Platform: PC (F2P)
Developer: Piranha Games
Publisher: Infinite Game Publishing
There's nothing quite like stomping around in an enormous bipedal tank, crushing our foes under tons of steel plate while blasting out more ordnance than an entire armoured column. We used to look to BattleTech and MechWarrior for our fix, whether on a tabletop or glued to our monitors, but the troubled franchise has forced us to go elsewhere over the last few years, to the likes of Armored Core and Hawken. We've had it pretty good, but we still pine for our Mad Cats and Bushwackers. Thankfully, a new hope has finally arrived in the form of MechWarrior Online... and it's free.
MechWarrior Online has a lot in common with Wargaming's World Of Tanks, in that it's a free to play simulation-lite that hinges around constantly improving a colossal war machine and using it to destroy your foes in team-based multiplayer matches. After an extensive beta, Piranha Games' project finally hit v.1.0 last week, meaning that we're clear to strap in, power up the reactor and put it through its paces.
Before we begin, we do have to acknowledge a little unpleasantness. Infinite Game Publishing came under intense fire for disingenuous communication and community management throughout the lengthy beta process, which in turn lead to massive fan backlash over the last few months. However, this is a review, and thus will focus exclusively on the finished article and the new player experience. Know this going in.
As a fan of all things mecha, I'm delighted to report that MWO's absolutely nails the sweet spot between simulation and arcade action, coming down firmly towards the former. From the moment your avatar waggles the joystick, spins up the reactor and peers out from the cockpit, you feel like you're driving a massive weighty vehicle, sitting inside dozens of tons of grinding steel and guns. Typical WASD controls let you control the speed and direction of your Mech, while your mouse independently swivels the torso, bringing your arm, shoulder and weapons to bear. It's a middle ground between Steel Battalion and Hawken, and feels appropriately intuitive.
In two team-based gametypes (essentially team deathmatch and domination variations), you'll stomp around seven expansive maps with eleven Lance-mates, seeking to destroy the enemy force with extreme prejudice and deny them territory. To do so effectively, however, you'll have to know your role. Lumbering Assault Mechs pack a massive punch as they lollop around the battlefield, while nippy Light Mechs dance around them like gnats, picking away at their armour and hopping out of range with jump jets, or cloaking friendly forces with electronic countermeasures. Heavy missile barges throw out volleys of homing missiles, but fall prey to close-range brawlers armed with machine guns, short range missiles and lasers, or snipers hanging out on the periphery with Particle Projector Cannons and Gauss Rifles. Thanks to excellent map design, all of which features a variety of engagement ranges, cover, elevations and visibility levels, there's a niche for everyone.
Once you've learned the basics, that is, since you'll have much more to consider than your garden variety shooter. Mechs are slaves to temperature; every weapon (and even some hotter maps) exerting a thermal stress on your massive walking war machine. Fire away haphazardly and you'll automatically shut down as your Mech overheats, forcing you to pick your shots wisely, or purposefully shut down during lulls in combat. Weapons need to be juggled into specific groups, and working out how best to balance firepower with efficiency takes plenty of trial and error. All Mechs feature numerous armour zones, which you'll need to target to detach enemy weapons or cripple their legs - all while keeping your own vulnerable areas away from incoming broadsides. Simultaneously keeping enemies within your firing arc, balancing speed and vector, keeping your heat levels nominal, remembering which weapons are cooling down and maintaining situational awareness can be overwhelming, but comes with practice.
The recent inclusion of a third person view almost caused a fan revolt, but the end result is impressively well-balanced. A markedly increased FOV is offset by the lack of a radar and other essential features, while your Mech sends up a visible camera drone that gives away your position. Changing between the two modes takes a few nervy seconds that canny foes will take full advantage of. Both perspectives have their uses, though I'd urge you to disable TPV as your default option, since first person view is much more intuitive and useful for the vast majority of engagements.
Put simply, MWO really is fantastic fun from a gameplay standpoint, at least if you're looking for something resembling proper mech combat as opposed to Hawken's slippery hybrid shenanigans. That said, it's clear that matchmaking still leaves a little to be desired, since every so often you'll find well-organised Lances of veterans pitted against rookies, or unbalanced teams in terms of raw tonnage.
MWO also looks sensational, which is largely down to superb art direction and stylistic design decisions as opposed to raw graphical grunt. The visuals are optimised for performance rather than eye candy, lacking DX11 support and fine detail when you get your eye in, but the big picture is superb. Piranha Games have painstakingly ensured that all of the mechs look like real authentic war machines, all armour plating and oversized cannons, pleasingly chunky and believable both in terms of models and animations. Once the lasers and missiles start flying, sending sizzling lurid beams and clouds of fire snarling through the air, it's hard not to be drawn in.
BattleTech fans will be pleased to welcome back some familiar faces: including the Atlus, Catapult, Hunchback, Jenner and more. No Mad Cat, though. Shame. Even though Piranha deviates significantly from FASA's original mech designs in several cases, especially in terms of scale (as an example, the Assault Mechs should be much taller compared to most of the Lighter models if I recall correctly - it's been a few years), almost all of their tweaks are spot-on. Maps also benefit from a rich colour palatte and eyecatching scenery elements such as lava pools or shiny metallic crystals, helping to offset what could have been a mediocre visual experience. Sound design is perhaps less ambitious, but at least contains enough booming explosions and whining servos to satisfy.
However, as any Mech aficionado knows, the real battle will be fought in the customisation menus - known here as the Mech Lab. As you gradually receive in-game currency (C-Bills) for participation, kills, assists and wins, you'll wage a constant war against tonnage, power and heat in an attempt to make a Mech that's both powerful and viable in combat. Whether you're outfitting an ERPPC sniper to chip away at distant foes, an ECM-equipped griefer to disrupt enemy radars, a close-range brawler bristling with Short Range Missiles or a menacing Assault powerhouse, you'll have to constantly make tough decisions in a deadly balancing act.
Lasers dish out ruinous burn damage, but at the cost of serious heat output. Autocannons throw out punishing projectiles, but weigh down your mech and come with limited ammo. Long Range Missiles leave you powerless if foes close on your position, PPCs require incredibly precise aiming with their long recycle times, while jump jets restrict the amount of weight you can realistically equip. Every spare ton, empty hardpoint or module forces you to make an impossible choice: do I equip extra armour? If so, where? What about an extra heat sink? Is my engine big enough to provide enough manoeuvrability, or will a smaller one leave room for more guns? Or jumpjets? Support modules? Sensors? Customisation is just as complex and compelling as it ever was, and is already leading to some interesting builds. Factor in a suite of pilot upgrades and you've got a firm foundation for long-term addiction. This is a review, not an FAQ, so I'll have to leave much of this depth untapped for now.
Engrossing as MWO's customisation is, it does fall prey to a few annoying issues. First up is the customisation menus themselves: cluttered and confusing affairs that induce eye strain and frustration in what should be an intuitive F2P experience. Worse, they totally fail to explain a bizarrely hidden yet supremely important mechanic, known colloquially on the forums as 'Ghost Heat,' that increases the amount of heat output when certain weapons of the same type are grouped together. This extra heat can make the difference between a viable build and a useless walking oven that spends most of its time powered down, yet it isn't factored into the GUI or addressed in any way. The fact that we have to scour the forums rather than learning about it in-game speaks volumes.
The free to play model also manifests in some unwelcome ways. Beyond the inordinate grind required to afford some of the pricier weapons, each variety of Mech exists as several specific models, all of which offer a strict selection of weapon hardpoints. If you want to experiment with a new build, even a slight variation, chances are you'll have to buy the same mech again. And, perhaps, again after that. Though different chassis do come equipped with different cockpits and detailing, it's hard to shake the feeling that MWO is trying to make paying for new mechs with real money a much more attractive option by draining your C-Bills on a regular basis.
Is it possible to pay to win in MechWarrior Online? Probably not, at least in the traditional sense. It's currently hard to exactly pin down, but the fact that powerful Mechs and loadouts can be bought exclusively with premium currency means that it's possible to acquire fearsome hardware without putting in any time. These hero Mechs are identical to the stock versions but earn boosted rewards, meaning that new players can technically get an immediate advantage over other equally novice pilots, but will likely be immediately annihilated by skilled veterans who've put in the time rather than the money. So, basically, you don't have much to worry about on the P2W front.
Now, sadly, we have to start picking apart some of MechWarrior Online's more egregious failings. The new player experience is patently hopeless, dumping you unceremoniously into one of the worst clients ever designed. I just had to take a screenshot - it's a horrendous and confusing mess that even manages to camouflage the movement tutorial within a slew of obnoxiously garish garbage. The two basic tutorials are a welcome introduction to movement and weapon handling basics, but utterly fail to inform you about how to use the customisation suite, ghost heat, the gametypes and the finer points of combat. Your only option is to enter battle against legions of battle-hardened, decked-out veterans who've been grinding for months and quickly annihilate your underpowered trial Mechs in short order. Once again, it's annoying that a free to play game didn't host a proper open beta rather than a cheeky soft launch, making stat wipes impossible.
Stick with it, however, and you'll realise that MWO is trying to ease you into the swing of things in its own hamfisted way. For the first 25 matches, you'll earn massively boosted currency while selecting from some versatile if underpowered trial mechs, which then provides you with a weighty war chest to purchase and customise your first walking tank. These formative matches are more valuable than any tutorial, teaching you advanced tactics and optimal weapon groups while spectating more skilled players. With just a little more optional explanation and hand-holding, the new player experience could be vastly improved. It wouldn't take much, perhaps beyond a totally rebuilt front end. The feeling of accomplishment from buying your first Mech is truly wonderful, eclipsed only by wondering about what to buy next, or what new gear you'll start saving up for.
Sadly, that's all MechWarrior Online offers from then on.
With only two game modes, no clan or faction warfare, no community warfare and no metagame whatsoever, the experience quickly descends into grinding for grinding's sake, an eternity of very similar battles to gradually get incrementally better gear to take back into even more identical matches, and stomp over new players who are just starting down the same repetitive road. This practice has even gotten a name -- "PUG Stomping" -- and that's literally the only thing you can do. Even with a few friends involved, it's still totally bereft of content and lasting appeal, only good for quickly dropping into every now and again.
The gameplay is sound, nay, it's nearly great, but Piranha has clearly been so obsessed with nailing the details that they forgot to add any meaningful content at launch.
To be honest, MechWarrior Online's biggest flaw is that it isn't MechWarrior 5. It feels like the multiplayer component of a traditional mech sim stripped from its package and hosted for free, lacking content and padded out to encourage premium membership or microtransactions. Years of lore and an enormous universe have been wasted, leaving us wishing that it offered something like Chromehounds' persistent campaign for planetary domination, just something, anything, to keep us invested beyond the grind. Community Warfare would be a good start. There's potential here, but IGP needs to build on it. Fast.
- Engaging and involved mech combat
- Extensive and addictive customisation, room for numerous builds and play styles
- Superb art direction
- It's free, and undeniably fun for a while
- Shockingly light on game modes and long-term appeal
- No context, community warfare or metagame at launch
- Grindy and repetitious, partly thanks to F2P model
- Some customisation restrictions and 'Ghost Heat' gripes
- Horrible first impressions and new player experience
- Confusing, lurid and borderline offensive client splash screen
The Short Version: MechWarrior Online nails the core experience with excellent gameplay and art direction, but wastes it on a disappointingly flimsy overall package. Throwaway fun for mech fans at launch, but exists only as a grind that sorely needs more content and lasting appeal.
MWO is free, and we're inclined to look kindly on a game that offers engaging mech combat without making us pay - especially since there's clear potential here. Sadly, we also worry that there's little reason to stick around beyond the first few days, and hope that it can build on solid foundations to deliver a true MechWarrior experience.