With new single player campaign, developer Respawn moves the ball forward. Your move, 'Call of Duty'
Jason West and Vince Zampella made a dramatic exit from their studio, Infinity Ward, in 2010, but not before turning Call of Duty into a multi-billion dollar franchise that has defined almost everything about Triple-A gaming for the last decade. Progressive weapon unlocks, an emblemized ranking system, a globetrotting campaign that serves as a glorified tutorial for the far more robust multiplayer – these were their ideas, and now they're the industry standard. Many have tried to take the throne. Medal of Honor, Homefront, Brink. They all failed miserably. Respawn's debut Titanfall was endearing because it didn't have any scores to settle. It built a universe full of giant robots, double-jumps, auto-locking pistols, and League of Legends-style NPC creeps. Respawn was trying to make a great first-person shooter that had absolutely nothing to do with Call of Duty.
It's been two years since Titanfall debuted on Xbox One and PC. Its sequel, Titanfall 2, is out on Friday and is expanding its reach to PS4. The core gameplay principles remain the same as the first game. In multiplayer, you play as an acrobatic, super-capable pilot, and after scoring enough points (from capturing objectives and getting kills) you can summon a giant Gundam-esque "Titan." After you strap in, you'll wreak havoc with a comically sized shotgun or rocket launcher. Once it's destroyed you'll return to the more traditional, smaller-scale ground combat. Titanfall 2 ups the ante by adding more, ridiculous loadouts for your Titan. My favorite is probably the "Ronin" build, which equips you with an incomprehensibly huge katana. You have not lived until you smite a hapless soldier from mid-air with 20 feet of steel. There is only one game on the market where you can reasonably expect your giant robot to get into a sword fight with another giant robot in every multiplayer match. I don't think there is a better example of the differences between Titanfall and your usual modern military shooter than that.
The one thing noticeably absent from the first Titanfall was a single-player campaign. It was a design decision that's become less controversial as time has gone on. In the past, first-person shooters would routinely stock 20-hour adventures, but in a world where Battlefield I restricts its solo content to about five (well made) mission threads and Overwatch and Evolve are excising campaigns entirely, Respawn are well within their right to focus on the primary draw. But that's changed with Titanfall 2. When I went to the game’s review event in Los Angeles I found an honest-to-god single-player story, with no cop-outs or cut-corners across the six hours it runs. Respawn hasn't developed a campaign since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. That's seven years, and one-and-a-half console generations.
In Titanfall 2 you take control of Jack Cooper, a gruff, stock-soldier protagonist who hooks up with a polite (and far more interesting) Titan named BT-7274. The crux of the story focuses on their relationship, almost entirely avoiding the wider implications of their cause or their burdens until the third act. Respawn played up the personal bond (and loose questions about artificial intelligence and duty) in Titanfall 2’s marketing, and while the climax is powerful, the overarching saga is two-dimensional at best. As usual with these games, the narrative exists as a paper-thin veneer to empower the fun parts.
Respawn defines the Call of Duty philosophy of single-player design as "luring the player down really pretty hallways." That's usually pretty true. As fun and impressive as those games can be, there's not much that separates them from a shooting gallery. From the moment you boot up Titanfall 2, you realize that Respawn is aiming for something entirely different.
It was revelatory when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare first established the formula in 2007, but removing a player's agency only works for so long.
For the most part, Titanfall 2 does a great job avoiding anything predictable. Respawn has built a game where men can jump into the welcoming embrace of their pet mech, so it’d be weird if they stuck to Call of Duty’s gritty ennui. There is a mission in Titanfall 2 where your character gets equipped with a wrist-mounted time-traveling device – it lets you toggle between the past and present with the push of a button (a concept last seen in the mobile point-and-click adventure The Silent Age). You infiltrate a decrepit research facility and feel your way through with clever epochal shifts. The platform you're standing on is in the present, and the one you want to land on only exists in the past. How do you make it across? When do you shift? Would you rather face the security robots in the past or the Komodo dragons in the present? That's just the tip of the iceberg for a level full of delightfully incisive conundrums.
In those moments, Titanfall 2 feels more like Portal or Half-Life 2 than anything either Respawn or Infinity Ward have ever done before. There's a sequence late in the game where you receive an EMP gun that unlocks the myriad of suspicious-looking doors you've been eyeing throughout the level. Picking it up, and realizing its implications, and how it recontextualized everything you saw before, made me feel like I was playing Metroid Prime or The Legend of Zelda. Titanfall 2's single-player isn't as good as those games, but it was cool that Respawn is actually trying something unexpected. I'm so bored with the thrillride first-person shooter campaign. It was revelatory when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare first established the formula in 2007, but removing a player's agency only works for so long. With just a little bit of platforming, puzzles, and baseline cognitive engagement, Titanfall 2 feels so much more satisfying than the status quo. Respawn realized the pretty hallways aren't fun anymore, and I hope the rest of the industry catches up soon.