Not two years ago, I was holding my copies of MechWarrior 2 and MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries, which had come gratis with my old NEC desktop running Windows 95, and wondering where all the decent mech games had gone. The mech game releases of the latter 2000's had been paltry, with only (as far as I can recall) Chromehounds giving a decent showing. I thought the world was due for another round of great mech games. Most of my hopes died with the poor showing of the last Steel Battalion. Burdened by complex controls on unwieldy Kinect technology, Steel Battalion was hilariously bad. I thought I'd never see a mech game come to the light of day after that disaster. No major publisher would be willing to touch a mech game with a ten-foot pole.
Come 2011, I was proved wrong… and right. Infinite Games announced that it would be reviving the BattleTech universe with two MechWarrior games. At around the same time, Adhesive Games and Meteor Entertainment announced their original mech game Hawken. Sure, Activision wouldn't be going to its roots by publishing a mech game, but that didn't mean that indies couldn't pick up the torch.
MechWarrior Online (MWO) takes up the tradition of the MechWarrior games of the '90s: while the game is an action-oriented, first person shooter, it's still quite cerebral as it offers deep (and I mean deep) lore and complex chassis customizations. Though you can certainly pick up the game, pop into a preset mech, play, and have some successes, mastering the game takes a deep understanding of each mech's variants and strengths, and how each customization plays to those strengths.
As soon as MWO boots up, you're taken to a pre-game launcher window, which is meant to serve as your pre-launch operations window. From here, you can go to the mech lab, where you can choose and customize your mech of choice; and the pilot lab, where you can spend experience points earned in battles to gain perks. It's also here that the free-to-play elements of MWO show their faces. Beginning as a rookie pilot, all you have access to are trial mechs, which you can use in the line of battle, but are mechs that aren't actually yours. Since you're losing loaners, you're locked out of making any customizations for these mechs, which is just about half the fun of MechWarrior.
However, if you're a rookie with a little bit of real world cash on your hands—that is, if you decided to purchase one of the game's Founder's Packs, consisting of Veteran ($30), Elite ($60), and Legendary ($120)—you'll be credited MCs, currency that is separate from C-bills, the in-game currency. Though you can purchase new mechs with MCs or C-bills, it takes quite a heftier sum of C-bills to buy a mech than MCs, as is expected of the free-to-play model.
You can earn C-bills and XP through matches, although if you're starting out as a rookie, you can expect to play over 20 matches before you have the C-bills to actually buy your first mech. If you're unwilling to spend real world cash on MWO, you can expect to be grinding for a good three or four hours with a trial mech before you get to reap any rewards. Keep in mind that using a trial mech also means that you won't gain any XP. As expected, though the game isn't "play-to-win", as free players have access to everything paying players do, playing the "free" route severely hinders your progress.
After choosing a mech and making the appropriate customizations, you're ready to launch for your mission. For now, missions are restricted to Assault missions, which are the equivalent of the standard Team Deathmatch.
Old MechWarrior fans will be pleased to find that mechs handle just as they remember, though the keyboard layout has been much more simplified. The number keys no longer handle different speed settings; instead, they've been replaced by weapons groups. Speed and movement have been relegated to the WASD keys. W and S allow you to toggle speed up or down, while A and D turn the mech. Mouse movements control torso movement. For newbies, the controls can be a little overwhelming, particularly since it's rather difficult to maneuver the equivalent of a tank on legs. Maneuvering the heavier mechs becomes a bigger challenge, especially when you're constrained to the tight corners of an urban setting and trying to brawl with an opponent.
Another level of tactics comes into play with weaponry and overheating. The weapons fitted onto a mech are highly dependent Heavier mechs are equipped with a harder-hitting arsenal. Consequently, it's more difficult to circle strafe in combat and hit opponents that are fleeter of feet. Overheating also prevents you from firing your weapons endlessly to your heart's content. Firing a weapon brings up heat levels in your mech, and constantly alpha striking (firing every weapon in your mech's arsenal at once) is a good way to bring heat levels to a critical level. Overheating causes a mech's safety mechanics to kick in and initiate an automatic shutdown, which is something you probably don't want in the middle of a firefight. Shutdowns can be overridden, but you risk overheating your mech to the point of explosion.
Though MechWarriorOnline has made some amazing strides, I'm wondering if Piranha Games' release window for 2012 is a little too ambitious. While Piranha's done an amazing job of capturing the deeply embedded nostalgic "feel" of piloting a mech from the old MechWarriors, there's still plenty of work to be done. Right now, free players have to battle a long grind before being able to actually delve into the deeper and (what I think are) the more fun aspects of gameplay. There's nothing that strokes your ego more than knowing that you've managed to put together a mech that both handles to your liking and holds up well in combat. Since factions and different gameplay modes are still a work in progress, there currently is relatively little content keeping new free players playing and converting them into paying customers.
If Piranha's plans to implement factions and new missions carry through, then MWO will be the MechWarrior game that fans have been waiting for. As a MechWarrior fan myself, I'm excited and anxious to see the final product that Piranha launches come the end of 2012.