Hands-on with MechWarrior Online

Handson with Mechwarrior Online
Last week, we sent San Francisco freelancer Emil Vazquez to the MechWarrior Online Community Day event to get some hands-on time with the game. This article reflects his opinion of his experiences!

The MechWarrior franchise is, unsurprisingly, one that centers on giant mechanical battle-beasts beating the un-living daylights out of each other. Like a lot of mech games, MechWarrior Online makes "big" its modus operandi: You pilot a giant mech with colossal weaponry that unleashes biblical levels of destruction on its surroundings.

It really should be obvious what you're getting into when you slip behind the controls of your own insanely customized mechanical soulmate, and for the most part, the surprises are few. But there are a few things that I came to appreciate during my time with the hands-on demo of MechWarrior Online, and it's the little things that make MechWarrior Online (and the MechWarrior franchise in general) more than just a mech simulation.

Admittedly, I do not consider myself among the MechWarrior initiated. I've never played any other games in the franchise, and my familiarity with the rich lore behind the series stops just at the gates of knowing that the lore exists and is almost as detailed as the mechs themselves. With that in mind, bear with me as I try to navigate an IP that is very old, very complicated, and in command of a truly dedicated fan base. I can give my impression of the game only with regard to my hands-on experience.

MechWarrior Online is an upcoming free-to-play MMO developed by Piranha Games. It uses the CryENGINE 3 engine (of Crysis fame). Set in the far-flung future of 3049 during a massive interstellar war between a plethora of houses with historical roots in real-world cultures, you take on the role of a pilot whose presence is entirely overshadowed by his or her chosen vehicle, the imposing BattleMechs. Players are unable to leave their mechs, much as in EVE Online pre-Incarna. For the most part, your view will be from your futuristic and very detailed cockpit, and it's this persistent first-person view that really makes MechWarrior Online something special. As I said before, the game does "huge and imposing" very well, but the fact that you view the battlefield from the interior of your machine rather than from an over-the-shoulder view lends a certain vulnerability to the game's aesthetic.

This vulnerability ties into the game's central mechanics. The view from your cockpit is well-designed, complete with detailed strategic map, mech status screen, and weapon arrays, all conveniently placed onscreen for easy reference. A heat bar and a speed bar finish off the surprisingly tidy interface, allowing you to focus on the action that is perpetually in front of you (or behind you or underneath you; larger mechs can have a little trouble maneuvering). When your weapons cause your mech to overheat, the camera lists crazily, and you feel as though your intensely vulnerable pilot is being rattled around your temporarily dysfunctional machine. This is definitely a game to play with a good set of headphones or speakers; lying motionless in the middle of a battlefield with shells exploding and lasers shrieking overhead is something that really is worth experiencing, as is your subsequent jerky struggle upright.

The controls aren't intuitive, but that's by no means a condemnation; rather, the game rewards players who invest time and thought into it. Piloting your mech feels at times like driving a tank that's suspended in midair. There's a standard WASD control scheme, but W and S adjust only your speed, while A and D control your actual direction. Long story short: Unless you're already familiar with the franchise, you'll spend some time running into stands of trees. But once you've gotten the hang of the controls, it's immensely satisfying to strafe around your enemies and lay down suppressing fire. You feel as if you've gained in skill, and in such a complex game, that means a lot.

Mechs handle differently depending on their size class, and there are a lot of different mechs that range from tiny humanoid skirmishers to skyscrapers with legs and guns. It should go without saying that the latter handle like trucks and the former handle like slightly more agile trucks. But that small difference in handling is fundamental to your playstyle. Players must prioritize either defense or maneuverability, and it usually can't be both.

Handson with Mechwarrior Online
As in EVE Online, choosing your mech and its fittings is at least half the game. The mechs themselves are staggering in their diversity, and the ammo types, weaponry options, defensive add-ons and other bits and pieces make it almost guaranteed that your mech will be unique and reflective of your playstyle. Additionally, your pilot gains skills that will carry over to any mech you operate. The sheer breadth of customization options seems poised to make balancing a nightmare, but it's certainly a system that rewards a deep knowledge of the game. Players will earn in game currency to purchase mechs and parts over time, and we can safely assume that the cash shop will offer an alternative method of purchase as well.

Finally, and perhaps most tantalizingly, MechWarrior Online takes place largely within a persistent world. Players will choose an allegiance to one of the major houses in the game's IP, but from there, they are free to form their own mercenary groups (guilds). Players in guilds will fight over territory and stake out their claims. It's unclear what the rewards are beyond bragging rights at the moment, but that might be enough. Though the IP might be intimidating and the controls are far from newb-friendly, the game is more than engaging enough to bring new players into the fold. And really, if you need more than the promise of your own giant robot to give a free-to-play game a try, then you might be beyond help.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

This article was originally published on Massively.