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Northstar didn’t just save Titanfall 2, it completely transformed it

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2021 wasn’t a good year to be a Titanfall fan. With both the original Titanfall and its 2016 sequel (and briefly, Apex Legends) under constant DDoS attacks, allegedly from an absurd conspiracy of hackers. Titanfall 2 might not have been pulled from sale like its predecessor, but for the past year it’s been effectively impossible to play the fantastic parkour mech shooter online.

That is, until Northstar showed up.

Released in December, Northstar is a mod that enables fans to run their own custom servers in Titanfall 2—bypassing the game’s own servers and, in the process, evading the persistent waves of DDoS attacks. For the first time in a long time, pilots can wallrun and buttslide and slam their massive robots across Titanfall 2’s maps without fear of having the server infrastructure crumble out from under them.

But in dipping into Northstar over the holiday break, I quickly found that a server browser hasn’t just revived a cult multiplayer classic. It’s completely transformed what it means to play Titanfall 2 online.

Channel hopping

Titanfall 2’s multiplayer looked like any of its contemporaries at launch, complete with matchmaking playlists and progression systems for everything from the rifle in your hand and the mech you piloted, to the faction in your ear during every match. The kind of centralised multiplayer experience that came to define (particularly console) online shooters from the mid-00s to the mid-2010s, just before free-to-play took over the form entirely.

It’s a format that makes it easy to hit a button and jump into a game in a way that trawling through server browsers never was. But it also relies on having both a healthy audience and a stable centralised server infrastructure that developers can, and will, eventually give up on. You can probably still find a match in the original Unreal Tournament’s server browser, but I’ll likely never play a full match of Hawken again in my life.

All it took to make Titanfall 1 and 2 unplayable was to absolutely and unrelentingly overwhelm that server infrastructure.

To fix this, Northstar reverts to a time before matchmaking, retrofitting Titanfall 2 with an old school server browser (the reasoning being that if DDoSers take down one server, players can just fire up another). Additionally, progression has been scrapped in favour of giving you access to everything from the jump.

I can’t think of another game that’s made the jump from matchmaking back to traditional server browsers, but it’s wild to see it happen to Titanfall. Suddenly, instead of being thrown into an Attrition game with strangers, I’m picking from a list of micro-communities—servers with regular players, preferred maps, even their own weird quirks. 

One server’s version of free-for-all might only allow Kraber sniper rifles, while another cranks the air acceleration to 900% to allow for ludicrous mid-air acrobatics. If you want to play Angel City 24/7 with no score or time limits, there’s probably a server for that too. But Northstar isn’t just letting players pick and choose and tweak existing flavours of Titanfall—it’s letting them create new experiences entirely.

Modified chassis

Unfortunately, Northstar’s developers haven’t quite cracked AI, meaning staple modes like Attrition and Bounty Hunt (which featured squads of grunts and robot soldiers scampering about) aren’t available quite yet. But with Northstar letting server owners dictate what map, mode and variations they want to run, the mod also opens the door to all sorts of server-side modifications and brand new game modes. 

Genre classics like Gun Game, Hide & Seek and Infection have been added (the latter coming with fun twists like the last survivor getting a Titan to fend off infected players). But the star of the show has to be a mode called Fastball—a one-life deathmatch that sees every match start with you being hurled into battle by campaign big boy BT-7274, with hackable panels that let you respawn downed teammates.

It is the absolute coolest shit, and all multiplayer games should start like this.

the Titanfall 2 Northstar client has a custom mode where BT yeets you into the map at the start of every round and it absolutely owns pic.twitter.com/zhhIfisPfxDecember 29, 2021

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That mode pool has only expanded with riffs on (classic Half-Life mod) The Hidden and the ammunition-scarce One In The Chamber. But the Northstar discord has also exploded with all kinds of weird and wonderful mods. 

There are modes that award points for teabagging downed enemies, or eliminate players if they aren’t throwing themselves across the map fast enough. There are servers that let pilots run around with devastating Titan weapons while Titans turn invisible with pilot abilities. And the Discord is full of custom skins to give your favourite weapon a more bespoke look.

Titanfall 2 modding isn’t anything new, but Northstar finally gives these mods a chance to shine—and they’re only going to get weirder and wilder. Flipping through Northstar’s server browser, bouncing between matches that feel increasingly creative and equally cursed, feels like a throwback to poring through servers for Team Fortress 2 or Garry’s Mod. Fitting, considering Titanfall’s Source engine roots.

Built to last

For all these changes, however, the joy for near enough all of Northstar’s players is simply in being able to play their favourite game again. DDoS conspiracy or no, Titanfall was always going to go offline at some point, but projects like Northstar help keep the game alive and playable for generations to come. You can’t even buy the original Titanfall at this point, but fans are now working on a revival to bring back the series’ debut (and trying to merge it with Nexon’s cancelled Korea-only spin-off Titanfall Online).

Last year I spoke to the modders futureproofing Apex Legends with moddable private client R5Reloaded. Like R5R, Respawn has yet to publicly comment on or attempt to take down Northstar. Here’s hoping the studio is content to quietly let them continue. After all, these are people who love Respawn’s shooters enough to completely rebuild them and keep the games playable long after the developer is unwilling or unable to support them.

“Titles running on similar closed structures to Titanfall and Apex don’t last very long after the title has been discontinued,” R5R developer Amos told me at the time. “However, if mods and custom servers are introduced for a title, either officially or by the community, they will still be playable even after the official servers have been shut down permanently.”

Maybe one day EA or Respawn will bring the hammer down on Northstar. But Titanfall 2 deserved to be preserved, and I can only hope it keeps us all wallrunning down weird and wonderful paths for years to come.

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