In Praise Of: MechCommander.

Joe asks

Not a science question but not sure how else to contact you without derailing one of your posts. Forgive me.

Are you a fan of the MechWarrior/Battletech franchise? If so are you aware of the up coming MechWarrior Online game coming out soon? Either way, are you planning to play and how excited about it are you?

Fan? Well, I couldn’t give you the technical specifications of an Atlas assault ‘mech on demand but I have played and enjoyed Mechwarrior games before. I’m keeping an eye on Mechwarrior Online since it looks a lot like it’ll be World of Tanks but with mechs, which can only be a good thing, and because it’s free to play I’ll definitely give it a try. If it runs on this computer, that is.

Your question did remind me of another game involving ‘mechs, though, and the first one I actually played: MechCommander. It was the work of mere seconds to unearth the disc from its cardboard tomb, and I’ve spent the last couple of days working through the operations. And you know what? For a game that I already thought of fondly, it’s actually better than I remembered. Partly I think it’s because MechCommander doesn’t fit all that neatly into a specific genre box and so the sheer novelty of the thing is quite refreshing, but it also does the Mercenaries pseudo-RPG thing of equipping and levelling up your mechwarriors as the campaign progresses, which is guaranteed to bypass the part of the brain that possesses all the critical faculties and instead tap directly into my THIS IS AMAZING gland.

Some bad men from Scotland have taken over a planet called Arthur and as a member of the First David Guards it’s your job to free him by ordering around tiny little sprite representations of giant stompy robots. Or at least the plot is something along those lines; Battletech has a vast quantity of background fluff associated with it and it is, without exception, complete garbage — seriously, it’s really bad – so the developers do the sensible thing and don’t bother to explain any of it. You’re thrown right in at the pointy tip of the invasion spearhead and there’s no time for the game to tell you all about batchalls or freebirths or fucking zell or whatever because it would just demean the whole stompy robot experience of putting your giant metal boot squarely up the Smoke Jaguar’s collective ass. All you need to know is that you’re part of a space army that for some reason uses giant robots as its primary weapon of war, and you’re fighting some other dudes who also use giant robots as their primary weapon of war.

MechCommander is actually a surprisingly well-designed game in everything from the metagame structure to the actual design of the operations themselves. As the titular MechCommander you have a limited amount of control over what resources you deploy during a given mission. Exactly how many ‘mechs you send into battle is determined by two things: the number of slots available on the drop ship (each ‘mech takes up one slot) and the total tonnage of all the ‘mechs taking part in the drop. As a general rule heavier ‘mechs are slow, tough and powerful while lighter ‘mechs are fast and manueverable but fall over in a stiff breeze. This turns ‘mech selection into a tricky choice that very much depends on what you’re doing to be doing during a mission. Assaulting a heavily defended base? Leave the Ullers at home, pack the dropship with menacing Hunchbacks designed for close-in urban combat. Escorting a convoy? You’ll want a core of heavy escorts with a couple of Commandos or Firestarters attached to scout out any ambushes. Looking at the mission map before you start might reveal an opportunity to use jumpjet-equipped ‘mechs to quite literally get the drop on the enemy. And of course there’s always the question of economy; you could take that 100-ton Atlas assault mech down there, but it’s a big target and two 50-ton Hunchbacks would let you cover more ground while providing almost the same amount of firepower between them.

Something I always found interesting about MechCommander, and which the MechWarrior games didn’t always make that clear, is that ‘mechs aren’t the only war machines present on the battlefields of the 31st century. They’re also crawling with armoured cars, missile carriers and tanks. You can deploy these yourself but they’d be taking up valuable ‘mech space, and so they’re almost invariably used solely by the Clans to provide some much needed variety to the game. Most ground vehicles can be easily dispatched by concentrated fire from your ‘mechs, but they have the advantage of numbers and some of them pack some very, very nasty weapons that can easily blow a limb off if you let them get too close. Tanks are the cannon fodder of MechCommander, and this make it something of an event when enemy ‘mechs show up on your scanners because that’s when you know you’re in for a real fight.


‘Mech vs. ‘mech combat is a bit shallower than I’d really like since it’s not possible to target subsystems and limbs on the enemy mechs. Beyond jockeying for position so that you can get some hits in on vulnerable rear armour there’s not a huge amount of strategy to it beyond focusing your fire on one ‘mech at a time, but when you’re dealing with particularly large groups of ‘mechs (you are almost always outnumbered in this game) this often isn’t enough. You’re forced to make hit and run attacks that maximise your firepower; waiting until the lead enemy ‘mech gets into range, hitting it with everything you’ve got for a couple of seconds, and then running away to a new position. This makes super-heavy ‘mechs less valuable than they might otherwise appear to be (although they’re still priceless in a battle of attrition) and a lot of the time I ran with at least one wolfpack lance of Uller scout mechs, since they could mount PPCs which gave them some punch while also being fast enough to get out of combat quickly if they bit off more than they could chew.

Speaking of, MechCommander loves its ambushes. The Raven scout ‘mech can carry a powerful set of sensors that have a very large radius – larger when the Raven isn’t moving – and which can pick up any enemy ‘mechs that venture within range, but that only applies to ‘mechs which are powered up. Powered down ‘mechs are immobile but they’re also undetectable, and a lot of the time you’ll send your scouts into an area of the map you think is empty only to hear the words “’Mech powerup detected…” accompanied by your minimap suddenly blossoming into a flurry of red dots. Then a Mad Cat comes barrelling out of the fog of war and one-shots your Cougar scout. The sensors are a clever addition to the game and they’re well worth using, but I really like that they’re not infallible. 

The story is complete crap, as mentioned, and it’s best to treat the game as a collection of thirty challenging missions. The good news is that those missions are a rather varied bunch – attack missions, defence missions, capture missions, escort missions, timed missions, stealth missions – and they’ve all got some very well designed maps to go along with them that have some neat features. Blasting through forest can often reveal a shortcut around the back of the heavily defended enemy checkpoint. Taking the high ground will uncover the fog of war for miles around. There are also containers full of ‘mech components scattered all over the map which can be captured and looted, with the proceeds being bolted on to your own ‘mechs in the next mission. This sort of thing keeps the game interesting and keeps you on your toes, always looking for a way to use the terrain to your advantage.

The weapons you can fit to your ‘mechs are, sadly, one of the weak points of the game. There’s no attempt to model the weapons/heat dichotomy that’s supposed to stop the player from cramming as many PPCs onto their ‘mechs as possible, and so… well, you end up cramming as many PPCs onto your ‘mechs as possible. Or heavy autocannon. Or gauss rifles. There’s no reason to use lasers or the lighter autocannon once you have better weapons available unless you have a little bit of space spare that you can’t fit anything else into, which is a shame. This is something the sequel – and the MechWarrior games — managed to do a little better, although it also did a lot of things worse. That I can choose what to put on my ‘mechs and that they’re not all stock variants is very much appreciated, however.

Finally there’s the quasi-RPG elements to it. Each ‘mech has a pilot who gradually increases their skills as they go on missions, progressing in rank from Green to Regular to Veteran to Elite. When a ‘mech gets destroyed the pilot has a chance to eject, but it’s only a chance and it’s a real blow when they don’t make it out of the burning hunk of junk the Clanners riddled with autocannon fire. Losing an Elite Mechwarrior hurts, especially when you’ve spent fifteen missions building them all the way up from green. There’s also progression in the ‘mechs and technology available: you start out with light ‘mechs only, unlocking medium and heavy Inner Sphere ‘mechs as you progress through the campaign and occasionally salvaging a superior Clan ‘mech design. Some of these are very common, such as the Uller, but a few like the Masakari are damn near unique and need to be taken care of because you can’t buy another one at the ‘mech shop.

But do you know what the best thing about MechCommander is? It was released for free back in 2006, and it works perfectly on Windows 7. So, you know, there’s no reason to sit here listening to me babble on about how awesome the game is when you can try it yourself. The sequel is also free, as is Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries, the last – and best – MechWarrior game, and they also work on modern OSes. That Mercenaries download is particularly cool because it adds in something like fifty new ‘mechs that weren’t in the original game, as well as new weapons and ‘mech systems. Sometimes the video games industry just does something right, and releasing these games for free is one of those rare times. If you’re pining for a stompy robot fix and can’t wait for MechWarrior Online (and by all accounts it’s going to take a while) then you could do a whole lot worse than trying the MechCommanders and Mercenaries. They haven’t aged badly at all.

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7 thoughts on “In Praise Of: MechCommander.

  1. innokenti says:

    Yeah, looks very good – will definitely pick these up to have a go. Never really got on with the MechWarrior games. This apparently makes me a bad person, but there you go. MechCommander looks interesting, shame to have missed it back then.

    • hentzau says:

      Yes, you are a bad person. But they’re free! (Free! free) and if you don’t at least try Mercenaries I’ll have to hurt you.

      • innokenti says:

        I am slightly more interested in MechCommander, but I might give Mercenaries a go I guess…

      • hentzau says:

        It’s free! And you will, no joke, spend more time in the mechlab outfitting your shit than you will actually in the missions. It’s very RPG like that.

  2. Nicholas says:

    Mechcommander was a fantastic game. It’s a bit of a dark horse but I did enjoy Mechwarrior 3 as well. It was genuinely upsetting to see mechs you had spent hours scrounging and outfitting get shot to pieces. It marked the first time I emotionally invested in particle-based weaponry.

  3. [...] definitely encouraging. Part of that assessment is doubtless going to be influenced by my latent MechCommander fanboyism ; however, as the first proper MechWarrior game in a decade — if you don’t count the Living [...]

  4. Petrow says:

    Wow, can’t believe, I found your article! I can hardly write about MW unbiased, it was my gateway drug into the Battletech universe, and I pretty much enjoyed it.

    As for the weapons; somewhere, in the devs’ diary I read, that weapons already include heat-sinks in their total tonnage, and their ROF was calculated accordingly. Sadly, C ER-PPC still rules above all, but weaker weapons still have their place, if you want to reliably salvage a mech, rather than flat-out destroying it.

    What I found ridiculous, is the loadout capacity of the clan mechs. The W version Cougar could carry 34 tons of weaponry for its 35 ton frame, while a 50 tons Hunchback IIC W had like 45,5 tons of weaponry on itself…

    A shame, that the second part could not replicate neither the atmosphere, nor the visuals of this game.

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