When I first began writing this article I set out to make a point about how the mech genre was struggling. The more I thought about it, the more I realised it wasn’t true. Sure, five years ago I was one of those people bemoaning the deaths of the MechWarrior and EarthSiege/StarSiege series whilst decrying modern attempts to revive them such as the action-oriented MechAssault. If there’s one thing you can say about people who like to combine looking backwards whilst moaning a lot, it’s that they are very good at appearing to be complete pillocks.
From Software have been plugging away at theirÂ Armored Core series for years and it doesn’t lack for depth or variety. Why, I’d even describe the last couple of releases as both playable and fun. Then there are bizarre anomalies like Steel Battalion, which demanded an Â£80 investment for a fake plastic cockpit setup – I can’t lie, I totally still want it – and its derided Kinect sequel, or gonzo action titles like Metal Wolf Chaos (you’re the president, so get in your battlesuit and take down the vice president!). And that’s not to mention Front Mission, mostly because I haven’t played it and heard it was a bit rubbish.
So there you are: mechs. Plenty of them. Okay, the line between “mech sim” and “shooter involving mechs” tends to oscillate wildly, but fans of enormous hardware that’s as big as some buses are not doing too badly.
Enter Adhesive Games’Â Hawken. It’s the very definition of an upstart on the scene: announced in March 2011 with an impressive trailer that was the talk of town, if said town was populated solely by fans of mechaÂ anime and oversized military hardware, it’s the first game from a fledgling studio who only recently secured a publisher. With the game’s release date fast approaching Adhesive have been offering closed alpha and beta access to folks on their mailing lists and I was lucky enough to get involved.
Remember how I mentioned fans of oversized military hardware in that last paragraph? Oh boy, does Hawken have oversized military hardware.
The problem with a lot of mech games is that they lack a convincing sense of scale; the game tells you you’re controlling a robotic war machine the size of a four-story building but it doesn’t take much to shatter your suspension of disbelief. That mech you’re piloting would just be a man in another game. Or a man-sized robot who’s running around kicking over toy cars.
Hawken addresses this brilliantly: its mechs have an astonishing sense of solidity and weight.Â Moving around the game’s environments doesn’t feel like piloting a man around a miniature city; there’s a sense of fighting against gravity with every lurching step you take. Even the lightest mechs sway rhythmically from side to side, giving you the impression of a terrifically complex machine composed of servos and gyroscopes and pistons and whatever the hell else you’d need to make a robot walk. (BattleTech called it “myomer-muscle fibre”. What a cop-out.)
At the same time these are machines built for combat, so agility is demanded. Every mech comes equipped with a set of boost jets which allow for rapid dodges from side to side, a quick spin on the spot to escape, straight bursts of speed or jet-assisted leaps to higher-ground. The range of short, sharp manoeuvres this offers will be familiar to anyone who’s played a recent entry in the Armored Core series, though Hawken’s warbots are Brutalistic concoctions of militarised design compared with From Software’s sleek anime- and manga-inspired mecha.
Hawken’sÂ own design appears to have been built first and foremost around the player experience of piloting a mech. As a PC game it’ll be almost exclusively played with mouse and keyboard, and a hallmark of PC shooters is twitch-reflex mouse handling to enable quick kills via headshots. Hawken’s mech-on-mech fights are slugging matches fought out between weighty machines capable of sharp and sudden movements; reflexes are key but so too is economy of movement, tactical positioning and forward planning. These are design considerations that I would expect to find in a tank simulator (had I ever played one).
Credit must also go to the game’s sound design: although there are still some issues here with sound chopping (a standard feature of online multiplayer games, in fairness), I really liked how the game’s dedication to simulating the cockpit extended to muting sound effects. Explosions sound muffled unless they’re right on top of you; bullet impacts on your own mech are sharper and more threatening than the dull whine that’s a constant feature of the battlefield. Your own mech’s movements are often the clearest sound, reverberating through the digital metal of your mech.
Hawken is a multiplayer-only game, bar a simple but effective tutorial (not present in the beta but solidly implemented in the alpha). So how did the matches I joined play out?
On one occasion there were some issues with team balancing.Â Upon joining one Missile match (King of the Hill by any other name) I found myself up against three other players with no one on my team. The other team had evidently been playing for a minute or so against no one, bizarrely pursuing a cheap win. Fortunately this lamentable lack of sportsmanship allowed me to see how well Hawken allows for a spot of guerrilla warfare, misdirection and rapid redeployment (those boost jets are a godsend). The answer is very well: I managed to slow the other team’s progress to a crawl thanks to their lack of teamwork and my quick capping of points, until other players joined the match and we reversed their lead.
Team deathmatches were variable: all good fun, though as always with team games it was always clear which team was composed of random players and which included a cadre of experienced players cooperating and planning their moves. Hawken’s greatest strength in the deathmatch environment may be its verticality: some maps are warrens of metal corridors twisting up into the sky, the military-industrial take on Kowloon Walled City. Although it’s difficult to gain altitude effectively with jump jets (at least if you’re me) it’s easy to safely drop down through sparing use of jump jets as airbrakes. It’s also possible to stay in the action thanks to the field repair system: just hold down ‘C’ to temporarily shut down and start repairing your mech. You are, of course, extremely vulnerable during this process, so make sure you’re hidden.
Hawken’s most unique game type is Siege. This mode sees two teams working to absorb energy from points in the centre of the map and returning to base to deposit said energy. When enough energy is stored, an enormous battleship is launched towards the enemy base. At this point the locus of conflict shifts from the energy absorption points to the solitary Anti-Air battery in the map’s centre: it’s the most effective way to shoot down a battleship so controlling it is essential. If battleships reach a base three times, it’s game over.
I only managed to join one Siege game during my time with Hawken, but it was an epic lasting almost an hour. The team I was assigned to was lucky enough to have an experienced player issuing general orders via voice chat, directing newcomers towards the current objective. We experienced initial successes, delivering one battleship to the enemy base and keeping the opposing team almost kennelled in. Subsequently, however, they pushed back hard and our teamwork fell apart despite exhortations from our self-styled leader.
The final straw came when a legendary player appeared. Known as REDsDEAD, chatter began over the voice channel as soon as he appeared. I overheard talk of his legendary skills with Hellfire Rockets. I heard how he achieved 100 kills without dying; how 100 kills per match was routine to him. He didn’t die once in the last few minutes of the match before we were overwhelmed. He killed me quite a few times. My proudest moment was landing a solid rocket hit on him, then seeing myself exploding into shrapnel, sniped from afar as he span to face me. I cheated him of his kill, his revenge for my daring to land a hit on him.
It was heartening to overhear this exchange, to play in a team with someone offering guidance and to witness the appearance of a renowned opponent. It bodes well for Hawken’s future community: it will be much larger than the closed betas, of that I’m sure, and therefore perhaps too large for legends, but if it includes both scourges and leaders, then that’s good enough for me.
Hawken will be released on December 12th as a free-to-play title.