Thursday, January 22, 2009

Giant Robots.

The demise of the flight simulator makes sense – gamers with increasingly short attention spans wanted more flash, more boom, and dealing death from the stratosphere was too remote to quench their bloodlust. They needed something at a lower altitude, something that would kick up the dust and send the shockwaves straight at their face.

Nothing fulfills this better than the ’mech simulator. The Mechwarrior franchise put gamers behind the stick of a 10-meter tall walking tank saddled down with lasers, guided missiles and automatic artillery. Far from a brainless boom-fest, the Mechwarrior games made the player constantly aware of their mobility, vulnerability and the massive amounts of heat their weapons generated. The successful mechwarrior played to his or her strengths, striking an ideal balance between speed, maneuverability and brute firepower. It was a cerebral and gratifying experience, and it only got better as the franchise matured.

And like the flight sim, you’d be hard pressed to find anything similar on shelves today.

Steeped in the byzantine, sci-fi lore of FASA’s Battletech universe, the Mechwarrior series enlisted the player in one of two armies: the Inner Sphere, a factitious, moody, constantly squabbling bunch, or the Clans, a warrior-race purified by generations of selective breeding that refuses to speak with contractions. Of course, I’m glossing the royal intrigue, forbidden love and sibling rivalry that lace the universe like cheap lingerie. Ever see All My Children? Yeah. That.

The Mechwarrior 2 family debuted in 1995. Produced by Activision, Mechwarrior 2: 31st Century Combat, according the Gamespot review, looked “stunning” in 640x480, even better in 1074x768 SVGA, and played more like a flight sim than a shooter. On level terrain, the opening salvos of a firefight typically took place one kilometer out, the enemy visible only on radar. Once the close-quarters slugfest began, survival depended on the mechwarrior’s ability to finesse a 100-ton assault ’mech into flanking and strafing maneuvers – and believe me, you felt each of those 100 tons. Battles hinged on strategy, not reflex, and half of the strategy took place in the ’Mech Bay. Almost every ton of your ’mech was customizable. Engine power, armor type and thickness, weapons and ammo allocation – all were your responsibility. Limbs could be blown off, weapons lost, and ammunition detonated. The loss of a main gun could change the course of a battle. With its slower, intelligent gameplay, Mechwarrior 2 was definitely not a shooter, and it set the standard for the duration of the franchise.

To varying degrees, the subsequent expansion packs and sequels maintained Mechwarrior 2’s fidelity to simulation. Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries (2002) was the end of the line for the series, and it embodies seven years of progress. The progenitor’s most inaccessible edges were sanded out, the gameplay enlivened but not dumbed-down, and the strategy retained. It was still edifying to pilot a hugeass robot, and still exhilarating.

While fans looked forward to Mechwarrior 5, which seemed an inevitable encore for a successful franchise, the death of the giant robot sim was already in progress. MechAssault was released for the Xbox in November 2002. If Mechwarrior was the intelligent, aloof A-student, MechAssault was Mr. Congeniality. It was fast, flashy and fun, but it didn’t even begin to consider the complexity and depth of its more distinguished forefathers. It was one of the Xbox’s first Live games, and its online success paved the way for a sequel. By the time MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf was released in 2004, Mechwarrior 5 was already canceled, and the franchise all but dead.

It’s not that the MechAssualt games were bad – they fared well, critically, and the first sold well – it’s that they converted the IP into a third-person shooter. I mean, there were powerups. Nothing could be further from the spirit of the original. The glitz and thrill of MechAssault was cheap, and it flaked easily. The challenging, enduring qualities of Mechwarrior 2 were pawned off in favor of commercial viability.

As of writing, FASA has recovered the rights to the Mechwarrior franchise from Microsoft. What the druids at FASA plan on doing with the IP is anyone’s guess. While I would hate to see such a venerable franchise die, I would rather remember it fondly than see it diluted further.