Mechwarrior Online Review: Grinding Gears
The Battletech universe is one of the more unusually enduring properties in gaming. In the grim future of the Space 1980s, blocky and angular walking tanks circle around each other, trading blows with enormous laser cannons until one finally explodes. Battletech was America’s answer to Japanese dominance over all things involving giant bipedal superweapons, and against all odds, it caught on. It has existed in many forms, from tabletop strategy games to full pen-and-paper RPGs, PC and console iterations — usually under the Mechwarrior banner — and even an awkwardly written Saturday morning cartoon.
The enduring (and ageing) fanbase is a similarly divided lot. Almost every member has a favorite interpretation of the source material, a favored ruleset, and a firm opinion about which videogame adaptation was the strongest. It’s a tough crowd, but Piranha Games’ free-to-play multiplayer ‘Mech shooter aims to please fans of big stompy war-bots worldwide. It definitely looks the part, but does Mechwarrior Online have what it takes to succeed in an increasingly crowded F2P market?
Platform: PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Piranha Games
Publisher: Infinite Game Publishing
Release Date: September 17th, 2013
For those unfamiliar with the long history of the franchise, Mechwarrior Online could best be described as World Of Tanks set in a far-off dystopian future. Though it only features the titular ‘Mechs (no spacecraft, tanks or planes here), it’s as much an armored warfare simulator as a traditional first/third-person shooter. Two teams of big stompy robots maneuver around complex networks of valleys, hills, streets and other cover, seeking to out-flank each other and — ideally — score a killing blow against an opponent’s weaker rear armor. The tanks may have legs, and the weapons of choice might be lasers and particle cannons, but the tactics date back to World War II.
Despite the humanoid appearance of many of the ‘Mechs, they definitely handle more like tracked vehicles, boasting better hill-climbing ability than an anime mecha. None of the melee or precision-piloting skill rules from the tabletop incarnations have been carried over, so this is purely a game of maneuver and gunnery, and a gorgeous one at that. The choice to use Cryengine 3 was a wise one; Crytek’s engine is well-known for its ability to render large open spaces and gorgeous particle-heavy explosion effects. The glowing trails of super-heated metal left after a direct laser hit are always nice to see.
‘Mechs are split into four broad categories: Light, Medium, Heavy and Assault. As a new free player you’re given a roster of four pre-assembled trial ‘Mechs (one of each type) in order to learn the ropes and hopefully scrape together enough cash to buy your own. The lighter ‘Mechs tend to be vanguards and spotter units, detecting where the enemy team is moving, providing radar data for missile-artillery strikes, and running interference once a proper brawl breaks out. The lighter ‘Mechs often pack jump-jets as well, letting them boost over obstacles and clear gaps that others would stumble into.
While there are specialized loadouts, the medium ‘Mechs do tend to fit the “multi-role” definition better than others, able to move into position, trade some shots, and pull back when needed. The larger ‘Mechs – especially Assault classes — tend to behave more like real-world tanks than anything else. Slow to move, their ideal position is on the front lines, but best placed with a clear line of sight to their immediate target as well as enough cover to shield them from any other sources of incoming fire. You may have the biggest, heaviest Mech on the battlefield, but the other team likely has several equally well-armed and well–armored units, and you don’t want to take on several of those at once.