“Reactor Online, Sensors Online, Weapons Online, All systems nominal”. It was 1995 with the release of MechWarrior 2 when we first got to hear this iconic phrase, and it has kicked off some of the best power fantasy games ever made. MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries came out the next year and attached the mechanics of piloting a behemoth battlemech in the field with the deep economics of running a mercenary outfit.
As you can see in the intro mission, you aren’t a Commander. In fact, you are little more than a jumped-up cadet MechWarrior who was just thrust into the position of leader. Escaping with a dropship and a single mech, it’s time to rebuild and figure out why this well-funded mercenary group had taken such an interest in you and your team.
The storyline in MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is told through occasional missions that appear when your reputation level hits specific milestones. It does mean that the ebb and flow of the game is an exciting story-driven and voice acted mission, punctuated by long stretches of running one of five mission types (video of each sprinkled throughout this review) until you’ve hit the next reputation checkpoint. It does make the ~50 hour structure of the game more about your mercenary work than pushing the story agenda.
Having managed to escape with a solid 50-ton Centurion medium mech (stock, with an AC-10, an LRM-10, and a pair of Medium Lasers — sorry, no CN9-D3D if you were hoping for a Gauss Rifle — also, wrong timeline), but one mech does not constitute a lance. Similarly, you can declare yourself a mercenary, but until you build a name for yourself, you are just a schmuck for hire. Cranking out a few easy missions, you’ll start to build a reputation (something tracked numerically, akin to company XP) as a capable mercenary, opening up a wider contract variety, and more opportunities to branch out. Adding a few pilots to the roster, and salvaging enough mechs and equipment to support it, you’ll soon be a lance of four. That’s when the real money begins to flow.
Recruiting pilots is as simple as paying their recruiting fees and their associated salaries, but how effective they’ll be is determined by a bank of six skills — Ballistic, Energy, Missiles, Shielding, Heat Management, and Evasion. The first three increase the amount of damage done with those weapon types, shielding reduces the amount of incoming damage, heat management makes better use of your heat sinks to cool your mech more quickly, and evasion increases the chances of evading enemy fire entirely. Each pilot is unique, and other than the protagonist, Commander Mason, they all have different levels of potential. One pilot may have a maximum ballistic power of three, but they may be able to make lasers dance to an eighth level, thanks to their pilot skills. Matching the meat to the mech is an integral part of ensuring both come back in one piece.
AI pathfinding can be downright dumb in MW5:M. Navigating rough terrain sometimes has your computer-handled pilots running directly into crevices in mountains, bouncing off, and heading a different direction like a 40-ton Roomba. That said, they don’t have nearly the same problem when it comes to open combat. They’ll utilize their mech’s advantages to their full capabilities, staying at whatever range makes them most effective, and using focused fire to take down enemy mechs with ruthless precision.
Once you’ve built up a bit of a reputation, new contract types will open up. Warzone puts you smack in the middle of massive conflicts, asking you to pick a side. Raid is heading into a hot zone and procuring things on behalf of clients. Defense asks you to hold the line against incoming forces while preventing as much damage as possible. Assassination is morally ambiguous, asking you to ice somebody for money. Multi-mission is usually a combination of mission types, but they are run sequentially — the damage you incur in the first is going to be an ongoing challenge in whatever comes next. Beyond these, there are special missions that require a specific reputation level, or mission pairs that force you to choose between the agendas of two Great Houses, or even whether you defend some hopelessly outnumbered farmers versus cashing in and collecting five times as much, with a free mech dangled as an incentive.
Coming by quality mechs is more challenging than good pilots to drive them. Your reputation with each faction in the game (and there are many) determines how much negotiation power you have with them. When you are negotiating contracts, you’ll have the option to bargain for additional salvage rights, extra C-Bills, or even a little bit of damage insurance to cover the dents and scratches you’ll inevitably incur. When your reputation is neutral or poor, you might only get 2 or 3 salvage right points, but routinely working for a specific faction might yield you over a dozen. A good mech will cost you at least 6, and most good weapons are at least a few points, so being mindful of how much damage you do on the off chance you might scoop up what remains of a mech chassis at the end becomes important. As you explore, you’ll also occasionally find rare or legendary weapons or mechs. These “Hero” mechs often have a special configuration or perk, but I’ll leave those surprises for you to find.
As you are starting out with a Leopard Dropship, the aforementioned Centurion, about a million C-Bills (that’s far less than you might think), and nothing else, you’ll have to grind out money and equipment if you expect to get very far. Recovering a mech lets you sell the salvaged behemoth on the market for a percentage of its original worth (rounded way down for the condition it’s in at sale), or restore it, retrofit it with new weapons, and fielding it in your own lance. Repairs cost more and take longer in conflict zones, but when you don’t want to disengage to fly back to the nearest port, you do what you need to do to stay stomping.
The market is a great source, albeit an expensive one, for weapons, ammo, and the occasional mech. As these mechs are usually the recovered scraps sold by other mercenaries like yourself, they come in “as-is” condition, often requiring weeks if not months of structural repair and retrofit. On the other hand, weapons come in hot and ready to go. Each weapon comes in four variants from zero to four pips to designate their quality. Additional pips designate a better version that can do a little more damage, fire a little more often and from a longer distance, or maybe use less heat. When your mech comes back having lost four heat sinks, you’ll need to replace them, and that means a trip to the market, or having to rip them out of enemies you’ve downed in the field. It’s a good balancing act because running a lance is expensive work. I never felt like I was flush with cash, as there was always some expensive equipment, mech, or weapon I needed to purchase, or repair I needed to do.
When it comes to weapons of war, MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is an embarrassment of riches. The fun of being a Mechcommander who acquires his mechs in the field is the constant randomness of what you’ll stumble across. You might get excited because you just salvaged a Hunchback…but then you see that it’s a HBK-4K with just three laser hardpoints instead of the HBK-4H with its far-superior 5 laser slots. All in all, there are 52 stock mechs, but with variants, that number skews far closer to 250-300. If you were worried you’d be seeing the same mechs all the time, you’ll be unpleasantly surprised when the Cicada you’ve been tearing up suddenly pops back with a PPC. For me, at least, it made the grind feel more like a hunt.
As you slip around the universe, you’ll uncover trading lanes, conflicts, and the occasional black market. While you are free to go anywhere you please and attempt missions there, there is a reputation recommendation for each section of the Inner Sphere. The only real restriction on what you bring into the field is the drop weight maximum.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries starts in the year 3015 and runs to 3049, meaning developer Piranha Games has access to the entire 4th Succession War era. This means you probably won’t see a Hatchetman in the field, but it does leave the door open for Piranha to add more content to scratch the Clan itch — I, for one, would love to see a Timberwolf.
I did run into a bug that is more frustrating than game-breaking, though it can result in higher repair bills on the back end. You can issue orders to your troops such as attacking a specific target, forming up on you, or to hold fire. You can do this individually, or to your entire crew, and you do it by hitting your function keys. Sometimes, these keys will simply stop working completely until you load up your next mission. That means you won’t be able to issue orders, leaving your team to operate under the power of the AI. Most of the time, this works out perfectly, but other times the troops are a little scatterbrained on which targets to prioritize. When that 75-ton Marauder is reaching out with its massive arms, PPCs ripping your armor off in sheets, you’ll wish you could get their attention.
When the second wave of RTX-enabled titles was announced, MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries was among them. Every laser-based weapon in the game lights up the surrounding area, and during nighttime missions, it’s a real treat. Similarly, a great deal of effort has been put into the models of each mech. The environment, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. On Ultra, the game can be extraordinarily detailed, but some textures can also be somewhat flat and lifeless. There are half a dozen videos in this review, so I’ll let you judge for yourself.
UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention that RTX is still a work in progress and is currently not enabled in this release build at the time of writing. PGI and NVIDIA are working to bring it to life. We’ll update our videos to reflect the update once it is available.
While the soundtrack is fantastic (and I recommend picking up the CE to nab it), voice repetition is rampant in MechWarrior 5. When you eventually stumble on a TAG (Target Acquisition Gear — it helps missiles lock on more effectively) your lancemate will announce literally every target they’ve tagged. When you are on a mission with 50+ targets, you’ll get really tired of hearing it. Similarly, when you are recruiting pilots, you’ll hear the same voices coming out of two different people. That said, when the pilots have no more personality than their few lines and their pool of stats, it’s likely you won’t care what they have to say. I wish there was a bit more customization, flavor text, or some level of background information on my pilots, but I guess at the end of the day they are mercs — I don’t need to know much about them to employ them. That said, the voice work is a mixed bag anyway, so maybe it’s better that there isn’t more of it. I’m looking forward to modding to replace and expand the pilot roster and their backstories.
Joined by three of my friends (I know their backstories!), MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries takes on a completely new form. Coordinating, you and your friends can unleash hell on the enemy AI, and specialization begins to make a world of difference. While the AI does a decent job of handling range, setting up your friends in different roles can turn the tide. Having a skilled scout with a TAG can help your heavy or assault missile boats lock in from a distance. It makes the mission less dependent on tonnage, and more dependent on the skill of the pilot. While the game does fine as a single player experience, it’s absolutely fantastic when you can stomp the enemy as a true mercenary team.
It’s hard to wear a mantle that has over 35 years of mixed media including over 20 video games, five pen-and-paper iterations, and even a 13 episode animated series. What do you include, what do you omit, what Era do you cover, and how many of the nearly 700 mechs (plus variants!) do you include? There will inevitably be things that some people believe are crucial but were omitted for some reason or another. As an example, the game has night vision, but doesn’t have thermal. Is that a crucial feature? What about a more comprehensive Mechlab? Is the simple UI enough to convey what’s going on? I suppose it depends on who you ask. I’ll add one of my own — destroying a leg should force a mech into a limp permanently, but here they seem to take a quick break and then start running at full speed once again. My point is simple — this is an expansive universe, and there will always be something that PGI could tweak. In the end they had to stop poking at it and launch at some point. I would be genuinely surprised if PGI doesn’t make a ton of changes to balance, UI, and more post launch — in the week since I’ve gotten access they’ve already added weapon loading pips, friend or foe indicators, and more to the interface based on Beta feedback, so it’s clear they are still working hard to make this the best MechWarrior game possible.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is a return to form. As a fan of the series, it’s been a very long wait, but PGI managed to deliver in a big way on nearly every front. While there are certain things that could be improved, what’s here is an excellent four player mech-stomping good time.