Mechwarrior Online Beta Impressions: The Slow March Forward
If you want to make your mech a little more noticeable out on the battlefield, you can customize it in the MechBay with various colors, camo patterns, and cockpit items, most of which cost real money to unlock. Many people run effective camo schemes that help hide their mech at long distances, but you can choose to create ice cream-colored mechs in the most garishly awful colors you can as well. I personally lean towards garish; what’s the point of having a goofy color scheme if I don’t use it?
All of this doesn’t matter if the game isn’t fun, though. So is it? Are the matches even, is the matchmaking accurate, and are the modes varied and interesting? Well, no. At least, not yet. I have high hopes for the future, though.
There are only two game modes at the moment: Assault and Conquest. They are essentially the same mode, except that Assault requires you capture an enemy base while Conquest requires you capture a bunch of neutral bases. If you are familiar with other FPS games, you can think of it as Last Man Standing and Domination. I’m a little more fond of Conquest – the existence of multiple points forces players to spread out instead of just having one massive brawl – but both modes usually distill down to a last man standing fight between the teams. There are no respawns, after all, so dead is dead.
This lack of variety in game modes hurts MWO greatly, although this is sure to change as it gradually leaves beta. While I’m not as fond of similar titles like World of Tanks or Star Conflict, I can recognize that they have more interesting modes. Star Conflict in particular is a gold-mine of cool objective-based team play, and I wonder all the time why PGI doesn’t add some modes like Commander (protect a player commander; as long as he’s alive, you can respawn with a long delay) to MWO. More variety in modes means two things: less monotony in the ever-present grind, and greater acceptance of alternate playstyles. For now, all the playerbase can do is wait until they get something more interesting.
Matchmaking is also a bit awkward. A recent update flipped on an invisible Elo stat that matches players together by skill and Mech class, but it never seems to work right. Fighting a group of Assaults (heaviest mech class; bristling with guns and armor) in Lights is far more common than it should be. While games pre-Elo tended to end in stomp, the teams felt more balanced in terms of mech composition. I never got stuck with a team that didn’t have the mechs necessary to fight against the enemy team.
This combination of poor matchmaking and lack of variety has made the weapon balance a bit strange. Older mechs – like the Hunchback – are often rendered obsolete by new mechs, and each patch brings some wild new change to the ideal team composition. For a while it was focused on brawling (close-range, fast-paced combat), and now it’s focused on sniping. This changing meta is both a blessing and a curse. Builds stick around for a while, but balance changes inevitably cause them to fall out of favor. Conversely, the unstable balance means that there’s a good chance a normally viable build will be ineffective in that patch’s meta. You could end up with a mech that is completely useless, and not because you built it wrong.
The grind, as mentioned a few times earlier, is pretty substantial. While getting your first mech on an account is pretty easy thanks to a newbie bonus, attempting to get more will quickly result in a lot of frustration. You earn around 100 thousand C-Bills (the in-game currency) per win, and it takes a lot to deck out even the cheapest of mechs. Buying and refurbishing a Commando will only take around 5 million CB, but if you want to buy and fully trick out an Atlas, you’re going to be in for the long haul. All of the Assaults (the heaviest mech class) require a ton of money; somewhere on the order of 10-20 million CB to get them in working order. Of course, you can skip this if you pay the requisite freemium fee.
Finally, there’s no community warfare, and thus no real progression to speak of. It will supposedly be a feature that is somewhere between World of Tanks’ Clan Wars and EVE’s changing geopolitical landscape. You can work for existing factions to tip the war balance in their favor, or you can capture planets and systems for your own little mercenary company. It’s a concept that I’m extremely excited for – at least, the concept I’ve built up in my head from expectation – but the developers haven’t said much about it since the original post on the subject a year and a half ago. There are still no concrete details or timeline, other than “it’s coming when it’s done”.
If there’s a bright side to all of this, it’s that MWO is a very, very pretty game. The mech designs have an astounding level of detail and look far better than their original designs. The lighting effects are great as well, which is essential for a game with lots of lasers. There are a few annoyances (motion blur), but they can be toggled off to have a better time. Likewise, the UI is both incredibly sleek and surprisingly functional. I found it hard to go back to old Mechwarrior games after playing MWO, as the new interface and mech designs spoiled me rotten.
MWO has a lot on the horizon. Community warfare, new mechs, the clan invasion, and plenty of non-canon live events are all no doubt planned for the upcoming year. While the awkward, shifting balance and lack of variety hurts MWO’s staying power, it’s still a fun game in short bursts. At the very least, MWO’s success has brought the Mechwarrior franchise back into the limelight and shown a new generation of players the joy of robot fights.
Now we just have to wait to see if it manages to become genuinely fantastic.