Review: MechWarrior Online Beta

It seems the latest trend in gaming is a lengthy open beta, where interested players can experience the game during the development process. Ideally, their voices and opinions are heard by the developers in a way that benefits the final product. Final, in these days of ongoing updates, being a relative term.

So with other open betas recently I’ve been cautiously optimistic, careful not to judge rough edges but take look for the inevitable potential.

With MechWarrior Online, I’m still looking.

MechWarrior Online is the long-awaited return to the PC of the GIANT FIGHTING ROBOT (tm) genre. Well, they’re not robots per se, but building-sized “Mechs,” driven by a person like a angry legged dump truck with laser cannon arms.

It’s been over a decade since we’ve seen a PM game in the MechWarrior universe, and the last Xbox game was released in 2004. The game mechanics are a hybrid of tank sim and first person shooter, and there really isn’t anything like it. You control the pivoting torso with your mouse, and your WASD keys drive the legs. It allows a sort of auto-pilot circle strafing, but with a distinct languid response to any changes in direction or speed.

While these mechanics make for a subtle variety to the usual FPS, the real difference with MechWarrior is in heat dissipation and the incredible customizability of your Mech. Any weapon you fire generates heat, some more than others. So as fun as it is to launch 30 missiles, fire a particle cannon, and burn holes in some armor with lasers, the fun ends quickly if you try to do all at once. There’s an element of strategy to it, or at least, careful moderation.

Really, though, it’s all about customizing your Mech. The free-to-play version of the game allows you to jump right into combat with a Mech from one of four different sizes. They’re not great, but you’ll get a sense of the game at least. Either by grinding out money in-game, or by shelling out real money out-game, you can purchase new and better Mechs. This is where the real fun is, choosing weapons, figuring out where to place them. Do you make a glass cannon, with tons of firepower but little ability to cool? Or do you equip tons of heat sinks at the expense of burst damage but potentially greater damage over time. Particle canons or lasers (or both)? Projectile weapons or missiles (or both)? How much space to you allot for ammo? Since customization is by far my favorite aspect of any game, this is where MWO really shines. More in-depth descriptions with pro/cons of each weapon type would be very welcome, and perhaps we’ll see that as the release draws closer.

Except...

There are myriad issues with the gameplay that give me pause. The first is the sense of scale. Nearly every map is a wide open space, perhaps perforated by protuberances: a hill, a cliff, etc. There’s no real sense you’re in an 80 meter tall battlemech. It could be any first person shooter ever made. There’s an excellent city map that is exactly what this game should be doing, but it is the one shiny in a bucket of blah. Sure on some levels there are trees you tower over, but it just doesn’t capture it. On other maps there are bushes that, if everything is to scale, are 30 feet tall or more.

This may seem like a minor thing, but judged simply and solely as a first person shooter, MechWarrior is rubbish. Without the massive scale of the Mechs, what’s the point? Will some better art design fix this? Maybe.

Then there are other aspects that might be fixable with balance tweaking. Big mechs are essentially helpless against small mechs. The small mechs are so much faster that they can circle behind the bigger mechs — and stay there — pounding away with their weapons until the big guy falls. The big mechs, on the other hand, don’t have the firepower to take down a smaller mech before it gets in behind. So a mildly skilled pilot of a smaller mech can take down a much larger and more heavily armored opponent with relative ease with no threat of a counter attack. How is that fun? Or a better question, how is that fixable?

There are some weapon balance issues as well, but honestly those are easy to fix. Also fixable is that at the moment, the only game style is essentially team deathmatch, which might be fun for some people, but it’s pretty damn boring for those of us who have been doing it for 15 years. This too, is an easy fix.

The biggest issue, though, is the size of the maps. This is not Battlefield 3 With Robots. This is more like Call of Duty: (sort of) With Robots. You can almost see your opponents from opposite sides of the map. It’s a frenzied melee that always devolves to a slugfest sprint. Again, maybe different game modes would help, but as is it’s a little boring.

Bottom Line

I’m not pre-judging a game based on its pre-release form. However, it seems some of the fundamental problems with MechWarrior are design decisions that aren’t likely to be changed. I assume Piranha Games wants it to be more like Call of Duty, to expand the potential audience. But in doing so, they run the risk of alienating the type of hardcore fanbase that would actually be willing to pay for the game. Take, for example, EVE Online, which is probably the least accessible game ever made. It is highly profitable for CCP Games because of its complexity, not despite it.

I will be interested to see how it plays out in a more final form, and will reserve final judgment until then. With Planetside 2 it was easy to look past the rough parts and see how it would grow into a (potentially) awesome game. Here that path is less clear.

And then there’s with Hawken, another free-to-play mech-based first person shooter. I haven’t played it yet, but from the screenshots it looks amazing, and way better looking than MWO.

Let me be clear, there are the makings of a cool game here, but it’s not there yet. Since it’s been such a long wait for a new MechWarrior game, I say check out MWO. It’s free to play, so it’s not like there’s a cost of entry. I just hope that the “final” version is a bit meatier.

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