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We’re perched atop a precarious peak in the snowy ruins of a bombed-out city. In the distance, we see a hulking Atlas mech closing in on one of our frontline allies. With our targets locked, we zoom in to get a better shot using our armor-piercing AC 10 rifle to blast away chunks of its dense hull. Suddenly, the silent stillness of our cliff top sniping is shattered by a barrage of missiles at our six-o’clock; it seems someone was getting the bead on our mechanical, humanoid shell while we were looking elsewhere. Unable to pinpoint the location of our attacker, we’ve only got one escape: leaping off the face of the cliff into the frigid tundra below.

But ten-story drops don’t do any favors for 55-ton machines, and our giant metal legs shatter from the force of the fall. As more enemy mechs close in on our position, we futilely fire off our remaining rocket reserves in the hopes of deterring our attackers. But those volleys come at a cost – our heat is reaching critical levels, and our mech is beginning to shut down on us when we need it most. With all functions in our hardened mechanical fighter going offline, all we can do is glance around our cockpit as we wait for death, defeated.

Such is a scene from MechWarrior Online, the long-awaited, free-to-play mech sim from Piranha Games. With the insanely customizable, tense showdown action that fans of this classic PC series will remember fondly, MWO (not to be confused with the turn-based MechWarrior Tactics) looks to bring in a new generation of MechWarrior fans, for the low, low price of free.

Its lumbering shootouts strike just the right balance between the precise details or a sim, the heated firefights of first-person shooters, and the tactical aggression of an RTS. Our time with the game had us itching to construct a mech we could call our own, and taught us two valuable lessons that should come in handy later in life: never forget to map your LRM (long-range missiles) and medium lasers before a fight, and too much heat spells certain doom.

With mech games, pacing is everything. Zooming around asphalt battlefields in games like Virtual On and Armored Core is all well and good, but it feels more like dueling with giant robot-sized humans than actual, 50-ton metal monstrosities. MWO offers the kind of methodically paced action that gives each lurching step of your machine a palpable gravity; there’s no circle-strafing, quick-dodging acrobatics going on here.

The WASD keys are still the go-to controls for movement – but instead of forcing your mech to walk forward or strafe, W and S control the throttle of your forward or backward momentum, while A and D turn you from right to left with a tank-like sluggishness. Spacebar’s jump jets feel like they’re struggling to propel the walking tank above them, with a satisfying thud as you land. It all adds to the feeling that you’re in control of a truly colossal war machine, instead of a lightweight robot acrobat. Watching a mech trip and fall when its legs give out to a gigantic bullet is hilarious, with a clumsy heaviness to their titanic faceplant. This is only topped by watching the awesome awkwardness of the mech pushing itself up from a tumble, like an enormous metal toddler striving to get back into the fight.

The actual gameplay is reminiscent of the engrossing action old-school PC fans will remember from MechWarriors 2 through 4 – only here, they’re all rendered with stunning CryENGINE 3 graphics. You’ll plod your way towards the enemy forces, making sure not to get separated from the group in fear of getting cornered and annihilated in seconds. Targeting enemies near or far is as simple as tapping the R key, which will greatly improve visibility and let any missiles you’ve armed home in on their mark.

The battlefield you fight on will have a huge impact on your tactics: snowy maps offer a tradeoff of far less heat generation for lower visibility, while one of the volcanic maps we played on obscured our vision with plumes of black-green smoke and made our machines heat reduce at a snail’s pace. Your HUD displays the map with handily labeled tiles, so you can call out flanks from E9 or vulnerable enemies at D5 like a match of mechanized battle-chess.

With four base mech sizes, each with their own unique makes, and a metric butt-ton of customization options, from heat sinks to weaponry to body plating, min-maxing pilots will have a field day trying to crack the best-possible mech construction. Such customization means the learning curve might be substantially steep compared to other F2P games; for instance, your artillery must be mapped to certain weapon groups at the beginning of a match for maximum effectiveness (and not overheating your mech with a single discharge of your futuristic weaponry).

Players seemed irked that they couldn’t execute these simply functions while waiting for a match to start - it’s not the most intuitive system in the world, but it definitely fits with the sim aspects of the game. The game’s atmosphere totally sells the feeling of being encased in a cramped cockpit at the helm of a metal beast, with a meticulously-detailed cockpit view and convincing bleeps and bloops when sighting and locking onto targets.

Our taste of MWO has instilled a hunger for giant mech combat in the pit of our black hearts, something we hope to satiate with time in the upcoming beta. For now, we’ll just have to reminiscence about our gratifying time with these massive metal titans, and plan out (in detail) what kind of weaponry, armor, and spiffy paint job our go-to mech will be packing.

3 comments

  • david-white - August 3, 2012 2:52 p.m.

    If you dont think its a circle strafe game, you havent played much. All I see is light mechs circle strafing everyone else. Yeah, lotta fun.
  • archnite - August 2, 2012 3:49 p.m.

    Ah Battle Chess. Good music. All this realism sounds really cool when you do it to someone else. Like dropping an opponent onto their face but it seems like it would get infuriating when it happens to you.
  • Joaovpo - August 2, 2012 1:35 p.m.

    Aah Battletech I love you

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