MechWarrior Online: Previewing the Reboot
Back in the early '90s, I'd discovered table-top Battletech and the world of imagination it opened. At that moment, I loved the game, but then in 1995 I'd been playing the first Mechwarrior game for about a year when MechWarrior 2 entered the field. MW2 changed me from being a guy who really enjoyed something to being a guy who was a life-long fan.
Rumors of Piranha Games rebooting the franchise with Mechwarrior Online was like waiving a beer in front of a Twelve-Stepper. I thought I was off this stuff. Was I wrong?
A lot of folks might think that in Mechwarrior, the defining part of the game is the actual simulator, but they'd be wrong. It's actually the Mechlab where you buy, sell, repair, and rearm your mechs. It's where you decide which mech you want to take into battle and how it'll be outfitted. In nearly every way, the Mechlab is the heart and soul of Mechwarrior.
In Mechwarrior Online, the Mechlab is looking pretty good. They've captured a lot of critical aspects that make the lab feel like it should. Starting off with a fairly cool view of the selected mech in its bay and flashing caution lights, it gives a good sense of perspective of these massive machines of war. The GUI also includes all the pertinent information for the selected mech like tonnage, armor, firepower, and heat efficiency, and also lists the weapons, equipment, and available hardpoints.
Along the bottom of the GUI is listed the various bays you have available and any stabled mech. Selecting one and then clicking Configuration gets you to one of the definitive aspects of the series, mech configuration. In this GUI, Piranha did a good job of displaying what weapons and equipment are available for each section of the mech and how much armor is used or available. Some players may be a little put-off after the last several years of experiencing omni-mechs, but remember that those mechs aren't available in this part of the franchise timeline. These mechs are more confined as projectile, beam, and missile weapons can only be replaced by like weapons, and only in locations designed to hold them.
Provided you've done your time to accumulate the currency, Buying new mechs is as easy as picking an open bay and selecting Create New Mech. Currently there are 9 mechs to select from, as well as multiple variants of each. There are a number of additional mechs said to be in the pipeline, so that number is expected to go up. Mechs can be purchased with either C-Bills, the in-game currency of Mechwarrior Online, or MechWarrior Credits (MC) which can be purchased for cash.
If you're going the C-Bills route, be prepared for a long road. With no tiered matchmaking, you'll go up against some tough mercs with fairly weak and prone-to-overheat trial mechs, and it could easily take you upwards of 25-35 matches to raise the funds for your first light mech. If you're not adverse to spending money, $US 15 gets you a decent and highly configurable Commando, and $30 gets you one of the top-shelf heavy mechs with MC to spare.
Gameplay and Graphics
While the graphics aren't quite on par with some of the big-name games rolling out this past summer, the developers did a great job of taking advantage of their engine's ability to render mist, fog, and wooded terrain well. Additionally, their work with the CryENGINE 3 to model terrain has really paid off well by giving the maps a very organic and natural feel.
It really seems like I recognize a lot of the terrain modeling and mechanics of the game. I haven't seen anything from Piranha to confirm it, but there seems to be entirely too much similar between the MechWarrior: Living Legends (MWLL) Crysis mod and Mechwarrior Online not to believe that there is some sort of collaboration between the two teams. Veterans of the mod should have little trouble slipping into MechWarrior Online as so much is similar between the two.
Once you get the essentials of moving a mech down (the turret moves on mouselook independent of the vehicle's path of movement, which takes some getting used to in game's first person cockpit view). The gameplay is fast paced and fun and a bevy of of realistic physics mechanics suggests a good amount of thought that went into the game.
Mechs running into another mech of equal size or larger will fall down, which allows for several seconds of free shots on the downed mech. Light mechs are so much faster and more maneuverable than the assault class mechs that often this component is the only way an assault mech can fend off an attack by smaller ones. Killing Atlas mechs in my Jenner or my Commando is one of my favorite things to do in this game. It's a testament to the planning of the game that such a thing is actually possible.
Piranha did a lot of things right, but they're still missing some critical components of the MechWarrior franchise. They've built a game where the player has a single life in a match, similar to World of Tanks, but unlike WoT the mechanics of the game rewards the player for staying around to watch the whole match after they die. This doesn't really match with the run-and-gun melee that MechWarrior Living Legends promotes, and that's fine. I actually prefer a more strategy-based MechWarrior game, and I think it's more true to the franchise.
The problem is this: while Piranha has the more compelling mechanics in the simulation part of the game, there's no meta-game to make it worthwhile. There are no houses to fight for, no star maps to plan over, and there's no reference to Solaris VII (the traditional battleground planet of the BattleTech universe). The result is two halves of a game that don't really seem to match; one promotes a more strategic style of game-play that the other doesn't deliver on.
Additionally, I'm a little concerned about the game's future when there's a free mod out that includes active/passive radar, aerospace vehicles, a wide array of ground-based vehicles, access to more a lot more mechs, and the ability to play as an elemental. None of which are included in MWO, and the mod also has a wider selection of larger maps, some with unique physics and day/night cycles. So I'm scratching my head a little over why a game based on a similar engine as the mod would not look to the mod as the minimum bar.
In the end, I like the spirit of MechWarrior Online. I think it's a game with a lot of potential, done by guys who know the franchise and care a lot about it. The developers have created a strong frame-work and are promising to add in a load of cool new toys to the game that will in many ways put it a large step beyond anything to date in the franchise. Unfortunately, I'm not sure those things will counter the large holes in the existing game, and I don't think the game, at least in its current form, will be enough to pull players away from a very popular mod.