MechWarrior Online preview

Years and years ago, MW2 didn't automatically translate into "Modern Warfare 2"; PC gamers were using that shorthand to refer to the fine giant robot action-sim MechWarrior 2. While I didn't devour the lore to name all the Clans or the five Houses within the Inner Sphere, I did spend a lot of time alternating between TIE Fighter and MechWarrior 2 (especially MW2: Mercenaries).

Besides the slick opening cinematics that had mechs jump-jetting around each other or Kodiaks hiding in the snow, the MechWarrior series struck a great balance between simulation and action. As much as I respected the like of Jane's Combat Simulations, I confess that it was easier for me to manage a giant robot brimming with autocannons and particle projector cannons (PPCs) than to try to fly an F-15 or an AH-64 Apache.

A few matches of MechWarrior Online at a community event last week prompted the above reminiscing. While I generally associate the phrase "free to play shooter" with Counter-Strike knockoffs, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how this free to play shooter managed to conjure up memories. I had to unlearn a lot of habits that modern first person games instilled in me, and remembered what the heck I did in the mid-'90s.

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The biggest adjustment came from remembering that I'm controlling a giant tank with legs, rather than a person. Despite the traditional WASD-plus-mouse control scheme, I had to realize that I wasn't a nimble dude jumping around with an assault rifle. I had to adjust to the fact that I can aim and move in different directions. I had to remember how turning my reticule meant that I still needed to rotate my legs if I wanted to keep chasing someone. That W doesn't mean forward -- it means increase throttle while S decreased it. If I ran past someone, I can't just stop and instantly zip backwards; I had to deal with my mech's mammoth inertia as it slowly bled speed before kicking into reverse.

And then there's managing my damned heat. In my first match, none of my weapons were configured, and firing all of my missiles and lasers simultaneously (when done purposely, this is often referred to as an "alpha strike") quickly led to my mech shutting down from generating so much heat. After a few minutes with a slightly obtuse interface that uses arrow keys and R-CTRL, I eventually mapped my weapons to groups to better manage my heat per shot (and also have different weapons ready to fire while lasers cool and autocannons/missile launchers reload). Certain maps affect heat as well: one map (the recently revealed Caustic Valley) featured a volcano that added ten percent to your total heat meter -- even when you're just standing -- while another one in the snow masked your heat much more effectively. Finally, while I didn't see this in action, I heard some developers and players commenting about how sometimes, your autocannon or missile ammunition could explode and severely damage your mech (unless you had a CASE module that redirects the explosion and mitigates the overall damage).

But once I remember that I'm piloting a mech rather than a person, it starts to flow together. I start realizing that the light mechs with jump jets do, indeed, move and attack with a fluidity that the assault mechs lack. Then again, the assault mechs can take and dish out much more punishment. I start trying out options like controlling a Catapult with just long-range missiles (LRMs), and playing as a giant camping sniper. Or using the Jenner to run around and mark targets for my teammates to hit with missiles. Or seeing if I can repeat my old tactic of outfitting just PPCs and AC20s to produce a mech that overheats every other second, but when each shot connects, it tears through most any opponent.

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Since I only jumped into a few matches and messed around with the mechlab, I didn't get to see much of the metagame surrounding the combat. Sure, I saw that I earned experience points and money, but I didn't get to spend or use any of it. I'm told that the free to play model has some hooks besides the expected "pay real money for items," such as how certain mechs don't have associated repair costs, but also earn money at a reduced rate. Or how the experience-point system looks fine, but does it hold up -- or will it end up resulting in obscene levels of free grinding versus paid leveling? I'm also slightly hesitant about the interface. I only got to play with the WASD and mouse setup, so I'm not sure how well MWO works with an expected Hands-On Throttle-and-Stick setup. Though, Razer is making an insane looking custom controller that features a joystick, a mechanical keyboard, and a second screen in the middle (though, I question why they went with that and not, say, a dock for your existing tablet), so hopefully that means that joysticks will get as much love as mice (as opposed to how Freelancer was a mouse-only space sim).

Even as such, despite some questions about the long-term game, the interface, and its real-world cost, when it comes time to actually play, it feels like how MechWarrior should. The graphics might be a bit sparse at the moment (most of my kills have less-than-expected explosions, and more mechs that flare up and shutdown without turning on again for the rest of the match), but that's something that the developers are continually polishing and iterating on. At its core, it's a modern giant tank-with-legs action-sim that I've been missing since the '90s. As an aside (while this will undoubtedly sound like an ad, but I'm just going to say it): If you remember the MechWarrior games as fondly as I do, then you'll probably want to look into the likely-ending-soon Founder's Program. And maybe this whole endeavor will get us closer to some sort of modern re-release of TIE Fighter.