MWO featured

Mechwarrior Online

MWO featured

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).

MWO #2

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.

MWO #1

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.


4 responses to “Mechwarrior Online”

  1. guillaumeodinduval Avatar

    After 251 battles fought, 3 mech variants acquired (2 of which I've unlocked all Elite Skills)… I still feel rubbish at the game.

    Hey, and I can't shake that feeling regardless of where I end up at in the result at the end of a match (usually 3rd or 4th, sometimes first; sometimes, sadly, last).

    You might say it's because I picked a Medium mech and I'm not meant to dish out damage but, I dunno, when I'm feeling overpowered we happen, as a team, to be RAVAGING the enemy so I feel like ''meh, I guess that was good team work/someone else on their side got disconnected at beginning of the match''. When we are losing miserably, we often have an AFK dude or one who disconnected at the beginning of the match. Makes the matches hard when you just ''drop in and play''.

    Which brings me to what I am: I am a PUG. I don't have pre-made teams nor use Teamspeak to coordinate with anyone. I won't end up being matched with other 8man teams, but 4man teams can drop in random battles. This leads to quite a bit of challenge or absolutely no challenge at all if they are on your side. Sometimes, we seem to either be an ''equally shitty'' bunch of headless (or I should say, in most cases, armless) chickens or very dedicated and effective fighters, where it all ends up in a 1vs1 or 2vs1.

    I realize my experience of MWO has been greatly shaped by my own laziness. I think I might have found a decent bunch of players to ace matches with, but they seem WAY too serious about the game. I don't think I'd ever get up in their ''ranks'' or even be accepted for long given how casual-a-player I am (I say that yet, I've been mostly playing MWO in the past 2 weeks). So for now, I keep on PUGing.

    tl;dr: MWO is quite competitive.

    You can play alone and still win/have fun. But it's like Russian roulette if you stick to that; feels like no skills are involved if you end up living through the round and the other guys don't. If you want to have fun with groups and get more coordinated? You can get a 4man up, should save a few matches of a full-of-PUGs team more often…. but going 8man is brutal, you'll end up with the really serious players and if you don't only play and live by MWO, you and your 7 buddies will likely get demolished.

    P.S.: If you want to still have a blast, add me! I love dicking around my ''flamer-boat'' every now and then, but hey, I like playing ''seriously'' too ;p

    PILOT NAME: So who took Pilot Name as a name

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      Hey Guillaume, long time no see!

      I'm glad to hear it's not just me who feels a bit rubbish at the game (though you are evidently better at it than I am). PUG = "pick up group", is that right? My online gaming lingo is weak.

      I think your comment is a great summation of the competitive MWO experience and it seems like my brief forays had set me on a similar track to you.

      I'm not sure if I'm likely to play MWO much more – I think I'll get my mech fill from Hawken instead – but I'm Shanucore in both games if you'd like to add me.

      1. guillaumeodinduval Avatar

        Yeah, I took forever to motivate myself to build a new PC, got a nice one running at the moment!

        And yes, that's what a PUG is. Often used pejoratively but I'm not ashamed of being a one. I know I might enrage my team when they realize I'm running around with a Mech loaded with Flamers (if you haven't noticed already, this is THE worst weapon at the moment), but whatever, if they wanted a full team of compliant hard-core players, they should have gone an play in an 8man, not drop in a 4man or PUG like I did.

        Aside from that, I find that the insane level of difficulty shifting from ''VERY HARD'' to ''INSTA-DEATH'' (sometimes, ''HARD'' kicks in and it feels like a walk in the park) to be rather refreshing: I haven't played a game this challenging in a while now, and as much as most of the challenge directly comes from the team's capability (or, in most cases, ''incapability'') to coordinate actions, it's still satisfying to NOT die (and lose), or to WIN (and having died gloriously in a rave of lasers ablazin'). If you decide to stick to what you can do and improve on that while keeping some situational awareness (ei: stick to the ECM Atlas and defend it with your life, don't run in front of the pack Rambo style), it makes the individual effort – and experience – much more enjoyable and makes the team contribution much more noticeable.

        Since ya know, sure you can always say ''well, we only won cause WE kicked ass; we only lost because EVERYONE WAS A N00B ON OUR SIDE'' but when you try to no longer be bothered by the result screen at the end, or how fast you lose or win, you can use the result screen to see how your play style contributed to the match given that a lot of exp/cbill distribution is attributed to teamwork-oriented actions. So far, I've had most trouble feeling useful with Long Range Missiles. Matches would go on where I would use ALL my ammo and see that I would hit my targets in direct line of sight too with all the equipment on meant to assist on grouping and targeting… but would rank at the bottom of the list in damage and exp at the end of matches, and feel the only damage I really did was for the few times I'd have used my Medium Lasers.

        I was then told I should go for Assault-type mechs (read: much larger targets) with those LRMs, so I learnt to pick my targets better. It's a different game of its own, you have to stop yourself from engaging the first thing that goes red on your HUD, learn the terrain of a map, make use of the environment not only to gain ground and find a good vantage point, but also see where you can use it as cover should you be spotted by anything from a Gauss sniper to an LRM-boat (term boat, btw, meaning ''mech that dumped only one type of weapon in his loadout''). And before I knew it, I was back in the top 5.

        I'll add you for sure! The group system works ok right now, and if you feel like giving it a shot, let me know! I'm always down for some MWO, may that be serious, semi-serious or downright LOCO!

        Well, I also have a lot of reading to do. Gonna head to badgercommander and start over reading Neurons Like Brandy! Been missing out way too many parts to even remember where I was at when my PC died haha. I HAD been thinking of writing something on MWO at AR, but I think I ended up saying most of it in here alongside your article, and not to mention you beat me to it, but I blame that on my lust for MWO, still, ALL IS GOOD NOW!

  2. Matthew Avatar

    Mechwarrior is an awesome game!