Titanfall 2 – How level design can defines a game

I’m Kinglink and today we’re going to talk about Titanfall 2.

I knew I wanted to talk about Titanfall 2 when I started to play the game. It’s a very tight and excellent experience. So to prepare I decided to grab footage for the game and started with a level called Effect and Cause. I chose it because I remembered it as a great level, but after replaying it for this video, I think this level is even better than that. This might be one of the best levels an FPS ever contained, and I think it shows why Titanfall 2 is worthy of a lot more praise.

It’s such a great level, I want to try something a bit different this week. Rather than talking about the entire Titanfall 2 game, I’m going to focus on this one level, and attempt to show you how Titanfall 2 flows and Respawn Entertainment built a level. Imagine someone showing you the architecture of a building.

This is the middle level of the game, quite literally, level five out of nine. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go too much into the story or spoilers here, but I want to look at the gameplay of this level.

At the start of the level, there are minor discussions you can have with your Titan. These discussions happen on many levels and it’s a great way for the player to start to rely on his Titan for information on locations and the world. It also helps to form a bond. It’s a simple thing but it reinforces that your pilot is green, and the Titan is a wise old sage. Everyone can predict where this story is going, but man Titanfall 2 makes you care about your partner with acts like this, it’s done so freaking well.

From there, we walk through the facility and start to have flashes. This is the first time in the game this has happened, but suddenly the decaying office is pristine again. This is obvious in what’s happening, but it’s perfectly because everyone should understand we’re playing with some form of time travel, even if these moments are just flashes. Fifteen seconds and the game has set up a rather major change to the game’s universe. So the player now understands this is a time travel level, but we also instantly know time travel is a thing and is canon in Titanfall, especially when our wise sage confirms it

As I said, we’ve never seen time travel before this level, and not to get ahead of ourselves, but we will never see it again. Instead, time travel occurs only here, and Titanfall 2 mostly hand waves the science away, but the fact is in just a few moments Titanfall 2 not only makes something outlandish into canon but also reinforces what this level will be about.

At this point, the level is mostly primed and ready to go. It doesn’t though. The first time through this area might take you a while to explore and look around, on this playthrough where I was trying to go for footage, I spent over 7 minutes. 7 minutes until any combat happened.

There is a good amount of the level allowing the player to explore and feel that they’re in a real location, have discussions with their Titan, and build the world itself, and while there’s not a single enemy in this opening area, this feels crucial because it gets the player accustomed to this level and mechanic.

Before long you find your objective you’ve been chasing up to this point, deliver his helmet to your titan, and he will quickly give you a way to go through a hole in the wall. You get one more flash, and the rest of the level begins. If you were missing out on the combat before this point, don’t worry, you’re going to be well served from now on.

I’m not going to detail every combat encounter, but this first one is good and different from much of the rest of the game. You’re stuck in a room with a huge number of robots, each one lumbering towards you to kill you, it’s a tense moment that is unlike the rest of the game which is mostly ranged shooty bang bang. You’re still armed but you need to take out a good sized horde here and they’re all relatively close. It’s almost like a Zombie scene rather than a military shooter and it still works.

A couple of minutes later you come to this section to finish chapter one of three. This actually shows two quick pieces of information. First, as you approach the door two guards see you and shoot at you. What have we learned? Enemies in the other time will react and attack you, and that will damage you as well. It’s not a deep lesson, and perhaps should be obvious but just in case you now know for sure.

Then we reach an obstruction and, while you might be able to crawl through it, another time jump shows that at the other time you can just walk past it because it’s not there. So time travel actually allows us to get around obstacles

And with that school is out, and players should have learned the lessons and understand the rules of time travel. All that’s left is the beginning of chapter two, where the player gets the ability to time travel with a magic bracelet. And this… this is the moment I would say the level truly begins. It’s now up to the player to put everything together. The first task is to deal with the flaming hall of death, and… sure enough, that requires our new gadget, but it proves the player understands what the time travel can do for them. Those slow opening minutes will now pay off because the player and the developer have established the important rules of the mechanic and level.

Before long the player is going to get into conflict and this is where Effect and Cause elevates itself. Instead of just having a shooter level with a few gimmicks outside of combat or in specific locations, the game has given the player a brand new tool. It even refers to what your enemies are seeing in an audio call out, reminding you that they are seeing you blink around a level, and sure enough, time travel makes you into the ultimate soldier.

If you’re getting overwhelmed you click your button and it’s almost a get out of jail free, you can reposition, and then surprise the enemy with a new assault, and while the player had a cloaking ability before this, Time Travel just adds a brand new layer to the formula, yet it feels so much slicker.

Now rather than recount every interesting tactic, technique, and room you need to fight through for this level, I’m going to quickly fast forward a bit to a couple of my favorite moments.

We’ll start in this room, and sure enough, there are robots and wildlife in the decayed time period, and no one in the pristine time period. For now.

This is typical for the levell and is interesting because the decayed time has damaged robots and wildlife, where the pristine time period focuses more on security forces with a few robots as well. But sure enough, the pristine time isn’t safe, and here’s a set of security forces as well. Players can fight through either force but they will have to go to the pristine time and climb up the elevator.

I’m skipping most of the rest of the combat, but here’s another great moment. You’re stuck on an island and you’re given one wall. The player can wall run but not forever. So what’s he supposed to do? Well, time travel and find a second wall. This isn’t a major puzzle but this section and most wall running sections in Titanfall 2 feels especially cool. That’s a common theme in Titanfall 2 that the player should feel cool pulling off amazing things and it is very successful at that.

Finally, there’s this vent that’s just as simple as hitting the time travel button multiple times in a row, but it’s just a great adrenaline rush and shows how simple the controls can be to get a visceral feeling.

A ton more action goes on, and you are finally at the end of the level, you now have a superpower for the rest of the game and can kill anything, right? Of course not, your time travel device is destroyed and you’re no longer a superhero.

So this is just the best level of Titanfall 2, right? Yeah, I think that’s pretty much agreed upon. But it’s not the only good level of Titanfall 2, in fact, I would argue there are not many bad levels here, maybe none at all. There are 9 levels in Titanfall 2, with one of them being a good training level but not much else, the rest of the levels are great.

Titanfall 2 is made by Respawn Entertainment who were developers from Infinity Ward, who made that hidden gem, Call of Duty, and many of the same design philosophies they used there are also here and somehow work even better here.

Let’s just go through a few pieces in that level design again. The first thing is many shooters tend to be all about the shooting but the opening pieces of Effect and Cause start to develop the environment, world, and story of the level. It even provides a minor explanation for what’s going on but here’s a key, it doesn’t force the player to sit through this development. In fact, speedrunners have beaten this entire level in under 7 minutes, so that shows that there’s not much-forced content here.

The pacing of levels is important, not just the combat, and Titanfall 2 seems to understand when and how to provide the story so players aren’t bogged down or just mindlessly shooting enemies for hours.

An important piece is that when players get to puzzles like the wall running puzzle, they have time to look at the space and think, rather than be harassed by enemy fire. It allows better puzzles to be created. There’s also a helpful solution mechanism offered if players can’t figure it out quickly. It’s a touch too eager, but it’s still a helpful addition.

There’s a lot of great combat in Titanfall 2 and this level isn’t an exception but the addition of the time travel mechanic really makes this level stand out even though it’s almost the same ability as the cloak the player has always had. It’s just an ability the player has to use outside of combat.

Finally, those cool moments. That’s the really obvious secret to both Infinity Ward and Respawn. They make great moments, and it’s not just accidental. Every level has a couple of cool moments and concepts at their core such as calling this the time travel level.

I could easily mention the Ikea level or the Big War level of Titanfall 2, and players will probably know what I’m talking about and have fond memories. The fact is every level in Titanfall 2 has a reason to be there, and while many are thematically important to the overall story, they also have a reason for being in the game as something cool for the players to see.

What’s even better is that the time travel in this level is a gimmick, there’s no question it’s a gimmick, but rather than extend this to an entire act of the game or the entire game like some studios might, instead it’s restricted to one extremely compelling level, and that also makes players want to replay each level to relive those cool moments.

This is something I feel many games fail to understand. Rather than have a great moment or mechanic, instead, they take a great moment and have it linger till it becomes merely a good moment, limiting the interaction with something makes it feel even cooler. The time travel mechanic could even have been a lesser studio’s gameplay for an entire game. Instead, Titanfall 2 uses it for a tight 40-minute level which makes the mechanic feel exceptional and prepares the player for the next level and what else it will bring.

I hope I’ve shown you how this one level really elevates Titanfall 2. I’ve started showing other levels, but before we leave Effect and Cause I want to call out Jake Keating. He was the designer of Effect and Cause and it sounds like he had a huge hand from prototyping to the final level. I’m sure many other people worked on it but this was his level.

In the game industry it’s rare to know exactly what people worked on to the point where they have ownership of any one piece, but this level is exceptional and numerous sources attribute it to Jake Keating, and honestly, that’s great to hear.

The rest of Titanfall 2 is really freaking good as well. It’s a tight game with almost no room to cut and any downtime is usually for pacing or giving the player a feeling that they are moving between important locations. The writing is well done, the level designs are all worth learning from, and while the single-player is on the short side, it’s worth playing because this is a hidden gem.

I’m torn here. I’ve rewritten this script three times. My first was mostly on EA releasing games on Steam and turning around the company… Then they released Madden 21 and yeah. I don’t know if it’s a great time to praise them.

I also feel that EA has contributed a bit to Titanfall 2’s lackluster sales, so it feels wrong to really praise them for this game, though it is good to see this game on Steam.

I also had planned on talking about multiplayer and the idea of merging some PVE into the PVP and it does work very well. There’s also an excellent Horde mode here, especially if you can team up with some friends for that.

But you know, I’m going to leave it here. Titanfall 2 has one of the best levels of all time and I think it’s a perfect example of not only how to make an FPS level but why Titanfall 2 is worth playing, or if you already have beaten it, worth playing a second time.

Those are my thoughts on Titanfall 2. I hope you enjoyed this. I really enjoyed recapping and breaking down a single level quite a bit, so before you leave, let me ask for your feedback. If you like this or want to see me break down another level or section of a game soon, let me know in the comments, and if you’re shy, hit that like button. I’m thinking of calling this a level teardown, though also maybe a Quest teardown, area teardown depending on what I’m talking about, if you can think of a better name, let me know.

And if you just enjoyed the video and are new here, consider subscribing and ringing the bell, even sharing this with others would be a huge help for the channel.

I’m going to pop up two videos I’m actually going to link to a GDC talk by Chris “Soupy” Dionne who talks quite a bit about the design process of using action blocks to create Titanfall 2. If you like thinking about game design or Titanfall 2 as much as I do, it’s well worth a watch. I’m also going to link my Horizon Zero Dawn video, I enjoyed making that one and hope you enjoy watching it.

Until then I’m Kinglink and thanks for watching.

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