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Review: Thrilling ‘Titanfall’ gives multiplayer gaming a heavy metal makeover

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There’s a lot riding on the sturdy legs of Titanfall, the man-vs-mech online shooter hitting stores this week.

Published by EA and developed by former Call of Duty vets at Respawn Entertainment, it’s the biggest release thus far for the Xbox One, and while it’s not technically an exclusive -- it’s also coming to the Xbox 360 and PC -- it won’t be appearing at all on the rival PlayStation 4 or Wii U. Without a Halo or Gears of War game out yet for their fledgling next-gen system and with sales lagging behind Sony’s flagship console, Microsoft is searching for a system-seller.

Well, they’ve found it. Like any self-respecting giant robot, Titanfall saves the day, reinvigorating the stale first-person shooter genre with a potent combination of finely-tuned gameplay and riotous wish fulfillment.

Titanfall drops players into the futuristic Frontier, a collection of deep space planets that serves as the battleground for two warring political factions. To make their point, each side employs Titans, giant mechs pulled straight out of an anime fantasy. And you get to control them.

You, incidentally, are an astoundingly dexterous human pilot -- essentially a gun-toting gymnast who can sprint, double jump, and even run on walls as you zip about the game’s 15 maps. Shortly after each match begins, pilots gain the ability to summon the Titans, which are warped from orbit directly onto the battlefield with a satisfying thud. What the Titans lack in speed they make up for in firepower, though they’re still mobile enough to keep the game from devolving into a sluggish Pacific Rim knockoff.

Call of Duty meets Mechwarrior, then? It’s more than that. The interplay between man and machine is what makes Titanfall’s heart beat, and you’re a corpse if it doesn’t get your blood pumping, too. Back and forth you’ll hop between pilot and Titan, double-jumping to a rooftop to snipe one minute, leaping into your Titan to bull through enemy ranks the other. Even disembarking from a damaged Titan is a blast, ejecting your pilot to safety hundreds of yards into the air. Titanfall toys with verticality in a way not seen since the glory days of the critical darling Tribes, providing an addictive, intoxicating gameplay loop that makes other shooters seem glued to the floor.

And you don’t need a degree in pro gaming to enjoy it. Despite its speed and complexity, Titanfall is a pretty accessible game. A slew of computer-controlled grunts flesh out each side, lending an epic scale to matches that max out at 6 on 6. This helps keeps the action intense -- you’ll rarely have to run more than a few feet in any direction to find something worth shooting -- but it also gives newer players some relatively easy enemies to take down as they get their feet wet. Shooting enemies also quickens the speed at which you’ll be able to call down Titans, turning grunts into cheap fodder for more skilled players.

It gets more playful. Collectable, single-use ‘Burn Cards’ boost speed, weaponry and other attributes. Titans can be set to auto-pilot, allowing players to hop out and fight alongside their giant pals. The designers even included a handy auto-targeting ‘Smart Pistol’, which deftly avoids becoming an unbalanced ‘win’ button by requiring a fair amount of time to lock. Whether you’re a crack shot or somewhat new to the genre, you’ll feel like a badass most of the time playing Titanfall.

You’ll look like one, too. Respawn Entertainment ably show off their chops with a butter-smooth gameplay engine that make navigating as both man and mech a joy. Much has been made of the game’s resolution -- it doesn’t run at 1080 on the Xbox One -- but unless you’ve got a magnifying glass and a chip on your shoulder you probably won’t notice a thing.

What’s less impressive is the game’s half-hearted attempt to shoehorn in some plot. The two sides in this conflict, the corporate IMC and the citizen-led Militia, are locked in a battle over…something important. Resources, probably? Oil? Cheese? Who knows. Beyond an opening cinematic and a training mode, Titanfall does not feature any sort of single-player campaign to flesh out these sides or their raison d’etre.

Instead, it offers a somewhat disappointing ‘Campaign Multiplayer’ mode that runs players through nine maps with a handful of underdeveloped characters barking out orders that cannot actually be followed. You can experience it from both sides, but it’s only worth it to familiarize yourself with the maps and weapons before jumping into the Wild West of the game’s main multiplayer modes. Unlike the Spartan/Covenant disparity in Halo, the IMC and Militia are identical in terms of weaponry, Titans, and overall design aesthetic. Respawn sets up a multi-layered political backstory and does very little with it.

I was also thirsty for some more compelling ways to play. Though the five basic gameplay modes benefit from the unique mech and man setup (Capture the Flag becomes more interesting when flag bearers can hitch a ride on the back of a lumbering metal beast), you get the sense that Respawn was holding back here as well. Nex-gen looks, next-gen gameplay, but five very last-gen modes take some gas out of the tank.

Don’t let that stop you from diving head first into Titanfall, however. What it lacks in ambition it more than makes up for in sheer thrills. It’s a beautifully balanced, smartly designed shooter that packs enough ammo to please both hardcore genre fans and potential new recruits.

What’s hot: Dropping a giant robot on an enemy’s head, jumping into the giant robot, blowing up another giant robot, ejecting out of your giant robot, blowing up another giant robot on the way down. This game’s got giant robots and knows what to do with them.

What’s not: Limited game modes. And why are these robots fighting again?

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