After almost 20 years, the sci-fi simulation series returns and manages to make piloting a giant robot fun again.
Next time we have another slow news day we’re going to make a list of all the sequels we thought we’d never see and yet somehow all managed to turn up just in the last few years. But it’s The Game Awards tonight, so we haven’t got time for all that right now. But as far as we’re concerned MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is right up there with Shenmue 3 and Psychonauts 2. Perhaps it’s not as famous as either of those games but its long absence from gaming has made its unique style of gameplay a pleasure to return to.
It’s almost two decades since MechWarrior 4 was released, and even longer since the iconic MechWarrior 2 made stomping around as a giant robot seem as cool as you’d always imagined it would be (MechWarrior 1 was way back in 1989 and largely forgotten even by fans of the series). The second game was released in 1995, right around the time that Star Wars: X-Wing had made the idea of sci-fi simulations a viable sub-genre on the PC and this was essentially the ground-based equivalent.
Just as X-Wing and TIE Fighter tried to simulate their starfighters based on the background lore of the Star Wars franchise, filling in the gaps with relatively grounded logic, so too did MechWarrior 2 when it came to the BattleTech tabletop role-playing series. Last year saw the release of the turn-based BattleTech game, which was able to stick more closely to the original game rules (we assume, we’ve never actually played it) but MechWarrior has the more difficult job of interpreting them as a complex action game.
Of course, when X-Wing first came out simulations of real-world military vehicles (mostly aircraft but also the odd tank sim) were still commonplace, and that’s certainly not true nowadays. Which makes MechWarrior 5 seem like both a game out of time and a breath of fresh air. Although an initial problem is that the BattleTech universe is so impenetrably dull, with its fictional history of interplanetary warfare and civilisation devolving into a feudalistic class system. With no interesting characters and a dour seriousness surrounding everything that happens there’s a good reason most of the games are based around apolitical mercenaries.
(Actually, there’s two reasons. The other is that original publisher Activision lost the wider licence back in the 90s and was only allowed to make games that were promoted as a spin-off of MechWarrior 2, which led to MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries becoming the most popular in the series.)
Either way, the idea stuck and not only avoids dealing with too much of the universe’s backstory but adds a whole top level strategy element where you’re essentially running a business; scavenging defeated enemies for parts, customising and repairing your own mechs, hiring and firing new recruits, and building relationships with long-term clients. There’s more than a hint of XCOM about it all, including the fact that you can fail purely through your own poor management. Although rather than the Earth being taken over by aliens here your failure leads to a debt spiral and eventual bankruptcy.
If you’re not interested in it, a lot of the non-combat side of things can be automated, especially the mech customisation, but once you do get out on the battlefield do not expect to be running around like a regular action game. Just because the mechs look humanoid doesn’t mean they control like one. The bigger ones are several 100 tons of heavily armoured metal and they’re exactly as agile as that sounds, so you have to think of them as vehicles with very specific capabilities and limitations.
That’s exactly what simulation fans love so much about the idea but it’s also what puts off many others, and why simulations have fallen out of favour with big publishers who only want to make games everyone can enjoy.
There are around 50 different mechs in the game and, despite what we’ve just said, some are relatively nimble, albeit extremely lightly armoured as a result. The basic models all have obvious roles like scout and artillery, but the customisation options allow you to refine these however you want; with an equally wide range of missile systems, lasers, ballistic weapons, and different limbs and torsos.
We’re not clear on whether the game is ever intended to appear on consoles but while there is a workable joypad option everything’s much easier to control with a mouse and keyboard or, preferably, a HOTAS joystick (hands on throttle-and-stick, you know – the ones with all the buttons) and keyboard. Things like moving your torso in a separate direction to where your legs are moving is exactly the sort of high concept complexity that has been driven out of modern control systems and we’re impressed to see MechWarrior 5 retain it from the earlier games.
Managing your heat output is also super important – MechWarrior’s equivalent of juggling shield, engine, and laser power in X-Wing – and you’ll quickly find it’s not just you who can target individual limbs, and disable or destroy them, even as the rest of the mech continues to function. If anything though, the game appears desperate to make all this seem more complex than it is, with some woefully insufficient tutorials, but a little experimentation and it all quickly begins to make sense.
At first it seems like the artificial intelligence is going to be a problem, as you’re frequently paired up with computer-controlled teammates. As useless as they might seem at first though they do level up into acceptably competent comrades. And although the game has been primarily designed as a single-player game there are some co-op options, including the ability to have a friend join as a teammate while you play the campaign.
A more serious issue is the mission variety, which is always a problem with simulations. There’s a decent range of stock types but without any interesting narrative or characters to spice things up they start to feel samey a little too quickly. Especially as there are no infantry units or aircraft, and no melee combat or stealth elements.
We’re sure some will complain about the variable quality of the visuals too, but although it’s only the mechs themselves that stand up to close scrutiny there is at least a good sense of scale, in terms of the robots and the landscape. Considering how dumbed down we expected the game to be after all these years we’re impressed that developer Piranha Games have managed to keep the core of what made the original games interesting, even if that means it lacks any genuinely new ideas.
The passage of time has made MechWarrior 5 an interesting enough novelty that it can easily survive its flaws. Controlling a giant stompy robot should be the easiest thing in the world to make an entertaining video game about, but it almost never happens. And while MechWarrior 5 could never be described as instantly accessible, once you get past the initial barriers it does highlight what gaming has been missing out on for all these years, in terms of warring mechanoids.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries review summary
In Short: A highly successful return for the long dormant sci-fi simulation series, and what it lacks in accessibility it makes up for in terms of satisfyingly tactical action.
Pros: Great mech combat that plays completely differently to any other modern shooter. Good tactical depth and plenty of options. Business management side of things is pleasingly nuanced.
Cons: Terrible tutorials, given the complexity and peculiarity of the game. Completely uninteresting storytelling and not enough mission variety.
Publisher: Piranha Games
Developer: Piranha Games
Release Date: 10th December 2019
Age Rating: N/A
*Epic Games Store exclusive
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