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Friday, October 19, 2012

MechWarrior Online: Closed Beta First Impressions

Who doesn't love gigantic vehicles and explosions?

MechWarrior Online Logo

The first MechWarrior game was released for DOS on 1989. Set 1000 years in the future, the game allowed players to bring the ruckus via BattleMechs, gigantic walking robot vehicles armed to the teeth with advanced weaponry.

The latest addition to the long-running series is MechWarrior Online, a free-to-play title in development by Piranha Games. I scored an invite to the closed beta a couple of weeks ago, installed the game, and managed to completely avoid playing it for several days. I finally got around to logging some play time earlier this week, and thus far it's definitely not terrible.

MechWarrior Online Launcher
The MechWarrior Online launcher window.

Under the Hood

The hub of MechWarrior Online - MWO for the acronymically-inclined - is a windowed game launcher. The launcher allows you to browse, equip, and repair your mechs as well as chat with other players and change game settings. Clicking the "LAUNCH" button puts you into the matchmaking queue, and once a game is found the full client is launched.

At the start, MWO gives you four trial mechs to play with. They're not exactly hot rods and they can't be customized, and using trial mechs won't earn you any XP. Players can redeem in-game currency for new mechs and upgrades or they can skip the grind and purchase MechWarrior Credits with real money. The current most-expensive mech is 4,500 credits, roughly $18-36 depending on the chosen credit package.

Purchase new mech
You can purchase new mechs via currency earned in game or credits bought with your hard-earned cash. The most expensive mechs cost around $20.

MWO runs on CryEngine 3 - this isn't your typical F2P title. MechWarrior Online doesn't exactly look like Crysis in its current state, but it looks pretty decent and is relatively demanding with the settings cranked. Being that the game is still in beta, I wouldn't be surprised if graphics quality and overall performance saw a pretty decent boost before the game hits the market.

System  Requirements  (source)
  Minimum Recommended My System
CPU Core 2 Duo E6750 2.66GHz
Athlon II X2 245e
Core i3-2500
Athlon II X4 650
4.0 GHz i5-2500K
GPU GeForce 8800GT
Radeon HD 5600/5700
GeForce GTX 285
Radeon HD 5830
1 GB 560 Ti DX11
RAM 4 GB 8 GB 8 GB
HDD 4 GB -- --

WTF Am I Doing?

MWO isn't exactly what you'd call friendly to newcomers.

I vaguely recall playing a MechWarrior game at my best friend's house some time in the mid 90s. From what I can remember, the extent of my play experience was strapping jump jets to a mech and flying around for a bit before meeting a fiery death. My first game of MWO basically entailed me running out into the open and dying in less than a minute. In the Assault gametype, which as far as I can tell is the only thing available right now, you get one and only one mech. Once you're dead, you're done.

The game's UI presents you with a lot of information, and combined with the control scheme things can be a little overwhelming at first. Each mech has a set of legs and a torso and each are controlled separately: WASD sets the throttle and turns the legs while the mouse controls the torso and arms. Vehicle control isn't too difficult, but once you throw weapons into the mix things get more interesting.

MechWarrior Online UI Screen
The MechWarrior Online UI

MWO uses a targeting system that's kinda-sorta-not-really like Battlefield 3. If you have an enemy in your line of sight, you'll see a triangle outline on your screen above the enemy mech's head. Mousing over the enemy and hitting "R" sets your target and enables the rest of your team to see and target that mech. Some mechs can be equipped with long-range weapons like missiles that will lock on and home in on a target, so target acquisition ends up being pretty important.

Targeting is further complicated by a dual-crosshair system that reflects different types of weapons. There's a fixed crosshair in the center of your screen that corresponds to your torso. In addition, there's a floating crosshair on top of that represents your arm weapons. There's a movement threshold involved in controlling the upper body: below the threshold you simply adjust the aim of your arm weapons; above it you actually turn the mech's upper body.

MechWarrior Weapons Array
You can map weapons to different firing triggers via this grid.

As if that wasn't enough to digest, you can customize your weapons array to your heart's content. There are six buttons that can be assigned to different weapons presets; in other words, you can bind all of your lasers to 1, long-range stuff to 2, short-range weapons to 3, missiles to 4, etc. By default, everything is bound to the first group, which is horrendously terrible - you'll end up firing short-range lasers at distant targets and homing missiles and mechs that are 10 feet away from you. Less than ideal.

The customization of these weapons isn't exactly obvious at first glance (I had to check out a YouTube video). The grid is controlled via the arrow keys and weapons are assigned to a firing trigger via right control. I can't remember the last game that wasn't a crappy Flash title that asked me to use the arrow keys for something. Thankfully, you only need to configure your weapons once per mech, and unless you want to tinker with your settings you'll never need to adjust them in combat.


There are four weight classes of BattleMech in MWO: light, medium, heavy, and assault. Lighter mechs are faster but tend to hold fewer weapons and armor, while larger mechs are slow, plodding behemoths with enough firepower to dominate the battlefield.

Once you nail down the control scheme, piloting a mech turns into a game of resource management. Every time your mech fires a weapon it generates heat; generate too much of it and you'll overheat and power down. Powering down in the middle of a duel with an enemy pilot tends to be bad.

MechWarrior Online Heat Warning

The game kind of sets you up to fail in this regard. By default, every one of your weapons is bound to firing group 1. Firing everything at once produces a metric fuckton of heat, so unless you're aware of the weapons array from the start the first few games are going to be rough.

The Youtube video below does a pretty amazing job of describing the weapons systems of one of the trial mechs. The author also has a few other tutorial videos on his channel worth checking out.

Overall, MechWarrior Online tends to promote slow and methodical team-based gameplay. Since you've only got one life, running around as Mecha Rambo trying to solo the entire enemy team is generally an ill-advised approach. Most games seem to last 8 to 10 minutes from what I've seen, usually involving meticulous advances and lengthy skirmishes with the enemy.

As I mentioned earlier, as far as I can tell there is only one gametype currently available in MWO. Each team has a base that can be assaulted (hence the name "Assault") and captured by the opposition, thus ending the conflict. I've only seen one or two games (out of a dozen or so) end in this manner, and most just devolve into a "team deathmatch" style. I did run into one team that appeared to be pre-made, and they managed to rush four "light" mechs into our base and end the game in less than two minutes.

I was confused.

Summing Things Up

MechWarrior Online is pretty fun, but there's definitely a steep learning curve involved. That usually doesn't bode well for free-to-play titles that need to reel people in immediately and keep them interested enough for them to open up their wallets.

With that being said, the developers have already reeled in $5 million via an early-access Founders Program that gives players a bundle of game currency and access to exclusive mechs. It's obviously popular with longtime fans of the series.

MechWarrior Online loss screen
Here's the match summary screen from what was my best match statistically. Pure coincidence. Ahem.

MWO was supposed to enter an open beta phase this past week, but that plan was put on hold because of stability and lag issues. Add to that the fact that new players basically have zero resources (other than community member guides and videos) from which to learn the basics and things suddenly don't look too peachy. Tutorials are supposedly in the works and they're definitely needed ASAP.

An open beta for a F2P game is practically a soft launch, so they better make damn sure they're happy with the product before opening the flood gates. I've enjoyed my limited time with MechWarrior Online, but I won't be opening my wallet any time soon.

Logo source


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