Mechwarrior Online Review: Grinding Gears
Impressively, Piranha have managed to give the lighter ‘Mech classes a true battlefield role. Unlike earlier Mechwarrior games, they’re no longer just fodder for the enormous, lumbering 100-ton Assault ‘Mechs. It’s quite possible for a single 15-20 ton scout to outmaneuver a heavier foe so completely that the larger ‘Mech will never get a clean shot off, letting the smaller ‘Mech distract, annoy and chip away at the softer rear armor of its foe until victorious or driven off by incoming fire from another direction. It takes a bit of practice, but a small, organized squad of light ‘Mechs can do a terrifying amount of damage through hit-and-fade attacks.
Being giant space-robots, even smaller ‘Mechs can take a bit of a beating. Under each detailed 3D model lies a complex mess of statistics, armor ratings and internal components. Fully customizable in the ‘Mech Lab once you’ve scraped together enough money to buy your own ‘Mech, each chassis comes in several variants with slightly different starting internals and unique configurations of weapon hardpoints. While most components can be placed anywhere, weapons are restricted to where the chassis supports them. While each chassis variant will only allow a certain degree of customization — a missile pod will only go where one can visibly fit — the multiple base variants mean that on the battlefield, a similar-looking ‘Mech might have completely different capabilities.
While it is something of a grind to afford your first full ‘Mech (if you want a larger model, you’re looking at playing upwards of 100 matches, or as few as 20-30 for a light), everything worth speaking of can be bought entirely with in-game funds. While you can pour in some real world money for a boost, it’s hard to say that anything is really worth the cash, with the exception of occasional steep discounts on certain models. Once you do have your own ‘Mech, it’s at least comparatively cheap to refit it. Outside of the engine — the heart of any ‘Mech — no internal component is particularly expensive.
One limiting factor common to all ‘Mechs is heat, and it’s something you’ll have to factor into any ‘Mech Lab decisions. All those huge guns run hot, and firing too often will overheat your whole machine, causing damage if left unchecked or forcing an emergency shutdown to cool off. The more heatsinks a ‘Mech has, the more excess heat it can disperse, and you can speed up cooling further by standing in water if your heat sinks are in your ‘Mech’s legs. Either way, you need to pick and choose when to fire, and it’s often best to wait until you’re within the optimal range for your weapons and have a clear shot at whichever part of your enemy you want to hurt most.
The environments affect heat as well. A battle through a blizzard may give you poor visibility, but it’ll let you keep shooting for much longer, especially if you’re packing a lot of energy weapons. Conversely, a battle on a volcanic world crisscrossed with rivers of magma forces both teams to be very conservative with where and when they shoot, although this does put solid-shell weaponry on slightly better footing. Environmental conditions also provide incentives to use night and thermal vision modes, which are a standard feature of all ‘Mechs, and you can often spot enemies outside of your radar range through their heat signature. These factors add a respectable level of depth to the core gameplay.
The cost of all this depth is a learning curve that looks more like a brick wall. The game has little to no tutorial content, and the official site even links to YouTube videos explaining the finer points, rather than letting you learn things in the pilot’s seat. Unless you’re intimately familiar with the series to date, your first dozen or so matches are likely going to end in an embarrassingly swift death and possibly your team heckling you for wasting opportunities, breaking from formation or using your weapons improperly. This is especially bad in lighter ‘Mechs, which can die in seconds without an experienced pilot. More than any other role, good scouting takes a lot of time and effort to learn.
Serious UI issues hamper enjoyment. The main menu for the game is both weirdly locked to a desktop window and also a cluttered mess, primarily dedicated to advertisements for various cosmetic tweaks or highly overpriced “Hero” ‘Mechs. These unique variants cost a small fortune in real-world cash to buy and only offer a small boost to winnings and a slightly different loadout to their regular equivalents. The ‘Mech lab isn’t much better in its design; important info and descriptions are often hidden from view, and some text boxes even cut off the ends of sentences. You can find recommended ‘Mech builds on fansites, but the game itself provides no guidance on what needs to go where.
The variety of the ‘Mechs themselves is undermined somewhat by the playmodes and maps currently available. In the current build of the game, there’s no campaign, no faction system and nothing to tie matches together other than an agonizingly slow progression grind to unlock small ‘Mech-tuning upgrades. As it stands, almost every single match is a 12v12 battle using one of two playmodes: Conquest or Assault. The former is a familiar multi-point capture-and-hold gametype; the latter is lifted almost directly from World Of Tanks. It’s a straight battle in which you can force an early win by sitting on top of an undefended enemy base for a period of time.