Multiplayer games live and die on their player bases. Are they sizeable enough to reliably fill matches? Are they gracious when losing and humble when winning? Do they play well, with good sportsmanship? These things can define the character of a game, from the racist screeching of 12-year-old Call of Duty players to the comparatively diverse and better-behaved citizens of Overwatch. Titanfall 2’s tone right now, however, is one of cold isolation. Nobody’s playing this game.
And it’s a shame, too, because for the most part, Titanfall 2 is terrific. It’s taken the already-great pillars of its predecessor - fluid character movement and brutish mech suits - and further refined them, building a multiplayer experience more immersive and exciting than most shooters. Developer Respawn also went one further, adding a single-player campaign that ranks among the best in recent memory.
Titanfall 2’s campaign feels almost retro, in the sense that it exists. In today’s ecosystem of multiplayer-first gameplay, Respawn could have garnered praise simply for making an adequate campaign, but instead the studio went all-out, delivering a focused and at-times ingenious single-player game. Led by the people behind several early, beloved entries in the Call of Duty franchise, the team brought all of its experience to bear via strong level design, clever gameplay mechanics, exceptional pacing, and a surprisingly affecting story.
Don’t get me wrong - this is still a big, explosive sci-fi action spectacle. But if you think - as I do - that there's something oddly adorable about a lumbering mechanical Titan gingerly grabbing its pilot and placing them into its face-cockpit, you’ll find a lot to love in Titanfall 2’s buddy-movie plotline. Though protagonist Jack Cooper is completely forgettable, his mythologising of the Pilot-Titan relationship is backed up by unusually strong characterisation on the part of his Titan, BT. BT’s likeable in the same manner as Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax: the banter between Cooper and his robot (there are even dialogue options!) revolves around misunderstood human idioms and accidentally heartwarming logic. Though the remaining characters don’t tug the heart-strings, the villains are built of amusing broad strokes, each with a different silly accent. For example: in a nod to Total Recall, the Schwarzenegger sound-alike is named Richter. Hey, not everything can be subtle.
The campaign’s gameplay is even better. Each level introduces novel and well-executed ideas, none of which outstay their welcome. One glorious setpiece has players fighting on a titanic construction line while a prefab city is built around them - a beautifully meta encapsulation of the map-creation process. Another has players skating around a massive starship as it hurtles towards a fiery demise. The best mission, “Effect and Cause,” is so great that I can't bring myself to spoil its surprises. Its central mechanic is simple and brilliant, utilised for puzzles and combat alike, and it’s virtually guaranteed to be copied and iterated upon ad nauseam. What’s more, all of these levels communicate their ideas through the game’s fundamental verbs - run, jump, shoot. It's breathtakingly good game design.
Multiplayer is just as good. Once one gains a degree of proficiency over the basic skills, matches are exhilaratingly fast and exciting. The insane range of customisable options (you, your Titan, and every individual piece of gear each gain XP and unlock upgrade trees) enhance the superb player movement, offering fun weaponry and borderline game-breaking abilities to bust out when in a tight spot. The game modes offer a range of challenges, with the best offering a mixture of AI- and player-controlled enemies. Matches can be utterly brutal, thanks to an insanely low time-to-kill, which is testament to the sheer speed required to compete. The thrill of doing well, either on foot or in a Titan, is near peerless.
Sadly, in my experience, Titanfall 2 multiplayer is also peerless in the sense that there are no peers to connect to. I could only reliably find full matches in the Attrition and Bounty Hunt modes, and at times the connection was controller-hurlingly bad. The worst thing about low player counts is that it’s self perpetuating. It’s like a bar with one person in it: nobody’s going to look in the door and think, “this seems like a happening place.” More confusing still is that it’s unclear (to me, anyway) whether the players simply aren’t there, or whether it’s a fault of one of the odder new features of Titanfall 2’s multiplayer.
"Networks," introduced in this game, are groups of players, meant to build and nourish community, through which communication and matchmaking are facilitated. By default, everyone belongs to the Advocate Network, but players can create or join their own. I could be interpreting this system incorrectly, and I may only have an issue with it as a casual player, but the Networks feature only seems to serve to restrict the player pool from which matches can be formed. With a devoted group of friends and acquaintances, it’s probably useful, but frankly, I don’t care about social features. I’m only interested in being able to matchmake 100% of the time. I understand Respawn’s intention with this feature, but to me, it seems entirely extraneous.
Titanfall 2 doesn’t leave me wanting much other than another Titanfall game. I want more of the spectacular campaign design that Respawn makes look so easy. I want a wave-based co-op mode or at least some other form of PvE gameplay, so I can enjoy zipping around shooting things without being picked off every 15 seconds. And a quicker-to-navigate UI wouldn’t hurt. But most of all, I want more players. Titanfall 2 feels like a victim of its release date, sandwiched between Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. There just aren’t enough players online. Sadly, that makes this terrific, well-produced game hard to recommend unconditionally. That kills me even more than the teabagging asshole in my last match did.
Please come play Titanfall 2 with me?