It's been quite some time since I've been at the helm of a towering battlemech. The franchise's height, and the body of my time spent with the series, was more than a decade ago with the 1999 and late 2000 respective releases of MechWarrior 3 and 4. Several years later would come MechAssault and its sequel, which moved the action away from its traditional first-person, simulation combat on personal computers to a more arcade-like experience on the original Xbox, much to the chagrin of its hardcore fans. In the years following, the series was mostly absent, only teasing us with a possible return to form - and then quietly disappearing—in the Xbox 360 title simply named MechWarrior. But MechWarrior as we knew it has finally returned, this time as an online only, free-to-play experience.
Of course, I had my reservations. There's a certain negative image, at least for some of us, attached to the idea of free-to-play games and the quality of the final product. That bad press often comes from how the developers attempt to make their revenues, with them removing content or abilities and locking them behind a pay wall. Those that don't pay shouldn't get everything for free, but they shouldn't feel like they're being punished, neither. Thankfully, MechWarrior Online manages to avoid most of those pitfalls, creating a free-to-play game that's both fun and doesn't feel like a punishment. MechWarrior Online's free-to-play model generally stays away from the core of the game - blowing up other gigantic, lumbering battlemechs with lasers, missiles and ballistics in dramatic fashion. Joining a game is quick and easy, with the simple press of a button from the home screen. There is no server browser nor lobby system, though friends can group up before battle to put be into the same match. Selecting and outfitting mechs must all be handled prior to beginning a search. And once in, watching the delightfully animated start-up sequence in each richly detailed cockpit, the old excitement began to burn again.
It did take some time to get familiar with the intricacies of piloting such machines, however. The game is not without its learning curve. The torso can be directed independently of the legs, as can weapons attached to the arms be aimed separately from those on the torso. There are two reticules to master, weapon groupings to learn or configure, and heat output to manage. Overheat and the entire battlemech might shut down. Be unmindful with the reticules and carelessness may cause weapon fire to bore into friendly units (to my shame, something I did more than once). But after a few matches, everything started to fall into place and I could truly start to appreciate the complexity of combat.
Make no mistake, as frenetic as the combat and as powerful as the weapons can be, this is a tactical shooter. Different mechs require different strategies, both to pilot and to fight against, and precision targeting and team work can make the difference between victory and defeat. Every component on a battlemech has its own health and can be destroyed with careful aiming. If an enemey's short range missiles are causing problems, directing fire at its missile pods can take those weapons out of the fight. And every weapon or arm explodes in a fantastic puff of smoke and fire.
Each match starts rather quietly at first, the calm before the storm, with both teams moving across the large battlefields to get into position. And then, perhaps without a sound, the sky begins to light up with streaks of yellow or bursts of green and blue as missiles and lasers seek to find their targets. Several minutes later, irrespective of any actual objectives, the game may end with the complete annihilation of one team, experience and points are rewarded, and then it's back to the main menu to prepare for another battle. It's all so very exciting and demanding at the same time, and I'm pleased that I don't have to spend too much time waiting for a game to start or end. If I only have a short amount of time to play, it's easy enough to fit in a match or two and come away feeling some measure of accomplishment.
That's not to say the game isn't without its faults. The aforementioned learning curve applies to more than just the controls. There's a lot of information to grasp and menus to dig through in the game's Mechlab, where players can purchase, upgrade and outfit their battlemechs, and it doesn't always relay it well. The game offers no in-game tutorial - though there is one that can be viewed on their website - or pop-up advice about my selections, which I could have used to help me through screens that seemed to share quite a bit in common with complicated spreadsheets. Hardcore fans of the series will love the depth in which they can customize their mechs, but it left me feeling overwhelmed.
And while the game is fairly gorgeous, from the interiors to the exteriors of each mech and the release of their weaponry, the few maps there are lack a certain amount of destruction that I remember from games past. No amount of force will collapse the vegetation and buildings littering the maps. It's understandable that an engine built for a free-to-play game may not be able to feature that level of mayhem, at least not yet, and yet it's something I miss.
Finally, and frankly, the game can start to feel like a grind. Its free-to-play model may not give advantages to those who pay money - in fact, players can't even spend real money to buy parts or upgrades for their battlemechs; they can only spend it to buy the mechs themselves - but after the recruit bonus ends, experience points and in-game money can slow to a trickle. Because the battlemechs and their necessary upgrades are expensive, costing millions of in-game credits, it took some time to afford the ones I wanted, and even more time to get them in fighting shape. It effectively locked me into one chasis and playstyle, unless I wanted to use a trial mech. Pro-tip: the trial mechs are not very good.
The developer does have to make their money somehow, of course. It's pleasing that real money can only be spend to buy a battlemech quicker or to purchase camoflauge or cockpit ornaments. Premium players don't perform better in combat. Free players don't have to wait until level 15 to unlock the ability to sprint (The Old Republic, was that really necessary?). The most the game does to blatantly nudge anyone toward paying money is to tell them how much extra in-game credits they would have earned if they were a subscriber, or to advertise that the hero battlemechs - mechs that have their own names and camoflauge - earn players a 30% boost to their rewards. Perhaps the numbers shouldn't be changed too much for free players, but it still reminded me I would have preferred the option to simply buy the game outright and have access to most everything, ala Guild Wars 2, than forcing me to keep using my rather ill-equipped Atlas D-DC for the forseeable future.
Complaints aside, MechWarrior Online feels like the MechWarrior I grew up with. The battlemechs look and feel powerful. The combat is visceral and tactical, requiring patience, teamwork and a steady hand. And it's really fun to make a mech that's all my own. It may not be in the exact package I wanted, but anyone who was a fan of old should become a fan again.