MechWarrior Online: Three Years Later
One of the great things about the vast majority of Free to Play (F2P) games is their constant development cycle. F2P games usually have regular patches and updates that include many things, such as bug fixes, but more importantly extra content or game changing features. With that in mind, I’m going to give you my “Three years later” review of MechWarrior Online (MWO), a Piranha Games Incorporated game based on the popular and enduring Battletech series.
MechWarrior Online is a game I’ve invested a lot of time and money into. Having played it since day one of closed beta, I’ve been around for the up and down journey of the game’s development. My judgments and criticisms might sound harsh, but don’t get me wrong here; I want this game to do well. I want this game to be awesome and I know that, ignoring the faults, there is some real potential here. Today, I’m speaking as a fan of the Battletech universe, a fan of the MechWarrior series of games and both a casual and competitive MechWarrior Online player.
MWO sees the player take control of enormous Battlemechs (known simply as ‘mechs) to battle against other players in a variety of game-modes using the destructive weaponry and advanced systems available with which to do so. Lasers, missiles, gauss rifles and massive autocannons are the tools of the trade, strapped onto a variety of different mechs which range through different sizes and weights; from the relatively tiny but supremely fast 20-ton ‘mechs all the way up to almost 20 meter high, 100-ton assault ‘mechs that reign terror upon their foes as they attempt to reduce all that stand in their path into heaps of exploded, molten remains.
‘Mechs are customisable, with an array of weapon systems to be strapped onto the different ‘mechs in accordance to their hardpoint restrictions, limitations set in place that help retain some individuality between the different ‘mechs you see on the battlefield as well as attempting to keep some trickier aspects in check, such as game balance.
The process of theorycrafting and fitting a ‘mech has long been one of the go-to aspects of many a MechWarrior game, with players and fans of the universe happy to spend hours in the mechlab building and tweaking their loadouts to suit their own needs and desires. The tool to do this in MWO has gone through a number of changes, with a recent patch having updated the mechlab to what is being penned as UI 2.1.
The new mechlab is an improvement over previous iterations, but I still feel like it’s lacking in a number of areas. There’s a certain awkwardness to the flow between menus, scale isn’t entirely right and at times you can’t help but get the feeling that a number of people were working on this most recent of updates but never actually coordinated. It is still, however, a massive improvement over the previous versions, with better saving times and somewhat more efficient ways to find weapons or components. The lab is a work in progress: recent tweets by PGI head honcho Russ Bullock lead me to believe this will be continually reworked over the coming months.
The game is built with CryEngine 3. On the battlefield, the ‘mechs look gorgeous, with a lot of time, effort and love of the genre having gone into the art and design of them. Different weapons change how different parts of the ‘mech will appear, adding further to the level of attention to detail that is prevalent from ‘mech to ‘mech. The visual love seems to have ended there, however.
Something I think PGI have really missed out on especially is the scaling on maps
Textures and scaling on pretty much all of the maps is severely lacking and you’d be hard pressed to imagine this game having been built on the same engine as the likes of Crysis 3 and Star Citizen. Something I think PGI have really missed out on especially is the scaling on maps. I often find it hard to imagine I’m stomping around in 20 meters of metal, strapped onto a nuclear engine with immense weapons unleashing hell when every building and terrain feature feels like it’s been blown up to sit on the same scale as the ‘mech I’m in. With the exception of a few token cars and lampposts, each map is filled to the brim with buildings that are all of a convenient height to offer some sort of cover. Some of the more natural maps have a tendency for completely uniform trees, all of almost the exact same shape and size–usually as tall as your ‘mechs. And on the few maps that have some sort of grass, you can’t help but wonder what sort of soil it’s planted in when it grows to be several meters tall and with a width broader than a powerlifter’s shoulders.
Another issue is the strategic design and layout of maps. A lot of games focus on their maps having a balanced set of positives and negatives for each team, advantages to defending and attacking various points. MWO has a number of maps that are largely one-sided affairs, with teams able to control most of the available strategic points simply through the luck of having spawned on a certain side. A prime example of this would be the massive Alpine Peaks. Anyone that’s played knows that in most cases, the team that controls the central peaks, the high ground, usually comes out on top. The problem is that depending on which side you spawn one team will be able to reach those peaks twice as fast as the other.
When it comes to maps, however, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. An announcement was made earlier in the year that River City, one of the oldest MWO maps, was being re-made. A short while back, screenshots were revealed in a weekend update by community partners, No Guts No Galaxy, and for the first time I found myself looking at something that rightfully feels as though it’s been made with CryEngine 3. There’s a greater variance in terrain elements and the textures look infinitely better than what has previously been used. Hopefully, this new approach to map design also means a more balanced experience in terms of layout and movement strategy.
Combat is often swift, with the majority of standard games played out never reaching the full 15 minutes of time given to accomplish that particular game modes’ objective. As of the time of this writing, three game modes are available in the standard queues. Assault is, essentially, an attack on the other team’s base (or a defense of your own) which is watched over by turrets. Conquest is a sort of ‘point control’, where a number of strategic ‘cap’ points need to be captured and controlled across the map. The more strategic points held, the more points accrued with the winner being the first to 750. Third and final is skirmish, which is simply a no-respawn deathmatch type game.
The biggest downside here is that these game-modes, with their different names and layouts, all play the same. Regardless of what objectives are in place, matches usually result in teams moving to the most favourable positions and fighting it out until a winner is declared by way of eliminating all ‘mechs on the opposing team. There’s little incentive to try and play the objective game and, more often than not, it will be more detrimental to your team’s effort if you focus on anything other than fighting and battling directly against the enemy.
In addition to the standard game modes, December 2014 saw the long awaited release of Community Warfare (CW), or the initial beta phase of it. For those that haven’t followed the history of MWO at all, Community Warfare is one of the ‘pillars’ of MWO. Originally intended for release early 2013, it was almost two years before this long awaited feature finally made an appearance.
Often seen as something of an “End-game” feature which would give level-capped players a reason to persistently log in, CW saw heavy play during the first months of its release. However, due to the early beta stage of CW, a lot of people have reverted back to playing standard queue games.
The design of CW is that players and units (in-game organisations formed by players) will battle for control of a planet. While this may sound like an exciting prospect, the reality is that these are just a series of repetitive battles with the sole purpose of accruing points on the chosen planet. When the daily ceasefire window begins, the planet will be under the control of the faction that has the most victories and controls the majority of segments on the planet map.
It’s easy to understand what PGI is trying to accomplish here. They churned out a number of maps fairly quickly, all designed with a base sitting behind massive, steel doors. One team usually plays the role of the defender while the other will attack, trying to open these doors by destroying power generators to ultimately push into the base and take out key structures. The vision is to create a universe full of conflict yet the biggest incentive for a persistent design such as this is still missing. Reward.
One of the many things communicated from PGI during its time at the helm of MWO is that the ultimate goal of CW is to have planets fought over and contested so that various rewards would be in place for holding control of said planets. There’s been a number of things said, such as discounted items for ‘mech building and the like, but all is quiet on the communication front. Most recently, CW entered Beta Phase II. What that actually means I’m still not entirely certain of, but one thing I know for certain is that PGI needs to hurry up and find a way to dangle the carrot in front of players before CW loses what momentum it has.
There has been talk from PGI recently of a potential Steam release, something which would likely usher in a much needed influx of new players. What’s more is that in preparation for this move, it seems as though PGI is finally going ahead with the implementation of multi-regional servers which is something that will only help further the MWO cause should it make an appearance on Steam.
MWO can be a daunting prospect
I’ve had an interest in the Battletech universe for many years. Not only that, but I’ve played previous MechWarrior titles and have a fairly solid understanding about ‘mechs, their design, weapons and components. To a new player, coming in fresh with no previous experience or history in the genre, MWO can be a daunting prospect.
The learning curve in MWO is steep—very steep—and it is perhaps PGI’s biggest stumbling block. Anyone familiar with the concept of a shooter can load into a game, move around without much difficulty and get their crosshairs into the right area. But what about managing their heat? What about building their ‘mechs with double heat sinks instead of single? Why should they be taking an ER Large Laser over a standard Large Laser? What’s the difference between a Clan ‘mech and an IS ‘mech?
At present, MWO has a single in-game tutorial that covers the very basics. Moving, shooting, things which most people will understand anyway. What it lacks is anything explaining the game beyond that. Finding any official documentation regarding heat scales or something explaining the pros and cons to standard and XL engines is left to search through the thousands of posts on the forums and the seemingly ever-increasing amount of stickied threads put up by players and community members. If this game launches on Steam without an easy-to-access and clearly explained guide, it will be painfully difficult for MWO to retain players long enough to take full advantage of their cadet bonus, an incentive that rewards players with extra c-bills (in-game currency) during their first matches.
Since PGI split from their now defunct partners, Infinite Game Publishing (IGP), they’ve made improvements across the board
It’s unfair of me to say that the future of MWO is in doubt. In fact, since PGI split from their now defunct partners, Infinite Game Publishing (IGP), they’ve made improvements across the board. Communication with the community has improved vastly, promised features have arrived in a prompt and timely manner and you can’t help but think that the split from IGP has let PGI slip loose of some very heavy, binding chains.
Now that their relatively small team has a few years’ experience with the game and less restrictions to do as their vision would have them do, they can take the momentum they’ve started to gather and keep on pushing it so that MechWarrior Online can be the product that this player believes it can be. It was never going to be a AAA title, the Battletech universe and associated games have always been a niche market but regardless of that, it can still be a lot of bloody good stompy robot fun.