Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hopes and Expectations High for a New Mechwarrior

On Thursday, Smith & Tinker and Piranha Games announced they were developing a new Mechwarrior game – the first in nearly a decade. While many reacted with glee, hardcore fans seized with anxiety. Is this Mechwarrior we’re talking about, they thought, or MechAssault, the franchise’s arcadey reinvention on the Xbox?

Smith & Tinker and Piranha are definitely talking about Mechwarrior. S&T co-founder Jordan Weisman rescued the Mechwarrior IP from Microsoft, where it was languishing. In a lengthy interview with IGN, Weisman and Russ Bullock discuss their passion for the franchise and their specific plans for the new Mechwarrior – not Mechwarrior 5, mind you, but Mechwarrior. A reboot.

After reading Weisman and Bullock’s thoughts, my stomach has settled. I’m fully on-board with their vision – if Mechwarrior finds a publisher with deep pockets and deeper faith, they can restore the franchise to its former glory. Here’s what they need to do.

Really, finding a publisher precludes any discussion of gameplay specifics. Neither S&T nor Piranha have much of a resume – Piranha’s latest credit was as co-designer of the Transformers 2 game, which are dubious laurels indeed. Very few publishers would pass up a brand like Mechwarrior – but the project’s current developers will definitely be asking for faith-based funding.

Weisman said Mechwarrior will use the Unreal 3 engine, which he said works well on both the PC and the 360. Bullock added that the video released on Thursday was 100 percent in-game rendering. Unless he’s somehow lying, I’m stunned. The level of detail is spectacular. Rifle barrels glow after taking a shot; a building’s windows explode in a puff of glass after a mech lands on the roof; bullets spark and ricochet off the armor of the Atlas, a 100-ton behemoth that looks more intimidating than ever before.

The heavy shadows and gritty look of the reveal video look gritty and moody, adding a real sense of weight to the machines; but will that work well in the middle of a firefight? Especially if they choose to use their exhibited cockpit model, S&T runs the real risk of junking up the game screen with excessive detail. I disliked Mechwarrior 4’s use of bright, almost exclusively primary colors, but I never confused a mech for a slag heap; with Mechwarrior’s drab, urban-warfare palate, this could be a problem.

That said, everything in the video points towards the kind of Mechwarrior hardcore fans want. MechAssault was fine in its own right, but it was drowning in adrenaline and easy action – the player blew apart enemy mechs with a few salvos, collected powerups and hopped about like a cracked-out firefly. There were jumping puzzles, for Christ’s sake. The machines in Weisman’s Mechwarrior have serious heft to them. When you watch the video, see how the Warhammer, a heavy mech, fights the Atlas, a larger assault mech; autocannon rounds slam into the Warhammer, knocking it off balance and sending its shots wide. The smaller mech is forced to take cover behind a parking garage, stepping out of cover long enough to snap off a shot or two. The Atlas marches on, relying on its unmatched arsenal to compensate for its obvious lack of maneuverability.

Weisman said pronounced mech classes will be a key element of gameplay. In previous games, he said, players marched up the mech tree like a ladder, wishing only to reach the heaviest and meanest mechs in the shortest time possible. In Mechwarrior, a light mech will not simply be a smaller, faster, weaker mech; it will be able to mount buildings, use radar suites to scan for enemies and tag them for tracking. The more time a player spends in a given mech, the more effective he/she becomes with it; Weisman said a player could fight through the game in a light mech, if they so wanted.

Perhaps most reassuringly, Weisman said he wanted to give players the sense that they were in a mech, not that they were the mech itself. He mentioned specific visual flourishes: a hand reaching out to push a coolant release button; a shimmering wave of heat flushing the cockpit as a heavy laser fires. When the mechwarrior in the video ejects, we can see his legs dangling above the city.

You can tell I’m excited. I do, however, have a few concerns; the gritty thing, which I mentioned above; and a question of performance. It looks great, but will your average gamer be able to play it? Will it look great on the PC and the 360? Will it look great in the middle of a firefight, when dozens of lighting effects are pushing my console’s processor to near-melting point?

Questions of story are almost secondary, but what Weisman gives us is comforting. You play a noble at the dawn of the Forth Succession war, which means fuckall to anyone unfamiliar with the lore; basically, the prodigal son goes to war in a giant fucking robot. Weisman has said he’s committed to delivering a cogent, focused singleplayer experience along the lines of Call of Duty 4.

Weisman said he’s currently talking to a number of interested publishers; but if he’d found the right one, I think, he wouldn’t have gone public with this video. Here’s hoping someone scoops up this project, and fast – it needs money, resources and a release date. And soon. This may be what Mechwarrior fans have been waiting for.