On The Evolution And Development Of Mech Games
Actuator: Dead Metal
Wasim Salman writes about videogames using short, mechanical sentences. We asked him to do that for us with an article on a suitable subject: the evolution and development of mech games.
In 1997, I bought MechWarrior 2 for the Playstation.
It received a lot of hype a few years earlier on its initial PC release.
MechWarrior 2 was sluggish and barren on console, its mechanics were opaque.
Having no understanding of what either simulation or mech games were, I tried to play MW2 like an action game.
I never made it very far.
The game was frustrating, but enjoyable and revelatory.
With time, I understood what it was trying to do: An exacting simulation of piloting an enormous, bipedal war machine.
MechWarrior 2 was my introduction into the mech aesthetic and while it felt slow and difficult, it captured my attention.
It had a thoroughness of weight.
Everything in the game felt dense and mechanical, there was a real sense of inhabiting that world through an almost dieselpunk physicality.
Everything in the game took time: turning, moving, aiming - it all needed time.
Even though it was a real-time simulation, the player still had to think in terms of sequences of action.
Time was MW2's currency.
Time became the most finite resource in the game.
MW2, on the whole, had a slow, powerful friction that mirrored the mechs themselves.
I stopped trying to understand MW2 once Metal Gear Solid released one year later in 1998.
I needed something faster then.
I had no idea who Hideo Kojima was and that Metal Gear existed.
I found out about MGS from a demo kiosk inside a local Software Etc.
I not only enjoyed its 'cold' aesthetic, but also its unique take on third-person action.
It wasn't until I purchased the game that I discovered Metal Gear REX.
Metal Gear REX felt enormous when compared to the scale in MechWarrior 2.
Metal Gear REX was the first mech design I fell in love with.
I loved its asymmetry. I loved how it felt sticky and dense, but had a more organic mobility than MW2 mechs.
I loved that it almost felt alive.
Metal Gear REX was my introduction to Japanese mech design.
Armored Core 1 also released around this time on the Playstation, but it wouldn't be until much later that I would dive into the series.
I was still going to arcades then and Marvel vs. Capcom became one of my favorite games.
I remember going through the roster and being drawn to Jin Saotome because I couldn't place him in Capcom's timeline.
I had no idea where he came from, but all his super attacks involved a giant mech called 'Blodia'.
I traced him back to 1995 mech fighting game Cyberbots.
Cyberbots is still one of my favorite fighting games today.
The game fails at scaling the mechs, but it has a beautiful cohesion between time, density, and friction.
The mechs do not feel quick.
Much like MechWarrior 2, every action feels heavy and time-consuming.
Like Metal Gear REX, the mechs also feel organic.
It is a simple thing to forget the mechs have pilots in Cyberbots: each machine has personality and a fricative urgency in its movement.
While the game is not mechanically balanced, its take on the mech aesthetic and mechanics remains remarkably unique today.
It predated MW2 and Metal Gear Solid and yet synthesized their approach to the mech genre with an elegant mechanical cohesiveness.
It wouldn't be until MechWarrior 4 that I would come across a 3D translation of Cyberbots' physical design.
MechWarrior 4: Vengeance only released on PC in 2000.
I bought it on the recommendation of a close friend and on the back of my own curiosity.
I hadn't made a distinct effort to avoid MechWarrior 3, it simply never entered my world.
Having not seen how the series had developed since MW2, I wondered how FASA Interactive had iterated on MechWarrior's physicality.
MechWarrior 4 was a much more fluid game overall.
The mission structure felt less rigid. The environments were more open-ended.
The mechs felt more graceful.
MW4 had thoroughly refined its action elements: time flowed and the physicality dissipated.
In making the game more fluid, the mechs lost some of their presence.
They no longer had the density of MW2.
This would have been fine had something else been added like a more organic mobility or a satisfying friction.
Instead MW4 cut the physicality of MW2 without replacing it with any other sense.
It never pulled the player into the world in the same way as 2.
It never gave the player the opportunity to inhabit that mechanical space as thoroughly.
And this trend would only continue across the mech genre, regardless of platform.
Until recently, From Software's console-only Armored Core series shifted from slow, grounded mech combat to fast-paced, frenetic action.
In the Metal Gear series, every iteration of Metal Gear since REX became faster and more streamlined. Less mechanical and more organic.
The mechs in Cyber-Troopers Virtual-On were much slower and heavier than in its sequel: Oratorio Tangram.
The Virtual-On series is unique to this trend in that following Oratan, the developers would seek to slow the game down and kill some of the mobility in order for the game engine to support 4-player battles instead of only 2.
But removing movement options and replacing them instead with extra players has its own way of hollowing out the physical identity of the game: more people doing less.
Outside of a few Japanese developers and IPs, the mech genre remained dormant for much of 00's and early 2010's.
Mechs were often relegated to set-piece gameplay moments in FPS games like Killzone 2 and FEAR 2.
Mechs became a novelty.
This trend broke in 2012 with two near-simultaneous PC releases: MechWarrior Online and Hawken.
Both games releasing as F2P suggested just how far from the core imagination mech games had fallen in the previous decade.
I tried Hawken first.
Its world was beautiful and well-realized.
The mechs and the gameplay were unsatisfying.
Utilizing simple WASD movement and shooting mechanics, it felt like a standard FPS reskinned as a mech game.
Moving in Hakwen felt no different than moving in Call of Duty: quick and smooth.
The mechs had no physicality, no heaviness, no dense heart.
Hawken was simply a well-made aesthetic homage to the genre.
Disappointed by Hawken's emptiness, I had hope for MechWarrior Online.
MWO ended up being a disappointment in different ways.
Outside of utilizing the beautiful CryEngine 3, the game had advanced very little from MW4.
The mechs in MWO felt the same as they did over a decade ago.
They had the same kind of friction, the same quickness, the same floating physicality.
MWO's mechs inhabit their world better than Hawken, but the lack of change since MW4 was stark.
Utilizing MW4's approach to 'lighter' mechs, simplified controls, and online-only design, MWO suffers the same exact problem as the latter iterations of Virtual-On.
MWO is less interesting than its ancestors.
It would be another two years before a game would succeed at recreating and reiterating on the dense friction of MW2.
Titanfall understood what made MW2 so compelling in spite of its flaws.
Like MW2, it adopts time as a currency that can be actively traded for a mech.
Being that the default player state in TF is a grounded mech pilot, it becomes the player's job to get into a mech as quickly as possible.
In each match, there is a clock that ticks down the seconds until the player's mech is ready to be dropped from orbit.
It is the player's job to speed up the timer by completing objectives and/or killing the opposing team.
The mechs in TF are scaled well. They loom over the battlefield without being overbearing.
They have a near-perfect density.
Even though Titanfall implements the simple WASD control scheme found in Hawken, the mechs have more mechanical presence.
Everything from the mechs' swaying while in motion to the loud, heavy footsteps harden their identity in the game.
The mechs in TF feel like a new kind of organic machinery.
Where the pilots feel fast and loose, the mechs stick to the world around them.
Titans have no floatiness in them.
There is no question about where they belong and the space they are occupying.
Titanfall is the most authentic hybrid of Metal Gear REX/Cyberbots' organic stickiness and MechWarrior 2's mechanical density.
As more games seek to describe the future and fictions of military technology, it can only be hoped that mechs will continue to be given focus outside of short bursts of novelty.
Mechs have stood in the imaginations of people across all cultures for decades now.
While it is simple to dismiss them as fictional machines that have no real bearing outside of being a cog in nailing down a future aesthetic, they are more a congealing point for human technological imagination.
The fundamental identity of mechs lies in their physicality and more games need to do better in getting that right.
Games like Hawken that only utilize the mech aesthetic while ignoring their physical identities seem disingenuous and limiting.
When I first began to understand MechWarrior 2, it felt as though I was discovering something bold, honest, and complex.
While Titanfall dropped the complexity down, its mechs still have boldness and genuine presence.
Video games are the best platform for experiencing what a mech might feel like, what it might be able to do.
By ignoring the subtleties involved in that experience, we are only trading imagination for a rote, ineffectual boredom of space.
This article was funded by the RPS Supporter program.