MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries hands-on: the series goes back to its roots

A kilometre from the harbour in Vancouver, on the second floor of a small shopping centre is the last bastion of the MechWarrior franchise. For six years, Piranha Games’ president Russ Bullock has kept the series alive with MechWarrior Online. But with MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, he’s ushering in the dawning of a new era of mech warfare.

"There’s a huge contingent of fans that have been wanting a singleplayer MechWarrior 5 for years," Bullock tells me as we walk through the Piranha Games office. "Of course we wanted to make one, but being a smaller developer we had say, 'Okay first things first, we need to succeed with MechWarrior Online and that will allow us to make a singleplayer game.' And it took a while—a lot longer than we thought—but we’re doing it."

As we pass by the main hub that connects Piranha Games’ various workspaces, I spy a map of the Inner Sphere, the cluster of some 3,000 star systems that make up MechWarrior’s universe. Each one has a name and a history etched into the stone tablets of BattleTech lore. And for those who have grown up living in that universe, it’s these little details that matter. Fortunately, Russ Bullock is all about the little details.

When I first saw MechWarrior 5 announced at MechCon 2016, the trailer sent the fans roaring. But when a dropship descended from the sky they lost their damn minds. At the time, I was a little confused. Then Bullock explained how so much of MechWarrior was caged inside the imaginations of players. They freaked out because that was the first time they had seen a dropship landing in-game and not just in their imagination.

Bullock is hoping to make MechWarrior 5 the catalyst that sets those two decades of MechWarrior fantasy free.

Mercenary culture 

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries isn’t just a sequel to MechWarrior 4. It’s a chance to re-establish the series and give its hordes of hardcore fans something that they’ve always wanted. "A significant part of our design philosophy is asking, 'What have players always wanted to do in a MechWarrior game?'" Bullock tells me.

That’s why Piranha Games is starting with Mercenaries first rather than a straight numbered sequel. "Traditionally, you’d make MechWarrior and then you’d make the Mercenaries offshoot,” he explains. "The first one is a linear, story-heavy campaign and then Mercenaries is more like a sandbox. But players want to live out the BattleTech lore, and the best way to do that is to own your own mercenary unit, so we’re going with Mercenaries first."

Instead of a series of linear missions, MechWarrior 5 puts you in command of a mercenary unit and gives you the freedom to either rise to mythic status or crash and burn along the way. Around 300 planets of the Inner Sphere will be open for business, letting you travel between the Great Houses while taking increasingly demanding contracts and building reputation with each faction as you also manage your lances of warriors and supporting technicians. 

It's one part MechWarrior and one part Football Manager, Russ tells me. Every bullet you fire and every mech you lose will have a cost, and it’ll be up to you to make sure you're bringing in enough dough to keep your mercs on the payroll and their mechs in fighting condition. As you progress in prestige, the timeline also moves forward. Great Houses rise and fall according to the lore, new technologies are invented and sold, and eventually the ominous Clans come rampaging through the Inner Sphere like Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde.

Leveraging an ambitious dynamic free market economy, stunning destructibility, and the kind of freedom and scale that hasn’t been seen since the first MechWarrior in 1989, Bullock is working to make MechWarrior 5 the ultimate realisation of BattleTech lore.

The invisible hand

When you begin a new campaign, your mercenary company is in a sorry state. With only a weak mech at your disposal, you’ll be scraping by and taking low-level missions from the periphery states of the Great Houses to keep money coming in. Little by little your business will grow, but it will be up to you to decide how.

"The free market is probably one of the biggest components of MechWarrior 5," Bullock tells me. Mechs, pilots, technicians, weapon systems—everything you need to form a mercenary unit will have to be purchased from MechWarrior 5’s market. "The market is totally dynamic based on what year it is. In the year 3015, for example, they didn’t have any pulse lasers or Ferro-Fibrous armour as all of that technology comes in later. And it’s also going to depend where you are in the Inner Sphere. If you are in one Great House’s space, you’ll see mechs common among that house. That’s going to provide a whole level of flavour to your play experience each time you start a new campaign."

Unlike MechWarrior Online, where players can customise their mech chassis in a variety of ways, MechWarrior 5 will stick to the lore and force players to choose between strictly defined roles. “It’s great for a PVP game because the level of customisation is huge,” Bullock tells me. “But if we allowed that in MechWarrior 5, you essentially negate the free market. There’s no need to keep your eyes peeled for that Jenner JR7-F that has Ferro-Fibrous armour if you take your JR7-D and just put Ferro-Fibrous armour on it."

To that end, MechWarrior 5 will feature an unprecedented number of mechs to choose from. "Most MechWarrior games have had maybe 12 to 15 different mech chassis," Bullock explains. “We’re looking at having upwards of 60 chassis with 300 to 400 variants. You could probably play the game multiple times within just one Great House’s space and see different combinations on the free market."

It’s going to be the same kind of action simulator that people have been wanting for 15 years.

Ross Bullock, Pirahna Games

But mechs are only as good as the warriors piloting them. Players will also need to be mindful of their mercs and technicians, who each have their own skills and specialties. Likewise, different manufacturers will make variations of weapon systems, giving players granular control over every aspect of their mechs. Profits made from mercenary contracts will be quickly eaten away by repairs, resupply, and the ever-present cost of replacing slain comrades. It’s a huge amount of freedom but also an equally large responsibility if you’re reckless on the field of battle.

Mech on mech

During my visit, I played an early build of MechWarrior 5. None of the overarching strategy of managing a mercenary outfit was available, but my demo did make it easy to see how the various systems will complement each other. Equally as important, I also got an intimate look at the technology Piranha Games is using to generate the hundreds of battlefields players will fight on.

From the very first blast of my torso-mounted lasers, it was clear that MechWarrior 5 benefits from Piranha Games’ extensive work on MechWarrior Online. I could immediately feel the heft as my 30-odd ton mech stomped through a forest, knocking trees down left and right like some mechanical Godzilla. Everything from the rhythmic thud of PPC cannons to the highly-specific location-based damage modelling feels fantastically heavy. But this isn’t just singleplayer MechWarrior Online, either. With the Unreal 4 engine under the hood, MechWarrior 5 has plenty more horsepower to put to work.

One thing MechWarrior fans will love is that damage modelling has been taken to a whole new level over MechWarrior Online. Each component now has multiple stages of disrepair, making brawls even more visceral as armour peels back after barrages to reveal the delicate mechanical skeletons underneath

"Mechs aren’t just these paper tigers," Bullock says. "You don’t just one-shot things. It’s all about a battle of attrition, of using the hills, rocks, and trees for cover and making sure that when you get your chance to shoot, you make it count. You manage your heat, your ammo, and your positioning and you win that battle."

Enemy mechs won’t be the only thing melting under your alpha-strikes either. MechWarrior 5's battles will feature combined arms of infantry, artillery, and both land and air vehicles. During my demo, flyers swarmed above me, whittling away my armour while I focused down the more dangerous mechs. Meanwhile stationary turrets tracked me as I trudged through a copse of trees, their shots quickly obliterating my cover with each salvo. When you consider that your own lance of mechs will accompany you into battle, I'm excited to see how MechWarrior 5’s missions will turn into frenetic firefights as both sides whittle away the other.

Any veteran MechWarrior player knows that it isn’t just about how well you’re able to shoot, but also how you use the terrain to your advantage. And with 300 planets, each needing their own battlefield that feels distinct, Bullock says finding a way to generate fun but unique terrain was easily one of Piranha Games' biggest challenges. "We needed to create a level generator system that wouldn’t be overly complex," Bullock explains, adding that since MW5's announcement the team has dedicated much of its time to solving this one complex riddle.

What they devised is an elegant system that takes ingredients, like different military bases, and places them together with various groupings of terrain. It’s like playing an instrument: you have several notes to work with, but how you arrange them can create vastly different songs. After my demo, Piranha Games’ senior game designer David Forsey give me an opportunity to peek behind the curtain at the development back end of MechWarrior 5 to toy around with making different kinds of maps.

Similar to creating a new map in Civilization, MechWarrior 5’s map tool lets you dictate the density of foliage, terrain patterns, weather, time of day and more. Now, all of these might not sound like they matter, but in the brutally strategic world of MechWarrior, they absolutely do. Wind storms on a Mars-like planet might blind you, forcing you to rely purely on thermal vision to see enemy mechs through the tempest. Likewise, dense forests can now cover the battlefield since Piranha Games doesn't have to account for all the challenges of syncing up 24 different players over the internet like in MechWarrior Online.

Another big feature that Bullock can’t wait for players to experience is the destructible environment. "Of course, plenty of games have had destructible environments," he says. "But this is the first time it’ll be in a MechWarrior game, and that’s going to be awesome." Players can stomp full speed into buildings and tear them down with all the force of a 35-ton walking tank. During my demo, it was so satisfying to cleave through walls and airplane hangars like they were butter. "We really wanted players to walk anywhere they want," Bullock elaborates, adding that destructible environments will also present new strategic options. "You can imagine plenty of scenarios where an enemy mech is hiding behind a building and you just take it down to get rid of their cover."

With such an emphasis on freedom, MechWarrior 5 is harkening back to the first MechWarrior, before the series became entrenched in the linear stories of Great Houses and their political games. But 15 years is a long time, and MechWarrior 5 will undoubtedly be many players’ first robot rodeo. "It’s important for us to try and be as mindful as we can about a new generation of PC gamers," Bullock says. "But we understand who our community is and who we’re making the game for."

Bullock says his hope is that by digging deeper into the series roots than ever before, newcomers will begin to understand why so many care so deeply for this universe—why the names of those 300 planets of the Inner Sphere matter. “This isn’t going to be some watered-down MechAssault made partially for consoles,” Bullock says. "It’s going to be the same kind of action simulator that people have been wanting for 15 years."

That’s not just because Bullock thinks it’s what MechWarrior fans want, but because it’s what they deserve. "We’re dedicated to the core MechWarrior fanbase. They’re the ones that supported us with MechWarrior Online and now we’re making a game for them."