As much as I enjoyed the multiplayer mechs-meet-parkour gameplay of the original Titanfall, I was skeptical that the basic concept would be able to carry over to an explicitly single-player campaign in Titanfall 2. That campaign does hold together over its short length, however, thanks largely to some clever gameplay gimmicks and impressive environmental design. When all is said and done, though, the campaign feels like a mere appetizer to the main meal of fighting some actual humans online.
Titanfall 2‘s campaign tells the tale of Jack Cooper, a lowly rifleman for an interplanetary frontier militia that is fighting against the hegemonic control of the antagonistic IMC and its mercenaries. Cooper has just started down the path of his dream job—becoming one of the rarified pilots that gets to take control of a massive mech-like Titan. Following him through that entire career path would be too time-consuming for our purposes, though, so in short order Cooper finds himself thrust into the seat of Titan BT-7274 (BT, for short), forced to fill in for a pilot that is tragically cut down before his eyes.
As thrown-in-the-deep-end, fish-out-of-water tales go, it’s about as cliché as it gets. The paper-thin plot driving things forward is a cookie-cutter tale involving a band of utterly amoral mercenaries working to secure an ultimate power source that, in turn, will be used to power the kind of planet-destroying weapon that you’ve doubtless seen as the Macguffin in countless sci-fi tales at this point.
The few mercenaries with speaking parts (who mostly serve as Titan-driving, level-ending bosses) are scenery-chewing, mustache-twirling villains down to the last person. While the game makes a perfunctory effort to grant them some meaningful character through bits of dialogue, none of these antagonists sticks around long enough for you to really feel any connection to them, good or bad. The random friendly militia members who aid you in your efforts are equally disposable, character-wise.
Despite all that, the narrative gets pulled along serviceably, thanks in large part to the budding bromance between BT and Cooper. As the cold, unfeeling robot, BT’s overly literal interpretations of common phrases is frequently played for laughs (“I am 50 percent in love with you,” BT determines after calculating that he meets two of the four defining characteristics for the term in his databanks). Still, BT somehow ends up being the more empathetic character of the pair, thanks in part to surprisingly emotive (yet still “robotic”) delivery from Glenn Steinbaum.
By contrast, Cooper never really gets a chance to grow as a character. During various dead points in the mission, you get the chance to choose two possible responses that Cooper can make to BT. In every case, your choice has zero impact on the story and doesn’t reveal anything about Cooper’s character. The corny lines are delivered in an affectless monotone that makes it hard to care about Cooper at all, and by the end, I struggled to impart any character traits on him besides “tough” and “stoic.”
Still, the game develops a semi-believable bond between Titan and pilot, such that it doesn’t seem ridiculous when BT insists on sticking with Cooper, rather than accept a more experienced pilot assigned to him. And without giving too much away, when an utterly telegraphed moment of self-sacrifice is asked for at the climax, I almost felt sorry for at least half of the pair that had already fought through so much.
Acrobatic pilots, lumbering Titans
As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, Titanfall 2 goes to great lengths to force frequent separation between pilot and Titan. This ends up making it feel like two distinct games awkwardly joined together, compared to the more freeform back-and-forth, pilot-to-Titan switching in multiplayer.
As a pilot, the game does a good job making you feel like an acrobatic superhero, turning what’s a first-person shooter on the surface into something more like a well-executed, first-person platform game in many parts. Your pilot’s double-jumping, wall run-enabling jetpack is a joy to use, and the game makes you use it frequently in cleverly designed environments (one level in particular, where you follow along with a humungous robotic assembly line constructing an entire artificial cityscape as you go, will stick in my mind for a good long while).
Sometimes you’ll use your jet pack to leap back and forth between carefully placed walls to get over a long gap. Other times you’ll run along a cliff face and jump down on an unsuspecting enemy. Combined with a handy, rechargeable cloaking ability, the game makes it easy to sneak up behind hordes of bad guys, escape when you’re pinned down by gunfire, or even dash right up to an unsuspecting soldier and punch him off a nearby cliff.
In each case, the running and jumping feel effortless and smooth, with forgiving, floaty physics that make it easy to effect mid-air adjustments and judge your landings. It feels like the kind of effortless, joyful, and free-form movement system that we wanted (but didn’t really get) in Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
Compared to the pilot gameplay, lumbering around in a huge Titan feels comparatively clunky. A short dash move lets you get out of the way of some incoming fire, but more often you have to rely on a variety of defensive energy shields to avoid becoming an absolute damage sponge. Even so, most Titan-on-Titan firefights end up feeling like battles of who can best stand their ground and unleash the most firepower, rather than fast-paced duels of positional tactics. This was especially true of the one-on-one boss battles, which could often be dispatched incredibly quickly with the right volley of missiles.
That said, the developers have added some much-needed additional variety to the Titan weaponry this time around, letting you choose between shotguns, auto-locking missiles, fiery melee attacks, and everything in between. I also enjoyed the new battery system, which forces you to pick up glowing green cylinders to recharge your Titan’s health. This is in contrast to the pilot sections, which let you take quite a few bullets to the face and recover fully if you happen to hide behind cover for a few seconds.
Just when the basic shooting starts to feel repetitive, Titanfall 2 isn’t afraid to throw some significant experimental gameplay gimmicks right at you. One section introduces a time travel wrist device, letting you jump back and forth between the past and the present at will. This not only lets you live out the game’s thin backstory but lets you get around enemies or obstacles that exist in the present but not in the past.
Other sections add an “arc tool” that can be used to activate temporary platforms or bring out allied robots to help you out or the familiar auto-targeting pistol that can kill enemies without precise aim. There’s one bit that takes place amid a floating flotilla of airships and another asking you to jump between giant meteorites floating in some sort of energy void (don’t ask).
Strangely enough, after going to a lot of trouble to introduce these tools and situations, the game always takes them away after just a short interlude. On one hand, this means these clever gameplay conceits don’t have a chance to stick around long enough to wear out their welcome with repetitive, cookie-cutter content. On the other hand, it often feels like some of the most interesting gameplay ideas in Titanfall 2 are forcibly pulled away just as they were starting to build up momentum.
That critique applies to the game as a whole. The Titanfall 2 campaign is short enough to complete in five to seven hours, depending on how often you end up restarting due to death (though an extremely generous checkpoint system means you won’t have to backtrack too much). There are a handful of collectibles to encourage a second go around, but all in all this isn’t an epic, time-consuming single-player quest. In the end, it feels like an extended preamble for the multiplayer that should give the game true longevity.
That’s not a bad thing. In its short but sweet running time, Titanfall 2‘s single-player campaign shows much more inventiveness and verve than we had any right to expect. It’s an incredibly memorable and enjoyable morsel to digest before taking your Titans and pilots out against actual humans.
- Effortless parkour-style wall run and double-jump gameplay
- Memorable environmental designs
- Interesting gameplay experiments that don’t wear out their welcome
- The semi-believable bromance between pilot and Titan
- Cliché, forgettable plot and secondary characters
- Titans can feel a bit like lumbering bullet sponges
- Frequent switches make the game feel a bit disjointed
- Watching enemy grunts literally vaporize when you hit them with a Titan missile
Verdict: Buy it if you’re looking for a few hours of memorable jump-and-gun action to go with your multiplayer matches.