Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why Giant Mechs Fighting Each Other Is Totally Awesome And Essential To Action Gaming

Smith & Tinker’s announcement of a new Mechwarrior game dovetails with the IP’s 25th anniversary – as does S&T’s decision to release Mechwarrior 4, the last game in the franchise, for free on the internet. The nine-year old mech game would be downloadable “soon,” along with its expansion packs.

In between yips and whinnies, I realized the offer isn’t just generous – it’s smart. While S&T shops Mechwarrior around to different publishers, they make a case for a form largely forgotten by time – the giant robot game, a fusion-powered slugfest that melds the best elements of action and simulation.

Brace for the inevitable history lesson: Mechwarrior 2 was released in 1995 to smashing critical acclaim. It was a good reason to buy a joystick. The view of a flat, featureless landscape through your polygonal cockpit was, at the time, incomparably thrilling. Your mech tilted slightly with each footfall, which resonated with a thud from your Soundblasters. Visuals aside, Mechwarrior 2 established the formula which would remain essentially unaltered as the franchise grew and flourished.

You’re not a marine sprinting through corridors. You’re a giant walking war machine, 10 meters of death and 100 tons of steel. You are destruction incarnate, but dear god, are you slow as sin, so plan your moves. Even the smaller, fleeter mechs need to think two moves ahead. Duels between skillful mechwarriors are an impressive display of premeditation: the fighters circle each other, lining up shots on legs, arms and ammo banks, the order of which is determined by make and configuration. A Daishi (nee Dire Wolf) keeps the majority of its firepower in its arms; the Atlas, on the other hand, socks its world-ending autocannons away in its torso.

Your success was determined by your ability to make yourself a difficult target while knowing your opponent’s weakenesses. Or, fuck it – level him from a kilometer away with salvo upon salvo from your long-range missile racks.

Often, the guy shooting at you was the least of your worries – it was the guy after him, or the four guys between you and your extraction point, and your ability to defeat them without running out of ammunition, overheating your reactor or getting shot to slag. Heat management meantthe difference between life and death – the ability to sneak in one last blast from the lasers whilst dumping excess heat with the coolant has saved my ass more than once.

Mechwarrior 2 – and Mechwarriors 3 and 4 after it – was slow and deliberate, anything but a run-and-gun game. While this isolates the Mechwarrior franchise from the twitch gamers, its refusal to compromise won it a devout following, a large one, too. Just after S&T announced Mechwarrior, the game appeared on IGN and Gamespot as most popular. In the week since, it’s held its own in the top three.

Mechwarrior 4 was everything great about Mechwarrior 2, streamlined and made accessible. MW2, for example, allowed you to customize every shingle of armor on your mech – if you could puzzle out the incomprehensible Mech Bay system. In contrast, MW4 employs a simple click-and-drag system, allowing gamers without degree in mechanical engineering to slap together a custom war machine within minutes.

The gameplay picked up speed as well. No longer did gamers have to spend minutes closing the two-to-three kilometer gap between their mech and an enemy; the game moved much faster, upping the action without making the game into a shooter (See: Mechassault, Mechassault 2).

It’s been more than five years since the franchise’s last entry, Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries – when Halo 2 was released, MW4: Mercs had been on shelves for a while. I feel the industry needs another Mechwarrior, something to add a dash of intelligence to the guns-and-lasers genre. It needn’t be Steel Batallion, a game that practically dares you to play it – it need only stay true to the credo of Mechwarrior 2, the game that taught us the undeniable joy of dealing death and destruction from atop a 10-meter engine of death.