After enthusing greatly about Hawken last month I was challenged to try out its closest competitor: heavyweight contender Mechwarrior Online.
Mechwarrior has a pedigree that Hawken can only dream of, emerging from a long-running series of tabletop wargames with generations of rulesets and balance under its belt, not to mention a beloved videogame lineage that includes the Mechwarrior, Mechcommander and MechAssault series. (Okay, maybe less so the latter.)
Think that last paragraph was unwieldy? Wait until you see what they’ve packed into your cockpit. MWO is more obviously a mech simulator with its complex weapon chaining and firegroups, its HUD and detailed targeting systems, and its excellent damage modelling – unique not only to each mech but also to each mech variant.
Where Hawken adopts the model of the modern arena manshooter, complete with its fast-paced always-on combat, Mechwarrior Online invites the possibility of more complex strategies: complementary mech combat roles and tactical positioning are far more important here. Hawken’s quick jet-powered evasive manoeuvres are not possible here. In the lore that underpins the fictional setting a mech is usually described as a walking tank, and tank battles are the more obvious inspiration for gameplay here, even if you are firing lasers and gauss guns rather than shells.
I spent a lot of my Hawken article praising the game’s feel, so it seems apposite to focus my attention here too. Whereas Hawken invests heavily in generating a player sensation of being inside the cockpit of a hulking metal war machine, MWO eschews this: any sense of bulk comes primarily from the speed of movement and your tendency to slam into objects if you’re not paying attention (read: an inept pilot).
Visceral visual effects like Hawken’s swaying cockpits and cracked HUD would arguably distract from the more tactical experience MWO offers, which is one reason why they may not be included here. A more mechanical consideration may be to do with MWO’s area-specific damage modelling, which could be made still more complex to calculate in an online multiplayer game if movement became less predictable. Visuals aside, there’s no obvious reason why more effort couldn’t have been invested in making MWO’s audio experience feel closer to the action. Most likely MWO simply wanted to be consistent with what had come before – the Mechwarrior games have come to define the mech genre (which saddens old EarthSiege fans like me).
Enough of the comparisons. Both titles offer different experiences and neither should live in the other’s shadow. So how does MWO perform at its own game?
I’ve singled out the damage modelling for praise several times, and it really does deserve this – it’s more complex than I remember from any previous Mechwarrior game, although I confess I may have missed some of the finer details of past single-player experiences. MWO’s mechs can catastrophically overheat and blow their own ammo caches, lose heat sinks and struggle to cool their weapons, see armour stripped from specific locations, lose individual limbs and weapons and will temporarily shut down if they overheat. Piloting a mech is about battle management and MWO does a good job of bringing aspects of that to the table.
Other aspects are more problematic. Some cockpit layouts – which are unique to each mech class – have a tendency to place targeting data in areas of the screen which are partly occluded. Want to know where that enemy Atlas has been weakened? Good luck in the heat of the battle, because for no apparent reason you can only see its legs in your HUD when you glance up at the top right of the screen. In fairness this may just be a weird resolution problem that only afflicts me; I’m running at 1650 x 1080.
Another gripe concerns the weapon groups. Each mech has up to six weapon groups, which essentially relates to which weapons fire when you hit a certain button. The primary mouse buttons are always bound to certain weapon groups (one can be toggled in match, the other cannot) whereas others are fired using number keys. I always found this a struggle in the Mechwarrior series; when you’re piloting using WASD, juggling between number keys to fire some weapons whilst also targeting and firing with a mouse is a faff. Again, though, this could be just me.
Less unique to my personal experience is the way that custom weapon groups cannot be set up in the Mech Lab, the universal front end of the game, and instead must be set up at the start of each match. This is a bizarre oversight that must also vex experienced players with unusual mech builds. Compounding the issue is the fact that your first 30 seconds in a match sees you completely locked out: you can’t set weapon groups or check the map or even communicate with other waiting players.
I can conceive that after purchasing a mech it may be possible to rearrange weapons in such a way that groups are set accordingly – so bespoke weapon grouping is only an issue for new players using trial mechs – but using the Mech Lab is such a laborious and undocumented process that I gave up trying to tinker with the one mech I eventually earned enough credit to purchase.
Overall, though, despite these gripes I’ve found MWO an engaging experience with a mostly welcoming player base. As with Hawken, I occasionally found aspiring commanders issuing orders and I was happy to oblige and play a part in a larger strategy: I soon learned that failure to co-operate will usually see your team shredded in MWO’s fierce competitive play.
MWO is also a very difficult game: in the five or six hours I’ve spent in the game so far I’ve amassed a depressing total of about two kills. Dealing damage I can do; the finishing blow usually escapes me. I am obviously either missing something about how the game works or I have truly terrible aim and just can’t consistently hit the same areas on an enemy to strip away their armour. Nonetheless, my desire to invest more time in the game was palpable.
Speaking of investing, how about MWO’s free-to-play model? Well, new players can use four ‘trial’ mechs as much as they like in games, and there’s a decent mix of classes to play with. Trial mechs don’t need repairs to be paid for but they earn less cash and no experience. You can buy your own mechs but they don’t come cheap: most players would have to participate in over 50 matches to buy the cheapest at 3,600,000 credits.
You can bypass this by investing in the meta-currency, with the lowest investment being $7 for 1250MC. That will just about buy you the cheapest light mech available. If you want to buy a single assault-class mech – the big heavies which are the easiest for new players to participate with – you’re looking at an investment of $30.
I’m sure there is a rationale behind these prices – running all those servers can’t be cheap – but they still seem startlingly high. New players may end up sticking to the trial mechs, as light mechs are difficult for new players to make an appreciable contribution with. One might argue that playing the 200 or so matches it would take to earn enough to buy an assault mech would really teach a player how to use that mech, but given that each match lasts 15 minutes a 50-hour investment of time is shocking.
But this emphasises, to me, what MWO is really about: a long-term investment, a development of skill concurrent with earnings. MWO demands that players pay their dues. The investment shortcut gets you cool gear but only practice will teach you how to use it effectively. MWO was built both for the large existing Battletech / Mechwarrior fanbase, and for players who like to invest scores of hours in competitive military games.
If I’ve judged this correctly then all I can say is: I salute those gamers, and regret that I will probably never join them. MWO is a game that I am simply not good at, and its only concession to players like me is that I can fork over bucketloads of cash. If that seems an ambivalent conclusion, it is.