Note: the following review covers only the single player portion of Titanfall 2.
Titanfall 2 (2016) opens with an extended ode to “The Pilot” – in-fiction military elites who dance with jetpacks across the battlefield, popping off shots and trying to reunite with their sentient mech buddy, the titular “Titans.” It is a lavishly produced cinematic, as elegantly choreographed as it is perversely explosive, but its biggest success is setting the tone for the game to follow in the span of less than a minute. Titanfall 2 is certainly explosive, and at times elegant, but it is primarily an exercise in player omnipotence and reverence. It’s really not about the pilots or titans, it’s about making you feel cool and never stopping to ask why.
It is worth acknowledging that Titanfall 2 is not unique in its devotion to the power fantasy. The vast majority of games partake in some form or another of power fantasy and are not inherently worse for doing so. But Titanfall 2 takes it several rocket-assisted jumps forward by pivoting its entire campaign around the player, building them up from basic rifleman to humanity’s last hope as if there was ever any question of their greatness. It is a meaningless greatness, however, as the context around the player’s ascent is little more than a collection of loosely connected set-pieces designed to give you some new toys to play with every thirty-minutes.
This formless context is where Titanfall 2 loses any momentum its mechanics alone might have provided it, wrapping the game’s pristine mechanical design in a self-serious sludge it can never quite shake off. As Jack Cooper – a rifleman grunt who, at the start of the game, is receiving unauthorized titan training due to his perceived potential (which is never elaborated on) – you have been entrusted with the titan “BT” after its former pilot (your mentor) is killed by a shadowy mercenary group. BT, for his part, is one of the game’s few highlights, escaping the suffocating gravitas of the game’s plot due to being a robot only just learning what sarcasm is and in no real position to protest the game’s absurd proceedings (except, of course, when your capabilities are called into question). Developer Respawn Interactive don’t lean on this relationship so much as flatten it into the ground, but Cooper lacks even a façade of personality so the intended touching bromance between man and machine is rendered something closer to a road trip between a dude and his only slightly more interesting talking car.
A lot has been said about how good Titanfall 2 “feels,” as if the game were an expensive suit or a set of bedsheets. But there is definitely something to how refined and natural Titanfall 2 is to play, incorporating wall-runs, jetpacks, and context-sensitive melee moves into a ballet of violence. For all of Titanfall 2’s missteps, the team charged with player-control is in a league of their own and there was never a moment where I did not enjoy the act of putting fingers to controller and watching my little-rifleman-that-could run along a wall before dropkicking the rifleman who couldn’t. It is truly unfortunate how little the rest of the game manages to match or even make room for the movement mechanics which were clearly given priority over lesser things like plot. The level designs fluctuate wildly from those which barely acknowledge your extended moveset to levels which funnel you through linear obstacle courses. The most exciting and successful moments in Titanfall 2 are the instances when the level designs give you the freedom and opportunity to utilize your full moveset, attacking the landscape’s geometry as much as your enemies and coming close to what the game’s opening envisioned.
While Titanfall 2’s narrative is universally one-note and flavorless, its mechanics are bloated by their variety and lack of space to explore it. Almost every mission brings something new into an already busy set of systems, often recalling the gadgets of Ratchet & Clank (2002) but without the breathing room that allowed R&C to comfortably incorporate gadgets with combat. Instead, Titanfall 2 uses gadgets like flavor text, pretty pieces of gameplay that never quite justify themselves when the game is already struggling to accommodate its base mechanics. This design was intentional, however, as in discussing developing Titanfall 2 with GamesRadar+, game director Steve Fukuda cites the gamejam approach – making a bunch of small prototypes focusing on innovation over polish – as foundational to Titanfall 2’s design philosophy.
But what Titanfall 2 achieves in variety is loses in cohesion. Many games struggle with their narratives due to it being one of the last things added during development, and Titanfall 2 further exemplifies this by being so clearly the result of numerous independent projects folded together with a story stapled on top. Titanfall 2 is oddly messy for all its blank-check visuals and movement precision, like a demo remastered and released as an LP. It plays the part but lacks the through-line to elevate it from disconnected experiments into something complete and holistic.
Titanfall 2 is not a bad game so much as it’s a disappointing one, though oddly not because of what it lacks but what it doesn’t know what to do with. Many of Titanfall 2’s levels are individually brilliant, but when positioned as just one of many prototypes for what a single player Titanfall might look like they signal an uncertainty that tarnishes the whole experience. There is almost certainly a great Titanfall campaign inside of Titanfall 2, but nobody knows or is willing to say what it looks like. Titanfall 2 might succeed in creating a bombastic, borderline masturbatory player power fantasy, but it couldn’t convince me to care.
Titanfall 2 was reviewed on Xbox One S using a copy acquired by the author.