Mechwarrior Online

The Atlas’ AC/20 autocannon round slams into the side of my 35-ton Raven, ripping away the whole right torso.  But for the fact I changed out the XL engine I’d be dead, yet tied at 11-all in a Skirmish (MWO’s Team Deathmatch) I’m forced to fight a last stand against the largest BattleMech available.  As more of my HUD turns red, the seemingly indestructible damage computer is at pains to list my destroyed equipment.  It doesn’t matter – I know the practical upshot is I have no offensive weapons left, although one chance remains.

Throwing the throttle to hard reverse, I break-off from circling the larger ‘mech.  My XP mastery of the Raven saves me, making the manoeuvre just quick enough for several lasers beams lash empty space in front of me as the Atlas pilot misses their killing blow.

I’ve bought seconds at best, but crucially I’m opening a gap between us for my last chance.  Dark red smoke blossoms around my enemy as I call for my one-off artillery strike, while the Atlas ponderously turns back towards me.  The massive autocannon swings slowly to bear, and although I hold my breath the shot never comes.  Six massive explosions erupt, violently shaking the screen. Weakened by my earlier blows, the Atlas slowly collapses to the ground.  Victory – All Enemy ‘Mechs Destroyed!

The BattleTech / MechWarrior Franchise & MWO

If you’ve never come across BattleTech and/or MechWarrior, all you really need know is that the franchise has a rich, deep backstory, and a pedigree stretching back for the entire lifespan of your humble reviewer (1984, since you ask…)

While BattleTech was a tabletop, dice based strategy game (played with hexes of all things), MechWarrior was its brasher, computerised cousin – often served with a healthy slice of 80’s and early 90’s influence.  Since MechWarrior 2 (back in 1995), the core MechWarrior games have been primarily first-person perspective shooters, but with a heavy focus on the customisation and battle management of your BattleMech(s) in addition to piloting / gunnery.

BattleMech 101

Usually weighing in at between 20 – 100 tons, and with speeds ranging from around 40 to 170kph (25 – 100+ mph), BattleMechs are immense mechanised walkers powered by miniature fusion reactors, typically somewhat humanoid in appearance, but with massive structural variation between chassis.

The legs and torso of a ‘Mech traverse, rotate and pivot independently (much like a tank and its turret), while many also have independent arms.  The combined effect is a very manoeuvrable but weighty battle machine, which while initially seeming complex to pilot is surprisingly intuitive after a few games.  Agility varies, with smaller ‘Mechs usually being faster outright, and quicker to respond to their controls.  Most players typically use a mouse/keyboard set-up, although joysticks and gamepads provide viable options.

Most ‘Mechs will mount a selection of Energy, Ballistic and Missile weapons.  The range available is impressive, drawn from a huge range of canonical weapon systems.  Listing just a few, these include lasers and autocannon of varying sizes, massive Gauss Rifles and Particle Projection Cannons, short and long range missiles, machine guns and flamethrowers.  All produce satisfying, distinctive sound and visual effects when fired, although as yet you terrain in-game is non-destructible, curtailing the possibility to create the chaos that may otherwise prove tempting…

Depending on their weight classification (Light, Medium, Heavy and Assault), a typical ‘Mech might mount 4-10 weapons, linked into 2-4 individual triggers – subject to your ammunition and heat build-up, you can use all of these to engage simultaneously, making for myriad tactical options from sniping, bombardment through brawling and high-intensity firefights.

For defence, a ‘Mech will mount numerous tons of armour, spread across a total of 11 discreet hitboxes across the chassis.  Depending on your chassis, additional ECM and missile defence systems may serve to round out your protection from the enemy.

A ‘Perpetual Development’ Game

While most of the previous MechWarrior games have had on an (often very popular) online component, all were primarily single-player affairs.  MechWarrior: Online departs from this mould, focussing on 12 vs 12 battles between players.  PGI have openly stated the game is in ‘perpetual development’ – although it officially left Beta last year, there is a list of features they plan on adding, as well as a steady stream of new ‘Mechs to get your hands on.

Currently options to fight in a public battle comprise the solo queue (PUG – Pick-Up Gaming), and the ability to pre-form a unit (or ‘lance’) with up to three friends.  Three lances of four ‘Mechs form each team – although PGI are rumoured to working on further options.  Wait times are pretty short – it’s unusual to wait more than a minute for the match-maker to get you into battle, and real-time information is provided suggesting weight classes with shorter waits.

At present game modes include Skirmish, Assault (TDM, with a capturable base for each team) and Conquest, where there are with five capturable resource generators – the first team to 750 points wins.  Again, more modes are believed to be in the development pipeline.

With regard to terrain, there are currently 10 maps are available (randomly selected each game), with a few additional variants with different lighting and weather conditions.  Each map features a different setting (including cities, forests, a moon, and volcanos to name a few), as well as varying background temperatures and gravity.  These affect how fast your ‘Mech will overheat, and its ability to climb steep hills or use jumpjets (should your ‘Mech carry them…!)

Starting Out, and customising your BattleMech

At any one time, 12 trial ‘Mechs are available to use in their standard (‘stock’) configurations – usually three from each weight class.  These cost nothing to use (either in-game or otherwise), allowing you start saving up C-Bills (the in-game currency) to buy your own ‘Mechs.  Even better, for your first 25 games you receive a very generous ‘Cadet Bonus’, allowing you to easily purchase a chassis of your choice.

Crucially to the franchise and (hopefully) to your enjoyment, once you purchase a ‘Mech you can completely refit it, rebuilding your preferred variants to give an optimum mix of manoeuvrability, firepower and protection (top tip – they cost a lot, but you almost always want Double Heat Sinks!)   While the Trial ‘Mechs offer a good starting point, they also leave plenty of chances for optimisation and improvement.

The build system is based on classic BattleTech rules, and juggling the tonnage and space requirements of weapons, armour, your engine, weapons and equipment provides you ample opportunity to make a ‘Mech truly your own – and to save up for that next crucial upgrade.  Additionally, PGI have added an XP system that allows you to become incrementally better at piloting each ‘Mech chassis, gradually improving speed, manoeuvrability and heat dissipation, among other factors

A Word on FTP

Free-to-Play games can get a lot of bad press, and badly implemented can neuter a game for anyone unprepared to pay out.  Happily, PGI have struck a (mostly) excellent balance with MWO – after an initial introductory period, almost everything available in game can be purchased with C-Bills, or with real-money derived MechWarrior Credits (MC), either directly or via an XP-unlocked equivalent.

Buying ‘Premium Time’ speeds up the rate you earn both C-Bills and XP points by 50%, but is far from essential – unlike some games where repair and ammunition costs can leave ‘free’ players running battles at a loss, your earnings in MWO are all calculated after these assumed costs, leaving you in profit every game.  Of course, how much so will depend on your performance – so to maximise your earnings, it helps to take advantage of the rewards available for effective team play (such as tracking enemy ‘Mechs and illuminating them with targeting lasers).

The only items strictly limited to players willing to splash out a few dollars are ‘Hero’ chassis.  These provide a 30% C-Bill and XP bonus, and some unusual variants to the weapon hardpoints on the usual chassis – although these are not necessarily more powerful, just different.

Overall, the game provides plenty of incentive to break-out your wallet (you NEED that new ‘Mech tonight… right?), but also rewards patient players willing to save up for their latest acquisition.

Clan Tech

Long awaited by fans, June 17th 2014 brought the Clans to MWO – a self-exiled, technologically-advanced faction of warrior elites, returning to the Inner Sphere after hundreds of years.   PGI have opted to depart from the classic Battle Tech rules in favour of balancing the Clan Tech against the existing Inner Sphere weaponry.

Time will tell if this goal will be fully achieved, but initial signs look promising, with each group having unique strengths, and subtle differences to the manner in which you customise their ‘Mechs.  Players can use equipment from both sides, canonically supported by the BattleTech universe’s emphasis on battlefield salvage and captured equipment.  Initially released on a pre-payment (and ongoing) package basis the coming months will see Clan Tech available to all players.

ScoringGameplay and Controls – Chunky, believable ‘Mechs, tactical combat and endless control customisation should satisfy both simulation and FPS fans:   100/100

Sound and Music – Focused on the ‘Mechs and their weaponry, the sound design is suited to its task – although a little extra music might be nice:  60/100

Graphics – A great-looking game, with plenty to stretch all but the top-end graphics cards, but options suited to lower end users too:  80/100

Story/Immersion/Replay-ability – Reliant in some part on the historic background, the game provides a good range of content – but could yet deliver a great deal more:  60/100

OVERALL – Every gamer should play a MechWarrior game at some point, and MWO is a fine addition to the franchise, with room to grow:  75/100

Watch The Trailer Here