Titanfall 2's singleplayer campaign may actually be awesome
When Titanfall came out, the one thing I and nearly everyone else asked was: where’s the singleplayer?
I enjoyed Titanfall quite a bit— it was a satisfying game even without a singleplayer campaign. After enough hours invested into the multiplayer, I didn’t find myself so much missing the solo gameplay experience of a singpleplayer campaign as I missed the fully-fleshed-out fictional world that usually comes with singleplayer experiences. I wanted some context for my robot-punching, jetpack-packing alternate identity. Titanfall’s multiplayer campaign had a very, very thin skin of story— there was just enough of it clinging to the game’s multiplayer bones to leave me curious. What’s life like in a society where wars are all about dropping robots on your enemies from goddamn outer space?
While I was wondering idly about what kind of stories a single player campaign would tell me, Respawn was apparently thinking hard about how to actually implement singleplayer. Titanfall was designed as a multiplayer experience. The moment-to-moment gameplay— the way players built the charge to summon a titan, for example— was focused entirely on the rhythm of a multiplayer match and the experience of fighting against other real people. When you took other players out of the game, it changed. A lot. Respawn’s designers were left with the challenge of figuring out how to make singleplayer Titanfall actually fun.
Drew McCoy, a producer on Titanfall 1 and 2, spoke last week at a Titanfall 2 press event about the struggle to identify “what Titanfall made Titanfall.” The solution, he said, was “action blocks”— extremely short chunks of gameplay that encapsulated an entertaining moment of solo Titanfall play. The goal, he said, was to “Take a week of your time and make something fun.” This could be anything from a few seconds of wall jumping, to a platforming puzzle, to a ten minute level of involved exploration. For two to three months, twelve to thirteen designers worked their asses off, each cranking out multiple action blocks a week. By the end, Drew told us, they’d created several hundred of these tiny experimental moments of singleplayer Titanfall— and they’d finally figured out what made Titanfall fun to play alone.
“What we actually ended up with was an experience that had a lot of downtime,” Drew said. “A lot of pilot navigation through environments, almost puzzle-like, a lot of variety in mechanics…. this is a game where you're not going to hear any dialogue for minutes at a time, there's not going to be an explosion for minutes at a time... a lot more thoughtful, in a way.” In other words: Titanfall 2 is definitely going to have a singleplayer, but it might not be the kind of thing you think of when you think of Titanfall right now.
At the press event I attended, journalists did see extensive video captured from various chunks of campaign gameplay, but we were not able to actually play any of it ourselves. Respawn didn’t build a short, action-packed gameplay demo that encapsulated everything exciting about the singleplayer campaign. The single player experience, they say, stands on three core gameplay pillars: titan gameplay, pilot gameplay, and pilot environment traversal. The rhythm of the game apparently moves between the three of these in such a way that excerpting a quick, perfectly-representative demo is impossible.
McCoy told me, “the closest [comparison] I can be able to come up with is the old Nintendo game Blaster Master… you get this tank, essentially, and then you’re playing this sidescroller game in the tank.” You can get out of the tank whenever you want and walk around as a boy. “And once you’re the boy, you’re playing a topdown shooter… [that structure] is a lot how Titanfall 3 works. When you’re with your Titan you should stay in your Titan just like you can stay in the tank.” The result is a campaign with a lot of room for contemplative exploration as well as gigantic Titan boss fights and human-scale pilot-based combat. The player’s powers and ability sets change dramatically in different parts of the game. When they’re out of their Titan, they’re a lot more likely to be solving platforming puzzles, or murdering tons of human-sized enemies in arena-like combat encounters. When they’re in the Titan, the combat experience is completely different— and there’s definitely no wall-jumping.
We saw this rhythm— swapping between the pilot and the titan, between different scales and power differentials in gameplay— several times during the footage of the campaign. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, a soldier named Jack Cooper, is forced to take possession of his captain’s Titan when the captain dies. We saw Cooper travel on-foot to find a battery for his new Titan. This journey involved both stealthy human-scale murder sprees and a lot of first-person environment exploration. The environments were lush, quiet places full of sheer cliffs and vine-wreathed pits: low-pressure places where the player will spend most of their time picking out a path, not punching robots in the face. When the player returned to their Titan— a droll fellow named BT— they were finally able to enter the machine and gain access to titan-scale combat.
Later, we saw Cooper and BT separate a few other times. At one point, BT is too big to enter a building, so Cooper goes in alone— and finds some platforming puzzles inside. Later, BT is too heavy to cross a gigantic gap in the mountains, so he physically hurls Cooper across, like a giant robot pitcher. On the other side, Cooper fights a team of mercenary enemies on a series of floating platforms which make good use of his jetpack, wall-running, and grappling-hook abilities. It was very clear to me that the campaign has been broken up into chunks which focus very cleanly and clearly on each of the three gameplay pillars McCoy described to us. It was quite easy to see and understand which pillar each video excerpt focused on. The Titan-based section, for example, was very obvious: at the very end of the video Cooper and BT teamed up in Titan mode to fight a furs-wearing, Titan-piloting mercenary boss and his team of mid-sized attack robots. Definitely, definitely the kind of thing you’d want to stay in your Titan for.
BT, Cooper’s Titan, is a pretty amusing guy. He is programmed with a specific mission which Cooper must accompany him on. In the fiction of Titanfall’s world, McCoy told us, the integrity of the mission comes before the life and safety of the pilot— a point of conflict in the story, I’m sure. BT comes across as a deadpan kind of dude: the scene where he hurled Cooper across the gap in the mountains featured a very dry, C-3P0-esque calculation of his chances of failure. Throughout the story, the player can use their d-pad during conversations with BT to choose dialogue options and ask questions. Though a lot of the player’s time is spent traversing wild environments alone, BT seems to be keeping remote tabs on the player most of the time, and the bits we saw were full of conversation between them.
One inspiration for the relationship between Cooper and his Titan, McCoy told me, actually comes from “a Netflix anime called Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet… it’s not a good show, but it has a giant robot, it has a pilot, and there interactions was very formative for Steve [the game director].” As a studio, of course, they draw a lot from Pacific Rim and Transformers, too. Some inspiration for BT’s personality apparently came from Terminator 2— specifically, the scene where the Terminator shoots a security guard in the leg and quips at John Connor, “He’ll live.”
Throughout this press event, I was wondering exactly how Respawn planned on selling a game full of contemplative environment-traversal and robot conversations to the people who loved Titanfall 1’s multiplayer. When I asked McCoy about it, however, he wasn’t worried. “We actually did a lot of market research after we shipped the first game,” he told me. They asked Titanfall 1 players about their playing habits and their favorite games. “Usually with a shooter… you’re gonna have 90-something percent of people say they [are] a shooter player.” But Titanfall 1’s fans had only about 70% shooter fans, and 90% action-adventure players. McCoy says that Titanfall 2’s single player campaign will “talk” to those people— action-adventure players who want to learn more about this universe and experience it in a variety of ways.
I’m honestly pretty excited for Titanfall 2’s singleplayer campaign. Respawn has dug pretty deep to figure out how to make the most of singleplayer Titanfall— it’s not simply Titanfall 1 slapped onto a traditional shooter campaign design. I am eager to hang out with a giant robot friend and listen to him and Cooper deadpan their way across the moderately jacked-up surface of this space-war planet. There’s mercenaries who sound like Arnold Schwarzenneger, gigantic crashed spaceships, and enormous carnivorous lizards. There’s a talking robot buddy. This is my kind of game.
But most of all, I think I’m excited to see a military shooter tell a story that explores moments of peace and contemplation. Titanfall 1’s audience apparently already likes action-adventure stuff, so it’s not a gigantic risk— but it’s still exciting, and it still sounds pretty fresh. I’m glad that instead of just doing what we all expected, Respawn is wandering off the beaten path to find a design that really and truly works for their game.