There are some games from the AA space – ambitious without the polish, let’s say – that are so good that it’s astonishing what the developers have accomplished. And then there’s the other kind of AA, the kinds of games where that astonishment is replaced with forgiveness.
Mechwarrior 5 is definitely the latter.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying Mechwarrior 5 isn’t enjoyable. I’m definitely not saying it’s amazing either, because it certainly isn’t. But there’s a few good ideas and some solid enough mechanics for fans to bite their teeth into. It’s just that those mechanics are surrounded by so many other annoyances: a lack of originality, lack of depth, a lack of polish, poor AI, inconsistent visuals and a grind that’s tied together by … well, not much.
Mechwarrior 5 starts like this. You’re the son of a legendary Mech pilot who ends up taking over a mercenary company after a lengthy ham-fisted tutorial. The game immediately becomes BATTLETECH the FPS from that point: a friend of your fathers hunts down some intel, but you need to do jobs for him in the interim, as well as raising your mercenary reputation in general, so you bounce around from planet to planet basically grinding against cannon fodder until the universe starts to pay attention.
And there’s a lot of universe to bounce around, by the way.
Every single one of those dots? That’s a planet. Not all of those will actually have missions for you, or even be relevant throughout the course of your campaign, but you might have to travel through some of them to get where you’re going. That costs time and, more importantly, money.
Balancing your budget is pretty much what the whole game is about, although there’s some factional elements at play too. All of your mechs have upkeep, and the pilots have their own salary, so you have to balance that against the repair bill and what you risk on the field.
Every time you step out for a mission, you’ll get the chance to negotiate for extra pay, insurance against damages, or a bigger stake on damaged parts and mechs left over. It’s usually a good idea to bump up your salvage shares early on, because you’ll usually find weapons that can be palmed off for more cash. When you get enough standing with a particular faction, your ability to barter increases even further, meaning more money, more loot, and more insurance.
All the maps are procedurally generated based off a number of factors, including the mission type, what biome (read: planets) you’re landing on, the size of the battle area and more. The mix of planets is pretty vibrant, which helps add some much needed colour in a game that has a lot of low quality effects and textures at times.
The best part about MW5 is definitely the combat, and the elements around the combat. If you’ve never played the series before, imagine controlling a giant, hulking tank: your chassis and torso can move independently of each other, and if you don’t control the movement correctly you can find yourself stuck in the open getting wailed on.
But once you’ve got that downpat, then it’s going through the motions of locking on, firing, adjusting your aim for the cannon because it needs a bit of lead time, scanning up, seeing some VTOL raining fire from the sky, waiting till they come into range and then blasting them with your lasers.
The moment-to-moment loop of MW5, when you’re just focusing on the enemies in front of you, managing your flank and zooming in and out to target a mech’s legs instead of going for the easy chest shot, is fantastic. Absolutely no complaints there, and there’s even a couple of nice cinematic touches when the battle starts:
The problem, really, is everything else around it.
Each of the planets that you land on don’t have any real characteristics of their own. There’s no life, no story, no character beyond being seemingly in some sort of conflict between one faction or another. There’s a couple of moments where the game’s systems seem like they might come to life: you’ll get the choice occasionally to do jobs for pirate raiders, which might involve ransacking some civilians. You can take those missions, but it’ll piss off another faction, so it’s on you to manage your reputation across the board if you want to keep all your options open.
The story basically falls flat on its arse from the opening chapter. None of it is ever delivered with any impact or panache: it’s merely a foil to keep the management side of the game together. That’s fine in principle, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Piranha Games, the Canadian developer behind Mechwarrior 5 and Mechwarrior Online, could have been smarter about how they spent their time.
In between missions, for instance, you’ll be hovering around this deck.
It’s a space where your mechs get repaired, and you can see the damage done to them after a battle and get a sense of scale. It’s nice, but there’s basically nothing else for you to do in the opening hours. It’s lifeless, so all you do is go back to the terminal and dive into the UI, which is a bit of a mess.
Take this basic trading screen for the mech market. Here are all the items in my inventory, sorted by value and into two categories (weapons and equipment). They’re all spare salvage, in case you’re wondering, and the game doesn’t give you any indication here on what mechs can use what weapons or what equipment is best for what.
Repairing your mechs is an exercise in monotony. You’ll repeatedly stockpile extra weapons, ammo and bits of equipment from the battlefield. But what if one of your mechs loses a component on the field? You have to go into the repair screen, manually deselect it from the mech and then drag or add a new component from your inventory. Why aren’t destroyed components automatically removed or deselected? You can’t repair destroyed components, so all the game is doing is wasting a bit of your time.
Mech customisation is pretty limited too. Weapons and attachments (like jumpjets) are limited by size, and mechs have a limited amount of hardpoints on top of that. So, for instance, if you decided to remove four jumpjets from a lighter mech to beef up its firepower, you … can’t. You can’t remove two smaller guns and stick one medium sized gun in its place, because the hardpoints are locked to guns of a certain size.
The in-game HUD’s a bit weak, too. Here’s what the in-game hud looked like for Mechwarrior Online:
And Mechwarrior 5:
It’s easier to parse if you’ve never played a Mechwarrior game, for sure. But games like these – especially ones backed on Kickstarter – are playing to a particular crowd who love the overwhelming nature of these mechs, particularly the feel inside the cockpit. MW5‘s cockpits are flat, and most of the time I just defaulted to the third-person view simply because there wasn’t anything visually interesting inside the mech. I felt like I was playing Heavy Gear, not Mechwarrior.
But when you’re in third-person, the HUD has problems there too. It’s not visually distinct enough on the brighter snowy or grassy levels. A lot of the outlines and bars tend to fade into the surroundings and action, which doesn’t help when you’re in a massive firefight with tanks, VTOLs and enemy mechs spawning out of nowhere.
And yeah, that happens a lot: you’ll be carving through a mission and, DOOM style, extra waves pop in out of nowhere. (Which probably explains why radar is bizarrely limited to line of sight in MW5 – it doesn’t make any sense from a practical level, but if you could see enemies the second they spawned like normal radar, the game would be ridiculously easy.)
The enemy AI loves to charge into close quarters, past its minimum range, and your squadmates aren’t much smarter. There’s nothing especially clever with the level design either, and the randomly spawning waves can make some missions vault from pretty easy to a surprising pain in the arse – but only because you’re out of position, which is impossible to manage when enemies appear out of nowhere.
Coupled with the general “build your reputation” and grinding for cash, it sucks a lot of the compelling potential from the management side of the game. When you finally get the millions for a fresh, hulking mech – the ones you didn’t earn through story missions and side gigs, anyway – there’s no sense of accomplishment. Like Rebel Galaxy Outlaw earlier this year, it’s a bit of a hollow grind, and that’s a shame.
The most important part is Mechwarrior 5‘s gameplay loop. The moment-to-moment firing of weapons, mechs overheating, units flying around, issuing orders to your AI or friends in co-op: that’s all really well done. On the sheer mechanics alone, I’ve got no problem with the game.
It’s just that everything else around it, the wrapping transforming a good idea for a game into an attractive, marketable product is a failure. The graphics are a bit dated, the voice overs and briefings are forgettable, the plot and writing is worse, the AI has one tactic up its sleeve, the music is better replaced with your own YouTube playlist and the general mission design gets stale pretty quickly.
But there’s still potential. If Mechwarrior 5 had a crappy gameplay loop with nice ideas around it, it’d be completely irredeemable. As it stands, it’s definitely a game to avoid for everyone bar the Mechwarrior hardcore — which is a pretty sad thing to say given how good BATTLETECH was, and how much potential the Mechwarrior franchise has.