The best thing about MechWarrior Online is the startup routine your pilot goes through every time they enter a match. When it begins you’re treated to a first-person view of the cockpit interior of your unpowered mech, with no HUD or other visual accoutrements apart from a pair of hands pushing buttons, flipping switches and even test-waggling the control stick while a calm, computerised voice intones the following:
“Reactor: Online. Sensors: Online. Weapons: Online.”
“All systems nominal.”
The second best thing about MechWarrior Online is that it’s a free-to-play multiplayer MechWarrior game and it doesn’t completely suck. It’s still in beta and as such is very rough around the edges in some places, while there’s others that are simply incomplete or not implemented yet, but even with just the basics working I have to say it’s looking somewhat promising. Not very promising – it’s not quite blowing my socks off with how awesome it is – but 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 Legends mod for Crysis Wars – the franchise could have done far, far worse.
So the whole MechWarrior thing is that it’s the far future and everyone now fights wars ensconced inside what I must assume is the supremely comfortable cockpit of a giant stompy robot, called a ‘Mech. The ‘Mechs come in a range of sizes ranging from tiny twenty ton Lights up to hulking hundred ton Assault behemoths. Some of them are fast. Some of them are slow. Some of them can take a lot of punishment before falling over, and some can’t (usually in inverse proportion to how fast they are). Some of them have jetpacks. All of them have guns, whether in the form of lasers, armour-piercing cannon or long-range missile systems. The single-player MechWarrior games took you through a campaign where you’d go on missions trying to achieve set objectives while fighting it out against everything from tiny armoured cars to tanks to aerospace fighters. Since MechWarrior Online is a multiplayer game, though, clicking the “Play” button just stuffs you into a battle with fifteen other human-piloted ‘Mechs.
For better or worse MechWarrior Online is using the World of Tanks free-to-play model. The idea behind this is that you will at any one time have two or three ‘Mechs available to take into a match. You pick the one you want to play, outfit it according to your particular tastes and then let the game’s matchmaking system find a battle for you. These are universally 8v8 affairs at the moment, with only two game types: straightforward base attack/defence and a monumentally awful control points mode, set over a variety of maps in different environments – desert, ice, nighttime, in the middle of a blizzard and so on. No matter which mode you’re playing a typical MechWarrior Online match will consist of two to three minutes of jockeying for position followed by the actual shooting part. Unusually for a modern multiplayer game even light ‘Mechs are fairly resilient — and assault ‘Mechs can absorb dozens of hits before dying — so it can be anywhere up to five minutes before the match transitions to the cleanup phase. If you get taken out early in the fight, though, you don’t have to wait around for things to draw to a tortuous conclusion. You can simply quit the match; it’ll carry on without you and you’ll still get whatever money and experience is coming to you, leaving you free to jump into one of your other ‘Mechs to play a second game while the first is still resolving itself.
This elimination of what has always been the most tedious part of single-life multiplayer games was a masterstroke for World of Tanks, and it works just as well for MechWarrior Online. It means the player spends all their time either in a ‘Mech shooting other ‘Mechs, or else in the Mechlab tinkering with their loadout and deciding what to buy next, which is a key step in keeping you interested in the game: there’s no real getting around the fact that MWO is a bit grindy – it’s free to play, after all, and the more time you spend playing a free-to-play game the more likely you are to oxymoronically spend money on it – but they’ve at least made enduring that grind somewhat less painful. MechWarrior Online also improves markedly on World of Tanks by eliminating any XP or skill requirements to drive ‘Mechs and making cost the sole barrier to entry. New players will not start with any owned ‘Mechs but they’ll always have access to four trial models with stock loadouts that can’t be altered, as well as receiving a hefty monetary bonus for the first twenty-five games they play (often doubling or tripling the amount normally received) which guarantees they’ll be able to buy at least one ‘Mech of their choice in short order even if it’s a top-of-the-line Atlas. It’s a much more generous start than just about any other free-to-play game, and it’s made possible by MechWarrior Online’s combat system.
MWO manages to do something I that thought would be very, very tricky to pull off: it makes every single ‘Mech class a viable combatant with a useful role to play on the battlefield. Light ‘Mechs have less armour and pack less firepower and can be taken out by a single well-placed autocannon round – if you can hit them with it as they dodge and weave around the battlefield. Not only are larger ‘Mechs lumberingly slow but most of their primary armament tends to be nailed to their torso, which usually has a glacial traverse speed that makes tracking fast-moving targets a nightmare. And while they don’t have the tonnage to mount the largest weapons available light ‘Mechs can still pack a respectable punch with the mid-range stuff, especially if it’s fired at vulnerable back armour. I pilot medium ‘Mechs thanks to an ongoing love affair with the Hunchback and its oversized AC/20 cannon (that once holed a Dragon clean through its back plating in one shot) and I can usually make Heavies and Assaults regret tangling with me, but I’ll be lucky to survive against a determined Light.
The larger ‘Mechs on the other hand have survivability and an obscene amount of firepower as their primary selling points. Their role is to provide heavy fire support and soak up damage, and they are remarkably good at the latter job. It’s funny considering that all the ‘Mechs in MWO are being driven by people and not scripted AI, but when one of the death’s head Atlases arrives on the scene everyone switches their fire to try and take it down simply because it’s the biggest, scariest thing on the battlefield and you just want it gone. Other ‘Mech variants are less tanky and provide more specialised fire support, with the Catapult functioning as the premiere sniper ‘Mech with either long range missiles or particle cannon, and the Jagermech being able to mount dual AC/20s, the largest gun in the game. When you see one of those two you want to get out of their firing line and behind a solid piece of cover very very quickly; they may be comparatively weak for Heavies but they pack a hell of a punch.
The other Heavies and Assaults tend to bleed into one another for me (one of MWO’s problems is that the ‘Mech designs have moved away from the admittedly somewhat goofy but distinctive ‘90s style to this generic blocky and bulky look) as most of the time I’m driving too fast to really take much notice of what I’m firing at. I favour supercharged Medium ‘Mechs that are fast but nonetheless extremely resilient; their only problem is that they don’t pack that much firepower so they’re highly reliant on movement to stay in the fight long enough to put an opponent down. I usually die, but there’s no repair costs in MWO and I also usually output enough damage to feel like I’ve made a contribution; it’s hard for that Atlas to concentrate on taking out our firepower when it’s getting hit in the side of the head with a large-bore autocannon round every four seconds. That’s what the Mediums seem designed for: to lurk around the edges of combat and either take advantage of distracted opponents or open up similar opportunities for the main force.
What I’m trying to get across here is that all ‘Mech types are capable of coexisting in the same game if you build them right; while an Atlas probably could one-shot a Commando if it was standing still, everything else is tough enough and/or fast enough to survive in a brawling firefight – at least for a little while. This is why MWO doesn’t feel the need to lock away bigger ‘Mechs behind money or XP barriers and instead does the nearest thing a free-to-play game is capable of to throwing open the doors and handing you the keys to the shiniest robot in the showroom. It can afford to do this, and while you’ll only get enough bonus money to buy one or two ‘Mechs before having to start the slow grind that characterises free-to-play it’s a refreshing approach nevertheless.
The combat itself is a complex beast. From what I understand it suffers a bit from trying to cram rules designed for tabletop play into a first-person ‘Mech driving simulation, and so I’m not sure I’d call it balanced as such (there are weapons and loadouts that are unambiguously better than others) but it’s certainly functional. Each ‘Mech is modelled as a collection of components housed within discrete regions of the ‘Mech – arms, legs, right torso, left torso and so on – each with its own armour rating and internal structure. To kill a ‘Mech you first have to crack through the armour of one of these components by hitting it really hard; then you have to wreck its internal structure (ballistic weapons get bonuses for this in the form of a chance to critically hit) to destroy that region of the ‘Mech. If it was a non-essential part – an arm, say – then while the ‘Mech will lose whatever weapons were mounted on that arm it’ll still fight on with the rest of it, and if you angle your torso right (and your opponents are spectacularly bad at focus firing) you can take a shocking amount of damage thanks to this redundancy. I once lost both arms, both side torso components and a leg and was still hopping long firing at the enemy with the medium lasers mounted in my centre torso. To take a ‘Mech out for good you need to do one of the following:
- Destroy its engine. This usually means taking out the centre torso, the most heavily-armoured part of the ‘Mech.
- Destroy both legs. Much harder than it sounds because they’re constantly moving and your weapons can only depress so far.
- Destroy the cockpit. It’s only thinly armoured, but the head hitbox is tiny compared to the rest of the ‘Mech and you’d have to be very accurate – or lucky – to score a hit.
This is the reason why it’s so hard to kill even a light ‘Mech in MWO; in the hurly-burly of combat your damage gets spread over several body parts and it only needs three of them to keep on fighting. There’s also the ever-present heat mechanic, which is the method by which the MechWarrior games balance the various weapons and heat loadouts: your ‘Mech is only capable of dumping a given amount of heat every second, and when every weapon you fire causes heat buildup a prolonged firefight carries the very serious danger of having your ‘Mech shut down temporarily because the heat level spiked too high. Lasers have unlimited ammunition but cause rapid heat buildup; ballistic weapons need their own ammo supplies (which carry the separate risk of an ammo explosion if your ammo storage zone is blown out) but generate less heat. Lasers fire instantly but must be kept on-target over a period of about a second in order to do their full damage. Ballistic projectiles have a flight time but deal full damage if they hit. Lasers are useful for shooting small, fast targets and as backup weapons for an ammo-dependent ‘Mech. Ballistic weapons do more burst damage but are harder to aim, making them most useful against big, slow-moving stuff. Most weapons have a niche in the game somewhere, and you can spend literal hours in the Mechlab trying to outfit your ‘Mech to maximise both redundancy (you don’t want your biggest gun in a compartment that’s easily destroyed, which is a big problem with the Hunchback) and its ability to target different ‘Mech variants at given ranges.
MechWarrior Online’s basic gameplay is mostly well-thought out. It’s one of the friendlier free-to-play games out there and the ‘Mech battles that form the meat of the game are both relatively deep and unfailingly pretty1 As I said at the start it’s very limited right now, though, and while I’d feel bad kicking it for failings caused by the fact that it’s not full-tuned yet they’re still worth mentioning because it’s not guaranteed that they’ll ever be fixed at all. For starters the matchmaking system is incredibly wonky, not just in terms of player skill but in its tendency to produce an 8v7 game where one team has an additional Atlas assault ‘Mech, which is enough to unbalance things to the point where it’s a one-sided stomp. This isn’t helped by the client’s frequent tendency to disconnect somebody as soon as the map loads, leaving one team or the other a ‘Mech down; 8v8 matches are small enough that this really does matter, and there needs to be an option for larger player numbers introduced at some point. Some maps are much better suited for some ‘Mech loadouts rather than others. Alpine Peaks in particular is a sniper’s paradise, which is why it’s so annoying to get that map when you readied up in your short-range brawler ‘Mech.
These three factors together tend to result in a lot of one-sided matches which are no fun for anyone. It’s not that the gameplay is at fault here, it’s the underlying systems which have yet to finish their long journey from beta to full release, and I do hope that they eventually reach a point where MWO can reliably present me with a somewhat even matchup where nobody is booted from the game in the first couple of seconds of play, but it does mean that right now MechWarrior Online is a game that I’m more likely to pick up and play every few months rather than an ongoing concern. What worries me most about it is that after a year or so of closed and open beta it’s yet to approach the level of completeness that World of Tanks displayed when it went into open beta back in 2010; the game is very grindy but it doesn’t actually go anywhere at the moment, with a nonsensical XP system and a matchmaking system that ends up being rather repetitive because of the limited number of game types on offer. Unless you really like stompy robots beating the crap out of each other MechWarrior Online is unlikely to hold any long-term appeal for you. But hey, it’s free, it’s fun and… well, it involves stompy robots beating the crap out of each other. That counts for a lot in my book, so why not try it? At the very least it’ll make you want to play those free releases of MechCommander and/or Mercenaries again, which makes it a win-win as far as I’m concerned.
- I’m happy to be able to finally take the Best Lasers In A Videogame award away from Carrier Command, for starters. ↩