A normal match of Titanfall is going to include at least two "Did you see that?!" moments. Like, two separate times where you literally say, "Did you see that?" Out loud. It might be when you dash through a ruined building, jump kicking half a dozen AI-controlled grunts to death. It might be when you pounce from rooftop to rooftop and barely make the leap to the evac ship as enemies try desperately to take you down. Or it might be when you eject from your doomed titan in the heat of a battle and watch from the sky as its nuclear core explodes, taking out every foe within a block. But no matter your skill level, and no matter how badly you're winning or losing, you're still going to feel the urge to scream, "Did you see that!?" because Titanfall--despite a few shortcomings--is a game that demands to be seen.
You'll be amazed by how much is going on at any given time on the screen, even on the Xbox 360 version, which looks and plays almost exactly like its next-gen counterpart. The online-only FPS takes mechanics from popular modern shooters and mixes in new ideas to make for something that looks absolutely astounding. You're not battling in the streets of empty cities, you're fighting alongside AI soldiers, piloting massive mechs, and shooting at enemy players that can tumble through windows and run up walls. You kill fast, die fast, and move faster than you do in most other shooters, making for short, brutal matches that you'll want to keep playing again and again. When you get into the groove of things, playing matches of Titanfall feels like munching on potato chips; good luck having just one.
If you were to strip away the unique elements you'd be left with a core that feels pretty familiar (which makes sense, considering the developer's history of making Call of Duty games), but that's easier said than done. The parkour? Those giant mechs? The AI minions? They're the bread and butter of the Titanfall experience. Minions might seem to be the least important cog in the machine because they're not as sexy as wall-running or mechs, but they serve the vital role of making every match feel bigger than it otherwise would. Though there are only 12 players in a session, there are at least twice that many AI-controlled allies and enemies running around at any given time. They skip around the battlefield and fight side-by-side with you, though they sometimes blow themselves up in absolutely remarkable displays of stupidity. AI units are downright dim-witted, which often leads to them staring at you like deer in headlights while you wave a shotgun in their faces. Their function is to die rather than kill, to fill the streets with corpses and serve as a morale booster.
The Xbox 360 version of Titanfall was actually handled by separate developer, and it did a fantastic job of bringing the larger-than-life battles of Titanfall to the last-gen hardware. The gameplay is virtually identical, and it doesn't look a huge deal worse. There's some screen tearing and the lower resolution means it's harder to see enemies far away, but those are really the biggest issues. Basically, it feels like the Xbox One version is on a PC running at High settings, and the Xbox 360 version is on a PC running Medium. That's it. The battles are just as fast, the AI is equally as stupid, you can still run on walls and drop massive mechs on enemies.
Minions also deliver short bits of story as you encounter them, be it by chatting about the battle or fighting enemies in well-animated hand-to-hand combat. Honestly, you'll likely get more enjoyment out of those bits of narrative than you will from the story elements of the game's lackluster campaign. Though wholly inoffensive, the multiplayer-online campaign is basically a one and a half hour playlist of multiplayer matches sandwiched between 20-second audio clips where characters gab about a war and talk about their history. They keep chatting as you play, discussing their plans as you compete in fairly standard games of Team Deathmatch and Capture Point (augmented with the occasional in-game cutscene). Win or lose, the story still moves forward, making your battles feel meaningless, and you feel like an NPC in someone else's story. Once the uninteresting tale ends you'll do it again as the other faction, playing the same matches in the same maps except with different characters talking to you, because it's the only way to unlock all of the titans.
Playing through the campaign gives you time to learn how to take advantage of the parkour in a slightly less-competitive setting, an addition that raises Titanfall's skill ceiling tremendously. Being able to travel anywhere, on any wall, is incredibly freeing, and you might have trouble playing a first-person shooter without it afterwards. And in the rare instance it doesn't work perfectly, and you either clip through a wall or simply fail to grab a ledge for no discernable reason, you're still going to love the simple act of running and jumping more than you have in almost any FPS. It also means that the game's maps--all 15 of them--are constructed with verticality and multiple levels of explorable playspace, making for impressive level design (even if many of the locations look and feel overly similar).
Besides being able to facilitate a dozen pilots jumping between buildings and running on walls, the maps are also capable of comfortably housing a bunch of huge robots engaging in massive battles. Titans are awe-inspiring--even the act of calling one down from the sky is awesome. There's a rumbling, you hear the crackling of a giant metal monster tearing through the atmosphere, and then they smash into the ground in a deafening thud. If you manage to have one land on an enemy titan, it'll destroy it outright; talk about a "Xbox! Record that!" moment.
While titans are basically walking tanks, their maneuverability and customizability makes them much more fun. You're able to outfit your titan with different types of weapons and abilities, leading to hundreds of ways to approach going into battle. Want one that can make quick work of large groups of soldiers? Cool, slap a lightning gun on that sucker, give it the Tactical Ability that lets it shoot out Pilot-killing Electric Smoke, and watch as the sparks fly. Want to make a lean, mean titan-killing machine? Give that son of a bitch some big cannons, choose the shield that lets you catch projectiles and throw them back, and blast enemies into scrap. You can even treat them like giant, metal bodyguards by stepping out and letting the AI take over. They're much less proficient without a pilot inside, but the ability to have them guard a location or follow you around adds a multitude of strategic depth.
And though titans feel so powerful you'll want to run when one rounds a corner (one cash in your direction and they can literally just step on you) they never feel unbalanced. Every pilot can carry one of five anti-titan weapons, capable of doing massive damage to the armored mechs if you're able to get a good angle. Plus, you're also able to jump on their back, tear off a chunk of armor, and shoot directly into the titan while riding it like a bull in a rodeo, which A) is really useful and fun, and B) is cool as shit, yo.
When you mix together all of these unique elements, you're left with gameplay that's relentlessly cool. You'll run along a wall like a boss, hitch a ride on the back of an allied titan, and then shoot at stupid minions as the metal monster runs around the map; or you'll call down a titan of your own and get it to follow you as you sneak through buildings, picking off enemy pilots that are jumping along rooftops. Some of the most memorable moments happen during the Epilogue, where the losing team can escape on a dropship to earn a little experience boost. It might seem minor, but the mad dash for the ship--and the knowledge that you'll piss off the team that just beat you if you make it--is a much more fulfilling conclusion than simply seeing the word "Defeat" pop up on the screen after a loss.
Titanfall's character development system follows a progression you're likely familiar with, including 50 levels of advancement in which you can unlock weapons, perks, and Burn Cards--short, one-time-use buffs that expire upon death. Compared to other shooters, the list of unlockables is somewhat paltry. On the one hand, this means that the focus is more on skill rather than weapon grinding, but it also means there's a lack of Pilot customization that might make you feel as though your choices are limited.
But it's not all sunshine and robot battles. Whereas the gameplay is an artful evolution of the standard FPS formula, the innovation stops when it gets to the game modes, which are downright stale in comparison. There's Capture the Flag, Capture Point (called Hardpoint Domination), two kinds of Team Deathmatch (Attrition and Pilot Hunter), and Last Titan Standing, which is a round-based mode where everyone starts with a titan and you don't respawn after death. They're all augmented and improved with parkour, minions, and titans, but with exception of Last Titan Standing, these are all game types you've played before (and, honestly, even LTS isn't fundamentally different). Though you're doing cool stuff all the time, you're doing it in the same context as you are in just about every other shooter out there, and it's a bit disappointing.
Titanfall's moving parts complement each other well, and take a familiar FPS formula and make it feel fresh--it's just a shame that it relies so heavily on the familiar. You'll eventually hit a point--like you do in nearly every game--where you feel as though you've done everything there is to do, and because you're still just playing Team Deathmatch or Capture the Flag, that time comes quicker than you might think. But while that holds Titanfall back from being a true revolution, you'll still have a damn good time dropping titans from space and kicking enemies in the head, all the while screaming "did you see that?!" at your TV.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.