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Let's get this out of the way first: Titanfall is an online-only game without a proper campaign. That might be enough to drive you away from the game. It would be a shame if you didn't give Respawn's rookie effort a look, though.
Titanfall has something called a campaign but it's not really one. A campaign traditionally means a single-player, narrative-driven experience. Titanfall's campaign, meanwhile, is a series of multiplayer matches with some voiceover before, during and after. Respawn didn't want the plot to interfere with the action, it seems, so the result is a glorified audio log. A character portrait pops up in the top-right of the screen and says "Hey, let's get the thing!" and "Hey, we got the thing!" and "Let's get out of here now that we got the thing." I'm paraphrasing because I can't remember most of it. The plot, slender as it is, is a bit tough to follow when it's being piped into your headphones during a giant robot fight.
Whether you win or lose a given match, the campaign moves in the same direction. For example, in the first mission, the Militia (the scrappy rebels) raid a base belonging to the IMC (sleazy corporation). If the Militia succeeds, they steal their much-needed fuel and skedaddle. If they lose, they...still get fuel? I get that they didn't want to design this elaborate, branching campaign but couldn't the characters at least acknowledge the defeat? Just have them say something like, "Man, that was a rough defeat. Let's drown our sorrows by huffing this fuel."
The campaign serves as a good introduction to the game for beginners, though. You get exposed to many different maps in the (arguably) most newbie-friendly modes, Hardpoint Domination and Attrition. Furthermore, playing through the campaign once should get you enough XP to hit level 10, at which point you'll have all the basic customization tools. You'll be more than ready to dive into "classic" mode, Respawn's strange name for regular-ass multiplayer.
Titanfall has a lot of "on-ramps" for new players, come to think of it. The developers want even the worst shooter player out there to feel like he's got a shot. The smart pistol, one of the first guns you have access to, can lock onto enemies. The battlefield's crawling with dumb-as-dirt A.I. enemies that you can easily dispatch for XP. Killing these bots even counts toward your team's score total for Attrition mode so you feel like you're helping even if you're awful at the game.
Burn Cards are also designed to help struggling players. These collectibles can be activated after a death to give you a bonus on your next spawn. The Prosthetic Legs card makes you move faster while Double Agent causes A.I. enemies to ignore you. These cards give you that extra little boost to get you back on track.
While it's an inviting gamer for newcomers, Titanfall has a satisfying learning curve that extends well beyond the first couple hours. Players have a big bag of tricks to master. For example, players can wall-run and double-jump when they're not in Titans. It's simple enough to get from one end of the map to the next with these abilities. However, shooting enemies while Super Marioing around the map takes some getting used to. Hopping onto an enemy Titan's back without getting run over or robo-punched requires practice as well.
Your Titan, outfitted with custom gear like your character, can be summoned every two minutes. The summon time can be reduced by killing enemies, which made me suspect that the Titan was this game's equivalent to a Call of Duty killstreak. Unlike killstreaks, though, the Titans aren't just a way for dominating players to push their opponents' faces further into the dirt. They're also unlike Battlefield or PlanetSide 2 vehicles, which let you steamroll any infantry without the appropriate anti-armor gadgets.
You're not more powerful when you're in your Titan. You've simply taken on a new set of advantages and disadvantages. The Titan has heavy weaponry and thick armor but is also slower and unable to reach many parts of the map. Every character's loadout comes with an anti-Titan weapon so they present a threat even without a Titan of their own. Furthermore, an enemy Pilot can leap on your Titan, pull open an access panel and start shooting its innards. In some cases, it's better not to get in your Titan at all. The Titan is controlled by A.I. while you're not driving so it can act as an effective guard dog or decoy.
That's not to say it's not fun to drive them. I've summoned dozens of Titans at this point and it's still a thrill to see them crash to the ground like a meteor. Even at rank 1 the Titans have a lot of toys at their disposal. You can stop projectiles in mid-air and send them back at your opponent, fire off a salvo of missiles, or rip a pilot from an wrecked enemy Titan and hurl him. The Titan can be very powerful - and entertaining - once used properly.
The low player count - each map is six-on-six - made some people nervous before launch but it turned out to be a non-issue for me. The maps are tight enough that you don't feel like you're in a ghost town. Getting back into the fray after a death takes a matter of seconds thanks to the parkour moves of Pilots. Once Titans start landing, it's even easier to find someone to shoot.
I guess the A.I. armies are meant to fill in the map too and make you feel like you're in a massive warzone. I don't think they succeed at being anything other than a self-esteem boost and easy XP, though. You have to try pretty hard to get killed by them. The fist-fights between IMC and Militia troops throughout the map always struck as artificial, too. It's like they were waiting for me to show up before they start their performance.
An IMC Pilot flies in through the window. An IMC soldier and Militia soldier are seated at a table and sharing a bottle of wine. The Pilot crosses his arms.
IMC SOLDIER: Oh, right!
The IMC soldier slugs the Militia trooper.
IMC SOLDIER: We were fighting the whole time, honest!
Respawn didn't need to resort to these theatrics. The battles are exciting enough even with the six players. I'm able to tolerate the bots' presence in hopes that they give newbies some confidence in their abilities. I do wonder whether anyone feels good about killing a bot with the combat prowess of a melon baller, though.
One early criticism of Titanfall is that $60 is too much for a multiplayer-only game. It's true that Respawn's initial offering is a small one. While it has 15 maps, the modes are standard fare. Pilot Hunter is team deathmatch, Attrition is team deathmatch except bot kills count toward your total, Hardpoint Domination is capture-and-defend, and Capture the Flag is exactly what you've been playing for the past two decades. Last Titan Standing's a bit off-center in that every player starts in a Titan and the match ends when all the mechs are destroyed but this is just a subtle remix of the same song.
Still, after enduring dog and shark stealth missions in Call of Duty: Ghosts' campaign, I'm not all that upset that Respawn didn't decide to make their own forgettable single-player mode. Everyone has a different "value" threshold for gaming, though. Personally, I've paid $60 for single-player games that have lasted 10 hours or less without feeling like I was ripped-off. Titanfall is charming enough to last me at least that long. Respawn's created a fluid mix of infantry and vehicle combat that could replace Battlefield 4 as my preferred method to kill a spare half-hour.
Platforms: Xbox One, PC, Xbox 360
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts