconsequential.
Similarly, titans need something meaningful to do when enemy pilots are playing hard to get, and shooting NPCs who have absolutely no affect on the outcome of the match is definitely not meaningful. Perhaps a variant game mode in which only titans can capture the flag or hold objectives. Anything to make titans feel more imperative to the outcome of the battle, because as it is, colossal mechs falling from the sky does nothing to fundamentally change the pace of battle.
Alternatively, crank up the player counts and make titans harder to earn, or set a limit on the amount of them that can be on the map at any one time. That way, titans aren’t struggling to find pilots who can easily out maneuver them, but the cadence of combat doesn’t go out the window.
The current setup of 6v6 is likely the result of extensive testing and balancing, but it does nothing to get the heart pumping. A somewhat unbalanced but satisfying experience would do a lot more to excite players than a neatly tied, boring one.
Every aspect of Titanfall’s game design makes sense when you view titans as the quintessential block on which everything else is built. Because they are so big, the maps need to be large and open enough to accommodate them. Because the maps are so spacious, pilots need to be able to traverse them quickly and easily.
Because pilots are so fast on their feet and the maps so large, titans need something to point their gun at when real players aren’t around, and so on. That design philosophy is fine, but it assumes that titan gameplay is a great deal of fun. That, unfortunately, is not the case, and in not addressing that fundamental problem, Titanfall 2 is doomed to the same lukewarm reception as its predecessor.