MechWarrior Online preview

Evan Lahti

MWO_GDC12_034

Mechs are complex creatures. Their intricacy facilitates this sweet see-sawing between being an engineer and being a pilot—something that really only happens elsewhere in high-fidelity racing games. Fail in the cockpit, and you can retreat to the garage to scrub everything off the drawing board and restart from scratch.

The worry with MechWarrior Online was that this nuance would evaporate because of its business model, or from being in the hands of a developer whose closest experience to making MechWarrior was contributing to a poorly-received Transformers game .

Nope. After seeing the game at GDC, I'm reassured that the minutiae we associate with mechs might finally be paired with the modern technology it deserves.

A cool example (literally, hurr hurr) of this was learning that planet climates will globally affect heat. “You might sacrifice some armor for heat sinks if you're on a desert planet,” Bryan Ekman, Creative Director at Piranha, told me. “On an ice world, you could run fewer heat sinks, but more lasers. It's all part of our 'role warfare' pillar: players will learn to take different mechs and different configurations into different levels and different scenarios.”

Thermal vision (itself a separate system that you'd install) would also interact with this. If I'm trying to spot a “hot” enemy with a thermal vision mode, their signature will be harder to spot on a desert planet than on an arctic one due to the ambient heat.

Bodies of water interlace with these mechanics, too. Dipping your mechs' legs into a river would dissipate heat, but only if you'd actually installed heat sinks in your mech's legs. That's exactly the sort of fidelity I'm looking for—design that connects what you do in the garage with moment-to-moment tactics, and rewards something like an improvised, tactical skinny dip.

You can't see it here, but targeted enemies' weapon loadouts and damage is displayed in a top-right panel.

Piranha is intent on preserving mechs' physicality as lumbering bipedal bodies, too, and that includes allowing them to fall ungracefully when physics would dictate.

“These mechs take a lot of skill to pilot,” says Russ Bullock, President at Piranha. “In certain situations—maybe if you're getting rammed by an enemy mech, or someone with jump jets is landing on your head, there are situations where those mechs are going to fall to the ground and you'll have to pick yourself back up. All those things will damage your mech.”

Knockdowns can also be caused by high-impact weapons. Take an autocannon to the chest, my mech will flinch backward from the impact. If my mech is still reeling from that shot and gets punched by another autocannon, that extra impact could topple me. But I wouldn't fall if I got shot in the front, and then the back of my mech. Those design details absolutely matter: modeling knockdown in this way would make shot timing and placement affect something other than where damage is dealt.

I didn't get an in-game look at MWO's persistent metagame, but Piranha mentioned that the timeline of the game will mirror the canonical timeline of the BattleTech universe, and hinted that that'll be linked to the roll-out of new weapons, tech, and big events. “Technologies will be introduced into the world as they happen in the calendar. Obviously if you look at our calendar [right now], March 8, 3049—we're less than a year away from a Clan invasion. So...that will happen, as it happens [in the fiction].”

In terms of the in-cockpit experience, I was glad to see free-look in there, but even happier to see separate crosshairs that independently correspond to where torso-mounted weapons and arm-mounted weapons are pointed. In other words, if I turn to aim at an enemy up on a ridge at my 10 o'clock, I probably wouldn't rotate my entire body to face them—I'd just aim my arms, and maybe only have access to a few lasers rather than my full loadout. TrackIR support is also confirmed, thank goodness.

So, I'm pretty pleased: nothing I saw outright worried me. Then again, I didn't get any look at mech customization itself (the interface of which needs to be sexy, well-organized, and built with a mouse and keyboard in mind). Piranha also made a few mentions of information warfare as a primary part of the game's design, but didn't show anything to back up how they said it'd influence mech detection. Melee won't be implemented at launch (meaning it's unlikely we'll see an Axman ), but may be in the future.

But overall, everything shown to me walked and talked like a MechWarrior game. The lumbering locomotion of movement and delay of throttle responsiveness felt familiar. The cockpit camera rattled when we got tickled by a cloud of LRM-20s. CryEngine 3 seems like a great choice—mechs and surfaces lacked the gloss I associate with Unreal 3. Connecting a medium laser with a Jenner's rear armor as it fled down a trail made that spot of metal glow molten with heat. MechWarrior is in the hands of people that revere it and get that it's a very specific style and pace of combat that has a place in modern gaming.

MechWarrior Online will release later this year. Hey, look: more screenshots .

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