MechWarrior Online: The heaviest metal
I still recall my father bringing home our first family PC. He had to push past me to get in through the door, so great was my excitement at the possibilities of new games to play. I had no idea what titles he had picked up along with it, and given his lack of knowledge when it came to video games of any kind, I was not confident that his choices would be particularly good. Regardless, they were new games, and ones that I didn’t have to spend pocket money on. When he laid them down on the coffee table I was pleasantly surprised to see the recently released Ultimate Doom, the already fairly old but definitely wonderful Civilization, and something I would have never imagined him picking up: MechWarrior 2.
So it was that in 1995 I whiled away many an hour controlling mechanical behemoths for either the Jade Falcon or Wolf Clans — revelling in the simulated, complex combat. It took a significant chunk of time before I even bordered on competent, but I loved every second of it. 17 years later, I’m at it again. This time exclusively fighting other players in MechWarrior Online. I remain a bit crap at piloting these engines of war, but the joy of deep, tactical warfare remains.
Set prior to the clan wars of MechWarrior 2, MechWarrior Online still pits two teams of brave pilots controlling a wide variety of mechs against each other in large, outdoor spaces. These are not the almost human-like mechs of so many anime shows, though some of them can be almost as graceful, rather, they are heavily armed vehicles that move a lot like tanks. Moving the mouse aims the mech’s weaponary, and allows the pilot to have a look around at the war torn battlefield, while the W, A, S, and D keys control the legs. Holding down on the throttle will quickly allow the tank-on-legs to hit its maximum speed, and it will keep moving until you slow it down, eventually going into reverse. Constant movement and positioning are key to being the victor in these conflicts.
There are four classes, starting with fleet footed scouts that run circles around their more ponderous enemies and ending with the colossal assault class which is covered in guns, soaks up a huge amount of damage, but moves like a glacier. Initially, trial mechs are made available, and while they give players a good feel for the various classes, they cannot be upgraded, customised, or earn experience. They can, however, earn C-Bills that can be saved up and put towards purchasing your very own giant death machines. It is at that point when augmenting your vehicle becomes possible, along with upgrading your pilot skills, as well.
Battles in MechWarrior Online are loud, earth-shuddering affairs. Nestled within the cockpit, surrounded by dials, screens and holographic displays, it feels safe. Then you move and things start to shake and rumble. Then you get hit by missiles and you can’t see anything other than the bright red warnings letting you know that more of them are on their way. Then you overheat because you fired too quickly, and your mech decided to take a nap (if you let it). Then — oh bugger, four tiny bastards have surrounded you and are pelting you with their wee lasers, destroying you with a thousand tiny cuts. It might be a somewhat tactical game, but it’s far from stingy when it comes to explosive action and nail-biting encounters.
Even the nimble, lightly armoured scouts can take quite the beating. Sure, they go down considerably easier than, say, the titanic and iconic Atlas, but slower than one might expect. Rather than just unleash a barrage of missiles, lasers and bullets, players much target specific parts of the enemy, often working together as a team to bring one down. Shoot their guns, and they will eventually be incapable of damaging you, for instance.
Every attack and every shot fired involves taking a risk; not just because it’s likely your foe will attack in kind, either. Firing weapons generates heat, and heat is one punishing mistress. Weaker weapons don’t have too much of an impact, unless you fire them a lot, but throw in some missile attacks or continuous laser blasts and you’ll quickly find yourself stuck in the world’s most dangerous sauna. When heat levels get too high, the mech automatically shuts down in an attempt to chill the hell out — often in the middle of a battle. This, as one might expect, is a wee bit dangerous. The short break can be overridden, but that’s pretty dangerous, as well. Though, sometimes it’s worth the risk just to get out of firing range.
I feel like I’ve barely scraped the surface of MechWarrior Online, having only just started to customise my first personal mech. That, in itself, looks like it will swallow up a significant portion of my time. Though I’ve just been going through battle after battle absent any real context or plot, it still feels reminiscent of its classic forebearers. I was transported back to the days of being a pre-teen mech pilot in the mid-nineties, struggling to get to grips with machines that feel every bit as heavy as a hundred ton monstrosity should. The juxtaposition of the frantic scraps and tactical planning and positioning makes for a compelling experience, made all the more enjoyable when teams work together for the pay off — a glorious victory and bragging rights.