The Battletech universe has a long history in gaming and from before even the first release of MechWarrior, back in 1989. The last release in the Battletech universe was back in 2006, with MechAssault: Phantom War for the Nintendo DS. The last MechWarrior, Vengeance, was released in 2001. With such a long period of time having been passed, and the franchise having been so popular, MechWarrior Online (MWO) has a lot to live up to.
MechWarrior Online has a very checkered history to say the least. It spent nearly a year in open beta, was finally released last September and all during this time the developers, Piranha Games Inc., have had a complexed (Read: Rubbish) relationship with the community to say the least, highlighted by a number of u-turns on gameplay and a perplexingly long time spent on planned changes and features. But, putting community faux pas’ aside for now, how is the game? That’s what I’m here to discuss in my MechWarrior Online review.
One of the opening splash screens when launching the game makes a point of stating “Achieved with CryEngine 3” and, as obnoxious as it sounds, MechWarrior Online is an achievement. At least the aesthetic aspect is an achievement, from spectacular visuals in both scale and detail, to the strong audio design, especially when in the thick of the action.
Without even a small amount of exaggeration I can honestly say MechWarrior offers the best visual design of any free MMO I have ever played. This is in no small reason down to the CryEngine and its ability to power both brilliantly large and detailed terrain, either hilly lands covered with snow, or urban sprawls with buildings that can offer great cover on the battlefield.
What really contributes, and impresses me the most, are the smaller details. Every time you join a game you get an inside look at the cockpit of the Mech as you press the buttons to start it up as the friendly AI lady tells you about the startup process, sounding like the same lady from my Sat Nav system. The smaller details while in the thick of it are also what really add to the effect. Tiny cars litter the urban battlefield and in all battlefields the fires and explosions, combined with the missiles, lasers and other weaponry being fired, makes everything look more active and spectacular than a new years eve fireworks show.
The audio design also matches this attention to detail. From the aforementioned AI voice as your Mech is started up, to the ambient sounds of the battlefield, either the wind, rushing water and more. But what really keeps everything sounding exciting are the weapons, either the ones being fired from a distance to those fired directly at or from you, adding a noisy and frantic depth to the battlefield.
Now all the good things have been put to the side, the negatives need to rear their ugly heads, which can be a bit of an issue. What makes it more of an issue is that aside from the visuals, basic controls and the Mech customization, to be mentioned later, nearly everything else should come with a huge warning sign that is explaining that something will go wrong or that it just may not be for you.
A reasonably fair person can admit that the controls falling on the side of more simulation than arcade may simply not suit them. That is fair. The learning curve is steep to say the least, to say the normal amount would be that the learning curve is like trying to climb a mountain where your training was a leisurely stroll in the park. This has been made a little easier now a tutorial has been made (MWO originally launched with no tutorial in place, making it even more difficult to pick up and get into).
Putting personal preferences aside, I can openly accept that the core of being inside your Mech and fighting with it is great. Controlling your legs with one set of controls with your upper body, weapons and aiming controlled all by the mouse offers a lot of freedom when in battle and adds to the feeling that you’re simply inside a giant bipedal tank. Everything is mechanical and you need to be aware of everything, keeping a track of your weapon cooldowns, if you are overheating from using too much and even which components of your Mech are more damaged than the others.
This sense of being in something big is only further enhanced by the actual feeling of weight given to it. There’s no way of sprinting, you can put your power into moving and the terrain will play a direct and noticeable impact, go up a hill and you may find yourself going half the speed. Use your jetpack and hear your Mech land with a great thud. It all adds to the immersion created, especially so when in first person view.
Customization, as mentioned earlier, is the other notable positive feature that can be found in MechWarrior Online, though it hits a bit of a pay-wall later on. When starting, if you’re playing free, you are given four trial Mechs to use which are randomized each day with four open hanger slots for your own personal Mechs. The chassis for a number of non-premium Mechs, equipped with basic weaponry, can be bought with either cbills, currency gained in game, or with MC, which is bought with real money.
The reason this hits a wall is that you have a limit of four hanger slots and more can only be bought with the real money credits. Of course four could be enough for you, unless you have a tendency to die a lot and early in a match, as when a Mech is downed it’s unusable until the game is over. Beyond the hanger slots, cosmetic accessories and the premium style Mechs, everything else can be bought with the in-game earned credits, though the amount required can take an absolutely outstanding amount of time to earn.
At the same time as upgrading Mechs with other components, earned experience from battle can also be used to improve your own abilities across the board, like increased accuracy, lock on times and more. Experience can also be used to improve specific types of Mechs that you own.
What happens to be the major downside of what is actually the best part of MWO, the customization, is that it all takes place in the forced-windowed opening screen and there’s no in-game option to have it go full screen. It may not seem that big of a deal, but it is pretty irritating when you enjoy looking at the Mechs and changing things around. Thankfully, this seems like it’s going to be fixed very soon.
If I had wrote this review five months ago this section would have been packed full and everything would be laid solely at the root cause of either the game being somehow unfinished, or the developers being motivated more by greed than the love of the craft. It may have been an unfair assumption to make about Piranha Games, but it was common in the community. Indeed, what is to be included is still a significant amount and can be, either fairly or unfairly, placed on Piranha Games either not working on the game or focusing almost entirely on money.
One of the major issues with MWO was the inclusion of third-person view, which is still there. While this may not seem too damning out of context, it really is. Third person view was never a fan favorite even in the older games that just had added multiplayer. When third person view was added, it brought nothing but rage when added solely for the purposes of making it more open to new people, instead of simply adding in a tutorial (was added later) that would teach people about the system that was already in place.
Ignoring perspectives in combat, and moving onto everything else about combat, is another issue. For a game that has been open for fifteen months, especially one that earned over $5 million in early pack purchases, a criminally small list of only three game modes with an equally small map list is just silly. This is something to be improved with modes like community warfare (no, not the riots on the forum!) that are meant to be coming soon. However, these have been planned from before even the open beta was released with no sign as of yet. Aside from a few patches that have fixed smaller things, the only real additions to MWO have been more and more premium Mechs, including ones that are $500 each, that are splashed around like mad and the increase to larger, 12v12, matches.
At the time of writing this the new major patch, featuring UI 2.0 and other fixes, is said to be on it’s way within the week which is meant to be the launchpad for the long awaited Clan Invasion and Community Warfare features. However, that’s only the start of what Piranha need to do.
MechWarrior Online has huge potential and it’s great fun in small portions. It’s just that these portions are a little too small due to the lack of content. The potential of Clan Invasion and Community Warfare, at least the impression gained from what has been described of them, would be enough to save this game and improve it dramatically.
Until new content is released it just feels like you’re in a perpetual cycle of playing for minor returns to play a bit more with what is actually fun, building Mechs. That or you could just pay real money to buy the components, chassis’ and accessories you want, skipping over the inconvenience of actually playing the game, something that should never be uttered in a sentence but just was.Related: Battletech Universe, F2P, MechWarrior Online, Shooter, Simulator