I’ve been playing videogames for a very long time now. I had an Atari 2600, a Commodore 64, assorted Amigas and Apple IIs and then on to the NES and every console since. I’ve probably played dozens of thousands of games over that span of time. But out of all of them, there are only a handful I’d put on a list of franchises or games which really shaped me as a gamer: Final Fantasy, Wing Commander, Sim City amongst others, but one of the big ones was the MechWarrior franchise.
It was one of the first franchises where I found myself eagerly awaiting the release date of the next installment or expansion pack. One of the first ones that I went out of my way to convince my friends to buy copies so I’d have people to play over LAN with. I just loved pretty much everything about the franchise, from the single player campaign to the multiplayer to even the pseudo-RTS style off-shoot series MechCommander. So naturally, when I heard MechWarrior was coming back, I was super-excited. And very worried that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations… Anyway, MechWarrior Online is here now, in beta at least, and I’ve had the chance to check it out.
First and foremost, graphically the game is gorgeous, especially the Mechs themselves. Drop-dead gorgeous giant hulks of screaming death. The distinctive silhouettes are all there just how I remember them. The hairs literally stood up on my neck when I rounded a corner in one of my first matches and found myself face to face with an Atlas and its distinctive skull paint job. I’ve always been a medium mech kinda guy personally. That being said though, the Atlas is just a fierce beast that strikes fear into the heart of anyone coming up against it. Especially if you’re in a smaller mech and suddenly find yourself face-to-face with one without backup. Naturally I very quickly found myself looking down on the smoking heap of wreckage which had once been my mech. The death scenes are fantastic, to the point where I found myself not too upset if I died, especially if I was trying out a new mech, to see how I would die that time around.
The environments aren’t too shabby either. There’s a decent variety between ruined urban areas and wide open expanses. One really cool map has a volcano in the middle which you can run into. It’s obviously the shortest way from point A to point B, but it is something you may want to avoid if there are a lot of enemies around because the heat from the volcano actually affects your mech, raising your heat levels (which controls your ability to fire weapons). It is very easy to find yourself overheated after only one or two shots and suddenly turned into a powered down sitting duck. It is really cool to see the environment have this kind of effect in a shooter.
Another graphical aspect of the game that really impressed me were the special effects. The weapons look amazing, but you’d expect that from this time of game. What caught me off guard was the mech damage. I stopped and stared the first time a mech ran across my screen with smoke pouring off of it. It was just so well rendered and believable that all I could do was sit there and stare in awe, until I took a volley of long range missiles and lasers to the face.
And speaking of mech damage, that is one aspect of the franchise that I’ve always really enjoyed: the strategy involved in shooting your opponent. Sure, it’s fun to shoot people in the face in most FPS games, as that’s really your only objective: shoot them dead. For the most part it doesn’t matter where you hit them. The only real difference is head shots tend to do more damage resulting in faster or instant kills. In MechWarrior games though, you’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg with head shots. Concentrate your fire on an arm to disable it and take away one or more of your opponent’s weapons. Target the engine to diminish or completely remove his mobility. Take out a leg and well… timber!
There’s just so much more strategy here than in most FPS games out there. You think tea-bagging someone in Halo is insulting? Find some noob in MechWarrior who has all of his weapons on his arms, blow them both off, and then leave him to wander the battlefield unable to do anything but walk around. And if that wasn’t enough to worry about, you also have your own heat and ammo levels. Lasers and PPCs don’t have ammo, but they do generate heat. Generate too much heat and your mech will shut down to cool off, leaving you sitting defenseless with a giant “fire missiles here” sign over your head. Sure, it’s tempting to hit the “fire everything I have at once in a barrage of awesome destruction” button, but you better be damn sure it’s going to kill the person in your crosshair, because otherwise…
When I first heard about MechWarrior Online, the name along gave me a bit of nervousness and dread. Was this going to be another “pay to win” online shooter? Even when I got into beta and first started playing around with things, my fear wasn’t completely abated. There is indeed an ingame currency which you buy with real life cash. You then spend that money on things like additional slots in your mech lab, new mech types, etc. But there is also an ingame currency which you earn by playing matches which seems like it will balance things out. Sure, it may be faster to buy a new mech variety with the RL cash bought currency, but from what I can tell, you should be able to get there the other way as well without much hassle.
On the other hand, that really doesn’t matter much. Who cares if Joe Bob paid to unlock the Atlas and you’re still running around in a Jenner? MechWarrior has always been a lot more about skill than who has the best toys. Sure, if you stand face to face with that Atlas in your Jenner, like I did in the above-described scenario, you’re going to get toasted. But where the Jenner lacks in raw destructive force and damage soaking armor, it makes up in maneuverability. If you have the skill advantage, you can run circles around that Atlas until he doesn’t know which way is up or where all your short range missiles are coming from until he’s the one left in a smoking pile of rubble.
On top of player skill, another big difference will be in how you allocate your experience. As you play through matches, you’ll earn both general experience and mech-specific experience. You can then go into the Pilot Lab and spend that experience (either variety) to unlock skills and abilities for that specific mech. Naturally, the more you use a specific mech type, the better you’ll become with it, both from learning the limits of its maneuverability and firepower, and also because you’ll be earning experience that will be used to increase and improve the skills and abilities available to you in that mech. You can also spend some of the Mercenary Credits (the RL cash bought currency) to convert mech-specific experience into General experience if you want to move experience points from one mech to another.
There’s still so much about the game that I need to learn and experience, even with the amount of time I’ve spent with the old MechWarrior franchise. There’s just a level of depth here that you can’t get in most first person shooters. The advancement system seems really well done so far, even if I’ve only scratched the surface of it. I can’t wait until I’ve spent enough time in a mech to get to the Master and Elite level skills and abilities. That said, a lot of the game could definitely be more intuitive. One of the best things about the single player campaign in the old games is that it really went a long way in teaching you the ropes. With MechWarrior Online you’re just kinda thrown to the wolves currently. Hopefully there will be a very good tutorial system implemented or I can see a lot of people getting frustrated early on and giving up. Given how much player skill affects the matches, it can be really frustrating for a brand new player to the franchise to be on a battlefield. You’re trying to get the hang of moving around, trying to target with weapons that move with your arms at the same time as ones that are stationary on your torso and keeping an eye on things like ammo and heat all while some experienced player is running circles around you peppering you with short range missiles and lasers.
I admit, I went into beta very nervous and pessimistic that MechWarrior Online would live up to my memories of the old games and meet my expectations. The MechWarrior franchise holds such a hallowed position in my gaming past I really didn’t think there was much chance MechWarrior Online wouldn’t let me down. I was wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about that. I see a lot of potential here. Sure, it’s still in beta, and there are some things that need work, but for the most part, MechWarrior Online is a very solid game that brought back a rush of memories from my gaming past.