Mechwarrior Online has had a long road to get to where it is today, and the mood of the Steam launch event—where almost 200 fans have gathered alongside Piranha Games staff—couldn't reflect that any better. On one hand, the evening feels like a celebration of the milestones that Mechwarrior Online has achieved to date. On the other, I can't help but sense the collective sigh from those in the room who have spent the last two years toiling to make Mechwarrior Online better than the lukewarm reception it initially received when it launched 2 years ago.
To be honest, I had never played Mechwarrior Online until that evening. Though I like to pride myself on having a good grasp of PC releases, Mechwarrior Online—and by extension the entirety of the Battletech universe—slipped through my net. Going to the event, I had no idea what to expect of the crowd of fans that had flown from all over the globe (there was reportedly even a fan from Finland if you can believe it). Once I arrived however, I began to see the same telltale signs of a community that was still head over heels in love with their game. I spied a group of guys wearing matching shirts that I could only assume marked them for a specific unit and there was an undeniable electric air of excitement when president of Piranha Games, Russ Bullock, stepped off the stage to play a video sneak peak of the new features that would be arriving sometime this spring. Fans were even more excited when it was announced that next year would also play host to a world championship with a seeded prize pool of $100,000.
For a game that already inspires a special kind of devotion from its fans, a world championship feels like a natural step for the studio. Though details are scarce as of right now, players can expect to compete in regional qualifiers before moving onto regional championships and then the big event which where they will compete for what will hopefully be a bigger pool than the initial seeded prize of $100,000.
Equally important is the new improvements to Community Warfare which will be arriving this spring which includes a new extraction game mode where, from what I can tell, players will need to collect data points scattered around the map and then rendezvous at an extraction point. Also on the agenda is fleshing out the roles each player defines themselves through when playing Community Warfare. Right now, Community Warfare feels rather narrow, leading every player to feel more or less like a mercenary. Come spring, the Phase 3 release of Community Warfare aims to sharpen of the differences by further defining the metagame components of play. Players can choose to be loyalists to a specific faction who help steer the course of conflicts, mercenaries who choose from contracts that decide who they fight for, and freelancers whose role is summed up ambiguously as a "call to arms".
"It's probably as big as phase 1 and 2 combined," Russ Bullock said during his presentation. "There's a lot in there and there's a lot of depth." Russ went on to explain that the phase will also focus on rounding out Community Warfare to make it more approachable for solo players who join pick-up groups with other solo players and giving them just as much reason to care as those who belong to the more strictly defined social circles of Mechwarrior Online.
A new decal system was also teased which will give players the option to further customize the appearance of their mechs. The video that demonstrated the system showed basic options like rotation, scaling, and positioning. Players are also able to change the colouring of the logo. No details were provided as to how the system works, whether players can import custom logos, so we'll have to wait to see just how robust the tool really is.
Virtual reality is also a big endeavour for the team, and during the event I was able to sit down and pilot my own mech while sporting an Oculus Rift. Though the demo had no combat portion, I was free to wander the map and acquaint myself with the new degree of movement that wearing a headset provides. While I doubt the addition of VR support will significantly alter the gameplay in anyway that would make Mechwarrior Online a game you'd want to purchase a Rift for, I can easily see how those who happen to own one would love the extra layer of immersion it provides. For those unaware, the game already had the ability to look around your cockpit and down at your body while piloting a mech, but outsourcing that to the headset feels natural and adds a great sense of immersion that Battletech enthusiasts will no doubt want to experience.
All in all, the whole evening feels like a big win for the studio. Mechwarrior Online was met with middling praise when it first launched in 2013, but tonight helped highlight the increasingly fluid nature of game development where games can improve and change so rapidly that old critiques quickly become outdated. A lot has changed for Mechwarrior Online since it launched two years ago, and while there is no doubt a mountain of issues that fans might still have with the game, there is no denying that Piranha Games has been adding significant value to it during that time.
If you haven't hopped into a mech since the game first launched or, if you're like me, and you never took the time to play it, Mechwarrior Online is looking like an enticing and deeply strategic shooter to get involved with. With more options that cater to every different type of player alongside a massively improved tutorial system from when it first launched, Mechwarrior Online isn't the same shambling thing it was two years ago. I've already sunk a few hours into it since returning from the party, and I can safely say that good amount of the problems people seem to have had with it when it first launched are absent. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not the launch on Steam will pay off with an influx of new players. But like most free-to-play games, you're likely going to have to find out if it's worth it for yourself.