MechWarrior Online Review
7.0our score

Picture This

Five minutes after deployment, our lance is already at half-strength.

We started out on an advance flank, ready to push past the enemy if we could, or at least spot the bulk of the enemy forces for our LRM-toting assault mechs on the back line. But they had their own scouts out too, waiting in the confusing maze of desert alleyways ahead of us, lurking to snipe from behind rocky spires.

I see you looking at me, you little rascal.

I see you looking at me, you little rascal.

Somewhere, the enemy had a pack of mechs heading for our outpost, just as the two lances behind us were heading for theirs. But we were so busy dodging long-range gauss rounds or playing missile peekaboo that there was no time to look for them.

In my Trebuchet, a fairly light medium chassis tricked out with twin PPCs for long-range action, was making the most of its agility. Leaping canyons with my jump jets let me spring up from unexpected angles to snipe. I wasn’t taking anything out, but I was chipping away, keeping enemy eyes busy so my allies could get up close and finish them. The desert was playing merry hell with my heat sinks. PPCs build up heat fast, faster than my loadout could really cope with. Hit and run, that was the game I was playing here.

Suddenly both the light mechs in my lance were down, gone from the map. Advance scouts piloting the fast and nimble Spider mech, they’d both vanished within seconds of each other. Neither said why – jammed by enemy ECM suites, I guessed. I’d been too busy picking the left arm off an enemy Stalker to watch their last position. Whatever they’d run into was probably close, though.

Then my cockpit lit up with a series of flashes and my whole chassis rocked. Blasts sent me spinning long enough that I lost my bearings. The Stalker was waiting, slammed my legs with gauss rounds, and something somewhere was hitting me with guided missile strikes.

By the time I got my mech back under control, every warning light I had was flashing red and the guidance computer was intoning ominous messages about critical damage. All the armour down my left side was stripped, leaving me prone to heavy damage if anything else hit me there.

This is bad. Don't do this.

This is bad. Don’t do this.

But I already knew I was in trouble – I could see what was hitting me. A pair of Atlas assault mechs, leading the bulk of the enemy onslaught. My one remaining lancemate was nowhere nearby, probably already running, and the other two lances were advancing unchecked down the other side of the area, not nearly close enough to help me.

My only hope was to run and hope they punched through to destroy the enemy base before I got cored.

Fan Fiction

The game of MechWarrior is a universe set on a base premise that I am right in mind and spirit. That is, that future wars are fought by men in huge walking robot tanks.

These titular mechs come in a huge variety of heavy metal frames. Some are imposing collossi, toting hefty layers of armour and a myriad of guns. Some are sprinting scouts, bristling with scanners and electronic jammers. One might be a close-range brawler, with enough frontal armour to close the distance and hit hard. Another might be an artillery boat, sending long-range death down on targets picked out by colleagues.

You always know when missiles are coming to get you. Great if there's nearby cover, miserable if not.

You always know when missiles are coming to get you. Great if there’s nearby cover, miserable if not.

It started as a boardgame, and it’s been a computer game franchise for a while. There’s even a roleplaying game version. I played MechWarrior 4 back in the day, a single-player piloting sim with an enjoyable if hackneyed revenge plot. You took your team of pilots (a Lance of mechs is a battlegroup, traditionally four of them) against a variety of enemy groups in a range of terrain, each with its own challenges for a Mech. Close-range urban gunfights, baking desert heat that makes you overheat and shut down if you’re not careful, zero-gravity where you could bounce over terrain like a flea. (The bug, not the light mech. That’s not in-game at the moment.)

You could outfit your mech with all sorts of weapons, gadgets and spraypaint to fit the situation, and tinkering in the mechlab was a good deal of the fun. Of which there was plenty. I enjoyed it so much, I was pretty interested when Mechwarrior Online was announced.

This is my Trebuchet. There are many others like it, so I called mine Tania.

This is my Trebuchet. There are many others like it, so I called mine Tania.

The Good

Mechwarrior Online is a class-based FPS of sorts, a free-to-play shooter with lashings of mechly pilot sim thrown on for good measure. It’s a good stab at bringing back a much-loved genre and franchise to the PC, but it’s not a total success.

What works?

Well, the feeling of customization is there. You can pick from a long list of stompy tanks to drive, and they’re all widely customizable. The Mechlab lets you add in or strip off armour, to make space for larger guns, better engines, extra ammo or better heat management. You can repaint your mech to be a glowing advert for hostility or a camoflaged spectre. You can hang fuzzy dice inside your cockpit.

Damage modelling is pretty detailed, as is the damage itself. Arms come off, armour takes a pounding, ammo can explode internally for extra damage.

Damage modelling is pretty detailed, as is the damage itself. Arms come off, armour takes a pounding, ammo can explode internally for extra damage. As I demonstrate here, because I’m a terrible pilot.

The feeling of piloting a huge walking tank is there. There’s a pick of camera views, one of which from a drone just outside the chassis that gives you a broader view of what’s around you. The cost to that is having a flashing lightbulb hovering over your current location – not great for staying undetected.

Instead, you can watch from your actual pilot’s location inside the Mech, a claustrophobic cockpit filled with more incomprehensible buttons and dials than a 747. I tend to stick to that; it’s easier to aim. It also gives you a great sense of place – the Mech shakes and bounds as you move, shoot and get shot. You can feel the heavy metal pounding. I love it.

It’s nicely animated and pretty, if nothing elaborate with the graphics. Using a version of Cryengine that’s over a year old, the various maps are well realised, with the sci-fi standards of ice world, desert world, lava world and so on feeling diverse and colourful. A recent patch that added DirectX 11 support helped smooth my gameplay out a lot.

Most maps are quite mixed, with rolling hills, bits of cover and wide open spaces, as well as tunnels and cramped urban areas.

Most maps are quite mixed, with rolling hills, bits of cover and wide open spaces, as well as tunnels and cramped urban areas.

And the fights feel authentic, mostly like I remembered them. Hefty guns blaze, tiny agile mechs nip round your ankles and peck at your armour while big ones can pulverize you in seconds if they catch you off-guard or in groups.

Intelligent gameplay is strongly rewarded. Pick a mech that suits your playstyle and stick to that carefully, because nothing can multi-task. The biggest, toughest mechs are horribly slow, and even the lightest scout can be a real problem if it gets in close enough to outrun your reticle.

But there’s a cost to all this.

This isn't just to prove that I can occasionally win a game. It's to point out the nagging suggestion that I should spend money. See it? Just there, in the middle. 'Look at what you could have won if...' It's pretty low key in this game, to be fair.

This isn’t just to prove that I can occasionally win a game. It’s to point out the nagging suggestion that I should spend money on the game. See it? Just there, in the middle. ‘Look at what you could have won if…’ It’s pretty low key in this game, to be fair.

The Bad

Literally, because it’s Free-to-Play. So although the game itself costs you nothing, you’re encouraged to spend money for a fuller experience. And for this game, the cost has been attached to customization.

Nothing wrong with that at all! Team Fortress 2, a great game, does exactly that. New hats and guns for cash, and it’s fantastic.

But this is not TF2. Here, you can only play for free in a very limited selection of Mechs, specifically trial ones. As you play, each match racks up experience points to unlock skills for your pilot, like slightly faster turning speeds or reload times, and in-game currency, which lets you purchase your own Mechs and the stuff to kit them out with.

Or you can pay real life money to do all that much faster.

It’s not pay-to-win. There’s nothing you can buy that gives you a huge advantage. Even with the Hero and Champion Mechs you can purchase, the main advantage is in unexpected combos of weapon slots and faster earning rates rather than sudden death guns or super-heavy armour. So that’s nice.

But it’s a very very grindy game. If you don’t pay, you’ll need a lot of patience to rack up enough game currency to buy much. The light mechs are cheapest – the game’s scouts and raiders. But they don’t cater to most people’s playstyle, I think. Part of the fantasy is being a huge death machine on legs, not a bouncy scout.

That’s not to say scouting isn’t fun – it is. It’s also important and rewarded by bonus experience just for spotting enemies. But to be a giant biped cannon rack, you’ll need a lot of credits. The biggest assault mechs represent a hell of a lot of hours of play-time.

Honestly, it's not quite as boring as this endless grey plodding about makes it look. Honest. No, really.

Honestly, it’s not quite as boring as this endless grey plodding about makes it look. I swear. No, really.

Currently, you can pick a style of match from Skirmish (team deathmatch), Assault (kill the enemy base) and Conquest (take and hold, with resource points to capture). They’re all fairly similar, because wiping out the enemy team wins the game regardless. Tactics are key in MechWarrior, but for the casual player they’re also virtually impossible to coordinate with your teammates in a match. That’s because currently, all matches are between randomly-selected groups, 12-a-side.

You can pre-select friends to form a dedicated team with, true. But without voice support in game, typing commands is horribly slow and almost useless. Plus with random internet matching, well, nine out of ten people will ignore suggestions for tactics or just shout their own back at you.

Personally, I know nobody else who plays this game, which leaves me perpetually hoping the other guys I’m with know what they’re doing. Mechs form rough packs that aren’t really based on playstyle or function, and the winner tends to be the pack with the most guns in the right place.

You know what the game is capable of when you face a dedicated team, because you always get hopelessly, clinically slaughtered. It’s a testatment to the quality of the gameplay that this can be fairly entertaining anyway. But matches quickly feel samey, slogging crapshoots while crossing your fingers. You can’t pick which map you’ll fight on, so you choose a loadout that works better in, say, cold than hot environments. You need balance, something that works everywhere, and mechs work best when specialised. It’s limiting and frustrating.

Alopecia can bring even the mightiest mech down.

Alopecia can bring even the mightiest mech down.

Until recently, the Mechlab was a pretty weak bit of UI. Confusing to use, and surprisingly easy screw up. A new patch has helped a lot, but it’s still pretty intimidating to the newbie. And there isn’t a lot in the way of tutorials, just practise maps you can walk round.

Future patches promise a meta-game, as well as the introduction of the Clans to the game (invading marauders in faster, more advanced mechs in the game’s background. Here, basically more mechs to choose from). But you’ll need patience and more patience to get deep enough into this game system to care.

Back in the Cockpit

The action I describe above? The reality is that matches very rarely produce a fight with much narrative behind it. There’s limited tension, fun or story in a one-way-or-the-other whitewash. And the Mechs you’re shooting are, despite their different outlines and abilitys, all broadly the same to look and shoot at. There’s much less of the sense of a duel or narrative than I hoped for. Most actions for the single-player are confusing and short. A good simulation of real military action, perhaps, but like real military action, not what you might call super entertainment.

Pewpew PEWPEWPEW missed again dammit

Pewpew PEWPEWPEW missed again dammit.

Perhaps that’s unfair, because I’m basing my hopes on a single-player campaign from over ten years ago. Games have changed a lot since then, and maybe this isn’t trying to be the same kind of game anyway. There are hopes for a feeling of narrative from this forthcoming meta-game update, where each match will have significance on a global map. But it won’t change the core gameplay, the random rotation of maps and the feeling of grind. And the devs are being as slow as their game in delivering on the promised patches.

Don’t spend money on it up front. You can get more than enough of a feel for it through the trial Mechs, and that’s worth a go. If you like it enough to engage longer, don’t spend much. Buying a chassis you like is a must if you want long-term enjoyment and engagement with the game, so a trial play will help you decide if that’s going to be for you. Cockpit upgrades? Blinging paint jobs? Not worth it. There’s no gameplay effect, not even the smile a TF2 hat might get from someone else seeing it.

Gotcha!  Sadly, to almost no effect.

Gotcha!
Sadly, to almost no effect.

I still think it’s good. Very slick in its current iteration, with bug-free gaming and fast (if random) matchmaking. When it works, in those rare games where there’s a balanced match working and you can see people planning and manouvering, it’s a very effective bit of Mech sim. I don’t think it’s got the same appeal as the MechWarrior games I was fondly remembering. Perhaps this is more for folk looking for a change in scenery from World of Tanks, though.

This is a slow, heavy, faithful, detailed game. Not for most, but it’s going to be long-lived and fondly remembered for a few, especially if you can play with a group of pals. Hawken would cater to someone seeking more thrills and less of a learning curve, and Titanfall is garnering all sorts of praise right now. Just remember, MechWarrior is the granddaddy of the Mech genre. The lineage may be a bit stiff and creaky, but it can still stand tall with pride.

Pros:

  • Looks good
  • Faithful to the source material
  • Surprisingly thoughtful and detailed, plenty of tactical considerations to make
Cons:

  • Looks aren’t everything
  • Very slow, particularly in the levelling department, even if you pay
  • Less immediate fun than Hawken or Titanfall, if that’s what you’re looking for

System Requirements

Minimum:
Windows XP SP3
Core 2 Duo 2.66Ghz/X2 245e Processor
4GB RAM
8800GT/HD5600 Video Card
8GB Hard Drive Space
DirectX 9

Recommended:
Windows 7
i5-2500/X4 650 Processor
8GB RAM
GTX 285/HD 5830 Video Card
16GB Hard Drive Space
DirectX 11

the author

Used to be a Doctor (Dr). Now is an actor (Ar), writer (Wr) and gamer (Gr), and would like to get all these abbreviations into general usage, because GrArWr is a much more interesting title to have on your bank card.