What do you get when you take a solid FPS game, give it a sci-fi/mecha-based setting, and then start adding League of Legends style class unlocks, experience gains, reskins and character enhancement? You get Hawken. You also get me with my eyes all lit up and wearing a big, crazy smile, because hot DAMN does that sound like a whole lot of fun. Last week I managed to get in on some prime Hawken action, and with the closed beta event upon us, I thought I’d share my impressions. Advance note: I loved it, and Hawken is now at the top of a small list of titles I’m going to be jumping on the moment it goes live. It’s easily the most promising free to play title I’ve seen this year.
Let’s start with the presentation. Graphically, the game is just an absolute joy to behold – the environments have that perfect near-future Neo-Tokyo look going on, throwing your mech down into urban environments teeming with a mix of densely built electric city. For you anime fans, think in terms of Appleseed or Ghost in the Shell’s cities, and you’re well on your way to picturing where most of Hawken’s combat currently takes place. (Or you can look at some of the screenshots in this preview, I suppose.) Not that Hawken exclusively is about outdoor, urban maps – when I wasn’t stomping down alleyways or jumping around on rooftops, I was jetting about in complicated, maze-like warehouse interiors. At least I think it was a warehouse. Honest to God, I was way too busy having fun shooting at people and trying to achieve objects to pay too much detail to wherever I was thrown in at the time. Suffice to say, graphically this is just a fantastic game – a good way to sum up the art direction would be ‘EVE-Online gone mecha’, which makes it stand out.[singlepic id=7871 w=320 h=240 float=right]
Now, I’ve praised the graphics in Hawken, but c’mon – that’s just graphics, and those mean nothing if the gameplay isn’t there. Thankfully, Hawken really seems to be knocking it out of the park even at this early stage. Combat is not only fun, but it feels the way an action-mecha-FPS should. Mecha, particularly the more powerful varieties, feel like large, lumbering, dangerous machines. There’s a nice balance between responsiveness, sturdiness and action going on in Hawken – unless you get jumped by multiple opponents or take a particularly nasty hit in the more fragile and fast-footed mechs, you’re able to take a bit of a beating before your mech gives out, but not so much that combat is something other than fast-paced. The controls all came naturally, despite the game having some fairly unique twists on the FPS genre. For instance, every mech I played had a self-heal command that could be started up at any time – this switches you to a third person camera view of your machine as a remote controlled bot automatically flies around and patches you up, leaving you crouched and, for a few vital seconds, defenseless. You can heal yourself to full this way, highlighting the importance of pulling out of a tough firefight, or hunting down a wounded enemy for the kill. Mechs can often be equipped with multiple weapons, and using too many of them for too long can run an overheating risk – putting your weapons offline for a time while they cool off. In addition to the more straightforward weapons, additional subsystems can be bought and used on your mechs – giving you the ability to throw out holographic decoys, or EMP grenades, or turrets, or otherwise. Like any good mech game, this means there’s a good amount of customization options available for each of the various types of mechs you can pilot.[singlepic id=7872 w=320 h=240 float=left]
Which brings me to my next point. Like League of Legends and similar games, you’re not just locked to a single character/mech – additional ones can be acquired in the store, each with different appearances, gameplay styles, statistics, abilities and more. I tried out a few of these, and the ones I played truly felt like unique experiences. On one end of the scale was the scout class mech, a fragile but extremely fast machine that could easily run rings around most of the other mechs, at the cost of needing to get in close to really do much damage . On the other end of the spectrum was a mech that was sluggish and thickly armored, but could unleash a devastating barrage of missiles to heavily damage opponents. Each of these mechs had a fair amount of customizability as well – you could equip them with any of a variety of the aforemention subsystems, or swap around which guns they’d be using. On top of all this and their varying stats, the mechs also had one special skill reminiscent of League of Legend’s ultimates – say, an ability which granted you X seconds of shielding, on a cooldown. For those of you who, like me, love to learn the ins and outs of a particular class, or filling particular roles on a team, or just plain accumulating a private army of things to play as, Hawken’s looking promising right away. Also, skins can be bought on a piece by piece basis – for the chassis, for guns, for legs, etc, allowing you to mix and match pieces before you buy/select any one of a number of paint jobs.
In addition to the multiple mech-types and equipment options, Hawken also has an experience point system going on. The more you fight with a particular mech, the more experience you gain on that mech – and the more points you earn to spend on optimizations. These optimizations are organized in three skill trees focused around offense, defense and movement. The more points you get to spend on your optimizations, the better – and more specialized – your mechs get, leading to better and better performance in the game itself. Since the experience you gain is tied to your time spent and performance in a particular mech, it provides additional incentive to always be playing your best – and, I suppose, some griping opportunity when facing against someone who’s played more and thus has more optimizations in place than you do. As is typical with this sort of meta-game, the advancements are almost entirely passive and fairly modest – the top-tier offense optimization is currently a 3% bonus to all damage, for example – but the sort of thing that can change an outcome if a conflict against two otherwise evenly matched opponents is drawn out.[singlepic id=7873 w=320 h=240 float=right]
This brings us to the game modes. While straight up deathmatch and team deathmatch are among the available gameplay types, the one that really stood out to me was a mix between king of the hill style resource gathering and convoy defense. Basically, you have two teams, each tasked with gaining as much energy as they can to bring back to their base. Energy can be gained by blowing up enemy mechs, or by spending time near energy farms off in the middle of the map. Having your teammates bring back enough energy to the base results in a battleship being launched which slowly makes its way towards the enemy base – during which point you have to fight enemy mechs who will not only be shooting at your ship, but trying to take control of anti-air emplacements which can do serious damage to said ship. Protecting it long enough to reach the opposing base will result in their base losing a point of defense – and the first side to lose 3 points loses the game. It’s an interesting mode with some great competitive promise – I’m hoping Hawken ends up attracting enough of a following to result in some eSports coverage, which would be a joy to see.
Altogether, Hawken is shaping up to be something wonderful – not just a fun mech game (a strangely underrepresented genre on the PC), not just a fun FPS game, but a game which combines the action and fun of a solid, well-paced FPS title which has at least the potential to approach the stylistic and playstyle diversity of League of Legends or Heroes of Newerth. Keep a close eye on this one, because the potential is simply phenomenal.
Victor Grunn has been a gamer since the days of single-button joysticks and the Atari 800XL. When not lamenting the loss of the Ultima series or setting people on fire in Team Fortress 2, he's an aspiring indie game developer and freelance writer.