Hawken

Let’s be real. Everybody wants to jump into the cockpit of a fully loaded, 40-ton robot and pilot it straight into combat. Everybody. That’s core geekdom, right there. It’s in our DNA.

Lucky for us, you won’t find any shortage of heavy-metal enablers. Two big, free-to-play, online-multiplayer mech games — the elder statesman of robo-warfare and a hotshot challenger — are currently running open betas. A third, based on a nearly-forgotten franchise, is on the way.

Best of all, each one takes a different approach to its carnage. Here’s how the contenders break down.

MechWarrior Online

Mechwarrior Online

If you’re looking for a gold standard in mecha games, up until very recently, the conversation started and stopped with Mechwarrior. “There’s a lot of good weight with that name,” a producer on a competing game readily told me, and he’s not kidding. Its credentials stretch back to 1989 — further if you throw in Battletech, its pen-and-paper RPG forebear — and good luck finding a PC gamer from that time who doesn’t get a pleasant chill just from hearing the battlemech start-up sequence.

It’s different, but yep … Mechwarrior Online has a start-up sequence.

A decade after the last entry in the franchise, Piranha Games brought the classic back with a lot of its nuances intact and an epic scope few others can match. Moreover, Mechwarrior gives you a real sense of piloting a heavy piece of machinery with lots of guns on it. It’s the mech simulation game, equal parts strategy and twitch.

MechWarrior Online

Accordingly, customization plays a major role. Everything about your battlemech revolves around dishing out buckets of pain while managing your heat buildup; overheat, and your unstoppable death machine shuts down, leaving you a sitting duck. You also get to swap out components inside and out, including where your weapons go and in what order they cycle … all the better to follow up high-heat lasers with low-heat ballistic guns and give your mobile suit a second to cool off.

Mechwarrior pays off when you take that custom job into a firefight and see all your decisions pay off. I guarantee nobody wins this game without using their head first.

Bigger mechs give you a bigger platform to build on, but they cut your speed down until a few puny chicken-walkers can literally run circles around you. That gets embarrassing, but it’s a result of pitch-perfect balancing.

In terms of cost, Mechwarrior issues a few free mechs, a few try-before-you-buy “trial mechs” you can take for a limited spin, and then things get expensive, whether you’re spending in-game C-bills or real-world money. A “hero” battlemech can run you anywhere between $17-24, plus a few bucks to open the slot in your mech bay and any cash you want to peel out to pimp your ride. Piranha also offers paid premium time, which boosts your leveling for an hour at a time.

Beyond that, Mechwarrior has another big ace: the franchise’s almost 30 years’ worth of continuity. Piranha leverages it well. When the game leaves beta for live sometime this summer, along with a complete revamp of the user interface and an expansion from 8-vs.-8 matches to 12-vs.-12, it’ll launch an overarching metagame called Community Warfare.

“You can start to play faction-based gameplay,” says Piranha president Russ Bullock. “You can create a mercenary unit and challenge other mercenary units. Or if you want to join one of the great houses of the Inner Sphere, you can work your way up the ranks.” Bullock’s team is also looking into supporting pirate classes who just make trouble.

“In the final phase, you’ll start to battle for territory in the Inner Sphere,” says Bullock. “A lot of the border worlds between the great houses will be up for grabs.” And certain perks go with controlling that territory … perks that vanish if another house takes a planet away.

MechWarrior Online

Here’s the other thing. Mechwarrior Online unfolds in real time, so every minute that passes in April 2013 is a minute passing in April 3049. That plays into a little something Piranha creative director Bryan Ekman calls “the integrity of the timeline.”

“There is a certain set of prescripted events that have to happen,” says Ekman. Meaning roughly six months after Mechwarrior Online goes live, the Inner Sphere experiences one of the more cataclysmic events in the franchise’s history — the Clan Invasion. And then those planets the great houses fought over start falling to the clans, leaving players either fending off the invaders or fighting over what’s left. “It’s so dynamic,” Ekman adds. “So much happens in a very short amount of time. We felt it would be a fantastic way to keep players engaged. They’ll see the changes daily, participate in those changes, and affect how the universe looks.”

Those events will drive Mechwarrior Online for the next two years. Consider that ideal ground for an aspiring pilot in their fully customized walking tank who wants the weight of history behind them.

Or maybe you just want to strap into a giant robot and light some fools up. Let me tell you about Hawken.

Hawken

Hawken

It sometimes feels like Hawken’s been around forever — the launch trailer came out just over two years ago — but as the newest IP on the block, Adhesive Games’s robot smasher technically holds the challenger position.

That’s hardly a disadvantage. Hollywood’s already locked up the movie rights, awards and accolades have sailed in en masse, and an enthusiastic beta community enabled Adhesive to grow from 11 to 30 employees in just the last year. On the downside, a few business opportunities fizzled — a major deal with game-streaming company Gaikai fell through when Sony bought them out — and, according to producer Jason Hughes, a final launch date is still hazy (though it’s projected to happen before September).

“Matchmaking and the new-user experience isn’t where it needs to be,” says Hughes. “The party system is coming soon.” But player feedback and a rapid response on Adhesive’s end strongly suggests that when Hawken does finally go gold, it’ll shine.

Hawken

And it’s pretty slick already. If Mechwarrior is the strategic tank simulator, Hawken is the cherry-red Ferrari with guns and tow missiles bolted to its sides. Its mechs practically fly around around the maps, and that’s before you hit the jump jets. “I’d consider it in the first-person shooter genre,” says Hughes. “There is a little bit of a chess match when it comes to fighting your opponents. We want the weight and the customization, but there’s some speed to it.”

While Hawken does include those things, neither the weight nor the customization comes close to Mechwarrior’s level of granularity. Like their competition, Adhesive Games drops a new mech roughly every four weeks, but Hawken’s bots each come with their own special abilities. Put that together with unlockable skill trees and you have a light class system. One recent addition qualifies as a engineer/medic-style support mech that can repair teammates on the fly and drop walls for instant cover.

For-purchase mechs like this one run you about $5. Going in for new (though not unbalanced) equipment, boosters, and custom parts can shoot the price tag into low orbit, particularly if you’re outfitting multiple mechs. That said, with patience and persistence (ranging from dozens to hundreds of hours), you can buy everything with in-game currency instead and Hawken actually issues you one of its best machines — the C-RT Recruit — as your starter mech.

It doesn’t come with training wheels.

Hawken

That’s the big reward … loading up and trusting to your speed and reflexes. Hawken gives you those tools in abundance, and then it lets you earn even more.

It also offers compatibility with the Ocular Rift virtual-reality headsetĀ and one of the more interesting modes in either game’s beta so far. Siege sets two teams racing to collect energy from a stationary dispenser and deliver it to their massive aerial battleship. Once it’s gassed up, that battleship launches, slowly flies overhead, and bombards the opposing base until it’s shot down or victory is achieved. Both teams can field their battleships at once, but only one can control the center-map anti-aircraft gun essential to halting enemy progress. That means each map holds not one, but two simultaneous points of contention. It gets hectic. Fast.

And “fast” sums Hawken up pretty well. It’s all about diving in, getting shot up, pulling back for a self-repair cycle, then jumping right back into the fire. Mechwarrior would never be so forgiving. Or as frenetic.

But if that sounds like an arcade-like approach, you need a look at Heavy Gear Assault.

Heavy Gear Assault

Heavy Gear Assault

You’ve seen the simulation and the arcade shooter, now you get the wacky rock’em, sock-’em robots.

It’s been years since I even thought about Heavy Gear, a franchise created in 1994 by Dream Pod 9 and scooped up by Activision in 1997 after it lost the rights to Mechwarrior. Now it’s landed with indie developer Stompy Bot Productions, which includes Mechwarrior 2 and Heavy Gear 2 vets, and their vision for the franchise transports it off the military beat and into MMA arena fighting.

That’s right … Assault mashes up extreme sports with e-sports.

Or at least, they will if their Kickstarter fundraising — which hasn’t actually launched yet — pans out. Certainly, the demo we saw in March at the Game Developer’s Conference showed promise, and not just because it’s the only game out there that features a mech with built-in rollerblades. Where Hawken and Mechwarrior both run on Unreal Engine 3, Stompy’s gone next-gen and built Assault in Unreal Engine 4, making it de facto the most technically advanced game on this list. That’s also a possible drawback; the demo PC ran painfully, case-meltingly hot by day two of its GDC appearance.

Heavy Gear Assault

Still, for a demo that represented only two months’ development time, Assault looked good and played fairly smooth, and UE4 gives them lots of horsepower to work with. The finished game will include scenarios where you’ll blow off an enemy Gear’s limb, scoop it up out of the dirt, and beat the rest of that mech to scrap with it.

That plays into a few interesting wrinkles the Stompy Bot team has planned for Assault’s spectator mode. In keeping with the Roman Coliseum feel, spectators will shower accolades on combatants who impress them — winning that player additional money and corporate sponsorships — and derision on anyone who plays cheap. They’ll also use in-game currency to buy alterations to the arena in midmatch to spice things up or to put a bounty on someone’s head.

Hopefully, Stompy Bot will get the funding they need to show us all the ideas it’s generating around Heavy Gear. After all the hyper-intense robot-on-robot violence, we deserve to relax with a gonzo, audience-involved game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Hey, your Gear skates around like a heavily armed production of Starlight Express. How much pathos could there possibly be?