A lesson as to why first impressions aren’t everything.
This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Titanfall 2 and also Killzone 3.
The Backlog is my sporadic attempt to document my ongoing journey through a pretty hefty gaming backlog. Both to finally experience and/or finish some of the many games that have sat untouched in my physical and digital libraries over the years, and justify spending so much time playing video games instead of curing global warming or something. Prior entries can be found here.
Gotta level with you, I was not won over by the first two hours of Titanfall 2. I’d heard a lot of really good things about Respawn Entertainment’s sci-fi first-person shooter in the years since its release, particularly its single-player campaign which was frequently touted as “one of the generation’s best” by both critics, friends, and Gamers Online. So, when Sony made it the big free PS Plus game back in December of 2019, I immediately snapped it up… only to let it languish in my PS4 digital library for several months whilst the twin space-behemoths of Hitman 2 and Marvel’s Spider-Man conspired to colonise hard-drive land. (Plus, y’know, that whole thing with my dad and the world ending.) But then I made the resolute decision post-Cuphead to finally crack on through my backlog and wanted something short, sweet, and actiony to break up the near-20 hour or more narrative-y investments in my roadmap, which I’d heard Titanfall 2 fit nicely within, hence the re-download.
So, I booted the game up in between Hitman entries, with the prior-written God of War III and the still-to-come Saints Row IV: Re-Elected midway through, to see off within a week and… did not click at all with those first three chapters. Another reason why I was excited to blast through the Titanfall 2 campaign was because, just over a year earlier, I had played through Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Remastered, which was also the first time in close to a decade that I’d played the original Modern Warfare, and in doing so remembered how much I enjoyed that kind of rollicking Michael Bay-esque all-spectacle-no-filler campaign experience. Perhaps a little bit of a guilty pleasure given the inherent rampant military veneration and fetishism of the Call of Duty series, even when the games try to make somewhat liberal political statements, but god the spectacle and adrenaline and craft of that game are still top-shelf thirteen years on! No wonder an entire console generation immediately set about rewriting itself thanks to that game, both campaign and multiplayer. Giant dumb exhilarating action movies hit for a reason, y’know?
Yet that first third of Titanfall 2 just left me pretty unengaged and mildly frustrated, in all honesty. The unfortunate flipside of most of the seventh console generation taking turns to rip-off Modern Warfare as much as possible was that a lot of its tricks and spectacle were very quickly driven into the ground, suffocated under routine genericism and sub-par execution that even Call of Duty soon succumbed to. A style of gaming that eventually revealed itself to be high-calorie but with little lasting investment no level of particle-heavy explosions could make up for. And I felt those first two hours of Titanfall 2, despite developer Respawn Entertainment being made up heavily of ex-Infinity Ward (the original Modern Warfare) devs, came off as deflatingly generic and hollow.
Opening on a frankly-ropey-looking CGI movie attempting to establish galaxy-defining stakes and talking up the badassitude of the game’s heroes in the vaguest of strokes with poor old Matthew Mercer being directed to give his ‘Troy Baker gruff protagonist but Troy was too busy to return our calls’ voice, my eyes started inadvertently glazing over. It was kinda like the propaganda films at the start of Starship Troopers without any of the camp satire, and I had absolutely no idea how I was supposed to understand all of these Important Capitalised Nouns being thrown at me or why I should care. (The original Titanfall was a multiplayer-only Xbox & PC exclusive, so Respawn did have some onus to make this understandable.) I went through The Tutorial, capitalised because it’s the same tutorial as the first two Modern Warfares, led by a gruff mentor figure sporting a ridiculous name and the biggest possible ‘I will die dramatically for player motivation and emotional impact some point soon’ neon sign on his forehead.
I didn’t click with the movement systems and traversal mechanics for that entire first play session, despite The Tutorial deliberately invoking the spectres of “S.S.D.D.” and “F.N.G.” with its timed assault course. Honestly, I’ve always struggled heavily with FPS movement that prioritises speed and stringing-together acrobatics as a core component of its loop, at least on consoles which have almost-exclusively been how I experience games over the years. Aside from DOOM 2016, I’ve always found that one or more of the following bugbears spoil that brief. Maybe the movement is too rigid and contextual to properly lock into a flow. Or the aiming demands that kind of proper accuracy which comes from standing still. Or the increased troubles of depth perception in first-person make platforming a crapshoot. Or, worst of all, hit-scan weapons and the same rapidly-cut-down regenerating health of cover-based spectacle shooters actively conspire against the hop-to-it approach that the design supposedly wishes to encourage. (All of this is to say: I gave up on Bulletstorm years ago barely a third of the way in because of these listed reasons.)
Consequently, and especially after I kept posting sub-par times on the assault course, I played most of the first third like an FPS made by classic Infinity Ward. Couple that with the training wheels nature of the first few proper levels meaning that combat oscillated per-encounter between ‘sleepwalkingly-passive’ and ‘riddled with bullets and not quite understanding why’ and nothing was clicking with me. Despite the wider environments with still-gorgeous skyboxes, I felt the traversal of the first two real stages had a very “RAMIREZ, GET ON [X]!” feel which wasn’t gripping me. The writing seemed to lack personality and any stakes or things to invest in, whilst the recurrent dialogue choices gave me unwanted flashbacks to Uncharted 4’s similarly useless inclusion of the mechanic. And those goddamned spider-bots (Ticks). I hated them and, as such, hated the big siege moment at the climax of chapter three; they reminded me far too much of CoD’s bad habit of grenade spamming for fake difficulty but this time mobile and with an even larger blast radius.
So, yeah, not a great first session. The Titan battle to cap off “Blood and Rust” was kinda fun, and both Kane’s incidental dialogue throughout the chapter plus the potential teasing between Jack and BT after finding the first Titan upgrade provided a slight bit of life, but I wasn’t yet won over and a third of the game was done. “This is what everyone’s gaga about?” I thought to myself as I headed to bed, planning to pick back up a few nights from then. It really did seem like Respawn had gone from leaders in their field during the Infinity Ward days to members of the pack in a post-DOOM world, or that maybe I actually didn’t much care for this kind of FPS after all and my enjoyment of the Modern Warfare remaster had come from nostalgia.
Ironically, it would be halfway through the very next chapter, “Into the Abyss,” commonly-cited by fans as the weakest level of the game (at least according to TV Tropes), that things started to improve for me. Bouncing from platform to platform through the assembly factory, as buildings and structures were constructed in front of my very legs, at a constant forward momentum culminating in an Inception-esque flipping of my orientation on the way to the assembly line’s top was where my brain starting rewiring itself to what Respawn’s designers were going for. The various combat arenas throughout and afterwards impressed upon me the ways in which movement was vital to combat and specifically how, on normal difficulty at least, it helps mitigate damage instead of punishing constant momentum like I thought.
The spectacle began to ramp up with the polish and pacing I expected from ex-Modern Warfare devs, as the opening rote sewer stretch gave way to the aforementioned factory odyssey and a pair of properly-intense climaxes which function as exams for both Ranger and Titan mechanics. I even found myself slowly attuning more to the unique character of the writing which, with a quirky rogue’s gallery of cartoonishly-evil mercs going against a man and his robot whose combat effectiveness increases at the rate of their friendship, had real Saturday morning cartoon camp underneath all the swears and vague general militaristic glorification. That said, I still hadn’t fully managed to escape the notion that this campaign was more a glorified tutorial for the multiplayer I still didn’t plan on touching than something distinct I would like to return to. The deliberately bland player character – even down to the name; “Jack Cooper” is literally barely above the names I was giving OCs in my junior school fan-fiction – all of the nonsense about Arks and IMCs and PYTs and Wannabes, the bio-domes and industrial sewers, all just window-dressing justification to teach the basics ahead of the real game.
Before I hit the point where the other shoe drops, I would like to mention that I don’t consider ‘glorified multiplayer tutorial’ to be inherently a bad thing for a campaign to strive for. It’s not just something solely endemic to action shooters, either. What are fighting game stories, and especially Netherrealm story campaigns, but really inefficient tutorials to the basic commands and skills of certain characters ahead of jumping online to get creamed? It’s been a very, very long time since the days where a multiplayer mode was just something developed as a fun side-bonus to the single-player campaign, and compact spectacle-laden campaigns are naturally going to spend a not-insignificant amount of time tutorialising their mechanics in a way that makes it seem like prep-work for the trenches of online warfare if only from eventual ratio. The smoke and mirrors utilised by the best examples of such campaigns to hide this realisation come from a combination of enthralling moment-to-moment gameplay, memorable and well-realised setpieces, and quietly-engaging writing that gives the player something to latch onto. Up to the end of “Into the Abyss,” I didn’t think Titanfall 2 had managed to achieve that magic formula.
Then “Effect & Cause” happened and everything clicked.
A lot of people have written about the brilliance of “Effect & Cause,” a.k.a. the one where you “Press L1 to Time Travel” which is one of the coolest tutorial prompts I have ever encountered. And they’re not wrong. It is a masterclass in game design, in weaving flashback expositional narrative fluidly into fast-paced gunplay, in clever escalation, and in visual design. And if the day ever comes where the act of spotting an enemy in one timeline, jumping into the second timeline to stand right behind them with my SA-3 Mozambique pointed directly at their melon, hopping back into the first timeline to plug them in their head unawares before doing it all over again with every other enemy in the room doesn’t bring me glee, please do smother me cos I’ll be incapable of having fun or feeling joy.
But, honestly, I don’t just think it’s the novelty vacuum of a fun time-travel level that caused me to finally turn around on Titanfall 2. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not that easy of a mark and fun level gimmicks can wear out their welcome very quickly if the core gameplay loop doesn’t satisfy. (Not-so-subtle foreshadowing for the next entry in this series.) “Effect & Cause” was the level in which that core gameplay loop finally and completely satisfied me. It was the level in which the game’s great arsenal finally gave me a visceral thrill when unloading bullets, as I took notice in how Respawn smartly tweaked the mechanics and presentations of what are fundamentally standard FPS military weapons to make each still feel unique. The EVA-8 Auto and Mastiff may be two of my favourite gaming shotguns of all-time; the kick, the stopping power, the effective distance, the boom, ugh!
“Effect & Cause” was the level where I really got into the groove of moving whilst shooting. The time-travel shenanigans helped catalyse this understanding, flitting between timelines to dodge two sets of enemies that require different combat techniques, but the level’s big finale involving taking on two titans and an army of self-destructive android bots finally saw me fully working that jump-slide-wallrun-double impulsivity into my tactics. Especially since I didn’t realise until the last second that you could time-travel in BT so took on the baddies almost exclusively on-foot; needlessly making the task about 100x harder than it needed to be but immensely satisfying when I finally pulled off the run. Timing reloads with wall-runs and slides, spinning round 180° to pop off a few shots at the incoming Stalker horde, flitting timelines to buckshot angry alien creatures and put some distance between myself and the resultant Stalker explosion, then flitting back mid-leap onto a Titan’s back for rodeo damage and a cheeky grenade launcher to the rear before legging it to safety.
From there, Titanfall 2 takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up til the very end. The last third in particular is one of my favourite FPS campaign stretches in a very long time. Titan combat, which I initially found a bit clunky and restrictive in the way a lot of mech shooters can be, became not just a nice change of pace but an often-tense tactical affair as I switched between my various loadouts to maximise my effectiveness in changing combat situations. The close of “The Beacon” and entirety of “Trial by Fire” really showed off the full capabilities of Titan control whilst engaging in some of the most intense war sequences I’ve played in a game, a near-perfect mix of power fantasy catharsis and urgent hardscrabble challenge. “The Ark” sees Respawn taking another shot at the tightly-scripted corridor-shooting they made their bread and butter with Modern Warfare, now implementing the lessons they’ve learned over the years to make such a stage more involving and not completely sacrifice player flow and creativity in the process.
I even warmed up fully to the story! Despite my initial eyerolls and reservations, the game does eventually reveal a heart and central reason to fight in the relationship between BT and Jack – or, more accurately, you since Jack remains a cypher til the very end despite the sass Matt Mercer tries to inject into some of his lines. In a subgenre typically filled with bombast, and with a premise that relies so heavily on uninteresting cliché, I was surprised at how relatively subtle the build-up in that relationship was. It wasn’t until I reunited with BT following a solo sojourn through dangerous machinery in “The Beacon” – a stretch, I must note because it was so good, that ended with a rapid wall-run gauntlet so heart-stopping and fun that it made both Mirror’s Edge games look even worse than they already did – that I consciously realised how attached I had grown to the lovable robot. Endearing buddy-cop routine writing, Glenn Steinbaum’s mechanical yet distinctive performance, even those seemingly superfluous irregular dialogue trees had built a subconscious connection between myself and BT which greatly mirrored the events of the narrative.
(Brief side-bar, however, since I couldn’t fit this in smoothly but I need to just mention it. It’s kinda nuts that the ending goes full Killzone 3, right? Total destruction of the enemy planet, accidentally instigated by both sides fighting over the baddies’ big super-weapon, treated as a big old non-complex victory cos it happened to the cartoonish bad guys and fuck them? That’s a connection I didn’t realise until a couple of weeks ago and I can’t decide whether it rubs me up the wrong way or not like it did with Killzone. I guess that gives credit to Respawn for writing at least one likeable character whose fate I was so invested in that my brain focussed on an emotional response instead of getting hung up on the fridge ethics of the spectacle finale, which is something the Guerrilla Games of ten years ago could’ve learned. [No, I have not played Horizon. I got it for free, maybe at some point.])
Yet, it wasn’t just the fact that the back-half of Titanfall 2 was so strong as to why I remain so high on the game at large. Lots of mediocre media can pull it together for a big finish which makes the journey up to it retroactively seem worthwhile. I went back through those earlier stages again in an effort to push through the block I’ve had in getting this write-up done, the ones I simply didn’t enjoy, and found myself having a lot more fun. Not so much the Pilot’s Gauntlet – in fact, honestly, I don’t think it’s a very good tutorial; this really is the kind of game where the mechanics only really click into place under intense life-threatening pressure, I feel – but the actual starter levels absolutely. I had a better control over combat, I took more advantage of the traversal possibilities in my environment and being less concerned with accuracy, I replayed old Titan fights with a greater understanding of how best to maximise their combat effectiveness in ways which increased their fun. And, at last, I got them. That Tick swarm which originally annoyed and dulled me so on first playthrough turned into a sequence I had genuine thrills and enjoyment with, even if Ticks can still get fucked.
This is why I selfishly wish the campaign were double the length, frankly. I know that a lot of the reason why it works so well is that carefully-considered pacing, where no idea or stage outstays its welcome and the intensity ramps up naturally with a constant momentum that doesn’t spin its wheels… but I want even more! Especially since I didn’t really appreciate what I had until it was half-done, the quiet brilliance of those early stages and how it took the big flashy (for lack of a better term right now) gimmick for me to properly click with and understand the core loop. I want more time; more new scenarios; more environments; hell, even more Captain Planet IMC mercs to match wits with, since I welcomed the burst of identifiable faces and antagonistic character compared to the usual nebulous facelessness in most FPS enemy factions!
Of course, I guess that’s what the multiplayer’s for, where that core loop could be indulged for as long as I fancy. Not that I’m gonna touch it now, since the only synchronous multiplayer I really have the capacity to care for nowadays is Fall Guys, but I may be tempted to jump in someday. And the campaign is actually the perfect bingeable length if I ever have a day in the future where I just get the urge to lose myself in some masterfully-designed FPS brilliance without having to block-book a week of my life or whatever. If you’d told me I’d feel this way after that first play session, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. Guess it’s true about first impressions and all that.
Next time: Psychonauts is one of the best-written games I have ever experienced, and one of the worst-designed platformers I have ever played.