2012 shall now be known as “The Year of the Mech.” Between Steel Battalion, Armored Core, MechWarrior Tactics, MechWarrior Online, and Zone of the Enders HD, giant robots seem to be taking the gaming world by storm. But above all these titles stands Hawken, a mech piloting FPS that owes as much to Blade Runner and Virtual On as it does to arena shooters like Quake III and Unreal Tournament. Best of all, Hawken's coming out the gate as a multiplayer-only free-to-play shooter.
Hawken hits all the pleasure centers of mech and shooter fans alike: heat management, customizable weapons and add-ons, killing sprees, and propulsive jet boosts all factor heavily into the white-knuckle gameplay. But the first thing that hit us is just how pretty the game looks, both in motion and still screenshots. Taking place in a dystopian near-future, Hawken’s grime and rust-covered maps are a far cry from the clean and sterile styles of Gundam and the like – and it feels all the more authentic as a result. Our favorite of the game’s four maps was a junk-filled cityscape that would fit in any Phillip K. Dick story, complete with a thin jade smog of pollution and scrap-covered hovercars.
Like it's F2P FPS peer Tribes: Ascend, Hawken has an infectious energy to each match that makes any onlooker eager to master its mesmerizing mechanics. Your mech simply feels like a mech should: heavy, clunky, and armed to the teeth with bullets and rockets. But skilled players will make controlling them look effortless: with the ability to 180-spin on a dime, jetboost up to higher ground, or cover distance quickly using thrusters, your maneuverability all comes down to how skilled of a pilot you are.
Tuning your mech to best fit your playstyle is a huge component to success. With three chassis types (Light, Medium, and Heavy), gritty paintjobs, three utility abilities (categorized into Offense, Defense, and Agility), and two arms that need weaponizing, there’s plenty of experimentation to be had when building your very own mech. The weapons all have an appropriate heft and heat-generation to them; firing your machine gun, pulse rifle, long-range cannon, or missile launcher without forethought is sure to overheat your guns, temporarily turning you into a sitting metal duck. We felt like we had to make each shot count during our matches – and that made nailing mechs with rockets to the dome all the sweeter.
The trio of equipped abilities added plenty of depth and nuance to the combat, so battles never boiled down to headlong charges with guns ablazin’. Offensive abilities like the EMP were devastating if they connected, disabling an opposing mech in a pulsating green blast and guaranteeing an easy kill. During our demo, allies and enemies alike made great use of the Hologram defensive ability; we admit to firing dozens of clips into convincing decoys before the true mech filled our backs with lead.
Our only gripe with Hawken is its “health” system: if you’ve sustained too much structural damage, you can boost to a quiet hiding spot and dismantle your mech for some on-the-fly repairs. This can often break up the otherwise-gripping pace of each shootout, making us feel like cowards when we repaired to full health after each intense skirmish. Then again, it’s supremely satisfying to go on a six-mech killing spree – a streak we credit to our hide-and-seek healing breaks.
We didn’t get the chance to try the “defend the fort” Siege mode, but Hawken’s deathmatch was more than enough to have us hooked. When you pair its stunning, stylized graphics and old-school shooter gameplay, you get a mech game that looks fresh but feels affably familiar. You best believe that we’ll be strapping ourselves in to Hawken’s mobile mechs when the open beta starts on 12-12-12.