Respawn are back doing what they do best, and that's making first-person shooters, and in Titanfall 2 they've made their finest since Modern Warfare. It's strange to think that, given the omission of a single-player campaign for the first game in the studio's fledgling series, we're almost surprised that they've gone with a narrative angle on top of multiplayer for the sequel, but this is the same core team that made Call of Duty 2 and Modern Warfare, and now they're at it again, this time with their science-fiction series. Here they've made a short but sweet story driven campaign, framed through the lens of Hollywood and still harking back to the genius of Half-Life. It's big set-pieces, epic showdowns, clever twists and turns, and everything else you'd expect from the studio that was once the beating heart of Infinity Ward.
So let's start with the single-player campaign, given that's where most of the changes can be found. It's inescapably short, probably running at around six hours for most people, but those adept at shooters will complete it more quickly than that. It is, however, a lean campaign; there's not an ounce of fat on it. It starts, as you might expect, with a tutorial where you learn the basics, onboarding new players to the wall-running and double-jumping driven movement that typifies the game. After that it's not long before we're thrown into the thick of the action, fighting robotic enemies, mercenaries, IMC soldiers (the campaign is experienced through the eyes of Militia man Jack Cooper), and some of the more aggressive local fauna. Much of the focus is on the link between Pilot and Titan, and as you might expect from a shooter of this type there's an element of cliché to the story, but there was enough personality in the telling that we can have no complaints.
It's breathless, expertly paced, but perhaps over a little too quickly. While that might be a slight negative, it's still true that what's there is decent. Respawn introduces new mechanics regularly, such as one that has you flicking back and forth between perspectives in order to solve puzzles as you explore an IMC research facility, but they're used delicately and efficiently before they're put away again, and nothing - absolutely nothing - outstays its welcome. There's some great moments in there, and the mercenary enemies that you're up against are grimly portrayed and easy to dislike, but given the brevity of the campaign we'll not spoil a single moment. What we will say, though, is that it's good.
As you play through you unlock new Titan models and swap between them at will. There's some really cool builds (we liked Ronin with its sword, Scorch with its fiery attacks, and Northstar could well be OP with his long-range rifle shots) and we appreciated being able to use them in different situations, although being able to swap abilities on the fly did jar against the fiction a little. We'd have liked a New Game+ option to incentivise us to make repeat passes at the campaign, locking us into a specific Titan for the duration, maybe even with build-specific unlocks hidden away in the world that can only be discovered when using a certain class.
Indeed, our chief criticism of the single-player part of the game is that they could have done more with it. That's not us saying that they should have made more game (although perhaps they might have done), but rather that they could have made better use of what they've built. Clearly time has been a factor in determining the length and depth of the campaign, but we'd still like to see them explore it further post-launch. The aforementioned New Game+ option, re-purposed environments used for some kind of wave-based mode, or the addition of modifiers (like Halo's skulls) to add flavour to repeat plays. There's a lot that they could do, and frankly, we hope they consider adding more over time, like id are doing with Doom, or Blizzard with Diablo III.
Other than that we find little to fault in the campaign. It's snappy and succinct and thanks to the odd cinematic flourish, it feels like the work of Respawn (as implied by their heritage as a studio). We had a great time with it, and it follows in the footsteps of Doom as being one of the year's most enjoyable shooter campaigns.
It's not, however, the main attraction here, and Titanfall 2 will quite rightly draw the most attention for its online component, and that's hardly a surprise because it's one of the very best multiplayer games of the year. Simply put, Respawn has built on the solid foundations laid down for the first game, and has created a sequel that is as cleverly crafted as it is enjoyable. There's a variety of different modes, plenty of room for experimentation on the battlefield, and the potential for some interesting builds.
It's the same blend of ingredients for the most part: large arenas filled with Pilots that can traverse these environments at speed and with ease, and who, over time, have the ability to call down their own controllable Titans. On either side of the player-controlled Pilots there's friction, either grunts - both human and machine - or giant hulking Titans. Everything combines to create a busy battlefield that offers plenty of interesting decisions for the player to make. Do you want to build up your score in Attrition by shooting at grunts when you see them, knowing that you don't get much for them in terms of points, and when you're shooting you're dangerously focused and open to attack? Or do you ignore these low impact AI-controlled troops and take aim at the more elusive Pilots whenever they appear? And what do you do when you see a Titan? Jump on its back and pull out its battery, rodeo-style, or run for cover and hope to live and fight another day?