I’ve been killing since I was in kindergarten. I’ve eaten ghosts, stomped living mushrooms and shot down every conceivable type of vehicle. I’ve beaten countless men to death with my bare hands and feet. And this was all just in the 1980s, when Reagan and Charles Bronson were supposedly making the streets safe again, and when I had to be in bed by 9.
This all happened in games. I have a thirty year record of guilt-free destruction within CRT screens, tiny monochrome squares and TVs in both standard and high definition. Beyond videogames, even, violence is a foundation of the games that people have made and played for as long as people have existed. How old were you when you learned the card game War?
Titanfall is a shooter. It’s made by some of the designers of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the textbook shooter of the last decade. There are guns and I shoot them at human-looking characters controlled (sometimes) by real-life humans and occasionally (rarely) I am good enough at shooting these human-looking characters that they die before they are able to kick me in the face to death. It is light and fast-paced and so frantic that I never stop to think about the implications of the virtual violence I perform. The thought that an entertainment so frivolous and absurd could be any more corruptive of an influence than paintball or laser tag is laughable.
And yet I still feel unease when I play most modern-day shooters. It’s not the possible influence a Call of Duty or Battlefield could have upon its audience—it’s how these games tend to unite feel-bad shock tactics like terror attacks and war-torn residential areas with an inescapable exaltation of the machines that make such destruction possible. Modern Warfare can include as many “war is hell” clichés as will fit on a loading screen, but every Call of Duty since the first Modern Warfare has tried to awe us with supersoldier technojive while uncomfortably co-opting our response to real-life disaster.
Many of the people who worked on the first two Modern Warfare games worked on Titanfall. In many ways Titanfall feels like a Modern Warfare, from the basic controls to the bombed out buildings and rubble that dot most of the multiplayer maps. Titanfall eschews the sordid manipulation of every Call of Duty since the first Modern Warfare, though, by embracing its near-future sci-fi backdrop. There’s no plausible realism here—this is pure popcorn, with minimal stabs at real-world relevance or commentary. Like most games, it’s made to be enjoyed, and it doesn’t gum that up with half-formed, hypocritical attempts at a message. Purely as a game Titanfall succeeds more than I could have expected.
Titanfall avoids those post-Modern Warfare clichés by mostly eliminating the campaign in traditional terms. There is a campaign here, with a story and everything, but it’s a series of multiplayer maps tied together through voice-overs and seconds-long briefings before each mission. The experience points earned during these missions go into the same collective pool as those earned in plot-free online matches, building a sturdy bridge between the campaign and the chaos of traditional online play. That summer blockbuster mentality of constantly outshocking every last Call of Duty campaign is what lead to the worst aspects of those games, and Titanfall’s sci-fi setting and the multiplayer focus of its campaign removes that crutch. This is not the convoluted and increasingly ludicrous shooting gallery campaign of a Call of Duty—this is a successful realization of what Brink absolutely failed to achieve three years ago.
The best thing about Titanfall is how little it cares for the laws of physics. Like every pilot in the game I wear some kind of rocket boot contraption that lets me jump obnoxiously high and far, and once I’m in the air I can jump again to get even higher/farther. (They call it a “double-jump”?) I can also wall-run like Mirror’s Edge, gliding along the sides of despoiled military buildings as if it’s my job. I can double-jump into a wall-run, leap across a gap and dance across another wall, and then double-jump again through a window into the opposing team’s command center, where I immediately get shot-gunned by two or three people at once. (Usually.) This commitment to fast, graceful, patently unrealistic movement is another factor that shreds whatever kind of verisimilitude might be expected from a modern-day shooter.
That motion creates vertical possibilities that are thoroughly explored by the level design. Levels sprawl out around but also above and below, with towers and collapsing skyscrapers to climb, and networks of tunnels and trenches often providing low-key routes between important locales. If I can see something on the map odds are I can get to it through a combination of jumping and wall-running. I often zone out of battle (one of many things that make me a horrible teammate) and grow fixated on the landscape. On one map there’s a giant cannon pointing towards the sky that towers over everything else. I was able to get almost all the way to the top during one round, spending probably half the match jumping and running up its side to see how high I could go. My goal was to stand on the very edge of its barrels and leap to whatever death awaited me. I couldn’t get to the very top, but the fact that it seemed possible and that I was able to scale most of that height in a smooth and elegant fashion has stuck with me more than any battlefield heroics so far.
In another match I was on top of a building when an enemy transport ship flew by to drop off more soldiers. Its wing was within reach of a double-jump. I tapped the button once and flew up, tapped it again at the peak, and fell just a few virtual inches short of the wing as it shot back into space. I probably couldn’t have actually landed on the plane—I probably would have fallen through it as if it didn’t occupy any physical space within this digital world—but the fact that I was even able to reach that point, to entertain the thought of boarding this vehicle that exists solely to add detail to the world and not to serve any actual interactive purpose, was more exciting for me in that moment than my most acrobatic or improbable kill.
I rarely tire of running and jumping, but when I do I can call my Titan mech and cavort about in a giant robot suit for a spell. The shifts in tactile feel and combat tactics when climbing into a Titan are significant. Everything slows down as my Titan lumbers about the map, crunching enemy grunts and drones underfoot while looking for opposing Titans with which to play first-person Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.
Even though Titans can come outfitted with telekinetic shields, rocket launchers and massive chain guns, they aren’t that hard to take down. Titan-on-Titan duels can end quickly, and every pilot is armed with one heavy anti-Titan weapon that deals significant harm to exposed Titans. Pilots can also ride on Titans, both friendly and unfriendly, and in the latter case can do a surprising amount of damage in a short period of time. Titans aren’t quite the game’s focus (outside of the Last Titan Standing mode, where every player starts in a Titan that can only be destroyed once, I could easily go entire rounds without calling my Titan) but they play a crucial role in most encounters. Strategy and teamwork are vital for maximizing the value of Titans—although their lives are as infinite as the player’s in most modes, there’s a two-minute cool-down period that can momentarily deprive players of their most powerful weapon.
It’s surprising that there aren’t more multiplayer modes custom-tailored for the Titans. There are five multiplayer modes at the moment, and only Last Titan Standing prioritizes the mechs. Attrition is a fairly standard squad-based deathmatch, although victory is decided by “attrition points” that vary depending on how an enemy is killed and what kind of enemy it is—the AI-controlled grunts and specters that provide less talented players with the opportunity to feel useful only earn a single attrition point when killed, whereas ending human-controlled pilots or Titans reap many more. Capture the Flag is exactly what it sounds like. Hardpoint Domination is the mode I’m most capable at, as the points flow fast simply by standing around one of the three hardpoints that need to be captured and maintained. I am good at defense because it means avoiding offense. Pilot Hunter is a one-for-one point-to-kill deathmatch mode—for every human controlled enemy that is killed, a team earns a point. The Variety Pack randomly cycles through these modes and every map in the game, whereas the campaign consists of a playlist of these multiplayer forays tied to specific maps. The variety of modes may not be as plentiful as it should be for a multiplayer-only shooter.
The biggest caveat of all when it comes to a game like Titanfall involves servers. I’ve played during extremely low volume times, when finding any game can actually be a challenge because there just aren’t that many people playing this unreleased game yet. Beyond the ongoing drama with Battlefield 4, recent online issues with HBO Go during the True Detective finale and the WWE Network during its first major live programming reiterate how easily servers can be overloaded and insufficient. Titanfall might be a mess at launch, but it was eminently playable over the weekend during a time of absolute minimal stress.
“Fun” is something of a bad word among many readers and critics. It’s a nebulous concept that’s entirely subjective and as a professional writer I should be able to find other, more descriptive words to suit my purpose. Well, I just dished out like 1600 of those other words, so I feel no reluctance at calling Titanfall fun. It’s an interactive sci-fi cartoon with soldiers (both men and women) that move like superheroes and occasionally turn into massive robot guns. It’s devoted to the concept of pure play and as capable of realizing that goal as a Nintendo game, even if its version of play necessitates the shooting deaths of your rivals. These are timeless childhood japes professionally calibrated for all ages and without much of the unseemly business found in most shooters today. It’s just the latest footnote in our timeless history of games about death and war, and one I’ll continue to enjoy and utterly fail at for the foreseeable future.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald. He’s never hit a man in anger, except for his brothers, who don’t count.