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Titanfall (PC) impressions: Frenetically fun robot violence -- when the servers work

I could probably write my Titanfall review right now. I've played about fifteen hours of the game, all-told. I've finished most of one of the multiplayer "campaigns," though everyone left our server before we completed the whole run. I've ranked higher than the beta's Level 14 cap. I've killed some people. I've killed some robots. I've run on some walls.

I understand Titanfall well enough that yes, I could write a review.

But I won't. And Battlefield 4's continued server woes are the reason why. And, well, I guess SimCity's high-profile connection issues, too. After two high-profile online meltdowns from EA developers last year, I'm just not willing to formally review and score this online-only game prior to seeing how the servers hold up for a few days after launch. I hope you can forgive me.

That being said, here are my impressions after playing the PC version.

Did you play the beta?

Well, did you? Because wow, Titanfall's full release feels pretty damn close to the beta. More maps, more weapons to unlock, more options, another assault rifle, another sniper rifle, another shield-type thing for your Titan. Different in the particulars, but largely the same ideas. This is still Titanfall.

Titanfall

And that's not a bad thing. Titanfall is a lot of fun. For the benefit of those who didn't play the beta, I wrote a fairly extensive preview here. Read on for a summary.

Titanfall is, in many ways, exactly what its critics claim: Call of Duty with giant robots. That description's more than a bit reductive, but it's apt—this is the same arcadey, fast-paced shooter action that defines Call of Duty, which of course is no surprise considering many of developer Respawn's key players came over from Infinity Ward following the Modern Warfare 2 royalty debacle.

There are some key differences. The giant robots, of course, which are called Titans and come falling out of the sky like some post-apocalyptic song by The Weather Girls. You can either control your Titan directly, gaining extra armor and firepower, or let the AI control it. The latter essentially gains you a giant buddy who draws fire and distracts enemies while you run around picking them them off from behind.

Also you occasionally call your Titan down on top of another Titan and crush the enemy underneath your giant metal heel and it feels so damn awesome.

Titanfall

The other key difference is mobility—an important trait of shooters in the '90s that fell to neglect in the Halo/Medal of Honor/Call of Duty/Everything is so Realistic era. Titanfall's soldiers jump, double-jump, wall-run, and wall-climb with ease, sprinting around levels and leaping large obstacles in a single bound or five.

Titanfall, unlike most modern shooters, moves. It's fast, and it rewards people who've kept their twitch-shooter acumen polished over the years—especially on the PC, where the mouse and keyboard elite reign over the leaderboards.

A beautiful emptiness

Titanfall excels when it comes to maps. I'm not sure if the game only has the nine in the campaign or if there are others in the rotation. (Pre-release there were rumors of fifteen.) Regardless, the maps are spectacular in scope. One has an enormous spacecraft landed adjacent to a primitive fishing village, another centers around a towering railgun. This is science fiction at scale and utterly impressive.

...All of which serves to make the limit of six players per team feel unnecessarily restrictiv and unfair. I can almost guarantee these limits are in place because of the console versions of Titanfall. Even at six-on-six, Xbox One reviews near unanimously remark on dips in framerate during chaotic sequences.

Titanfall

I experienced no such issues with the PC version, and as a result the maps feel...empty. The grunts aren't really a replacement for real players. In fact, let's tell it like it is: The fodder enemy AI is dumb. It will stare you in the face as you come round a corner, holding fire for an eternity before finally realizing "Hey, that's an enemy! We should shoot!" Then they pepper you with the equivalent of soggy spitballs until you stop laughing and mow them all down. I never hated the six-on-six feel, but there were far too many minutes spent traversing empty battlefields in search of a real foe.

There's also that damn smart pistol—a gun that locks on. While it's not a huge threat to pilots, it can really swing an Attrition match. Fodder enemies only take a second to lock on, and you can kill four or five in a few moments. Do that a few times and you're racking up tons of points for your team without ever threatening a human player. I don't think it's game-breaking, but it's certainly odd.

A campaign of audio clues

Then there's the campaign, which prior to launch I was really looking forward to. Respawn said they wouldn't create a full singleplayer campaign for Titanfall, preferring to focus on multiplayer. They did, however, create a "campaign" out of the multiplayer. When you enter campaign mode you're locked to either of the game's two factions, the IMC or Militia. From there you'll play through nine of the game's maps. Most of the maps I played were standard Attrition (think Team Deathmatch) mode.

Titanfall

The intro movie is gorgeous, which gave me high hopes. The rest...

While sitting in the lobby for each map you'll hear characters talking about objectives and enemies and this and that—listen closely, because that is the campaign. Audio cutscenes. Something like, "Hey, I'm Admiral Grapes and we have to hit this planet because reasons, et cetera, et cetera. Stay frosty, bros," says the disembodied voice of a guy who sounds like a soldier-type.

Stories are surprisingly hard to follow when you don't really know who any of the voices belong to, and it's even worse when parts of the story happen during a match, rendering it almost impossible to pay attention to whatever thin plot points Respawn is trying to convey.

It's bad, as far as I'm concerned—distracting at best, obnoxious at worst. But you have to play through the campaign twice to unlock all the Titan models.

Online-only obstacles 

And let's talk about the issues I encountered on the PC—namely, tons of server errors. I got into the game prior to retail release and was already hitting dreaded "Retrying server connection" errors mid-match. And not just once in a while, but every fifteen to twenty seconds. Everyone would freeze in place, my screen would gray out as the game attempted to reconnect, and then we'd all lurch forward again. On multiple occasions I died.

Then when the game launched at 9PM Pacific, the servers basically collapsed. Multiple "retrying connections" again and even three flat-out crashes-to-desktop. It's not exactly a surprise—this is launch day for an online game. However, that's why I don't feel comfortable giving this game a score yet.

When Titanfall works, it's phenomenal fun. A bit thin on content, especially since the "campaign" is a letdown, but a great update to the Call of Duty action-shooter formula.

When Titanfall works.

I'm hoping to put in a lot more time this week, so look for a review later on if the servers stabilize. Until then, standby for Titanfall.

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