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The Unfinished Robot

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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Like the BattleMechs themselves, MechWarrior Online can be tough to get into. Welding an online shooter together with deep complexity was never going to be easy, but Piranha have managed to create a game that, at its core, rewards tactical team-focused play. This fully launched title, however, is missing some essentials from the arsenal; an incomplete tutorial, clumsy interface and limited social tools make it unforgiving on newcomers.

After nearly a year of open beta, MWO was finally released on September 17. Even so, a post from the Creative Director makes it clear that unfinished features still litter the workshop floor. With so much missing, would there be enough of a game to make it worthwhile? While I can safely say there’s a kernel of fun, it’s difficult to justify spending time in this free-to-play robot bash.

Aesthetics – 6

Part of my frustration with MechWarrior Online is how it presents two visual extremes. Once installed and logged in, a windowed client shouted the various deals and special offers currently available, on everything from new ‘Mechs to camouflages and paint jobs. There wasn’t the hint of a tutorial or intro, just a small box with four ‘Trial Mechs’ and a bright launch button.

Once in a battle, MWO is an entirely different visual story. The CryEngine 3-powered landscapes and vistas are gorgeous to look at, whether you’re fighting over the volcanic wasteland of Terra Therma or carefully stalking through the abandoned Frozen City. ‘Mech Warfare is also an impressive spectacle, with lasers, rockets and autocannon all contributing to the glorious spectacle of carnage.

As each ‘Mech takes damage, limbs take a beating and eventually break of, disabling any attached weapons. It means that there’s nothing better that finding an armless ‘Mech on the battlefield, desperately trying to drag itself out of combat. Easy prey is easy to spot, even without targeting sensors.

Each ‘Mech cockpit is also uniquely detailed, whether it’s the light Jenner or the heavy Orion, making it easier to mentally switch between the various combat roles. While it’s possible to pop into third-person mode, the immersion of piloting from the helm, together with added HUD detail such as a minimap and target information, make it much more ideal.

Those great in-game visuals also reinforce just how poor the client launcher is. It’s possible to customise and tune your machines of war in the ‘Mech Bay, but the process is unintuitive and cumbersome. Buttons for Factions and the Store do nothing at all. Those bright banners that advertise Piranha’s latest deals mask a clunky and occasionally confusing interface that desperately needs an overhaul.

Gameplay - 7

My first experience with MechWarrior Online was incredibly brief. My first match was purely by guesswork, picking a Centurion trial ‘Mech, before diving in. Within moments I was dropped into a volcanic wasteland, molten lava running like rivulets across blackened shards of rock. Assuming the controls would be somewhat standard, I charged forward, the war machine thundering across the landscape with strides like anvils. It felt like I was at the helm of an unstoppable juggernaut.

Or so I thought. Rounding a rocky outcrop, I came face to face with the enemy. Three of them made short work of my Centurion, leaving it a smouldering wreck of twisted metal and burned cabling. But there was no respawn, no way of getting back into the match; I’d be forced to spectate the rest from the side-lines. I had the choice of exiting the match and picking another trial ‘Mech to take into battle, but the absence of respawns is deliberate. Like a stern sports coach, MechWarrior Online was telling me in the most brutal way possible to treat it like a tactical shooter.

A quick Google told me how to find the in-game tutorial but, like much of MechWarrior Online, it’s woefully inadequate, covering nothing more than movement basics. A collection of fan-made and developer-endorsed YouTube videos go into more detail, covering everything from the four weight classes to mastering the various weapon systems.  Unfortunately, they’re also very easy to miss.

Taking what I’d learned, I decided to try something else. Leaping into a nimble Jenner, I ended up on a different map, where a wooded hillside gave way to a rocky coastline, complete with a beached cargo ship. Instead of an all-out assault, the Conquest game mode is about controlling five resource nodes in order to rack up resource points.  My light ‘Mech sprinted toward the nearest one, as I tried to capture it before the enemy showed up.

Some ‘Mechs are fitted with jump-jets, and I used mine to evade the slower hulks as they approached. MWO’s maps are full scenery that you can use to your advantage and, by leaping over a few boulders, I could fall back to where my slower team-mates were stationed. After a short exchange of laser and rocket fire, we clambered over the smoking remains of our opposition.

I spent the first 20-odd matches in this manner, picking a trial ‘Mech and jumping into a random match. It helped to demonstrate the differences between the four ‘Mech classes (Light, Medium, Heavy and Assault), and what they bring to the battlefield. But it felt like a clumsy way of introducing the concept to newcomers, like asking them to repeatedly bash their heads against a brick wall and congratulating those that survive.

Over time, I practiced how to run in a circle and use a hip pivot to continually face an enemy as I took him down. I learned how to creep around enemy lines and ‘spot’ targets so that allies with long-range missiles could rain down the pain. I picked up tactics for each map and match type, discovered when to use thermal and night-vision cameras. I started to develop my own ‘Mech preferences, favouring something meaty but quick.

It’s obvious that Piranha has spent most of its time working on ‘Mech balance and behaviour. Regardless of which class I was piloting, movement and combat felt right. Those sprawling maps work overtime in encouraging movement by providing a number of ways to flank or sneak up on your opponent. Though weapons felt like they lacked punch at times, it’s expected when you’re dealing with heavily armoured machines. Most ‘Mechs also have a small weak point that can be found and exploited. Again though, this is information that you’d probably discover by accident without hopping out of the game and searching for it.

That lack of knowledge was one of the most frustrating parts about being a new pilot. Amazingly though, the MWO community has flooded in to fill the gap left by Piranha. If you find that, after your first few matches, MechWarrior Online has managed to perk your interest, then do what I did: log out, Google, and read everything.

Longevity - 6

While playing and learning in the trial ‘Mechs, I started to build up an impressive stack of C-Bills – MWO’s in-game currency. New pilots get an earnings boost for the first 25 matches, putting me well on the way to buying my first ‘Mech outright.

Owning a ‘Mech has two key benefits: you earn Mech XP every time you take it into battle, and you can adjust the loadout of weapons, armour and engine in the Mech Lab to fine-tune it to your play style. After doing some research, I decided to buy a medium-class Hunchback, armed with lasers and short-range missiles. I then swapped out the engine to give it more speed and upgraded the chassis to a lighter version.

All weapons generate heat when fired, which prevents you from mashing buttons in combat. By improving the cooling capabilities of my new Mech, I’d be able to use them more without needing to cool off, increasing my overall firepower.

Although it’s possible to heavily customise your ‘Mech, even down to the paintwork and interior decoration, it’s also possible to seriously damage your ability to fight effectively. Choose a poor mix of weapons or inferior engine, and you become a crawling target or easy kill. Although the Mech Lab interface tries to provide some information on the firepower capabilities and available tonnage, the clunky and occasionally confusing interface can be incredibly off-putting. Once again, a Google search and community shout will save you from wasting those precious C-Bills.

Building a collection of BattleMechs will take a fair chunk of time. After a hundred matches I’d scraped together enough C-Bills to buy two variants of the Hunchback – one was bristling with laser cannons, while the other provided a mix of lasers and short-range missiles. My Lab still has two empty bays, and it’ll probably take another 30 matches before I earn enough to buy another walking fortress.

Buying variants – alternate versions of the same chassis with different weapon mounting points – might sound like a strange thing. Surely you’d know what variant suits your play style, then pick up ‘Mechs in other classes to fill other roles? This is where Mech XP comes into play, unlocking ‘efficiencies’ that make your basic BattleMech perform better. To reach the higher-tier Elite Efficiencies, all the basic ones for three different variants need to be bought. With each ‘Mech in your Lab earning its own XP, this can be a long (and expensive) grind. Players also earn Player XP at a much slower rate, which is then used to unlock ‘Mech Modules. These extra components, such as an increased zoom or advanced sensors, are vital to pick up in the longer term.

Ultimately though, much of MWO’s longevity hinges on Piranha delivering those regular updates. New maps, Mechs and game modes will all give players reasons to keep on playing, far beyond an initial flurry of activity. As it is, I can already start to feel a tinge of repetition when logging in to play. And that’s without touching on the absence of vital social features.

Value – 5

As a free-to-play online game, MechWarrior Online doesn’t insist that you crack open your wallet. There are, however, several ways in which your cash can improve your gaming experience, once you manage to navigate through that clunky interface.

The biggest eyebrow-raiser is with Hero ‘Mechs – premium-grade purchases that can only be bought with Mech Credit’s, MWO’s real-money currency. Some of these rigs will set you back $30 a time, although they also come with a passive boost to C-Bills and XP. It’s also possible to buy an income boost directly with Premium Time; while active, this increases both C-Bill and experience gains by 50%, making upgrades and new Mechs even quicker to obtain.

Basic ‘Mechs are priced more reasonably, starting at around $5. Cosmetic improvements, such as camouflage, custom paint jobs and cockpit accessories are extra. And if you ever need additional space for more ‘Mechs, expect to pay for those as well.

As a free-to-play title, being able to pay your way to success in MechWarrior Online is only marginally possible. A high-spec Hero ‘Mech might give you an advantage in 1-on-1 battles, but the 12 versus 12 format means that success depends heavily on team performance. Being able to work well as a group is more important than having expensive hardware. 

Read page 2 and the rest of our review.

5.4 Average
  • Fun tactical combat
  • Great visuals
  • Clunky client
  • Expensive item shop
  • Limited tutorial
  • Poor social tools

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Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.