The Free Agent: Episode 14 - MechWarrior Online

Back in the cockpit of a giant mechanized war machine with MechWarrior Online

Hello to all our new readers, and welcome back to those who have been following ZAM's bi-weekly column, The Free Agent. Our mission, as always, is to answer the question "Can gaming REALLY be free?"

Last time on the Free Agent we hunted dragons, tamed dragons, trained dragons, rode dragons and fought dragons. It's almost as if we covered an MMO about dragons or something. Oh wait, we did... To see how free Dragon's Prophet ended up being, be sure to check out Episode 13.

For this week's episode, however, it's back to mechs. But not just any mechs. This time we're hitting up a franchise with a long history in the gaming world. Dating back to 1984 the BattleTech franchise has been around for a while and managed to spawn four video games under the MechWarrior banner (plus an impressive list of related titles).

With a pedigree like that it's no surprise that there is a fair amount of interest in the latest installment in the series MechWarrior Online (MWO) from Vancouver based developer Piranha Games and publisher IGP.

I'll be honest, after playing Hawken in Episode 12, when I picked up MechWarrior Online I was expecting more of the same. What I got was a decidedly different experience.

While walking around in a beefy mechanized warmachine (and/or TV with legs) in Hawken was certainly an entertaining experience, ultimately your mech handled much like you'd expect your run of the mill FPS player character to handle.

I've played a whole lot more FPS in the last 10-15 years than any mechanized warfare games and over the years I've gotten used to the incrementally improving game play and physics present in each new generation of FPS titles. So when I picked up Hawken it felt entirely natural to me for it to play and feel like an FPS game, just one that happened to have you playing inside a mech.

Of course the light mechs felt quite agile and the heavy mechs felt a touch sluggish but also tougher, as they should, it’s basic light infantry versus heavy infantry physics right? That all made perfect sense to me and seemed to fit the bill of a modern day mech themed shooter. That is until I sat down in the cockpit for my first game of MechWarrior Online.

You see I foolishly assumed that since I'd been playing Hawken only two weeks prior I knew exactly what I was doing. MWO would just have some different art styles, map designs and weapon choices, but would otherwise be essentially the same game. Who needs a tutorial right?

Well apparently I do, because somewhere between discovering there was no strafe button and that my torso was facing a completely different direction than my legs I got blown up. Turns out once I got stuck walking into a cliff face with my limbs all twisted about like some kind of circus freak, I was an easy target.

It's okay though, I'd get it figured out once I respawned. But wait, there is no respawn, I only have one life! My game was over before it had barely begun, and I was left thinking, "Wow I have no idea what just happened, what the heck is this game?"

A true BattleMech Simulator

While at first I was incredibly upset that my mech didn't handle like an infantryman wrapped in metal, I very quickly realized that what I had experienced previously in Hawken was a counterfeit. Certainly enjoyable in its own right, but ultimately an FPS saturated incarnation of what mech combat should be.

Feeling rather humbled and a little annoyed, I sought out the tutorial. It might be really basic stuff, mostly focusing on how to move around in your mech, but in hindsight, boy do I recommend it. The next time I queued up for a match I saw MWO through different eyes. MechWarrior Online is a true BattleMech simulator.

Before long I remembered what it should feel like to lumber around in 100 tons of heavy metal, armed to the teeth and laying down some serious kaboom, all while sucking up barrage after barrage of enemy weapons fire. Just like that I was transported back to some of the mechanized combat games that captured the imagination of my youth.

Even on a lighter BattleMech, like the classic 35 ton Jenner, you still have a sense that there is a whole lot of machine at your finger tips. It's not just a point and shoot operation here, you need to manage multiple systems while under fire; such as heat, fuel, throttle, weapons, ammunition, targeting and sensors. And of course all of this is while you're trying to maneuver a machine that is capable of pointing in three different directions at once via independent legs, torso and arm components.

The controls, the physics, the sound effects, the pace of game play, it all just feels right. In fact the only thing that Piranha didn't nail in the in-game mech-specific experience is probably the UI, which is functional, but certainly not eye catching. Thankfully UI2.0 hit the test servers yesterday so an overhaul is coming. But this leads me to some other things that I feel could be improved.

Okay lay on the hurt

Continuing along the lines of the in-game experience, but speaking more to external interaction, the maps tend to be somewhat unimpressive. Considering that MWO runs on CryEngine3, I'm a little disappointed with the graphics and a lot disappointed at the lack of interactive and/or destructible environments, especially those with an urban theme. Many of the maps end up feeling like a static backdrop that sometimes gets in the way of the real action instead of enhancing the game play experience.

With only two game modes, a 5 capture node version with point or elimination win conditions and straight up 12v12 conquest mode, matches begin to feel repetitive rather quickly. More often than not, victory is decided by the team that manages to stay grouped together the most.

In addition to this, the implementation of team and squad strategies seems largely non-existent unless you queue as group and are running 3rd party VoIP. It seems like some strategic elements are intended to be used via the Battlegrid, however, this is cumbersome to use when you’re on the move and/or being shot at.

This is a game that is in serious need of more depth. Thankfully rumor has it that more depth is on the way, particularly with the faction system, which seems like it may endow MWO with a farther reaching metagame. If it were in beta, those rumors might even be enough for me to overlook the lack of depth. However, MWO has already claimed to have moved out of open beta and into official release (as of September 17, 2013), leaving me with the feeling that they released only half a game.

Out of game, I'm left wondering why the MWO lobby is so cumbersome to navigate. By now, with so many online match based free-to-play games out there, there is just no reason why there shouldn't be an intuitive interface that gets you into the action quicker and puts the information in front of you in a clear and concise manner with as few mouse clicks as possible.

Take the MechLab and PilotLab for example. This is where you go to customize the snot out of your BattleMech. The array of options is staggering really, exactly as it should be. Half the fun of simulators is tooling out your rig and then taking it out onto the battlefield to test out the new configuration you dreamed up. But the problem is I felt utterly lost as I wandered through sub menu after sub menu trying to piece together what on earth everything does, all with far too many mouse clicks required.

But that must mean there is a ton of options right? (click on to Page 2 to find out...)

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