Explosive, immediate and full of rockets, the thrill machine Hawken is free-to-play shooting done right

Hawken, we meet again. I remember you when you were a bright-eyed arena shooter, fresh out of beta, with your promise of mech warfare in beautiful, futuristic arenas. It was 2012, and I was playing you on PC, but even then I saw you had potential. Why did it take you so long to make the journey to Xbox One? Is it because, like the shooty mechs your players enjoy piloting, you have weirdly tiny legs?

Let’s put that question to one side, because Hawken has improved a lot, and really is enjoying a new lease of life on Xbox. I’m even prepared to look past the starting mech, which looks like an old television weaponised by an idiot. Once you’re inside, however, it’s beautiful. The dashboard is full of interesting dials and switches, and the cockpit moves and shakes convincingly with every step. To the left, there’s a huge, roaring machine gun. To the right, a rocket launcher that fires TOW missiles. With these, and some booster jets, you’re capable of taking down much larger mechs.

Hawken works because it sheds the sim heritage of mech games. You have a health bar and a regenerating boost bar, but you don’t have to manage shields or rewire power to your legs. Instead, you can dodge around structures using your quick lateral boost, or take long routes around the edge of the map to catch enemies unawares. Hawken’s maps can feel a little small for the huge machines fighting there, but you can stalk and ambush enemies while they’re napping.

And they do literally nap. At any time, you can hold the B button to give your mech time to snooze, while a little drone puts out fires and repairs scarred metal. It’s a neat, risky way to recover health. I’ve had to keep my nerve many times as enemies barge past my crouched form, just to power-up and rocket them in the back.

It’s not a twitch-shooter by any means. Mechs have a huge health bar, and a lot of Hawken is spent holding the sights over a moving enemy as they try to boost away. There are sniper and rocket specialists that can be more lethal, but they’re harder to use and tend to be hidden far away from your starting position in the mech unlock tree. The moment an enemy disintegrates under fire feels great, however. They also leave behind a glowing energy ball that you can eat to regain health. (Energy, or a glowing robot soul?)

So what do I enjoy about Hawken that I didn’t years ago? For one thing, Hawken just works better with an Xbox One pad, particularly when you start boosting around a lot. But there are still problems. The robots themselves look kinda lame, all dumpy and strangely cute to the extent that I half expected to find Wall-E somewhere with a rocket launcher glued to his head. Structured modes, such as the one that lets you launch battleships at your enemy base, look spectacular, but they tend to last ages and fall apart if anyone on the team doesn’t understand how the match works.

Team deathmatch is perfectly good fun, though, and Hawken is a surprisingly generous and no-nonsense free-to-play game in its opening hours. It wants your money eventually, but it’s very easy to jump in with your first robot and start messing up enemies. Cosmetics are paid for with real money, if you want to give your rubbish television mech a leopard-skin paint job, for example, but you can also buy and upgrade new mechs with credits earned in-game. After a couple of hours I had raked up enough credits to buy a couple of new mechs (something you’ll want to do sooner rather than later).

Yet I have to confess that part of my newfound enjoyment stems from narcissism. For a long time, I thought I was really good at Hawken, especially when I finished top of the board with a kill/death ratio of 15:1. Had my days in the trenches of the early PC version given me a remarkable edge or had I not realised that I had been fighting rubbish AI enemies all along?

It was the latter, of course. My bad. Nonetheless, if you’re after a free ego boost, Hawken will do the trick.

This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.

Tom Senior
Tom takes breaks from games by playing other games and then subconsciously merges them into new games when he sleeps. His favourite gaming moment is scaling an enormous Luigi in Shadow of the Colossus. Beard allignment: chaotic neutral.