I was so excited by Titanfall’s amazing gameplay and the small details that brought the backstory to life that I, perhaps, had unrealistic expectations for the campaign. I was hoping for a campaign as innovative as the gameplay and with the same attention to detail that they gave to the in-game visual and audio elements.The short version is that the campaign sucked. The long answer is that the campaign sucked hard.
The even longer answer follows…
A Storyteller’s Review
The story begins… you know I have no idea where this story begins, and that’s a problem that runs through the entire campaign. I enjoyed the opening movie actually, it was minimalist but did a good job of giving you the general setting. However it was more of a mood setter than any kind of real introduction, and the lack of any sort of beginning absolutely kills any chance of a good story.
There are no characters, just ciphers. No factions, just names. And nothing to connect you to the amazing universe they’ve created. And make no mistake, it’s truly a remarkable setting that draws you in, which is why it’s such a huge shame that it all goes to waste on an utterly forgettable campaign.
Strangely enough the story on the Titanfall website proves to be far more interesting than what we see in the campaign. As you can see on their website, the IMC and Militia are made to sound like these two morally ambiguous factions fighting for resources and power. Unfortunately in reality it just turns into The Empire vs The Rebellion from Star Wars.
I’m not asking for Game of Thrones style factions and intrigue mind you, but even Star Wars took the time to introduce you to the factions, who they were, who lead them and what their objectives were. For instance the Militia is obviously fighting for “freedom” just like the Rebellion, but the Rebellion also had a plan for obtaining that freedom: overthrowing the Emperor. The Militia doesn’t seem to have a plan beyond blow shit up, a method I can totally respect, but that’s a means, not an end. The IMC is similarly directionless, what exactly are they fighting for? And why are their soldiers so willing to die? I know they’re supposed to be a big evil corporation, if recent history has shown us anything it’s that war is only profitable if you’re not the one actually fighting it. You can’t war profiteer if you’re expending billions on equipping and replacing your soldiers. But okay, maybe Titanfall decided to tell a story about the characters instead. Except, well, they’re not any good either.
What little we see of the Militia characters are all plucky, friendly, and utterly selfless husks that exist only to be heroic. The IMC are all ruthless sociopaths that literally enjoy using their robotic killbots to slaughter helpless farmers. The only exception is the one IMC character who defects to the Militia, and you’ll know he’s going to defect after only a couple minutes of dialogue. It’s so cartoonishly caricatured that it almost completely ruins the otherwise unique setting of the game.
I think that the guys over at Respawn already have the perfect format for delivering a great story: the multiplayer maps. They already totally engrossed me in the Titanfall’s story with just the tiny details in the maps and dialogue. With the addition of just a little extra effort, they could tell an absolutely phenomenal story without ever having to deal with a campaign again. Let’s face it, most people picked this game up for the multiplayer and I suspect the only reason people even played the campaign was because it was required in order to unlock the Ogre and Strider Titans. The key here would be to do what Half-Life 2 did and leave most of the story elements in the background. I think Half-Life 2 went overboard with this tactic, especially since it was a singleplayer game, but it would be perfect for a multiplayer-only game like Titanfall.
I feel the dialogue is actually the strongest part of the narrative and would be the easiest way of relaying more story information without disrupting the pace of the gameplay. Not the character dialogue from the plot, god no, but the dialogue from all the grunt NPCs. Playing the game this last week, I’ve heard even more of the terrific dialogue I praised last week. Nothing makes you feel like a badass pilot than running past some friendly grunts and hearing this conversation:
“Friendly pilot spotted!” – Grunt 1
“What’s so special about that?” – Grunt 2
“Just wait until you see what he can do!” – Grunt 1
Again I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the general gist of it and it’s lines like these that make you feel like you’re a character in the Titanfall story. Respawn needs to use this incredible strength to continue telling their story, and more importantly, make us feel like we’re a part of that story. Have their soldiers begin referring to battles or events in their universe, or the units they serve under. Have them occasionally say “I know that Pilot! We served together on [Blank]!” to add a sense of continuity and accomplishment. Of course dialogue is only one option.
Titanfall is designed in such a way that there are plenty of ways of introducing new story elements while not hampering the multiplayer game with unskippable cutscenes. For instance the Burn Cards are an awesome gameplay mechanic that gives you special abilities or weapons that you can use once per game.
The quotes are good start, but not enough to really expand the universe they’ve created. Instead they should rename these cards and replace the quotes with small descriptions. For instance, some of the most common Burn Cards you’ll receive will be “Amped” weapons. Rather than waste this opportunity on a generic term like Amped, use it to tell a story.
For instance, replace the text on this card:
Using this burn card will grant you a prototype R-102-A carbine, a more powerful version of the standard 101-C.
This rifle was developed by IMC and deployed with the 132nd Division. The weapon ended up on the blackmarket after the 132nd turned pirate.
Call in a specially modified Atlas Titan.
This Atlas once belonged to an elite pilot who made numerous modifications to increase its performance. Though the pilot died in battle, his Titan is still ready for battle.
Of course these all just examples, and not the only way to introduce new story elements. And even though Titanfall’s campaign was ultimately useless, I think Respawn has it within themselves to create a truly remarkable story. Their efforts may have been wasted on trying to create a more conventional campaign, but their ideally suited for crafting a more minimal story. The maps and dialogue from grunts is already incredibly immersive, which is half the battle. The rest of the battle will win itself, providing Respawn is willing to pick up its weapons and fight. Metaphorically speaking that is.