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MechWarrior 5's career mode has me longing for BattleTech's charm

A mech blasts its way through a city street
(Image credit: Piranha Games)

I had high hopes for MechWarrior 5's Heroes of the Inner Sphere DLC. A straight-up mercenary mode, bringing your own outfit through a war-torn galaxy, utterly detached from the base game's lacklustre story mode? Seven new mech chassis, including special hidden "Hero Mechs" scattered across the galaxy? Sign me up, commander, I'm in.

It's probably not a good sign, then, that less than an hour into MW5's new career mode I'd already found myself reinstalling 2018's BattleTech instead.

As the resident mech expert (mechspert?) on staff, I was quietly disappointed with 2019's MechWarrior 5. Don't get me wrong—everything Jon said in his MW5 review still stands as far as the game being a bloody good stompy robot sim. It feels nice to lob an AC/10 round into the back of a fleeing, 35-ton Jenner scout and watch it explode like a splattered mosquito. Mech combat remains singular and pugilistic, the rare video game enemy that can lose a literal arm or a leg and still kill you. In fact, MW5's combat may have gotten better, with some AI improvements (like jump-jetting enemies) and crossplay available.

But coming 18 years after the last singleplayer MechWarrior title, MW5 felt shockingly dated in its story mode. The game feels stuck in the '90s, pitting you as a cardboard commander named (I shit you not) Mason, pursuing a by-the-numbers revenge quest. There's a sense that Piranha is calling back to the pulp sci-fi attitude of MechWarrior's heyday, a series that produced dozens of paperback novels, but it all just fell a little too flat.

It didn't help, of course, that MW5 was preceded by Harebrained Schemes' phenomenal BattleTech—a game that, beyond being a stellar tactics sim, felt like a whole new direction for the setting. A hand-painted space opera whose opening cutscene paints a world of feudal mud-and-lasers drama with more flair than MW5's exposition dump ever could.

MW5's campaign was similarly built into a robust management sim, though, which had you neck-deep in the finances and contracts of an interstellar robot-punching firm. On paper, the two games are identical—but MechWarrior is simply missing all the interstitial events and character moments that made BattleTech's jumpship feel like home.

In cutting away from Nik's Cavaliers, I'd hoped MW5 would finally get over this dryness. The DLC promised to let you start your own mercenary company, set loose on the galaxy to leave your mark as ruthless pirates, state-backed guns or heroes-for-hire.

A crew roster inside Mechwarrior 5

I don't know who any of these people are—least of all my own Commander. (Image credit: Piranha Games)

As a way to cut about the galaxy smashing mechs, it's fine. It works. But there's a bare minimum of character to proceedings. Mason has been replaced with "The Commander", a voiceless, faceless lead who is nevertheless always referred to with he/him pronouns. There are maybe a half-dozen badges to pick from when founding your company, and a galaxy of forgettable freelance pilots to fill it with.

Here's the thing. Battletech also got its own story-free career mode well after launch—but developer HBS made your ship feel real and lived-in. Your knackered old ship will break down, taking a toll not only on your repair rate but the overall mood of the crew. Your pilots will throw parties, play poker, or pull stunts in between-mission dialogue events. These events were presented simply—text with some accompanying 2D art—but they provided essential downtime and pacing against BattleTech's 40-plus-hour procedurally-generated campaign, which understandably sent you on missions with similar objectives.

And thanks to those little vignettes, I remember almost every pilot I've served with, from my quirky PPC expert Glitch to the stubborn Behemoth, whose sudden death at the hands of a Hunchback ambush caused me to audibly scream. Last I logged in, a beat described how one of my pilots (a real hothead named Archangel) was properly shaken up by a tough fight we'd just had.

A memorial for a pilot named Disco

Never forget the day Disco died. (Image credit: Paradox Interactive)

In MechWarrior 5, my pilots are a bunch of hammed-up voices to stuff in an AI-controlled mech, without even a callsign to remember them by. They're serviceable, but they're not memorable. And that's the crux of it, isn't it? In Battletech, my career mode built a story—whether that was losing a pilot, clutching a mission or making tough financial calls. In MW5, I mostly just feel like I'm playing instant action with a budget.

Heroes of the Inner Sphere does, at least, tidy up a few of my other frustrations with MW5. Maps are now less visibly procedural, no longer feeling like a tiled board of terrain prefabs. And the DLC does boast a number of new story threads, with quests to take down special "Heroes" with overpowered mechs and a number of career paths to descend.

Maybe, down the road, Heroes of the Inner Sphere really does get good. What the game still needs at this stage is a layer of presentation that makes each stop on your journey through the Inner Sphere easier to remember, and storytelling that adds meaning to the downtime in-between.

A one-time dog sledder, pancake flipper, alien wrangler and indie darling, Nat now scours the internet looking for the hottest PC gaming news. Destined to become Scotland's first Battlemech pilot.