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Impressions: Hawken's Open Beta

Squawkin' About Hawken

Hawken's evolution from jaw-dropping, I-can't-believe-it's-not-triple-A indie to investor-powered multimedia behemoth has been utterly fascinating. At the end of the day, though, it's a game about robots rocking, socking, and shooting other robots. The glitz and glamour just won't stick if the core's a prime candidate for the scrap heap. So then, how does Hawken's surprisingly high-speed mech warring fare? I fired up RPS' patented Judge-O-Tron (it is maybe a washing machine with a very mean face drawn on it) and took aim at Hawken's open beta.

I like moving. No, this isn't a setup for the least climactic "and in the game" punchline ever. I seriously love just, like, running and jumping and flopping over on trampolines and pretty much anything that lets me scream "wheeeeeeeeeee" without looking like a complete crazy person. Because it feels wonderful. I mean, we're built to move. Our joints creak and rust and scream if we don't. So moving, it's fun. And yet, games - in their relentless pursuit of that ephemeral concept - largely ignore the glorious intoxication of human physicality.

So naturally, Hawken's solution is giant robots.

This definitely isn't MechWarrior: But Named After A Bird For Some Reason. Hawken's lumbering god machines move like kung-fu ballerinas. Holding any direction and shift prompts a dodge so rapid that it may as well be teleportation. But, at the same time, each massive footfall is accompanied by parts whirring and meticulously detailed cockpits wobbling atop tenuous metal legs. The end result is a mixture of lithe grace and the knowledge that - yes - you're still inside a ground-stomping, sky-scraping goliath. One moment, I might feel utterly invincible - bullets pinging off my armored shell as I charge unflinchingly forward - while, in the next, I'll flit and flutter about like a frightened mocking bird.

Hawken doesn't feel quite like anything else I've ever played. In this case, that's a very, very good thing. That's not to say combat's impenetrable right off the bat - you're still pointing at things and clicking on them until they die, after all - but movement's the special sauce on an otherwise rather traditional formula. It creates these wonderful moments, too, of dodging milliseconds before a rocket splatters your bot's chewy, nougaty human center. After getting the rhythm down and doing that a few times in a row, I started to feel like Neo from the Matrix. It's a glorious sensation, outmaneuvering and outgunning an opponent until they're demoralized enough to whip around and flee for dear life.

The main problem with Hawken, then, is, er, everything else. Foremost, it's extremely limited at the moment. Granted, it's still in beta, but fair warning: four modes and a handful of maps aren't going to hold your attention for long. Admittedly, what's there is pretty solid - with the impressively vertical, jump-pad-laden Crion map managing an especially standout performance - but there's just not a whole lot of it. Plus, none of the modes really present anything special outside of Hawken's unique brand of highly mobile mechanized combat. Deathmatch and team deathmatch are par for the course, and missile assault's just a basic point capture and hold to-do. The multi-phase Siege mode, meanwhile, spices things up slightly, but still ultimately devolves into a fairly rote routine of killing and collecting.

Unfortunately, Hawken's issues don't go away when matches end. In this case, free-to-play comes at a paradoxically high cost, roping off all mech classes except a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none recruit machine that looks like a walking television. (Somewhat hilariously, its codename is CR-T.) Hawken's XP/in-game currency accumulation rate is quite slow, too, so unlocking any of the more interesting classes takes hours. In the meantime, you can always drop precious spacebucks on a slow trickle of items, weapons, and other miscellaneous upgrades, but the agonizing rate of progress certainly doesn't befit Hawken's race of fleet-footed colossi.

On the upside, Adhesive rotates out a couple temporarily free trial mechs, so unlocking new hardware's not a complete slog. But even so, I eventually ended up getting impatient and dropping $10 on a couple classes that seemed particularly up my alley - which, admittedly, is hardly the end of the world as far as prices go. It does, however, make class synergy hard to come by, because most matches end up pretty recruit-heavy. Granted, Hawken's currently limited nature also feeds into that issue. The rangy Sharpshooter, for instance, is rarely useful on the game's selection of (relatively) small, obstacle-laden maps. As a result, most players stick to mid or close-range mechs like Assaults, Berserkers, and Bruisers.

None of that, however, holds a candle to Hawken's current matchmaking system, which is basically broken. Seriously. It does not make matches. It breaks them. I'm not sure what arcane principles guide it to make the pairings it does, but a markedly higher-than-zero number of level 1-5 teams tossed into the deep end against level 20s forces me to suspect warlocks are involved. I once participated in a team deathmatch round that ended with a shutout score of 15 to 70. But then, against mechs with slightly better stats (hooray for skill trees) piloted by exponentially more experienced players, is it really all that surprising? Oh, and before you ask: no, there isn't a server browser. The current lack of one is completely baffling, and I hope to the scrap-riddled heavens that it materializes before too much longer.

It's a shame, too, because when the stars align and I end up on a level playing field, Hawken's great fun. I suppose it speaks to the robo battler's potential that my smoke-and-spark avalanches of thermonuclear rage were followed shortly by whispers of "...but I guess one more match couldn't hurt." Right now, it just needs a whole, whole lot of fine-tuning. More maps, more modes, quicker progression (the ability to share XP between mechs, maybe?), more class variety, a swarm of flying bat-spiders to rip out the entrails of its current matchmaking system in the most agonizing way imaginable, etc. As is, I still definitely recommend giving Hawken a go (it's free, after all), but be prepared for a fair bit of frustration.

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