Titanfall Is the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em of First-Person, Online-Only Shooters

A frenzied blast -- if you're into ultra-competitive online shooters.

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After playing Titanfall‘s free-for-all mode for a few hours, you start to find its rhythms: plummet from your drop ship, sprint-scurry-hop across the battlescape until you notice red dots winking on your radar, engage the enemy high and low with gunfire, stealth-fu or snipe shots, then clamber into your sky-dropped giant robot suit, play rock ’em sock ’em with the other team’s giant robots, lose, eject and repeat all that until one side or the other racks up enough points to trigger an endgame scramble — the losers to a drop ship, the winners picking off the hotfooting losers.

I don’t know what the narrative premise of the game is. The beta doesn’t say, short of those little map descriptions while you’re waiting for a level to load. So I have no idea why I’m supposed to be doing any of this, nor do I care. If developer Respawn Entertainment intends to wow us with “scale, verticality, and story,” it’s saving the story bits for the final version in March.

But of scale and verticality, there’s plenty, though much of it’s implied (you don’t want a vasty combat desert, after all, and teams are smallish six-person affairs). Distant futuristic skyscrapers you can neither climb nor visit arrow into the clouds and disappear; giant (if generic-looking) ships flit about the field of battle depositing scores of drone soldiers; soldiers (yourself included) bolt around combat zones pinballing off walls or jet-jumping to high-up building ledges, legs kicking like wire-propelled martial artists; giant “titan” robots slug it out like battlefield demigods, lobbing scores of missiles at each other until klaxons sound and their pilots are expelled from flaming cockpits hundreds of feet into the air.

It’s all very capacious and multistory and frenetic to behold, a shooting range shoehorned into a continuous time management exercise bolted onto a two-tier tactical engagement engine. It produces the same adrenaline rush you’d get hopping around on a pogo stick beating a metal grid stretched across a flame-shot magma pit while balancing your checkbook and texting friends — the latest iteration in the “pat your head and rub your tummy” plus-plus school of design.

But it’s also tremendously fluid and anti-punitive, which makes you want to circle back for more masochistically, even when you’re playing like a schoolboy. From the five-second countdown at map outset, to the pace at which you sprint, to the parkour-like wall-running and double-jumping and mantling, to the zippy way you pile into and power up your mech, to the almost instant and infinite re-spawning, Titanfall lives up to the descriptor “compulsively playable,” throwing you back into the fray with the prompt immediacy of a causal game like Doodle Jump, or Temple Run, or — forgive me for saying so — Flappy Bird.

Visually, it’s hard to want to thump your chest about Titanfall‘s look. It’s like any other highly detailed but architecturally generic future-scape with giant robots and spaceships and explosions you’ve seen in far better-looking films, if not other games (if visual OMG moments are all you care about, stuff like Killzone Shadow Fall or Metro: Last Light easily trumps what I’ve seen of the beta so far). But I don’t think Titanfall‘s developers care about being the best- or most creative-looking shooter on the block, and neither — speaking as a player who can’t be bothered to notice any of it since everything’s a blur — do I. That it’s fast and offers engaging geometry to foster creative encounters is all that matters.

As several other Titanfall beta players reminded me last night, this probably isn’t a slam dunk or killer (or whatever) app for Microsoft because it’s definitely not for everyone…or to be more specific, it’s for a certain kind of highly competitive someone with more of an e-sports mentality. If you’re that stripe of player, Titanfall feels like hitting the jackpot. It’s not a galvanic shift in shooter-dom, it’s about placating highly competitive, multiplayer-only, twitchy shooter wonks with an oiled smorgasbord of shooter tropes and tactical wrinkles. I’ll say more as I play more and my opinion evolves, but if the latter describes you, I’d say you have reason to be excited about the game’s official release on March 11.

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