In November of 2002, Day 1 Studios and Microsoft introduced us to MechAssault. MechAssault, a splinter of the MechWarrior series, takes place in the 31st century – a century of family warfare and tumultuous battle in giant BattleMechs. It was a hit for Microsoft and Day 1 Studios for a well-executed single player game as well as Xbox Live play. Well, happy holidays MechWarriors…Day 1 Studios has a little surprise for you.
MechAssault 2 picks up where MechAssault left off, but don’t think that this is some half-hearted expansion pack or sad attempt at rehashing the same content. Day 1 Studios went back to the boards and listened to what we as gamers enjoyed about the first title and also about what might be improved. Given how much fun MechAssault was and how many changes have been made to the core of the gameplay system for the sequel, it was time to see if this was the sequel to best its predecessor, or just a layer of paint over the same old Mech.
One of the primary gripes in MechAssault was the sense of scale. While you could knock down buildings and crush cars and people under your steel feet, it never felt like you were commanding death itself from the controls of 100 tons of BattleMech. The first order of business appeared to be the ability to leave the confines of the BattleMech. At any time you are allowed to stop any BattleMech, lower the mounting ladder, and dismount your Mech. This simple gameplay mechanic alone seems to have been able to allow Day 1 to correct the sense of scale issues present in the first game. The smaller scout Mechs are fairly tiny as you might imagine, but larger assault Mechs are absolutely massive to behold.
It is not just the sense of scale that got a face lift; the environments also received an amazing level of attention. Gone are the expansive and empty snow levels or pallet-swap lava levels, replaced by lush jungles, frozen tundra filled with hills and snow-covered trees, and cities that are more than a dozen scattered buildings. It isn’t just the surface either, the detail of the buildings and trees themselves have been upgraded as well. The building lights flicker as you smash gauss rifle rounds into the sides of them, their foundations crack and shake as your enemies immolate and explode near them. They are no longer shells that simply turn into rubble when you bump into them, they now possess a structure that you can bend and crush quite a bit before they disintegrate. Trees similarly disintegrate with a shower of leaves and wooden splinters when you stomp the ground near them or fire your large lasers near them.
Just as in the first game, the Mechs are articulated and detailed. Unlike the first game, the animation is less stilted and is more accurate to how you might imagine a ‘chicken-walker’ style Mech (legs articulated like a chickens) to move. It isn’t just the reverse-articulated Mechs that got a face lift, the lumbering Atlas and its counterparts also got an animation upgrade. Just as before, they also show damage as you progress with sparks, smoke, limping, a core-burn, fire, and then finally a massive explosion. Unfortunately, Day 1 did stick with the original system present in the first game – your Mech cannot lose any weapons and if there is location based damage it isn’t readily apparent.
The environments and Mechs combine to make for a very beautiful game. The fantastic particle effects, heat distortions, water effects, and new animations came at a cost however – occasionally there are some framerate issues and the expanded areas such as the jungle planets have fogging and slight pop-in. Day 1 has pushed the Xbox as far as it can possibly go and employed an incredible bag of tricks on this title; don’t let the slight negatives outweigh the fantastic graphic facelift this game has received.
If you are not using a Dolby-capable 5.1 system or better, you are missing out. Day 1 worked with Industrial rockers Papa Roach and Korn to flesh out the soundtrack. The boss fights will have you launching mortar rounds and Alpha Strikes to “Right Now” and “Getting Away with Murder”. The rest of the music is also well done, and while it isn’t as rockin’ as the two contributed tracks, they do get the job done and are enjoyable. Having played through the entire game, the only time I didn’t enjoy the sound was the final boss battle. The last fight was absolutely ridiculous and after hearing “Right Now” about 30 times I had to turn the music off. Unfortunately, this lead to a very anticlimactic ending cutscene afterwards as the music was still absent.
Anyone who has played previous MechWarrior games or MechAssault knows how certain weapons should sound. A 100 ton Mech crushing over a tree should have a satisfying crunch, and that same Mech walking by should shake your very soul if you are on foot. I have a 7.1 THX-certified surround sound system, and this game gave my subwoofer a heck of a workout! Autocannons, flamethrowers, and the impact of missiles on the hull of my Mech sounded fantastic. The sound is not all bass though; the game featured a very ‘whole’ sound with upper and lower ranges filled and the same level of detail found in the graphics found here as well.
If you’ve played MechAssault, you will immediately understand the controls of MechAssault 2. The left stick controls movement, the right stick controls the camera. Left trigger handles switching of weapons and the right trigger unleashes them.
The real fun in the control comes from the hacking interface of the game. When in a BattleArmor, or when hacking a control system such as a locked door, you will engage in a mini-game where you hit the buttons in the sequence in which they light much like a classic game of Simon. If you succeed, the Mech will eject its pilot and shut down, allowing you the opportunity to get out of your BattleArmor and into the newly-acquired Mech. In multiplayer, it is you against the player inside, so you can see that this will liven up the online chat a little bit.
The controls are fairly simple, overly so when you step out of the Mech. When you exit the Mech you can plant satchel charges and take control of gun emplacements. The issue with the controls stem from the slightly askew collision detection and very-aware AI. When you are squared off against a tank that is aware of your presence, tight controls are the only thing separating you from escape and a messy death – this unfortunately means that you will be facing a messy death as the controls won’t be helping you. Thankfully, the control issues are a minor nuisance and there are few missions where you are required to run around without your Mech.
The choice in between a Mech and running around in your uniform and a smile is the new BattleArmor. The BattleArmor is a lot of fun as it can climb with its claw, use a laser, a mortar, latch onto a VTOL, and NeuroHack into Mechs to shut them down. To facilitate your ability to climb onto enemy Mechs and buildings, your BattleArmor is equipped with rapid-charging Jump Jets. If you were into the chainsaw-only melee in Quake, you’ll love squaring off in BattleArmor only matches.
MechAssault 2 suffers from some of the same design pains that its predecessor did. The game is linear, short, and the story is painfully cliché. The cutscenes are far better rendered than the first game, and the voice acting is certainly good, but it still doesn’t change that we have heard this story a bazillion times before. Sorry Day 1, you get absolutely no points for creativity here. It is only made worse by the ending scene of the game. If the game wasn’t so fun the story would butcher it.
The single-player game suffers from a carry-over from the previous game as well – it is very linear. The very open-ended gameplay present in the multiplayer game could have been carried into the single-player game, but it looks like we will only get small pieces of that. Occasionally you are given the option of taking Mech A or Mech B or using an alternate route if you have jumpjets, but these alternatives are few and far between. Most of the time it is you, your Mech, your weapons, and your objective – even the between mission Mech selection from the previous game is gone.
As you move through the game you’ll see that it is varied but some elements are underused. For instance, the VTOL craft is an awesome addition to the multiplayer game, but it is hardly used in the single player game. Even on missions where you use the craft, it is usually for less than 5 minutes and primarily as a puddle-jumper from point A to B. Even the BattleArmor is also underused, but it could be due to the linear nature of the game. It would be nice to be able to take a challenging angle to a mission by trying to accomplish it using only the BattleArmor. The removal of the Mech selection between missions removes this option.
Now that we have the negative aspects out of the way, let’s talk about what Day 1 has improved. There are six new Mechs in the already impressive stable of 35, the new ones including the Raptor, Wendigo, Stiletto, NovaCat, Blood Asp, and Star Adder. On top of that, you get the already-mentioned BattleArmor, two varieties of Tanks, and the VTOL. For those not in the know, VTOL stands for Vertical Take Off and Landing. All of these Mechs are different from one another and a few have some incredibly cool new aces up their sleeves. Anyone who has played MechWarrior 4 can attest that an Alpha Strike is an incredible weapon. In essence, the Mech opens every port and unleashes every weapon at maximum power directly into the chest of the enemy. There are few Mechs that can withstand a concentrated strike of that magnitude, and you get to wield it several times in this game. On top of that, the Null Sig, Shields, Flares, and the rest of the powers present in the first game make an appearance in this title as well. All of these combinations, new weapons, and a far more aggressive and intelligent AI makes for a game that requires quite a bit more strategy than its predecessor.
The 26 mission single player is a lot of fun as long as you ignore the storyline, but this game is all about the Xbox Live component.
MechAssault 2 features an incredible stable of Online options. There are 10 game types including Grider (survival), Destruction (Deathmatch), Team Destruction (Team Deathmatch), Last Man Standing (One life, lots of enemies), Team Last Man Standing (Your team has one life each, take down the other side), Not It! (Tag your enemies…with Gauss rifles!), Capture the Flag (Ahh, the classic), Team Capture the Flag, Check It! (Like Domination from UT2k4), Snatch It! (Capture the data cores and bring them back to your base before the other side does), Base War (Destroy the enemy base generator before time runs out!), and the massive Conquest mode.
The VTOL changes the landscape of the game. Adding a support element that can be used to air-drop weapons, armor, and upgrades as well as transport BattleArmors into the front. The weapons on the VTOL are fairly useless against a Mech but every little bit helps and the ability to coordinate that support over Xbox Live makes the little craft a force to be reckoned with.
The Conquest mode allows players to fight an ongoing battle against the universe. Unfortunately, there were not enough people that had access to the game to create a clan and facilitate an online war to test, so I can’t attest to how good this online war works in practice. From the looks of it, you can create a clan, assemble a group of players, and challenge rival clans to slowly take over the universe. This far-expanded online component will add the depth that the single player game lacks. The use of light Mechs as scouts, Tanks and VTOL as support, and Assault Mechs to do the heavy lifting will play itself out in grand fashion. I anticipate that this online system might even knock Halo 2 down from its lofty perch, even if for a short while.