Sprinting along in my Firestarter, hearing the sounds of trees toppling over and crushed under Ferro Fibrous armor-plated foot, it's easy to lull oneself into an easygoing sense of invulnerability. After all, when you're piloting a 35-ton war machine standing two stories tall and armed with enough lasers to make Dr. Evil himself shed tears of appreciation, the unassuming worlds of the Battletech universe seem to offer very little in the way of danger. Such feelings of invincibility in this world are an open invitation to swift death at the hands of your enemies, however. This is big-game hunting at its most extreme. All too quickly in Mechwarrior Online, the careless hunter becomes the fearful squirrel, falling prey to enemy Mechs weighing the equivalent of a Boeing 757 commercial jet. This is a MOBA fueled, in equal amounts, by strategy and twitch aiming skills, all topped off with a healthy dose of giant-robots-battling-it-out giddiness.
Piranha Games' Mechwarrior Online is not a new title (being released in late 2013 to lukewarm reviews), but as a player who dabbled with the game right after release only to pick it up once again over the past 3 months, it feels like a different title. At release, the title was knocked for its lack of a serviceable tutorial, an almost complete lack of social features, and no metagame (the title lacking even a leaderboard feature). The core combat was fun, and Mechs were all both classic (to those who had experience with the Battletech universe) and unique from one another. However, it didn't seem like a finished product.
Indeed, Mechwarrior Online would have enjoyed the more relaxed frame of the now-standard "Early Access" title phase instead of a 2013 official release. The core of the game was alluring: piloting giant robots with a team of folks in an attempt to destroy the enemy team's giant robots using all manner of ballistics, lasers, and missiles. However, it lacked the bells and whistles of games, such as League of Legends, that kept players engaged and coming back over and over. Moreover, the lack of any in-depth tutorial to explain the more advanced gameplay mechanics left some folks scratching their heads after their first few matches. Thankfully, Piranha has made serious headway towards correcting many of these issues.
The original tutorial is still present as it was at release, introducing players to the very basics of MWO. However, Piranha Games has added an optional "Mechwarrior Academy" to the game for those who wish to delve deeper before trying their hands at defeating human opponents. This expanded tutorial offers multiple Mechs (a few from each weight class) for the new player to hop into, providing them with a feel for how differently each class handles. From there, it’s an open-ended experience allowing pilots to switch Mechs at will and participate in the more in-depth explanations of game mechanics by running to corresponding waypoints on the Academy map. This tutorial explains, in much deeper context than the initial tutorial, things such as damage distribution, firing at moving targets, shielding, and armor rolling. It's all very optional which, in some ways, is a shame (things such as shielding and damage distribution are essential to success in MWO), but it is an extreme improvement over what Piranha offered new players at release.
An early iteration of Community Warfare, a long-planned but slowly developed feature that has been promised since release, is now available. To its detriment, the system is very bare bones. As it stands, players are able to sign contracts with (or pledge loyalty to) various factions from the Battletech universe and defend or claim planets in the names of those factions. Doing so provides players with Loyalty Points towards their chosen faction that come along with its own rewards in the form of faction-specific goodies, Mech bays, C-bills, etc. However, there is no goal beyond claiming planets for one’s faction, as its only real effect (currently) is to change the color on the star map to reflect which faction controls it. This limited CW release has also brought with it the ability to fight with player-created Units (MWO's equivalent of a clan or guild), improving upon the social tools it lacked at release. These function exactly as one would expect from other MOBAs that include such social tools, grouping players together with a Unit tag visible on the scoreboard during matches. Player Units can themselves make their mark on the star map by attaching their Unit banner to any planet they take working together. However, beyond bragging rights, there aren't a lot of benefits to claiming a planet for your Unit (yet).
It’s a shame Piranha hasn’t done more in the area of Community Warfare and player Units over the past few years, as they’re lucky enough to have a very fine community of players populating both the game and the official forums. The excellent built-in client VOIP (seriously, why doesn’t every MOBA have this??) is filled almost exclusively with helpful players willing to offer advice and share tactical information throughout the match. The forums are much the same; veterans offering to share their experiences with Mech builds, map and team tactics, or even Battletech lore no matter how old the topic or arrogant the complaint leveled by a new player.
Though not without a few, more abrasive personalities that are an inevitability in any community, it is impressively refreshing to see a community (especially one based around a competitive game) so warmly welcome and amicably respond to any and all issues a player might have with the game. There’s a distinct lack of blind “fanboy”-ism there that belies the passion held by the game’s core fanbase. They’re very much invested in their game without ignoring the fact that it can still benefit from changes and fresh ideas. Such a community, in this gamer’s experience, is rare.