The first Titanfall was an underplayed gem hampered by a console exclusivity deal, a slim content offering at launch, and community-splitting DLC. For a full price multiplayer-only title, that spelled death – especially on PC, where the community evaporated faster than resolutions on New Year's Day.
Even so, anticipation has been building all year for this sequel, and I'm pleased to report that it more than atones for the sins of its predecessor, giving Overwatch a serious run for its money as competitive FPS of the year.
The biggest surprise is Titanfall 2's campaign. Its space dragons and giant robots take on the wild frontier stands out against the dull future-shock mirror glass of closest competitor Call of Duty, and it seems however much of Infinity Ward remains at Respawn Entertainment has kept the creative fire from that studio's glory days blazing.
The campaign is set in the midst of a galactic war, as the everyman Frontier Militia battles the faceless and uncaring Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation for control of resources and civilian populations on a planetary scale. It's rural versus urban, cowboys versus city slickers, the little guys and gals versus a corporate behemoth.
You are wide-eyed Militia rifleman Jack Cooper, who is essentially cannon fodder with big dreams of one day getting the call-up to be a capital-P Pilot, the most skilful and revered fighters in the galaxy, who stomp around in giant mechs, slay it with the gents and ladies, and get to cut in line at the supermarket. And as luck would have it, his promotion comes almost immediately following the game's intro, when a Militia attack is cut off at the knees by a mercenary group called The Apex Predators and someone leaves their Titan unlocked and the keys in the sun visor.
It turns out that being a badass Pilot is more about nicking a robot than it is wearing out your kneecaps practicing your powerslide at boot camp, and with your newfound skills, you embark on a wall-running rampage through the campaign's enticing mix of wilderness and in-mountain bases, mercing IMC fools and slicing your way through the Apex Predators, trading wry observations with your new metal buddy as you go.
Respawn takes the classic Nintendo approach here, creating a handful of entertaining mechanics and building worlds around their use, and the end result is one of the best FPS campaigns in memory. Double-jumping, wall-running, and powersliding as Cooper is so thrilling that it's almost disappointing when it's time to climb back into BT and clatter around, watching infantry scatter while you wreck enemy titans with your massive cannons.
Many enemy encounters take place in open Halo-style arenas that allow you to employ a variety of approaches – even a stealthy approach is somewhat possible in places. Elsewhere there's a Half-Life vibe, and not only because there are no cutscenes, friendly NPCs are very impressed by you, and the game was created in Source Engine.
There are several standouts, but the most technically impressive level is undoubtedly "Effects and Cause". Here you are charged with infiltrating an IMC base, but large portions of it are flaming ruins or inaccessible in other ways. Fortunately you possess a device that allows you to switch between the past and present with the click of a button, so you can make your way through, circumventing security measures and other hazards by switching time, as time only passes in the timeline you're in.
It is both astonishing and comical: you can be confronted by a group of riot-shield wielding troops, switch time, walk past their location, switch time back, and listen to their confused chatter ("He just disappeared!") before shooting them all in the back. Of course, eventually the threats in both the past and present mount, and you're evading death by the narrowest of margins by using time switch like a dodge button. The other function the level has is delivering information about what happened in the facility in the past, and what a way to do it. It's a design that will be copied for years to come.
A close second for best level (among many competitors) is "Into the Abyss". Set in a gigantic factory that assembles pre-fab structures, it puts your parkour skills to the test with its constantly shifting conveyors, giving you plenty to consider as you blast groups of enemies, weave between hazards, and platform and wall run your way to the exit. It's an extremely impressive creation, and signals the beginning of an amazing sequence of varied, brilliantly crafted levels. For once, an FPS campaign feels like a series of distinct, cleverly built challenges instead of a dull trudge through waves of bad guys.
Level design aside, there's plenty else to like: the game's arsenal makes you feel like you are delivering devastating punches with every hit, the dialogue between Cooper and BT is strangely endearing, and it's great to hear accents that aren't just generic American or British. The campaign is compelling enough that it trains you for multiplayer almost by stealth, handing you new Titan loadouts every now and then to experiment with, but never demanding you stick with one or even try new ones out. It's also tightly paced, sticking around long enough to do what it needs to, and not a moment longer. It feels fresh and simultaneously a throwback to a time when campaigns weren't 50 percent cinematics of improbable escapes and/or poorly-disguised tutorials for multiplayer modes.
One thing that shouldn't be surprising to anyone is how good Titanfall 2's multiplayer is. The fast-paced, fluid, and lethal gameplay from the first game returns, with Pilots weaving in, out, and around cover, avoiding the thunderous footfalls and roaring cannons of Titans. As before, attacking a Titan front-on is suicide, but pricking it from the side with a charged-up laser or volley of grenades before ducking back out of sight only to emerge elsewhere is absolutely gripping. Watching a Titan sweep its guns this way and that in a panic as you chip away at its armour while avoiding its gaze is one of the best experiences in multiplayer gaming, and when you down one of the metal beasts on foot and skewer its ejecting Pilot for good measure, you feel like a god.
As always, map knowledge is and steady aim are desired, but a good grasp of Titanfall 2's liquid Pilot traversal is properly handy, and the skill ceiling there is surprisingly high. Just as you think you're getting pretty smooth at chaining together speed-boosting wall runs with powerslides and grapples, someone will pull something off you didn't even realise was within the realm of possibility. But all that does is inspire, and soon you acquire a water-like ability to flow around and over whatever is in your way without a second thought, yep it never stops being immensely satisfying. It's amazing how quickly you can get around the game's spacious maps once you know what you're doing, and how many problems you can give opposing Titans.
Similarly, Titans are fun to pilot no matter your skill, but there's a lot of strategy to how you move about. More patient Pilots tend to thrive in the shoot first put shield up later online environment, and flinging an opponent's shells back in their face before drowning his Titan in pools of fire as they frantically reload will have even the most reserved bouncing in their seats.
There are six Titans to choose from this time, each with its own movement style, preferred range, and defensive capabilities, with the sword-wielding Ronin and hovering Northstar probably best left until you have a decent number of rounds under your belt. Tone and its lock-on weapons is a good starter Titan, while Legion is a popular pick thanks to its giant minigun and shield.
There have been changes to some mechanics. Pilots who "rodeo" an enemy Titan now rip out its battery, disabling its shield and opening it up to other attacks. The battery is then an object in play that can be used to power up a friendly Titan, and it can even be stolen back by the opposition and used to juice up one of their machines. A second rodeo will take down a Titan. Elsewhere, Titan health no longer regenerates on its own, so caution is advised even if you are in a several hundred tonne killing machine.
Titanfall 2 is a fantastic game, but it has not sold particularly well to date, and of the eight multiplayer modes available, only two had sufficient players for me to try them (I'm playing on Xbox One). Attrition is the same as before – two teams battle alongside AI teammates – while Bounty Hunt crams target hunting, point-capture, and a gambling aspect into one mode that sees you attempting to maximise money gained from kills while avoiding bank account draining deaths.
Both are great, but I'm a little sad no-one is playing Last Titan Standing, Capture the Flag, or point capture mode Amped Hardpoint. That's because in my opinion, Titanfall 2's multiplayer is the most enjoyable I've played in years. It's so much more innovative and entertaining than stablemate Battlefield 1, and the less said about this year's Call of Duty, the better.
It's hard to know why it hasn't done better – the Overwatch effect? Its proximity to Battlefield 1's launch? The unpopular tech test parameters that have since been rejigged? – but what I do know is that it's every Titanfall 2 owners' duty to recruit two others to the cause, stat. Otherwise a game that's one of the best single and multiplayer FPS offerings in recent times is only going to achieve cult status. Given the popularity of the same-old same-old that is Battlefield 1, that's basically a vote against progress, an insult directed at your Mum, and a horse-y bite thingy to your thigh all at once. Don't stand for it.