MechWarrior Online's Community Warfare mode: our thoughts

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MechWarrior Online needed this.

After dropping into the beta launch of MWO’s long-awaited Community Warfare, it’s easy to see just how narrow an experience MWO has been until last week’s update. Through 2013, I was having a great time piloting MWO’s giant mechs. I wasn’t bothered by MWO’s limited, deathmatch-centric game modes, difficult learning curve, or free-to-play economy. In fact I loved it. But eventually I fell away from the game, especially after the release this year of the Clan expansion. The Clans introduced of a whole new class of mech that just seemed to blow me off the battlefield at every opportunity.

While it’s true that developer Piranha Games has been working diligently to find some kind of balance among the various groups that make up MWO’s player base—solo players, competitive clans, and lore-focused BattleTech enthusiasts—I had become strangely adrift in a game that I had devoted so much time to. And truth be told, despite the deep interest in the BattleTech universe that MWO instilled in me, I wasn’t quite sure its vision of a persistent, planetary conquest metagame would ever arrive. I know I’m not the only one who felt this way.

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Defending infrastructure is key in the new invasion mode.

But now, as part of a merc unit contracted to House Steiner, repelling an attack from Clan Wolf or Jade Falcon brings to life much of the fiction that’s built into MWO. Putting my humble Shadow Hawk up against the best assault mechs the Clans have to offer, I’ve seen some great stories unfold already. I still feel underpowered, but I’m fine being the underdog if I have something to fight for.

In terms of its content, the beta expansion of Community Warfare includes two new maps on which the various factions fight for supremacy. Players pledge their loyalty to a single faction, either in a short-term contract as a mercenary unit or as a permanent member of a house or clan. Once committed, you earn loyalty points and in-game rewards based on your success or failure attacking or defending the many planets that make up the Inner Sphere. Just having a faction system that extends beyond paint schemes and avatar logos is a meaningful addition. Personal perks aside, for me the ultimate benefit of the faction system is seeing my wins and losses play out on the persistent and dynamic Inner Sphere map. It’s a giant, public leaderboard that has the potential to connect the MWO community in completely new ways.

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Gates serve as choke points for attackers.

At the moment this new metagame plays out entirely on the new maps—Boreal Vault and Sulfurous Rift. This felt strange at first, that every Inner Sphere planet would have identical environments. But it’s a beta and we have to start somewhere. The good news is that their layouts, with gates, turrets, and a giant orbital cannon to attack or defend, adds a new texture to MWO. Depending on how I navigate the terrain, sniper builds, giant brawlers, and even the most fragile light mechs can potentially find a meaningful role beyond just adding to the killcount. Tactics and planning are key for a successful defense or attack on each planet. So far I’ve seen better communication among teammates before and during matches thanks to the more complex challenge of the invasion mode.

Another key shift is the use of dropships to bring new waves of mechs to the battlefield. Unlike the no-respawn standard modes, invasion gives you up to four mechs for each match, a change that significantly alters the pace of the game. The risk/reward balance of an aggressive push over a ridge to go for the win now depends on which mechs you think the enemy team might have in reserve. If the defenders are saving their massive and durable assault mechs for a second or third dropship wave, then too much aggression might leave you open to an easy counter-attack. I love the dropship system. It’s forced me back into the mechlab to tinker with old builds in search of better, more balanced loadouts.

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A snapshot of the Inner Sphere.

That being said, the expansion is far from perfect. It’s tough to find a match as a solo player in Community Warfare, an issue Piranha studio head Russ Bullock recently addressed in a forum update. For lone wolves like me, a class of player that earlier in 2014 made up a significant portion of MWO’s player base, this is frustrating. But from the looks of Piranha’s latest patch, the studio is working to make the matchmaking queue easier to navigate and understand. It’s also unclear how the new mode will split up the existing player base and affect public games on the original maps that have—as of now—no visible role to play in the new metagame. In terms of the faction warfare itself, the two current maps run the risk of becoming stale as they’re repeated on planet after planet.

But for the last two years, MWO has always appeared ready to innovate and push out new ideas, even if some of those changes have proven deeply divisive to its community. At the very least, Community Warfare finally gives real shape to something that had become almost mythological in terms of its uncertain existence and arrival. And who doesn’t like to see myths come to life?

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