Shock & Awe: How Respawn & Titanfall 2 Claimed FPS Supremacy

The original Titanfall never really clicked with me. As refreshing an inclusion it was to have mechs (dubbed Titans) in a first-person shooter once more — not to mention the added emphasis on tactically-minded, momentum-based movement in-between rabid firefights with one’s opponent — the full release, refreshing mechanics aside, ultimately fell short of being a finished product. Perhaps it was the choice of weapons, perhaps it was the variety in Titans, perhaps it was the quote-unquote “campaign” aspect to what was predominantly an online, multiplayer-only experience. Though I wanted to see more of Respawn’s fresh take on the FPS, let’s say the [what-would-be] Titanfall 2 reveal (when it leaked) had me curious, if not predominantly excited.

Confirmation of the presence of an actual single-player campaign certainly got the ball rolling; the premise of imbuing what has become essentially corridor-shooting linearity with the ocassional cutscene wrestling away one’s control of the action, with Titanfall’s mechanics instead, proved to be one of the main reasons why I was more than happy to see what Respawn were cooking up. True they may not have been the only studio this year who demonstrated a clear-cut understanding of how to make first-person shooters genuinely fun to follow through with, let alone partake in. Yet the merry ventures of Titanfall 2 in 2016 began long before I picked up a controller.

Let’s set the scene shall we? It’s mid-June; internal [British] readings dictate that summer in LA is skirting the region of “bloody hot” as I make my way to assist in covering EA’s contribution to E3. Which means taking a detour away from the main convention centre to partake in what they dub their EA Play event, held off-site just down the street. Naturally, EA’s show-floor was characteristically bombastic in its rather club-esque decoration — multicoloured back-lit walls, tight interiors and outstretched promotional material for EA Sports & Battlefield alike making this feel even more like a party of sorts. This was the ground floor though, fitted for the company’s two most popular (and arguably most profitable) IP’s. Upstairs though…that was a different story.

The first thing that came to mind as soon as I’d ascended the staircase — and passed another security checkpoint — was “theme park”. You know those big, main rides that have you sluggishly crawl one’s way through a myriad of tightly-themed sections and well-designed interiors at points, right? Well fair play to EA for at least getting players and reporters alike into the mood well before we got onto the very roof where units were installed to partake in Titanfall 2’s first ever public hands-on. The themed interiors and life-size pilot models certainly helped alleviate the former blare and glare of club-like euphoria below, but hold on…a custom-made water feature emblazoned with your game’s logo?! Alright you win…you bloody win Respawn. While we may not have dished out an E3 award for Best Water Feature — and still won’t for our End of Year equivalent it pains me to say — I’m going to go ahead and give Respawn an award right here for this right here.

Titanfall 2 Water Feature

Best of 2016: Water Feature…goes to Respawn Entertainment/Titanfall 2

You might come at me, in defence, by simply uttering two solitary letters: EA and think that’s constructive criticism enough. And yes, they may well have wanted to put on the extravagance for an[other] upcoming title/shooter/AAA “experience”. But let’s consider the position both Respawn and Titanfall have been put in this year. Titanfall 2 would later go on to find itself released slap-bang in the middle of arguably the two biggest shooters of the year. Wrong decision, some would argue (putting it mildly); you’d only be kidding yourself if you thought Titanfall would outsell either Call of Duty or Battlefield given either competitor’s stature or otherwise established consumer base and even if the sales figures of Respawn’s own commendable creation did turn out lower than even the most tainted of expectations, that still doesn’t take away from how well the developer managed to reintroduce what many consider a standard (and some an unnecessary add-on) for modern-day shooters of the first person variety: a single-player campaign that at least tries something different outside of the mere cosmetics and visuals on show.

To that, if not the absolute pinnacle of design, execution or all-round delivery, Titanfall 2’s single-player aspect was still enjoyable with its in-and-out weaving of level design, semi-open environments and even the occasionally banter-tier exchange between pilot and his robotic Titan comrade BT. Sadly, Respawn couldn’t quite make their BT the best BT of all BT’s out there, but they did do better than British Telecom (though to be fair, if you live in the UK, you’ll know that in itself doesn’t take much doing) — further cementing the fact that anything involving robots is most-definitely a win-win. Of course, Battlefield 1 tried its own spin on conventional single-player structures by offering a non-multiplayer aspect through “tales” of several characters caught amidst the horror of globe-spanning war. Naturally, some may prefer DICE’s take this year as opposed to Respawn’s; some may even genuinely enjoy CoD’s 2016 tale of space’n’stuff.

The reason why Respawn’s efforts last much longer in the memory banks is, like a lot of things, down to how surprising Titanfall 2 — as a general, complete (this time round) package — genuinely was in a positive light. The mechanics may well have already been there to begin with, but with a series-debut single-player reintroducing the concept of parkour-style platforming into a shooter of all things, as well as a more fleshed-out multiplayer that both maintained as well as added to the progenitor’s pluses, Respawn were able to tuck neatly into a particular niche of shooting they could call their own. Is there any other reason why Call of Duty in recent years has implemented (if not fully integrated) so much of the series’ wall-running, movement and momentum-based combat into its own multiplayer?

To reiterate, while I saw potential in the original entry, my main reason for not scoring Titanfall as highly as other games in 2014 was purely down to how much it felt like a product 60-70% finished and not 100% finished. While not “bad” by any stretch, certainly not an end-of-year contender. But as is so often the case with sequels, 2016 was the point at which Respawn took another look at their series’ debut entry, refined some areas, tweaked others and obviously, added so much more to parts otherwise lacking. What they gave us, in result, was a multiplayer — much in the same vain of Battlefield 1 — was the feeling of genuine contribution in any given match. DICE’s efforts may well have strewn towards grander, objective-focused matches with more expansive means of accomplishing said objectives, but Titanfall 2 was equally proficient in making success/failure grounded in a player’s own abilities…or lack thereof. More often than not, your killer was a player more than apt at skating the many walls and areas of cover as opposed to sheer luck or some unfair hitch in the servers.

It might have taken a beta or two to help tweak the formula, but eventually the final build came out rather enjoyable and wholly so. You wouldn’t think something as simple or perhaps as meager as a grappling hook would help spice up matches, but lo and behold. Elements such as elaborately-structured maps and carefully-arranged entry/exit-points may well be deemed a returning feature, but that doesn’t take away from the rightful acclaim Respawn received in 2016, despite most of the spotlight falling on Infinite Warfare — be it for the right and wrong reasons it would appear — or EA’s “other” shooter, Battlefield 1, for the way it went against the recent futuristic trend of late. Will we see a third entry in the Pilot/Mech FPS? It’s a minor concern admittedly that discussion is coming across more glass half-empty than half-full on that matter. But if this is indeed only the second (and as a result, last) game in the series, I think I speak for a majority of the writers/reviewers here when I say Respawn Entertainment not only maintained their success with Titanfall 2, but in my own personal case, went one better and genuinely surprised.

The question now is: just how successful was it? All I can say is standby to see where Titanfall 2, if at all, ranks among the best of 2016 in our ongoing End of Year celebration