catapult cropped Hands on with the MechWarrior Online open BetaWhen I first heard that there would be a new MechWarrior game, I was skeptical it would ever get off the ground. The last MechWarrior, 2000’s MechWarrior 4: Vengeance, was almost a decade in the past and the chances of a Mechwarrior returning seemed about as good as those of getting another Freespace. Then I found out the new MechWarrior wasn’t going to have any single-player campaign, and would be one of those new-fangled free-to-play games I’ve been having so much trouble with and my expectations sank even lower. Well, not only did MechWarrior Online get off the ground, but the experience of playing the open beta blew my expectations out of the water.

9767  320x240 atlas Hands on with the MechWarrior Online open Beta There’s a lot to like in this game, but the most important thing is that this is a real MechWarrior game. This isn’t an FPS dressed up as a ‘Mech sim. The keyboard layout practically requires a chart to explain, so if you want to try it out be sure to watch the tutorial videos. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time while the game installs two dozen or so patches when you first launch the game.

Before I start talking about ‘Mech selection, I feel I would be remiss point out that the game is set in 3048—one year before the Clan invasions, so you’re limited to Inner Sphere technology. What this means to non-fans is that the iconic Mad Cat (the ‘Mech on the cover of MechWarrior 2 and 3) is not in the game.  While this makes a bit of sense from a balancing perspective–Clan ‘Mechs are generally more powerful than their Inner Sphere counterparts–I would be shocked if we don’t hear about a future expansion to include the Clan’s ‘Mechs.

Once you finish patching MechWarrior Online’s client, you’re given a choice of ‘Mechs to play with.  If you haven’t played a MechWarrior game before, ‘Mechs are divided into 4 different weight classes. Light Mechs range up to 35 tons and are useful scouts, Medium ‘Mechs run up to 55, and are more generally versatile. Heavy ‘Mechs, weighing up to 75 tons, are powerfully armed and serve as long-range artillery. The heaviest ‘Mechs weigh in at up to 100 tons, and are incredibly well armed and armored.

9770  320x240 mechlab Hands on with the MechWarrior Online open Beta The game gives you a selection of trial ‘Mechs to get you started.  These ‘Mechs are pretty weak, and you can’t modify them, so you’ll want to get a ‘Mech of your own as fast as you can.  Once you decide what ‘Mech you want, you can either pay cash or grind random matches for in-game currency. The ‘Mechs run pretty steep, but once you buy your own you can customize the loadout—just like you’d expect in a MechWarrior name.

If you’ve ever played a MechWarrior game, you know how important ‘Mech customization is to the series. If you haven’t, you’ll want to learn the basics of ‘Mech-building fast, because custom ‘Mechs are much more powerful than the stock trial mechs. ‘Mech-building is essentially a game of balancing strengths and weaknesses. Your ‘Mech has a limited amount of weight it can carry, dependent upon what chassis you use–a 35-ton Raven can’t hold nearly as much as a 65-ton Catapult. so you want to chose a role for your ‘Mech. You could design an ultra-fast scout, with targeting equipment, or you could use a light support mech that disrupts the enemy’s ability to dissipate heat. Oh, and one of the things that always bothered me about previous MechWarrior games was that your ‘Mech’s appearance never changed, despite your loadout.  What this meant was that you could build your ‘Mech such that you could fire lasers out of missile launchers, and vice versa. Not any more. Now the weapons displayed on your ‘Mech reflect the loadout you’ve chosen.

Once you’ve picked your ‘Mech and your loadout, it’s time to jump into the fray. As the game is still in beta, there are only a few maps, and one game type, an 8v8 mode called “Assault.” It’s a mixture of capture the flag and team deathmatch—you can either destroy the other team entirely, or you can attempt to capture their base. Most games are decided when one team wipes the others out, but more than once my team won a game when in a bad position by sending a fast Light ‘Mech to capture the enemy’s base instead of running toward the other team head on.

9768  320x240 missiles everywhere Hands on with the MechWarrior Online open Beta One of the new features in this edition of MechWarrior is the concept of “spotting.” Your ‘Mech has very limited targeting and detection equipment, meaning that if an enemy ‘Mech moves out of your line of sight, you’ll lose a target lock. However, if you can maintain  a target lock, you’ll automatically transmit the enemies location to your teammates. What this means is that smaller, faster scouts can dash ahead, hide behind cover and identify enemies for the heavier ‘Mechs so they can bring the pain from afar. When you’re spotting for your team mates, you get a monetary bonus for every salvo sent to your target. This does a great job of encouraging players to climb into smaller ‘Mechs instead of jumping into the powerful assault ‘Mechs. Scouting itself is actually a lot of fun, though you’ll often be outclassed if the  heavy hitters you’re spying on find you.  There is no respawn, so once your ‘Mech is spotted and destroyed, you’re forced to spectate the rest of the match.

This game mode does have a few issues that will hopefully be fixed before it officially launches. The game’s automatic matchmaking tries to keep the matches even by keeping an equal number of ‘Mech’s of a given class, and while this usually works, it can go horribly wrong. One of the big issues is that the two Assault ‘Mechs in the game, the Awesome and the Atlas, are horribly mismatched. The 80 ton Awesome is no match for the 100 ton Atlas, but the two are put into the same class, which means that one team has a lot more firepower behind it.

Another problem is that the current system of matchmaking means you have no chance to confer with your teammates and select a loadout to compliment their abilities. I tried playing with a ‘Mech that was entirely devoted to scouting and targeting for long range attacks, but then once I got onto the battlefield I found that my partners had all chosen brawler ‘mechs with powerful short ranged attacks. I had to give it up because my ‘Mechs lack of firepower meant I couldn’t hold my own in any kind of melee. As it is, you’ll want to stick with more generalist builds to ensure you can at least meet another ‘Mech of your own class on equal footing.

A related issue is the lack of VOIP chat. Teamwork is important in MechWarrior Online–focus-firing is a must to bring down heavier ‘Mechs–and it’s hard to communicate target selection with your teammates. Sometimes you’ll run into a team of dedicated players using external VOIP services, and believe me: you’ll know it when it happens. These teams are incredibly efficient, and make mincemeat out of a bunch  of random players.

9771  320x240 scenery Hands on with the MechWarrior Online open Beta Graphically, the game looks great.  Piranha Games has made really nice use of the CryEngine 3—the same game engine behind Crysis 2 and Crysis 3—to make the game environments look and feel huge. Sunlight shimmers off windows and heavy snow flurries swirl outside your ‘Mech’s cockpit. Lasers flash in brilliant hues of red, green, and blue and cause ‘Mech’s to glow white hot on impact. Missiles tail smoke and swirl in the air as they arch down toward their targets. One thing that did bother me was the heavy blurring of anything past the middle distance—it’s hard to see anything with any clarity past 1500 meters or so, but the reason they did that seems to have been in service of gameplay, to ensure heavier ‘Mechs rely on their scouts. A lot of the graphical bells and whistles—like destructible environments—aren’t implemented in the beta yet, but they should be coming online in the future.

There are only four maps in the game at the moment,but they’re all visually distinct. In addition, they feel enormous. Compared with the compact, labyrinthine levels of other recent ‘Mech games that keep all the combat at mid-range or closer, it’s nice to see a map that allows for some honest to god artillery duels from time to time. It’s really impressive to see a huge flight of missiles rise above the crest of the ridge off in the distance.

With any game devoted to online play, one always has to worry about the community, and despite a few bad eggs, my experience was okay. I never encountered any outright trolls or griefers, though there would be a lot to be gained if people would communicate a bit more. Generally, they’re all silent, though a few will engage in conversation over chat after they’ve died. The only real problem is zombie players, who log in but then don’t actually play the game at all. This is an exploit of the games rewards system, and Piranha is apparently going to be addressing the issue soon.

9769  320x240 night vision Hands on with the MechWarrior Online open Beta All in all, I’ve got to say that MechWarrior Online really impressed me. If you ever enjoyed the ‘Mech sim action of the previous games in the series, you’ll find yourself right at home. If you never tried those games, you might find yourself a bit lost at first—if you try to play MechWarrior Online like Call of Duty, you’re going to have some problems. But the games heavy emphasis on team combat, great graphics, and huge landscapes helps make this game feel like the MechWarrior game we’ve been waiting over a decade to play.