For the curious, MechWarrior has a very long and varied history that has courted many gamers from all walks of life—although mostly those who happened to be engineers in a previous life (or this one). The result here is that from an old FASA game to the MMO scene we’ve been given a very solid mech sim arcade game that fits nicely into their universe.

We’ve seen games like it before with single player, and a brief interlude into the multiplayer market with a previous MechWarrior title (even if that one didn’t last long.) This newest offering runs on an extremely powerful engine, CryENGINE 3 to be exact, and the developer Piranha Games provides a lot of the old tinker-and-design obsessive engineering that brought people to the tabletop games. All of this together makes for a very solid arcade MMO.

The game is published by Infinite Game Publishing and runs on Microsoft Windows and it’s on the tail end of a long closed beta cycle leading up to its public beta and commercial release.

After playing for a while, fiddling with the different mechs available, I’ve seen what feels like a big-stompy-robot simulator with a lot of bells and whistles, and it’s coming to market with games like Hawken falling into the same niche. As I mentioned, it’s marketed to a particular type of player and will probably not fit the audience of all gamers looking for a full-on arcade duke-em-out with robots and lasers—but for the crowd looking for this game perhaps it’ll strike a chord they haven’t seen in an MMO yet.

Graphics and Sound: Big stompy robots with guns, thunderous firepower and fireworks

The CryENGINE 3 is a beautiful, absurdly powerful rendering engine and it produces extremely detailed graphics to enjoy—although MechWarrior Online doesn’t use it so much but to give washed out landscapes filled with devastated cities and wastelands. This works well to highlight the brilliant color of lasers and the bright lines of the HUD on the inside of the cockpit, however, and that’s beautifully rendered as well.

The map that I played in looked eerily similar to Flagstaff, AZ with the pine forest and jutting rocks cracking through the landscape beneath a steel grey sky; of course, Flagstaff has a surprising lack of giant metal robots lobbing blistering lasers and exploding rockets through that sky, but I’m sure they make due. There’s almost a map that’s entirely made of glacier ice corridors and covered with a thick cocaine blow of snow—it reminded me somewhat of the ice planet Hoth from Star Wars.

The entire game is played from inside the cockpit of the mech. There’s no outside or 3rd person view of the mech so far—in fact, it’s possible to look around the inside of the cockpit—turning the HUD to shift the torso can also cause it to shake into view the same way that the struts of a car jump into your vision while driving. Because of the HUD and that well-rendered landscape, it’s extremely easy to forget the cockpit is there, without the detail of the glass and its struts stuttering into view when the mech jutters.

You can even see the shadow of your mech casts on the ground when you turn away from the sun (and turning into it has equally expected results.)

Gameplay: Slower than the usual arena battle sim; but this is a MechWarrior game

The first thing you’ll notice about MechWarrior Online is that it’s played entirely from inside the mech, with the rest of the time spent in the garage preparing for the battle ahead. That means checking up on weapons, learning loadouts, getting mechs, and bolting them together in preparation for taking to the field of glory. Anyone who has played space and tank sim games will be used to picking amidst different types of equipment and weapon systems, and they won’t be disappointed by the opportunity here.

If you’ve ever played or watched a BattleTech game you’ll probably be familiar with a lot of the things that show up in this game: you’re piloting a mech, you must deal with weapon loadouts and groups for firing, you’ve got to control speed and direction while also pivoting the torso to keep enemies in frame, and you also need to watch your heat and damage.

The mech runs a lot like a pilot sim, but instead of a tank or a spacecraft, it’s a bipedal robot stomping across the landscape. Controls work with a throttle and a direction controlled by the keyboard (W-S accelerate and decelerate; A-D turn the legs side to side) whereas aim is controlled with the mouse. In the terms of the game, the keyboard turns the legs and thus the direction of movement, and the mouse controls pitch and torque of the torso—where all the weapons are contained and thus need to be turned to face the enemy. This allows for some interesting maneuvers and shots while flying past perpendicular to an enemy taking pot shots at them.

New players will discover that fights feel a little bit slower than the usual fights. There’s few chances to one-hit-kill an opponent, and usually it takes the concerted effort of an entire pack of mechs to take even a single opponent down. Like any proper MechWarrior this is a very team-based and tactical game that depends on choosing where to go, how to get there, and what to do when you meet the enemy. Most game modes will have no respawn so this fits how we’d expect the game to play in the first place.

There are few decisive one on one fights—so never enter the battlefield alone, flank the enemy, and watch your six. Someone will be looking to get around you, take out your legs, or overheat you with flamethrowers. Yes, it’s possible to target specific locations on the enemy mech; and it’s also possible to hit someone with flamers (at least I think it is, because I got overheated by someone without getting a single shot on them… Damn Jenners.)

In some ways the slow, sure combat makes it feel like playing in an actual BattleTech game. This could be good for people who want to combine the pilot sim aspect with their love of the numbers—but it will also distinctly turn off players who prefer rush games that put them in a firefight on the seat of their pants where it’s do-or-die in momentary decisions.

Perhaps MechWarrior Online will still choose to cater to different types of players after the commercial release.

Freemium: Looks like the game will be free-to-play with a premium subscription model

It’s hard to say right now where the free-to-play aspect of this game will go. Right now, it appears that the game will function with a premium subscription model that will deliver higher credit and experience generation for players. This is a model that we’ve seen before in simulation games, a very good example is World of Tanks.

I will return to fill this out better once there’s more information regarding how the publisher will monetize their product.

Conclusion: It seems to hit all the good points of piloting a big stompy robot

Right now, MechWarrior Online is in closed beta—so closed that the NDA only dropped last week and now we’re just being able to talk about our experience in the game, make videos, and show off screenshots. So take all of the above with a grain of salt. Things may yet change; but its looking extremely well polished at the moment, or at least polished to the point where it’s a solidly working game.

Even though it’s in closed beta, matches still filled up very quickly.

The game triggers a bit of nostalgia for me because I used to watch numerous tabletop BattleTech games played by my friends and I really enjoyed many of the video games built around this universe. It plays a great deal like them, but with the part where I’m playing with a bunch of random people from the Internet and against random people as well.

The individual matches really do remind me of World of Tanks, just with far, far fewer players on the battlefield. I suspect this game will only get better with age and balance; especially as it starts to find its edge and filters through the type of players who enjoy playing this sort of MMO.