Titanfall's smartphone game offers a possible insight into why the series is struggling

Cache-22.

By Christian Donlan. Published 14 August 2017

Titanfall 2 is brilliant. Well, Titanfall 1 wasn't bad at all, but Titanfall 2 is actually brilliant: multiplayer that's both fleet-footed and stompy, accompanied by a wonderful, brisk, inventive and explosive single-player campaign that manages to mix things up every 15 minutes and offer a story that serves as a masterclass in bringing a little humanity to the business of shooting indentikit strangers until their hats pop off. Titanfall 2 was one of the surprises of last year, and one of the year's best games too.

And yet it struggled to make much of a mark. Yes, there are lots of shooters about. Yes, Call of Duty fatigue may have caught Titanfall up in the blast radius. Yes, there's the whole Origin thing on PC, which provides the equivalent of active camo in the marketplace when so many people are watching the carousels at Steam and GOG. But still, as someone who spent quite a lot of time evangelising Titanfall 2 to anybody who would listen to me - not many people, readers! - there was something else at work. And now Titanfall's got its own mobile game, I think I may have a fleeting insight into what that is.

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Titanfall Assault is not bad. It's a Clash Royale clone, but quite a decent one. It sails very close to the Clash Royale template: units are cards, it has its equivalent of Elixir, which allows you to spend cards on the battlefield, you can level cards up with duplicates - the levelling screen pretty much looks identical - and pretty much any system you can think of has its equivalent. In some ways, Titanfall Assault actually adds something: there is a neat system for comparing cards before you switch them in and out of your deck (a shift from eight cards to ten in a deck feels like a bad idea, however, as it's harder to hold the cards in your head) and I quite like the control-points that provide another way to win on the game's snug maps (I don't want a similar system in Clash Royale; it's just nice here).

But as is often the way, in playing things so close to an existing template, you only really serve to highlight the things the original game gets better. There are lots of important things: the wonderful chugginess of Clash Royale's combat does not make it across, the landscape viewpoint with a map that does not quite fit a single screen comfortably feels kind of annoying. But the biggest problem addresses the whole Titanfall franchise, I think: Clash Royale is a reminder that Titanfall doesn't have a lot of character.

But it does, of course. In the important moments of play it really does. Pilots are wonderful creations as they double-jump and wall-run and all that jazz, and the original game's smart pistol was one of the most charismatic twists on the FPS template in years. And then there's the fact that this is a series in which you call giant robots down out of the sky, and before the land a lady robot voice says something cool like, "Prepare for Titanfall". And yet, the coating on all of this. The coating on all of this is a bit of a buzzkill.

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Titanfall's fiction is of a very utilitarian future. It's mining corporations in space, as far as I can tell: everything's beige and grey and quarry-ish. This is intentional, of course: Titanfall's selling you its fiction with all this stuff, and it seems to want to make mechs that fall out of orbit seem entirely plausible. But it also serves to hide the true wit and invention that lurks at the heart of this series: a series where you get to flip time back and forth to create platforming speedruns, or in which a house is built around you during a fight through a training facility.

So while Clash Royale gives you treasure chests when you win - treasure chests! - Titanfall Assault give you caches. Clash Royale's chests scale to magical and legendary. In Assault, I've been unlocking small caches, and medium caches.

It's not just the rewards: Elixir is called Supply here. The two currencies - gems and gold, in Clash Royale, both of which conjuring a little of Smaug's lair - are credits and tokens. And this blandness stretches to the units. Man, in Clash Royale they're so rich in personality. The Knight is wonderful at rushing towers and doing massive damage, but look at his stupid smug handsome face! The Princess wears away enemies with her flaming arrows, but she's also got a look in her eyes: the look of royalty who knows that they're the only one knocking around with what amounts to a fiery shotgun.

In Titanfall Assault, you don't get to see anyone's face, of course. Not really. And this doesn't just make the cards harder to read and harder to understand - on my phone screen, a lot of the scowling militia on offer kind of look the same at the moment - it also makes them harder to get excited about. And that matters in a game that's about getting excited about acquiring new cards.

Did this thematic beigeness cause problems for Titanfall 2? I can't be sure, but I do remember something a friend of mine said when I told them they should really play this astonishing game - and for the single-player campaign of all things, a campaign riddled with wit and surprises. They took a look at the cover, with a robot that looked like a soldier and a soldier that looked like a robot, and they said: "That's made of wit and surprises?"

Inevitably, I am enjoying Assault quite a lot. It's speedy and clever on the battlefield, and in truth, there is still a bit of a thrill when the Titans become available at the three-minute mark in each battle. It may well become a regular player in the most profitable charts, and this might be the start of a big thing for the series. But already I'm finding it iffy getting anybody to play against in matchmaking at certain times of the day. And already I'm unlocking caches with a diminishing sense of excitement. Titanfall has personality, but it doesn't have cool names for things, and it doesn't have faces. And us humans are suckers for both.

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