Titanfall 2 deserved better. Released between two of the biggest games of 2016 with less-than-stellar marketing, it felt as though Titanfall 2 was sent out to die. Still, the game’s unmatched excellence earned it plenty of fans, but most of that attention was focused on one level: Effect and Cause. It’s a great level that makes wonderful use of Titanfall’s mechanics and a clever time-travel gimmick, but believe it or not, Titanfall 2 has an even better level: The Beacon.
Video games are unique among artforms because they’re inextricably tied to computer technology. As soon as computer games burst onto the scene, public relations types have been trying to sell them with big, exciting bullet points. In the 1980s, this meant things like “has graphics!” and “lets you jump!” As technology improved, so did games, which meant developers had to get more specific with their interactions; suddenly, a mechanic like driving a car wasn’t enough. Developers had to differentiate between styles of driving like Formula 1 and Rally racing. This made it difficult to innovate. Once someone figured out shooting, anyone who wanted to make a game about shooting would have to do something unique to vary the genre too.
Publishers and public relations demanded bullet points. As games became more realistic, this became increasingly harder to do. Our fascination with innovation meant that great mechanics were sometimes tossed aside for lesser ones, simply because the bad or weak ideas were newer. The author C.S. Lewis referred to this mindset as “chronological snobbery.”
This brings us to first-person shooters.
Shooters are one of the most misunderstood video game genres in existence. We think we know everything about them because they’re so ubiquitous, but every year someone comes along and tries to add or change something and everything falls apart. A good shooter is like a good stew; complexity is great up to a point, but a solid, strong direction is better than a jumble of contradictory ingredients.
The best shooters recognize this, which is why they all have the same two ingredients in common: they emphasize movement and planning. Everything else is just flavoring. Unfortunately for shooter fans, with the debut of games like Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, developers began to push for increasing realism, which meant slower player characters and an increasing sense of vulnerability.
This new shooter style emphasized a stop-and-pop approach. Run into a room, take cover, peek out from behind cover, shoot someone who was peeking out at the same time, rinse and repeat. The strategy was gone, which meant that developers substituted interesting encounter variety for dull scripted sequences with limited interaction. If a good shooter is a stew, stop-and-pop shooters are a watery gruel. Without the ability to plan or move freely, shooters began to decline.
In the years after Modern Warfare 2’s release, single-player shooter design stagnated. Multiplayer games performed well because they were still about mobility; Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty series still sells well every year in large part because its multiplayer is all about running and gunning, not stopping and popping. For single-player fans who had grown up on Doom, Unreal, Halo, and Half-Life, it seemed all hope was lost.
Then Respawn revealed Titanfall, and everything changed.
Prepare for Titanfall
In hindsight, it was almost definitely a bad idea to release a multiplayer-only game exclusively on the unpopular Origin service and the then-underperforming Xbox One. As a general rule, multiplayer-only games don’t sell well at the standard triple-A $60 price point because players expect a full package. Call of Duty, for instance, ships with a campaign, co-op, and competitive mode every single year. Even PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds retails for $30 instead of the full $60.
Titanfall wasn’t the best-selling game of all time, but its sales weren’t what made it interesting. The bullet points were.
Titanfall introduced two mechanics to the shooter formula: enhanced player mobility and giant mechs called Titans. Players, as agile pilots, run across walls and double-jump down alleyways, then call down their Titans, which are less agile but much, much stronger. At face value, these concepts might sound like mere gimmicks. What makes Titanfall such a big deal?
Gimmicks can be enjoyable, but they need to be an essential component of the game’s design; in Titanfall, the levels are built to encourage player mobility. Because Titans are large, the levels have to be large to support them, which means that you, as a pilot, have to cover a lot of ground. The levels and movement system encourages you to double jump, wall-run, and zipline your way across the environments, picking up speed as you go. If you want to be good at Titanfall, you have to embrace its level design. Mobility also limits the amount of damage you can take; if someone starts shooting you, rather than hiding behind cover, you’re encouraged to hop, skip, and jump away. There’s no stop-and-pop here, folks.
Since the levels are large, you have more time to take things in, which means you have time to plan. Look around. Where do you want to go? How are you going to get there? Think things through. You’ve got time, because the generous level size gives you plenty of it.
All of this design is complementary, and all of it emphasizes mobility and planning. Other developers began to follow. Everyone, from Bungie to id Software to the trio of Call of Duty studios, began to re-emphasize mobility and planning in their campaigns and multiplayer. Even Halo introduced all sorts of mechanics the series had never had before in Halo 5: Guardians, like clamber, a mechanic that let you climb ledges rather than jump over them, and Spartan slam, a move that let you rocket into the ground and smash nearby enemies. Developers who put a lot of hard, thoughtful work into their shooter mobility and planning were rewarded with new die-hard fans who embraced this approach to shooter design.
Only one thing was missing: Titanfall needed a campaign. The best shooter mechanics in the world mean nothing without an emotional reason to play. After all, humans play games because we want to feel things. No one plays a game without feeling something—there would be no point. When Respawn announced that Titanfall 2 would have a campaign, people were ecstatic. They couldn’t wait to see what some of the minds behind classics like Call of Duty 4 and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault had cooked up.
Titanfall 2 would go on to be one of the greatest games of the generation.
Everyone talks about Titanfall 2’s time travel level, Effect and Cause, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s incredibly clever. You leap through time at the press of a button, which allows you to navigate through sections of the map that might not exist in your current timeline. It’s such an uncanny thing to play, and the adoration it gets is absolutely deserved. In the year since its release, I find myself returning to Titanfall 2 again and again, and each time, and it's not because of Effect and Cause. It's the level after that I love more.
The Beacon’s premise is simple: you need to get a radio beacon working but the path is blocked, so you have to find a tool that will allow you to proceed. So far, so video game. Seriously, it’s the most video game-ass video game objective you could ever hope for. Get the doohickey so you can get to the other whatsit to radio for help!
Problem is, the doohickey is stuck in a friendly base, and that base is under assault by an army of robots, so if you want to save your friends and get the doohickey, you’ll have to use a giant robot shotgun and an even bigger robot sword to take them out. It’s a really nice, classic shooter level setup, featuring a fight that’s fairly easy, a nice warm-up for what’s about to occur, with a new Titan loadout with a new gun and sword for you to try. After taking out the robots without working up too much of a sweat, you enter the base, get thanked for your timely assistance, and prepare for what’s next.
One big problem with shooters is that they’re often assumed to be power fantasies. Developers reason that since games are meant to be completed, players must derive, even demand, some sense of ego inflation from the result. In practice, many developers simply shower you in praise, telling you how amazing you are for simple tasks anyone could have done. The intent is to make you feel great; the reality makes you feel patronized.
Titanfall 2 praises you for your warm-up, but then immediately presents you with a challenge: the part you need is located deep within the base, but everyone who has entered has failed to return. Sure, you could fight some easy robots while riding in a giant, heavily-armored mech with a sword, but what will you do without your Titan to support you, hundreds of meters underground, when the last pilot who tried died horribly?
Upping the stakes is the fact that you’re not a real pilot. Your mentor saw potential in you, but you weren’t a pilot when he died saving your life, giving you his helmet and asking you to become a pilot of an experimental Titan with a mind of its own named BT. Throughout Titanfall 2, there’s an undercurrent of impostor syndrome, a sense that yes, you’re good, but are you as good as a real pilot? Do you really deserve to pilot BT? He has faith in you, but he was ordered to accept you. Now, you have to travel without him. Can you do it?
The first third of The Beacon details your descent into the underground fortress. First, there’s some light platforming, and then an environmental hazard is introduced in the form of electric barriers. Like any good game, Titanfall 2 shows you the hazard first, tells you about it, and then ramps up the difficulty.
Before too long, you’re back to shooting at robots. Apparently, the base’s self-defense system has been switched on, and its robots aren’t too happy to see you. Thanks to the Mastiff, a shotgun that is first introduced in The Beacon, you can make short work of them. Shotguns are one of my subjects, because I think they’re one of the most difficult weapons to get right. On the surface, it’s pretty simple: one gun shoots a lot of projectiles in a single trigger pull. Pretty simple, right?
Unfortunately, a lot of developers attempt to balance shotguns against other weapons in dissatisfying ways. Many reduce shotgun range so much that you might as well be throwing confetti at your enemies. The Mastiff, mercifully, has considerable range for a video game shotgun, but the projectiles move slower than you might expect, which means you need to lead your targets if you want to hit them. This trade off between range and lead time makes the Mastiff an engaging weapon to use, and one of my favorite game video game shotguns in years.
Eventually, you find yourself staring down into a giant pit. Your Titan, BT, explains that your gear will protect you from the fall, so it’s safe to jump down. Eventually, you’ll find the Arc Tool, the object of your quest. Using it is simple: point at green lights, fire the tool at them, and watch them turn red. If successful, you can use the Arc tool to open doors, power switches, and move platforms, enabling you to wall-run.
Because Titanfall wants to keep you moving, it doesn’t allow its tools to have much complexity; if you see a green light, you can interact with it it. If you see a red light, you cannot. At first, these switches are single-use items. None of the puzzles are particularly complex, but it’s fun to learn how the game’s fans can blow you up to a new level or stop you from running across a seemingly-empty hallway.
Your reward for surviving this gauntlet is a blast, literally. Instead of an arduous climb up to the exit, you leap into a wind tunnel, which launches you through the fastest wall-run sequence ever, until you reach the exit. It might just be the best 18 seconds in video gaming. Once you’ve flipped some switches, it’s time to hop back in BT, make your way over to the beacon itself, and call for help.
Unfortunately, there’s a snag: the beacon is damaged, and you’re going to have to acquire a new thingamajig. Luckily for you, this means that BT’s going to throw you across a chasm and let you return with a new thingamajig. Unluckily for you, the enemy knows you’re there, and they’re not interested in watching you succeed.
This is where Respawn blends the Arc tool puzzle solving with combat. You’ll take on soldiers, miniature Titans called Reapers, and robots. The Arc tool will let you convince some robots to fight for you, but it also lets you adjust aspects of the level as you see fit. One of the first switches in this new section lets you raise and lower an elevator. Other switches can do different things. You’ll also encounter the Gravity Star, a grenade that works like a black hole. Some enemies can be sucked into it and killed, but creative players will notice that the Gravity Star can be used to boost their movement speed and curve bullets to hit enemies that are taking cover. It pairs beautifully with the Mastiff’s slow projectiles, displaying a level of thoughtfulness that few shooters possess.
This is the longest section of the entire level, but it’s a perfect jungle gym of combat and puzzling, offering you a series of towers to leap between as you please. The size and openness of this section is perfect for offering that sense of planning and mobility.
The Beacon introduces a new wrinkle here. Many of the jumps in the underground facility are fairly safe, but here, if you fall, you might die and be forced to reload the checkpoint. Respawn slowly ups the ante as it introduces new mechanics. Before long, you’re fighting your way through hordes of enemies, converting robots to help you fight, dancing around narrow platforms as Reapers try to push you off, and using the Arc tool and Cranes to jump through the level.
BT asks for your help because a squad of anti-Titan enemies is attacking him, and he could use all the help he can get. You can handle this fight in a variety of ways; I chose to use Titanfall’s D-2 Double Take, a twin-barreled marksman rifle that fires two shots, to clear out the enemy forces below. When you’ve cleared out the enemy forces, BT throws you again, this time up at the satellite dish.
Everything seems to be going well. BT’s throws make it feel like the two of you are becoming a great team, navigating The Beacon’s treacherous heights has you feeling confident in your platforming skills, and saving BT from the anti-Titan squad makes you feel empowered. You’re riding high! A lesser shooter would tell you how great you are; Titanfall 2 takes this moment to cut you down to size. The enemy mercenary leader, Blisk, figures out that you’ve been eavesdropping on his team’s comms throughout the game. He issues a threat, ordering one of his best men, Richter, to take you down.
When you make it to the top of the Beacon, the dish shifts, tossing you off. You shout for BT, who comes running to your rescue, grabbing you just before you fall to your death. You offer him a thumbs up. For a moment, he seems puzzled. Then he repeats the gesture. It’s a moment of relief. You’re a great pilot, and BT’s a great Titan, but now comes the real test: Richter wants a fight.
He attacks you with two of his best lieutenants, but you manage to fend them off using your newfound skills. Once you defeat them, Richter himself arrives. His mech is fast—personally, I thought it was the toughest fight in the game—but you’ve finally mastered the intricacies of the Ronin loadout, using your Arc attack to stun him, blocking with your sword, and doing damage with your shotgun. When he’s defeated, the level ends.
In the final cutscene, Sarah Briggs, your field commander, debriefs you and BT. She discovers that you’re not really a pilot and tells BT that she’ll find him a real one. It seems like, after all you’ve been through, that the two of you might be separated. BT protests, arguing that the two of you have achieved an incredible combat efficiency rating. You are his pilot now, and he does not want to fight with anyone else. Briggs relents, cementing the bond between you and BT at last.
Why it Works
The Beacon was the first single-player level that Respawn built for Titanfall 2. Respawn’s goals were simple: create a cool, memorable location and tell a story about a pilot and his Titan. Narratively, this is a level about proving yourself and forging a bond between you and your machine. Most of the air around the battlefield is toxic, and without BT, you would be unable to survive. Some of the jumps wouldn’t be possible without him. At the same time, navigating the underground tunnels or satellite towers is only possible for you.
Storytelling in games is difficult, but The Beacon was designed with narrative goals in mind. The objectives work to build the trust between you and BT. Lines like “Trust me,” and the thumbs up help establish a relationship that most games lack. This is the level where you and BT become a team, and in doing so, it sets up the ultimate conflict and emotional ending that made Titanfall 2 one of the best games of the generation. Respawn understands that mechanics are just a way of telling a story.
Bad games often introduce mechanics haphazardly, sometimes breaking their own rules in the process. Good games tend to introduce mechanics more methodically, moving players through a series of tightly-designed, predictable puzzles that are meant to be played. Great games, like Titanfall 2, weave the mechanics and narrative, building you up, tearing you down, and make you stronger as a result. It’s a game about bonding. Effect and Cause may be brilliant, but it’s cerebral. The Beacon is my favorite level because it’s all about the heart.