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Giant robots with frickin’ laser beams: MechWarrior Online closed beta (hands-on preview)

The first time I started playing video games in the MechWarrior series, I felt like I’d finally found a shooter that suited me. I no longer had to rely on twitch mechanics, master tricks like rocket jumps that killed me more often than they propelled me into the air, or worry about snipers ruining my day in a fraction of a second. While I equated games like Doom and Quake to Hungry, Hungry Hippos (where the emphasis was on speed, timing, and a little bit of dumb luck), MechWarrior was like a good game of chess for me. It rewarded strategy, knowledge and research, a slower pace, and out-thinking your opponent.

MechWarrior Online, developed by Vancouver-based Piranha Games, continues this tradition by supplying a free-to-play competitive online game where brains can triumph over lightning reflexes. In fact, people with experience in the series can usually pick out the players who are used to traditional shooters in their first few matches. These clueless folks are the ones who are alpha-striking (firing every single weapon simultaneously) continuously and then getting destroyed because their mech shuts down from excessive heat generation.

Take the controls

When you’re piloting a giant, multiton robot, everything you do is more deliberate. A throttle, and not just single key presses, controls forward and reverse movement. You’re not going to stop or turn on a dime when you’ve got 130,000 pounds of metal moving at 60 kilometers per hour. Things like facing, speed, turn radius, and the rotation of your torso (which can spin independently while your mech continues to lumber forward) become critically important.

In this respect, I’m happy to report that Piranha has nailed the feel of controlling one of these hulking beasts. Instead of being something you can change in a split second, movement in MechWarrior Online is a commitment that requires more subtle maneuvering and rewards knowledge of the specific mech you are piloting. Some have a higher maximum speed, some can perform tighter turns, and some can bring more of their weapons to bear at different angles. It’s up to the player to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each machine and tailor their strategies accordingly.

Please define mission parameters

Right now, the theaters of war consist of a variety of maps that contain a mixture of climates and terrains. The game teams you up with a random group of other players (usually eight to a side), and your goals are to either capture the enemy base or destroy all of the opposition. Complete missions with the trial mechs and you’ll eventually earn enough credits to buy your own, which you can then customize as much as its size and your virtual bank account will allow. Take on missions in your own mech and you’ll start earning experience points that you can use to further customize yourself by purchasing piloting skills and other add-ons.

Stay on target

Combat in MechWarrior Online also contains everything you would expect from a proper entry in the series. Rain down destruction from far away with your LRMs (Long Range Missiles). Burn off your opponent’s armor with a shot from four fire-linked medium lasers. Blast off the arm of an opposing mech with a direct hit from your dual Ultra AC/20s (autocannons). Again, Piranha has done an excellent job of capturing the look, feel, and practical functionality of the different weapon types, and you can outfit your mech with your preferred methods of destruction.

Veterans will be happy to learn that many of the more advanced combat options also make an appearance. Want to make a long-range missile strike from a hidden location? No problem. As long as one of the mechs on your team has an enemy target acquired, you can target it as well. Need a little help dissipating some heat? Go jump in a river or a lake. Sick of missile strikes coming out of nowhere? Load up an antimissile system on your next run.

Damage to critical systems!

While MechWarrior Online is still in a beta stage, Piranha¬†has not yet completed a surprising number of elements. Right now, the advancement systems for both mechs and pilots are incomplete, and the options that were available seemed a bit pointless. I’d also prefer a little more variety with the mission objectives. I found myself growing bored with just killing people or capturing a base over and over. Many small additions are in still in the works, according to the developers: decals and paint patterns for mechs, more equipment and weapon options, U.I. changes, and numerous others.

Piranha adjusted the in-game economy twice while I was playing. Before the first tweak, earning money was a breeze, and I was rolling in virtual credits. After the first tweak, the game was a sluggish grind that actually rewarded losing quickly more than spending the time to win. The most recent change seems to be somewhere between the first two, but I still think the developers haven’t quite hit the right spot yet. In a free-to-play model, you have to strike a delicate balance between encouraging people to spend real money and making the game unplayable for those who choose not to use real dollars to get ahead.

Status report

While I’m encouraged by the number of things that Piranha has done right with MechWarrior Online (most notably the controls and the combat), I’m a bit worried by the seemingly huge amount of work that I think still needs to be done to make this a feature-complete game. If this launched right now, I would not likely spend any of my own money on it, and I was already getting bored with the lack of variety in mission objectives within the few weeks that I played. If and when this game is complete, I think it will be amazing addition to the franchise and will draw in both fans of the series and gamers just looking for something different in their shooters.


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