If the British army decided to roll out a Mech scheme tomorrow I would discard my wishy washy liberal anti-war views and sign straight up to laser brown people to death in the name of democracy and freedom. That’s literally how much I enjoy the idea of battle mechs. Specifically the Western style of mechs encapsulated by the original Battletech game and Microsofts series of mechwarrior games that date back to the to the 80’s . These mechs have a bulky design in contrast to the sleek and shiny mechs found in Japanese lore. So when a mechwarrior game, on a spanking engine such as the Cryengine turns up and it’s also free to play I wet my panties just a little bit. Then I actually have to play the game and balance my fanboism against its legitimate pitfalls while still enjoying it because , fuck its a mechwarrior game and unless you go back over ten years good luck finding another one of those.
This is a purely multiplayer deathmatch experience which for those who thoroughly enjoyed controlling a team of mechs through a structured single player experience is a shame. I didn’t think I’d enjoy a multiplayer only mode as a result but was pleasantly surprised, the key draw is how distinctly non-‘arcadey’ the experience is. The majority of mechs are slow, lumbering beasts with complex ways of maneuvering and firing that even though has been made easier for this iteration of the game with full optimisation for mouse and keyboard controls is still very nuanced especially for many players who will be coming from playing traditional FPS games. You can plug in a joystick too but it’s sadly not well advised as it’s a lot clunkier than mouse and keyboard play.
Your mech doesn’t move forwards or backwards it accelerates and decelerates based on your throttle. Your entire torso can twist around its centre meaning you can accelerate in one direction while facing an entire different direction . Your arms depending on your mech also twist from your midsection meaning in some mechs such as the Hunchback you can twist away from an opponent, accelerate fully in the other direction while firing your arms back at them and your central torso guns at another target. This can all be rather jarring to work out and the game seriously lacks a proper suite of in-game tutorials to properly inform you of this and far more information outside of it which means trawling youtube and forums to really learn how to play but it is commendable that they’ve kept the game to its roots while making it that little bit more intuitive for a new audience in the mouse controls.
Mechs are tough to kill. Another point that those coming from more traditional deathmatch games will find frustrating initially. Paradoxically you’ll find early on you’re dying a lot too which further frustrates things. You need to learn how to strike with pinpoint accuracy at your opponents weakest components, which of course requires in-depth knowledge of their mech and a steady trigger hand. You need to do all of this while mitigating your own damage by twisting your torso to use your more expendable components as a shield of sorts to absorb damage. You also need to learn to manage heat within all of this. Your mechs weapons will build up heat as they fire and if you go too far your mech will shutdown and be at the mercy of your opponents.
Once your mech is dead it stays dead much like in games like Counter-Strike there’s no re-spawns and you’re just left to spectate. Games are however much longer than something fast paced like Counter-Strike and therefore a lot of the time you find you just quit when dying to rejoin another game which creates an odd situation where you don’t see the conclusion of many matches you join. This can of course be solved by joining a team but that means getting over the learning curve and grinding out a lot of games to get the mechs you want so you can play at that bit more of a competitive level outside of public games.
Matches consists of 12 on 12 mech action over a wide range of different environments from alpine mountains to river cities. These split into two modes, assault where you can win by capturing the enemy base and conquest where your team can win by capturing and holding multiple points on the map. One team wins in either game match when all the opposing mechs are dead and this is how most games are ended bar a few. There’s a great sense of immersion inside the mech as you have a rotational cockpit view and can feel every missile and laser impact as they crash into you and fights can be legitimately tense as you weave from points of cover stripping off chunks of enemy armour while hoping your legs don’t cave in, your engine doesn’t explode and that fucker doesn’t realise you have PPC’s and just charge straight for you.
The cryengine renders the world smoothly and gorgeously and importantly can accurately manage the large distances in the game which is highly important with weapons that can hit over 2000 metres away. You can in some games find yourself standing on the top of a mountain range sniping down on mechs battling below and hoping you don’t get spotted by the opponents snipers or long range missile carriers. It’s the addictive mix of mech fighting action combined with constant tinkering that will keep you coming back for more and at its best its hard to stop.
Mechs come in four variants based on their weight class, light, medium, heavy and assault. The larger the mech the more armour and weapons it can pack on itself but the slower and larger a target it becomes. There’s more nuance than that as you go into individual mechs, there’s some mediums such as the cicada which are really just a fast light mech in disguise and there’s some heavy mechs such as the Jager which while packing a huge punch are deceptively fragile. You get a choice of four trial mechs to start with of various weight classes, winning matches in this will earn you C-Bills the games ingame currency of which you can buy your first real mech with. Alternatively you can spend real money to buy the mechs which is where pay to win concerns arise. You get a boost in money for your first 25 games and can easily buy one or two very good mechs with these winnings. With this in mind the game isn’t pay to win, anybody can play 25 games, which doesn’t take that long and have a very competitive mech in their hands.
Unfortunately knowing what works and what doesn’t takes time, practice and experience. You basically need to do a lot of research to work out what your first mech should be. I’d personally advice players not look for the best ‘beginner’ mech but the best mech they feel they’ll want to be using when they’re at their best. Try to look for what the most competitive players are running and complaining about and copy that.
Some of this is of course down to personal taste and play-style, there’s a myriad of different mechs and each one can be an entirely different ‘game’ in of itself to master so picking but it’s also down to the lack of information given about the game. For example mechs come with standard heat-sinks but currently they’re just utterly inefficient compared to double heat-sinks. A double heat-sink upgrade costs a fair bit of c-bills but is pretty much essential for all the mechs in the game. The trial mechs all come with standard heatsinks which makes heat management specifically for new players a frustrating thing.
So unfortunately really learning the game at a good level will either take a fair chunk of real money or a large amount of time grinding out games. But you’re going to want to be playing games anyway if you’re enjoying it and you’ll need to play to actually learn how to play. Personally I’ve played probably far too many games and have about six fully specced out mechs I rotate around at the moment but I have sunk a little bit of actual money into it and have made far too many mistakes early on which wasted me lots of money. For those who really just like to tinker and play around with a wide amount of mechs you’re not much in luck as you have to either grind or pay to really unlock the widest amount of options. This is all down to the individual upgrades and mechs just costing too much.
The options for tinkering are incredibly in-depth as should be expected from a mechwarrior game. Your mech is primarily limited by its weight class which determines the amount of tons of stuff whether that be more armour, or weapons, or ammo, or heatsinks that you can slap onto it. Then there’s overall slots which determine the size of different things you can squeeze into the various areas of your mech from its head, centre, arms, legs and right and left torso. Then there’s individual weapon hard points which determines the type of weapons the mech can have in each slot which break down into missiles, lasers and ballistic each of which has a multitude of different options such as short and long range missiles. This probably sounds complicated but it’s relatively simple to jump around your mech and quite intuitively see what can fit into where the complexity comes from balancing all the choices in a real play environment. Every option you make requires sacrifice whether that means fewer weapons , less armour, or a slower engine no such thing as an ‘ultimate mech’ everything has weaknesses it’s purely about mitigating them. For me the mixture of endless potential for tinkering mixed with the explosive in-game action creates a potent and addictive mixture which just keeps you coming back as you learn and adjust
Despite the niggles primarily brought on by the free to play model and the limited amount of game modes Mechwarrior Online is about as good as we can hope a modern Mech game to get. It’s stayed very true to the original series and hasn’t compromised its complexity to reach a wider audience and the game itself is frantic, explosive and makes ones inner nerd rather tingly.