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Previewing the nuts and bolts of MechWarrior Online


MechWarrior Online might just be one of the most exciting titles to be announced in recent times. If you have ever played any version of the game or have ever enjoyed stomping around in the Battletech universe, you'll be happy to know that, yes, the new online game is actually being made. While the IP will soon turn 30 years old, it's still very popular. Some of us remember painting metal figures to place into our tiny lances, while others have fond memories of jumping and shooting, jumping and shooting, jumping and shooting.

Massively joined the press roundtable for the game this week and snagged some juicy information. We talked with Piranha Games' President Russ Bullock and Creative Director Bryan Ekman about how the development process is going, how their philosophies influence design, and how the game will actually play.

Click past the cut, and watch out for heat!

MechWarrior screenshot
One of the first and most important questions asked was this: How large will the match sizes be? The official word is 24 players, i.e., 12 players per side. That's three lances of four mechs each. Each match should come out at around 10 to 20 minutes apiece. Players will sometimes jockey for the best positions, have to deal with an unfriendly environment, and even close to melee range. Unfortunately, melee has not been featured much in older, digital incarnations of the game, but Piranha plans on changing that. While details were sparse, the developers let us know that there would be a specific planet in MechWarrior that demands melee combat as a primary means for destruction. We're wondering whether this means that the planet has an atmosphere which does not allow for the use of ranged weapons or that the match simply has rules that forbid them. For now, the developers' lips are sealed about this post-launch feature.

MechWarrior ScreenshotThere will be four main types of planets or settings that players will fight in: a city planet, an ice planet, a desert area, and a junglescape. Each one of these planets has an impact on the heat management of players' mechs. If you are not familiar with the effects of heat, think of it as a sort of stamina system. Every time a giant gun is fired or massive legs drive the massive vehicles forward, heat is built up. Build up too much heat and you might find yourself in deep trouble. Players will be able to use the environments to help with heat dissipation, and some environments will make heat build-up much worse.

Now that modern technology is allowing the developers to place players in much more beautiful areas, MechWarrior is not going to be just another dirt-brown shooter. Yes, the grit and grime you expect to see will still be featured, but modern bells and whistles will as well. You'll be able to see that in some of the newer mech design. Modern, high-fidelity graphics allow the developers to make much more engaging worlds. Previous mech games were also more open graphically, allowing players to see enemies coming from a long distance away. Now battles are going to be very personal and up close thanks to cityscapes and other environments.

The team also plans on keeping up with the full keyboard controls that former MechWarrior players might be familiar with. That means that there will be aiming, a throttle to control forward and backward speed, the traditional style of torso twist, weapons firing, group firing, jump jets, and joystick integration. The devs also hinted at "really exciting" hardware annoucnements in the future, partnerships that will use the gaming PC and its input devices to the max. The game will hopefully support as many devices as possible.

"The developers want to avoid the need for a grind, so as soon as a particular mech is unlocked after a player hits a certain rank, the player can purchase that mech with real money or with in-game funds."

What about ranks and levels of advancement? Rank in a normal FPS game is normally associated with level, but Piranha is disconnecting level and rank. Rank is affected by loyalty to a faction, for example. Standard military ranks like sergeant, captain, and corporal bring appropriate privileges. The developers are also providing a set of tools for players to decide who gets what with different ranks within a customizable player structure.

Faction points will be accrued as the players complete different tasks. When those points add up, a player gains loyalty and increase in rank. As you gain loyalty, you might be able to join up with famous units from the lore as well. But your rank as a player or pilot will not determine your access to content. The developers want to avoid the need for a grind, so as soon as a particular mech is available the player can purchase that mech with real money or with in-game funds. Loyalty also unlocks access to specific mech skins and the ability to be part of different units.

There will be several areas of opportunity for growth, as well. Not only do pilots have their own growth tree, but so does each mech. Both are fed by experience that is gained through in-game actions. To gain experience, players will mainly be asked to reach certain goals. The better they perform at things like supporting the team or executing commands, the more experience is gained. It sounds like the game is not going to be about only who kills whom and how often.

For all of you lone wolves out there, there will be post-launch activities for you to participate in as well. Maybe bounty hunting is your thing, or perhaps you'd rather become a mercenary for hire? Either way, you will not be left out in the cold. Essentially, a lone wolf is a pick up player, someone who exists on the edge of humanity, a shady individual who only values... well, you get the point. You won't be penalized for not joining a team or avoiding participating with a team to achieve certain goals, but you will gain far more experience if you do. The developers are trying to encourage team play without penalizing players who do not want to join up.

It's important to note that each mech will have a specific role in the game; a lance (a group of mechs) will be made up of a mix of different mechs that each fill in a different role. Some players will prefer to run in a lighter, faster scout mech, while others will aim to stomp around in a massive assault mech. Either way, groups of players will have to find the line-up that best suits their playstyles and strengths. Past incarnations of the game relied on what was essentially an arms race for the largest mechs. This new version will rely on roles, and the fulfillment of those roles, to drive gameplay forward.

MechWarrior screenshotSince ours is a site about MMOs, we had to ask just how persistent the world will be. While instanced matches will drive most of the gameplay, the outcome of those matches determines who gets the benefits of having influence over a core set of planets in the inner sphere. Mercenary corps will fight over who reaps the rewards of specific planets. Essentially, MechWarrior Online will be a game of matches that have larger, wider effects on the entire game. Slowly, but surely, players can literally affect the worlds and systems around them.

Players will also be able to put their own stamps on their giant mechs by customizing skins and patterns. Mercenary units, and eventually faction-based units, will be able to customize the logos that stick on their mechs' armor. While there are still plenty of details and concerns over legality to be figured out, the plan is to eventually allow players to upload their own designs for logs. In the meantime, the developers will hand out a set of pre-made logos that can be used. There are no plans to allow players to place appearance pieces on their mechs simply because a mech's physical geometry can actually affect gameplay. So for now, skins and logos are the only areas of customization.

It was nice to hear that the developers are confident that the MechWarrior Online IP is strong enough to stick out in the crowded world of free-to-play gaming. There are layers and layers of details for players to discover in the larger world of MechWarrior Online, but the giant robot combat remains pretty unique on its own. If you were to ask someone to describe MechWarrior, he would probably just shrug and say, "You know -- it's MechWarrior." How the game will compare to past versions of the game and how it will work with what sounds like a cash shop and microtransactions attached is yet to be seen.

Either way, players seem to excited to get their hands on the title, and so are we. We'll be sure to pass along any details that we come across. In the meanwhile, you can go to the official site for more details!

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