Updated Sun, Sep 15, 2013 by Dalmarus
MechWarrior Online and Hawken both fill the void of classic mech games that to be quite frank, I'm amazed took this long to bring into the world of online play. As an added bonus, not only are they free to play, they're each solid games. Unlike too many games of today that try to cater to everyone resulting in a watered down experience that fails to satisfy anyone, MWO and Hawken cater to two very different player groups. As a result, both of them have succeeded in creating something special. Of course, that doesn't mean I'm still not going to throw them both into a death match pit and see who emerges victorious though...
MechWarrior Online caters to the hardcore of the hardcore. Talking from experience, this is the game that will really appeal to those that spent an inordinate amount of time in the Battletech pods scattered around the country in the late 90s and early 2000s. I was such a mech fanatic that I competed in the Denver World Invitational Tournament in 2001.
For those that don't know, back in the day there were a number of cities that had centers with full-size Battletech pods. These behemoths of awesomeness cocooned you in a pod of godhood. Running on the old Firestorm software, they were complete with a massive screen, throttle control, multi-button joystick, pedals, and numerous physical buttons for everything from flushing coolant through your heatsinks to managing your weapon loadouts and everything in between. They were incredibly fun and very addicting to play in. The pedals controlled the legs of your mech while the joystick controlled the torso, allowing you to move in one direction while scanning and firing in another.
This is exactly how things work in MechWarrior Online. You can run straight ahead, swivel and rotate in a strafing figure eight pattern, or any other top/bottom movement combination you can think of. The level of intricacy in the game is both its biggest strength and biggest hurdle for new players to get over. MWO allows you to customize everything with your mech and I do mean everything.
For example, every mech has a strength level for every single piece of armor. If you want to take one armor point from three different arm locations and add them to your back centerplate, you can do that. It may sound extreme and unnecessary, but for those that study the various mechs in the game, it's not hard to determine "kill spots". These are points of armor that are very weak on a standard configuration. Smart players will use this knowledge to burn through these armor points of an opponent's mech to get a quick kill. You'll hear people screaming about "getting lucky", but there is an extreme amount of skill that goes into getting very quick kills in MWO, just as there was during my old pod days.
It's going to take a very long time for you to become proficient in MechWarrior Online. You're going to have plenty of time to do so as well because the amount of experience points it takes to gain various advantages with your mech (such as an increase in the number of degrees your torso can swivel) is very high in comparison to the amount of experience points that you earn in each match. While the cost of admission may seem daunting in terms of learning everything you need to and combining that knowledge with pinpoint firing precision, the eventual satisfaction that comes with it is well worth the effort.
Hawken takes a completely different route than MechWarrior Online and is clearly targeted for the casual/console/arcade crowd - those that just want to hop in, get some fast-paced mech battling action in, and get out. This could have been a train wreck waiting to happen, but the developers clearly understood the players they were going after. Rather than being a watered down mess attempting to have enough "hardcore elements" in the game to try and attract that crowd, they left them completely out.
On the surface, that may sound like the game is boring and requires no skill. In reality, the complete opposite of that is true. While MechWarrior Online has an extreme amount of configurations, Hawken starts you out with one, and slowly allows you to add more to it as you level your mech. Hawken also sports a much faster mech leveling experience than MWO, granting experience bonuses for a wide variety of actions. These include kills, kill assists, savior (saving a critically wounded teammate), and more.
One major gameplay difference between MWO and Hawken is that in MWO when you die, that's it - you're dead. In Hawken, you’re sent back to your garage where you can alter your mech, switch out mechs, and more before hopping back into the match. Unlike in MWO, it's also possible (and vital to your long-term survival) to repair your mech in the midst of combat. You just took out an enemy mech, but if you nearly got your ass handed to you in the process, then you'd better hightail it into a secluded cubbyhole somewhere and repair yourself back to full. This added piece of gameplay would completely ruin the MWO experience to me, but in Hawken, it's a welcome and crucial strategic option.
The casual playing experience is good, but without the widespread humor scattered throughout the achievement system, the gameplay alone would not be enough to generate a real desire to progress in the game. Hawken allows players to gain an ungodly amount of achievements for virtually anything you can think of. Similar to other games of the past, the Hawken team has littered their achievement lists with some laughs. My favorite so far is called "Thank You for Flying!" - achieved by killing a mech that was in the air.
So who wins? I'm sure you saw this coming, but the answer depends entirely on which type of game you’re looking for. If you want an insanely in depth, strategic, and detailed mech fighting experience with large maps, MechWarrior Online is the game for you. If you'd rather have some fast action churn battles in tight quarters with a bit of humor tossed in, then Hawken is the clear winner. Both games cater to two very different audiences and in the end, that's why I consider both of them a success.