If you’ve been playing games for a while, you’ve seen it. You might not realize you’ve seen it, and if you have, you might not haven’t been able to put a name to it, but it’s there. And if you’re a fan of some older and more niche IPs, like me, then you’ve definitely noticed it.
The video game industry is going through an era of rebirth. Long forgotten IPs are being resurrected, often winning over critics and old friends. The numbers in the last few years alone are staggering. Blizzard finally released the much anticipated StarCraft II after more than a twelve year wait, and Diablo III followed soon after.
Capcom resurrected the Street Fighter and Marvel versus Capcom series, both long dormant after Street Fighter III and Marvel versus Capcom 2, respectively. Hi-Rez Studios revived the Tribes franchise after more than ten years of inactivity with Tribes: Ascend. Square Enix released the first proper Deus Ex game in eight years. Activision remade GoldenEye.
And that’s just the beginning. Arc System Works recently announced a new entry in the Guilty Gear series, Microsoft is working on another Killer Instinct, and Square will soon be releasing the next chapter in the Thief series.
In that light, it only seems fair that MechWarrior gets its turn. After all, the last game to bear the title released in 2002, but despite numerous legal difficulties and studio closures, the MechWarrior series finally has a new curator in Piranha Games, a studio that features key members of FASA Interactive, the studio responsible for developing several entries in the series, and MechWarrior Online, the latest game to bear the storied title.
In many ways, MechWarrior Online is similar to the other games in the MechWarrior series. You’ll pick one of the various ‘Mechs, tweak its armor, weight, weapons, and inner workings, and use it in combat against other ‘Mechs. It sounds simple, but MechWarrior Online is an extremely complex game.
Like other games of its ilk, customization is a key part of MechWarrior Online. You’ll spend many an hour tinkering in the ‘Mech lab, trying to build a ‘Mech that fits your style. Knowing your style is important, because MechWarrior is all about choices. While the game does allow you a large amount of customization, there are limits built in. For instance, you can’t change the general build of your ‘Mech. An Atlas will always be an Atlas, and a Trebuchet will always be a Trebuchet. You won’t be swapping out cockpits or trading in your legs for a set of tank treads in MechWarrior Online.
Similarly, each ‘Mech comes equipped with a set number of hardpoints, or areas where you can attach weapons or other useful tools, such as anti-missile systems or scouting drones. Each hardpoint will only allow certain types of weapons, so you can’t attach a gauss cannon to a hardpoint that is designed for missile launchers, or vice versa. Still, you’re allowed a large amount of customization per ‘Mech, and each style comes with many different variations, so if you want to build a ‘Mech with nothing but long range missile launchers you’ll probably be able to, provided it can carry the weight and has the requisite slots to equip them.
You’ll also have to balance the heat the weapons generate when fired so your ‘Mech doesn’t overheat and shut down in the middle of a firefight. If this sounds complicated, it’s because it is, and you’ll likely spend hours in the ‘Mech Lab trying to find the right combination of speed, firepower, mobility, and armor for your metal behemoth, at least once you have enough money to buy your own ‘Mechs and parts.
You see, MechWarrior Online is a Free to Play game, and like most Free to Play titles, there are two forms of currency in the game: C-Bills, which can be earned by simply playing the game and Mech Credits, or MC, which are purchased with real money. Most ‘Mechs can be unlocked with C-Bills, but there are several premium models that can only be purchased with MC. While you can eventually upgrade a ‘Mech you bought with C-Bills to a premium ‘Mech, it takes a very long time.
Since each variation is unique, you’ll have to grind for extensive periods or open your wallet to grab the designs that are locked behind the game’s paywall. Thankfully, there are always trial ‘Mechs available for use, and the number of premium ‘Mechs is relatively small. Unfortunately, there’s no option to try a new ‘Mech before you buy it unless it’s a trial ‘Mech, and the information the game lets you view on ‘Mechs you have yet to purchase is limited at best, making purchasing a ‘Mech with weapons you don’t recognize a risky proposition.
Once you select a ‘Mech, you’ll want to learn how to use it. Unfortunately, MechWarrior Online does an extremely poor job of teaching you how to play. The in-game tutorial only covers movement, which is frustrating considering the sheer complexity of the game and the number of commands a perspective pilot needs to know to be effective in his or her ‘Mech. The game launcher does link to a number of YouTube videos (which I highly recommend watching if you’re going to play the game) that cover just about everything there is to know about MechWarrior Online, but it’s a poor substitute for a proper tutorial.
This set-up is all the more baffling considering the in-game tutorial doesn’t even teach you how to do simple, essential tasks, such as toggling the ‘Mech’s various vision modes, grouping weapons, bringing up a large view of the game map, or manually engaging the a Mech’s shut down or override commands. Unfortunately, this problem extends to the ‘Mech Lab as well, meaning you’ll have to check out those YouTube videos or do an awful lot of experimenting to get things done.
Thankfully, however the game plays very well – when it works. Client crashes and disconnects are frequent and while I rarely experienced them, I played more games where I had teammates disconnect than I did where we had a full team. Unfortunately, there’s no way to reconnect to a game if you are disconnected from it. To compound this problem, ‘Mechs that the client still considers “in game” are unusable until that game ends, meaning that if you are disconnected from a game, you’ll have to wait until that game finishes before you can use the ‘Mech you were using again.
When everything does come together, however, MechWarrior Online is a load of fun. Weapons feel and sounds powerful, the ‘Mechs move exactly like you’d think they would, and there’s a surprising amount of strategy involved. The game really sells the feeling of being a ‘Mech pilot, and the level of immersion on display helps bring MechWarrior Online to life in ways few games accomplish. There’s something for each player to take away from each match, so there’s always a reason to come back to try and better yourself as a pilot.
Matches consist of two teams of twelve ‘Mechs squaring off against one another across two modes: assault and conquest. Conquest requires you to capture several key points across the map in order to gain resources, though you can win by wiping out the enemy team, while assault is essentially MechWarrior Online’s form of team deathmatch, with a twist: each team has a base, and capturing your enemy’s will result in victory, no matter how many ‘Mechs they have left on the field. There’s also a Training Grounds mode, which will allow you to test out your ‘Mechs and scout the maps, making it equally useful for testing that autocannon build you’ve been dreaming about, or finding the best way to flank the enemy base.
Ultimately, MechWarrior Online is a game that is at odds with itself. Technically, it stills has a long way to go. As a game, however, it’s well-designed and more than worthy of bearing the MechWarrior title. With a little work, MechWarrior could become the catalyst for revival that the series needs. There’s a really excellent MechWarrior game buried here, and a promising future for the franchise to boot. You just have to dig around a bit to find it.
This game was reviewed on the PC.