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First Look: Mechwarrior Online

Metal Mentality

It's been ten years since the last MechWarrior game. Which seems odd, since the idea of stomping around in giant robots is such a popular one. But now the license has been put in the hands of Piranha Games, and it's going online, and MechWarrior Online is going free to play. I saw it in action at GDC, so read on for my report.

Piranha aren't a particularly prolific developer. Their most recent, somewhat inauspicious work, was the console port of Duke Nukem Forever, along with its multiplayer. For their last home-grown game you're suddenly back in 2002 with the unremarkable Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza, with various console ports of games along the way. But it was first revealed they were working on a MechWarrior title in 2005. Seven years later and they're showing something. Thankfully, what they're showing doesn't look like something from 2005.

What I saw last week was a CryEngine 3 game featuring exactly what you'd expect from MechWarrior - large, stomping robots shooting at each other. And it felt like enough. (Not the first time we've seen mechs in CryEngine, of course, but that's another story entirely.)

The first glance of the game revealed a highly-detailed cockpit with working instruments that usefully measured various aspects of the game, as well as your own arms and legs as you look around. Piranha say they're keen to remind the player that they're a person in a Mech, rather than the Mech itself. Then there's a HUD on top of that, along with a neat double-crosshaired aiming system. This seemed to work rather well. Each Mech comes equipped with weapons on both arms and shoulders, and each can be fired separately, depending on where you're facing, and where you're aiming, with a circle and a cross on screen to let you aim at two enemies at once.

It won't be deviating too far from the familiar Mechwarrior template: in 12 v 12 battles, you'll be clomping around in metal suits varying from 20 to 100 tons, each designed to be useful in their own way. Smaller scout Mechs have been created to be a decent character, well worth playing, able to check out the terrain for other players, while also offering decent defensive capabilities. The idea is to have each type feel worthwhile, and suit a player's style. And each can be significantly augmented through play, scoring "Efficiency Points", which can be spent to unlock features, and eventually open new tiers. And importantly, these are something you can't pay your way to - they're only earned through playing the game.

The free-to-play elements are designed to work in the "time vs money" way. You cannot buy skill, but you can speed up your time fixing Mechs between battles with cash. And of course there are the vanity purchases, letting you create a custom look for your botsuit if you're willing to fork out for it.

As for the persistent world sort of aspect of it, well, players can join Mercenary Units if they're interested in playing the long game, in which an entire galaxy of planets are there for the taking, and defending. Or the occasional player can ignore all that and just jump into a fight wherever they wish. It seems the 12 v 12 battles will me made up of smaller squads of 3 or 4 players, but exactly how all that works wasn't clearly explained.

And being a MechWarrior game, heat plays a crucial part in how you balance your fights. Standing in water cools off your Mech, while settings in ice wastelands and deserts will obviously dramatically affect how you maintain those levels. And while they weren't showing it yet, they're adding in a new setting for the series - urban maps.

Being CryEngine 3, it obviously looked very pretty, but I found what I was shown oddly sparse-looking. Set in green-grey valleys, vegetation was at a minimum, and it looked rather flat. However, the Mechs themselves were utterly splendid, and the detail for damage was incredible. Combat looked incredibly meaty, with the metal beasts able to take a lot of brutality from each other before finally falling, excellently detailed as they fell to bits, various parts no longer working.

All this leaves us feeling pretty optimistic about 2012, which is looking like the year of robot combat, what with this, Hawken, and some stuff that isn't on the PC. Mechwarrior Online is due to go into open beta this Summer, but you can already register your pilot name now, to stop anyone else getting to it first.

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