MechWarrior Tactics preview

By Thierry Nguyen, Aug 02, 2012 11:30am PDT

I noted in my look at MechWarrior Online that I dabbled with the franchise with MechWarrior 2 and its expansions in the '90s, but that was it. I didn't play any of the Crescent Hawk RPGs, nor the original tabletop game. But lately, courtesy of my smartphone and tablet, I've been playing a lot of digital adaptations of board games--stuff like Neuroshima Hex or Carcassone. Right in the middle of that slight shift in my gaming habits comes an idea that I would have dismissed immediately if you presented it to me a year ago, but I'm actually intrigued by today: a free-to-play browser based collectible card game (CCG)-style MechWarrior.

While MechWarrior Online features 12v12 skirmishes, MechWarrior Tactics focuses on a more intimate 4v4 battle -- a small skirmish between two lances (BattleTech speak for "squad"). These lances provide the base CCG structure; much like building a deck, you construct a lance out of pilots, mechs, and gear. Pilots have their own preferences and skill sets -- such as sniping from afar with Gauss rifles or proficiencies in piloting assault mechs -- and as such they provide the base foundation for how you play your lance during a match. After deciding which pilots and mechs to use for an encounter, you then use weapons and items for last minute tweaking and rounding out of your lance. I'm told that besides the obvious difference in weapons (i.e. lasers versus autocannons), there will be different manufacturers that provide additional tweaks, such as one company producing lasers that generate less heat but are heavier, and the like. The free-to-play structure is most evident here: you play for "Surplus Technology Armor Containers" (STACs), which act like booster packs in that they're a random jumble of pilots, mechs, and items. You buy new STACs to outfit your lances through purchases of either in-game or real-world currency.

It's this lance-on-lance battle that things play a little differently than expected. Whether playing against the A.I. or a human, every turn is asynchronous -- both players make their selections and after submitting their moves, the game figures out what to do from there. Each turn gets represented by three distinct phases: Attack, Movement, and Execution. The Attack phase is where you say, "hey, I'd like to unload a bunch of LRMs onto that guy I see over there." After designating all your attacks, you then transition into the Movement phase, where you figure out where you want to put that Jenner, or if you want to jump-jet somewhere, or maybe have your Awesome attempt to hide behind a really big tree. Finally, you hit end turn, and the game tallies up all the choices you and your opponent made, and presents an in-game rendition of what actually happened. This latter point looks pretty snazzy, especially for a browser-based game with no client. MechWarrior Tactics uses the Unity engine, and seeing missiles streak their way to an Atlas looks a heck of a lot better than a typical Facebook or Flash game.

The "attack-move-execute" structure allows the player to theoretically play as many matches as he has pilots/mechs. If you've either been grinding or buying 100 mechs' worth of stuff, then you could theoretically bounce between 25 different matches. Though, each lance is committed to its specific battle -- you can't just make an obscenely bad-ass foursome and use that to stomp on five opponents simultaneously.

My main concern is the developer's decision to go with an Attack phase before a Move one. I'm told that it's to more closely echo the original board game, which I earlier confess my ignorance of. Still, I'm used to strategy games generally letting you move and attack within the same turn, or if they are separated, to have you choose movement and then attack after said movement. The reversal of attack-then-move could take some getting used to. The work-in-progress build had goofy features such as no indicator for heat management (as it was a sort of "just look at how pretty and easy to play it is" type of demo, so heat management was basically turned off), or small quirks that just take getting used to (such as moving each mech one hex at a time, rather than selecting a destination, as to give players more fine control over where their mechs go). But a fundamental change from other turn-based strategy games feels a bit odd to me.

Then again, like its action-sim sibling, it's free to play, so whenever it rolls out live, it probably won't hurt to check it out. Maybe I'll like it enough to ask for a mobile version when it's done.

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