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Hands On: Mechwarrior Online

An Atlas Of Robot Disagreement

The Mechwarrior Online closed beta has been stomping around in the back of my mind for a while now. It's perhaps rude of me to admit it, but there have been even bigger games blasting away at the heavy armour of my limited attention. The past couple of days, though, I gave it my full focus, and found myself pleasantly surprised. The Mechs, it seems, are quite good.

I realise that I've been starting my feature-length articles with disclaimers recently and look, here comes one now: Mechwarrior Online's closed beta is still a little rough round the edges, despite there being a fairly mature robot combat game in there, and the reason for this is that the full game has hugely ambitious in scope. There's a planet-grabbing metagame and near endless robo-garage mech-tuning to be had by committed players, as well as the whole cash-shop currency thing, and all of it needs a little work. The beta is already highly engaging, with lots to learn about multiplayer mechfoolery, but I think there's also still a great deal to come. What we've had from the beta so far is just a taste.

What it's mostly a taste of is teams of mechs stomping around devastated landscapes, thumping each other with missiles and poking each others' heat-sinks out with great beams of energy. Having dropped into the lobby-hangar thing, you can jump right into one of a number of pre-set mechs and go. It's on with seconds, and entertaining each time. Hell, I got the final blow in my last match, and that felt pretty good. I'm getting better at it, and that's a great sign.

Of course the customisation side of the game is going to be pretty extensive, and there's a mech lab for you to mess around in within the game's launcher. Experience earned by robot-whacking provides a system that allows you to unlock perks to better your mechboots. That's going to do stuff like improve weapon performance and help you with that all-encompassing additional factor in Mechwarrior games: heat.

Heat is dealt with admirably, and gives you something think about and manage constantly. Just letting go with the trigger will end up putting your out, temporarily, as the mech simply shuts down to vent energy. You can override this, of course, but at the risk of damage to your systems. And since there's already a number of robots on the field who want to damage you, doing it to yourself is not wise.

Anyway, you know all that. Going back to that currency thing: C-bills are the game's currency, and they're the bit where the free-to-play aspect is going to help Pirhana actually make money. They're slow to accrue if you're paying nothing, and so buying in will give you access to a wider range of mechs. That's not to say you won't be competitive with the free mechs (you definitely will) but just that some people – you know who you are – will want that fatter, shinier Atlas. Folks are already buying the “founder's packages” that give access to all this sort of stuff. Is it worth the money? Frankly, I don't know, and I expect it'll change anyway before the beta is up. Conclusions on that front will take some time to be drawn.

Anyway, to date I've stomped my way through several dozens games, and I am well pleased with both the controls and the balance of the game. An intuitive variant of the kinds of controls we had back with the older Mech games and immediately comprehensible. And once the fight is on things are ferocious. Whilst any mech is a tough creature on its own, exposure to a broadside from multiple enemies will put you down like a wind-up toy under a baseball bat. Learning the lay of the land, keeping under cover, and working with fellow pilots all become instinctive behaviours thanks to this tough learning curve. I can see this is going to be a game that a few people are going to master, and that many more are going to revel in as they struggle to best those masters. It's just that kind of gig.

In short: it's promising.

And the package it comes in is lovely too. The environments tend to be a little murky, but the CryEngine tech renders them with gusto – smooth, detailed – and those mechs themselves are beautifully alive, in a mechanical sort of way. Their carcasses glow evocatively as they are scorched by hi-tech weaponry.

The other thing that the lavish CryEngine-architected environments reminded me of is the odd sparseness of so many mech games. In so many other games the ecosystem of any given battlefield is generally fairly broad and busy: little dudes running around, large dudes roaring around, and perhaps even things whizzing overhead. Mech games, however, tend to just feature mechs. And so it is here. No infantry scurrying around your feet, no Aerospace horrors picking you off from the air. That's fine, probably, but it just occurred to me what an oddly sterile world that is. The mechs might as well be infantry. If it weren't for the scaling of the buildings, cars, and trees, these might just be men with awkward gaits.

Perhaps that's irrelevant. I'd rather play this than World Of Tanks, thanks to my deep propensity towards admiration of anthropomorphic battle machines. And the thumping violence of the mechs has been brilliantly portrayed so that they are big hulks, and they feel like giant war machines. That's a decent accomplishment.

For all that has been accomplished already, though, I suspect there's still a long way to go. MWO might launch this year, but it will be filling out in 2013.

With both this and Hawken going the multiplayer route, there is, of course, a single-player demographic who will be found wanting of a mech game with missions and NPCs and so on. That's still on the horizon, I suppose, but with Mechwarrior Online looking to strike a vein of riches, a single-player game seems further away than ever. Perhaps Mechwarrior Tactics will cheer us up in the meantime.

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Jim Rossignol