2012 just might be the year mechs come back in a big way. After almost a decade Piranha Games is reviving the MechWarrior franchise with the CryEngine 3 driven, free-to-play MechWarrior Online. The first officially licensed MechWarrior game since MechWarrior 4, Online brings back the slower, more methodical combat fans of the previous MechWarrior titles came to love — and have sorely missed.
MechWarrior Online places two teams of up to 12 players in large outdoor arena environments, tasking them with taking each other out or capturing the enemy base. True to the Battletech universe, fan-favorite machines like the Atlas, Hunchback and more return (albeit with some artistic license to make them feel modernized), and gameplay still revolves around a mix of light simulation and arcade shooting action..
While MechWarrior is first person (intentionally, because they don’t want you to sneak views around rocks and barriers by rotating a third-person camera), the combat is vastly different from any other shooter out right now. MechWarrior combat is slower than most shooters, emphasizing skilled maneuvering and an intense knowledge of your machine’s capabilities over twitch shooting and whip-crack reaction times.
Mechs are gigantic machines, and MechWarrior Online’s pacing reflects their immensity. Some mechs move fast, but every step they take still feels meaty, immersing you in the idea that you’re piloting a gargantuan vehicle. Torsos also rotate independently of legs, lending mechs a very tank-like feel that makes the decision to move a much bigger commitment. For instance you might decide to take your big, bulky mech into a tight ravine, but if you get attacked from behind you’ll need to decide if you’re going to arduously turn around or just run forward while rotating your torso to the side to avoid rear armor damage. Battles aren’t about who can quickly run in and out of cover, or pop up for a perfectly timed headshot, but instead involve intense back-and-forths where mechs lumber out from behind cover, try and outflank one another and use jump jets to get to higher ground. Even the lightest mech has armor plating, so battles are never a matter of seconds, but rather multi-minute skirmishes where you have to constantly adapt your strategy based on a variety of factors.
For instance you have to consider what sort of mechs you’re facing, as well as what your own team’s composition is. While they obviously become bigger and heavier as you move from light to assault, this doesn’t always equate to better. Bigger, more heavily armored mechs are laborious to move compared to scouts, and as such scouts can actually wreak havoc on “stronger” foes. Scouts may not kill heavy mechs, but they can soften up specific points, and also spot them before using jump jets and flying up over a hill.
The usefulness scouts play in spotting showcases role warfare, a feature Piranha considers a “pillar” of MechWarrior Online’s gameplay. The goal in MechWarrior Online isn’t to just ramp up to the biggest mech you can find, but to feel useful in the role you like to play. For instance scouts gain points and experience for any damage they deal as well as the enemies they reveal. Revealing enemies allows long range attacks from lightly armored, artillery-like mechs. The bulk of the battlefield will likely be made up of medium mechs, though, slower bruisers that can take and dish out a decent amount of damage. These forces will do the pushes, working in conjunction with support classes and relying on ultra-heavy assault mechs to break through enemy lines. Heavy mechs might get more kills, but their slow pace won’t help them if they need to get back to base and save it from being captured by a clever scout.
Perfecting your mech’s loadout and developing a keen eye for what others have makes up another huge component of a savvy pilot. Between battles you can return to the MechLab, where you can buy new mechs and customize the ones you own. At some point you’ll also be able to tailor your pilot’s abilities, becoming a master of a specific type of mech, or putting points into abilities that make you even better at the type of role you typically play in the battlefield. When it comes to customizing your mech, the biggest thing you have to consider is the maximum tonnage of your chassis, since everything you add to it puts on additional weight. Additional consideration also goes into what hard points the mech has, since you can’t equip a projectile weapon on an energy weapon slot, or vice-a-versa.
Working within these limits, it’s up to you to craft a mech that suits your playstyle and that makes efficient use of heat. You can equip a mech with a host of weapons, but if you aren’t efficient at managing heat you’ll be forced to shut down. To combat this you have to assign your weapons into groups, alternating between them to keep weapons ready while others are on cooldown. Even if you switch regularly between weapons, you still have to carefully manage heat or else face a forced shutdown right in the middle of a fight (which can change the entire course of a fight). You can add heatsinks to your mech to combat heat, as well as look for a pool of water to run in and cool off.
Once you have a good balance of heat-management, equipment and are within tonnage limits, you have to also consider where weapons are placed. A mech with arms can aim them independently of where their body is facing, but limbs can also be shot off and often take a lot of fire. Guns that utilize projectiles also need to have ammo slotted in, and if that portion of the mech is damaged the ammo can explode. It’s a lot to take in when determining how to create your own mech, but being able to identify weapons and their location is important when determining where to shoot an enemy.
MechWarrior Online makes every action you take feel more important than other shooters, and no one should confuse the experience it offers with other first-person games. You’re controlling a massive, multi-ton vehicle engineered to take a beating and keep on standing, and maneuvering it and using it effectively requires a different skill set than what you’re likely used to. If the role warfare stuff continues to come together well (none of the experience progression and unique pilot abilities are implemented yet), this could be the triumphant return for one of the most beloved PC franchises.