About a month ago, Piranha Games released some pretty big news concerning MechWarrior: Online – a game in which players stomp around in giant robots blasting each other to molten slag. Not only was it releasing to Steam, but there were a number of other important announcements unveiled at their Steam Launch Party. I was at the event, along with a few hundred fellow MechWarrior and BattleTech fans, and I got the chance to talk with Russ Bullock, President, and Bryan Ekman, Creative Director, about the current direction of MechWarrior: Online and how they are looking to attract players new players and fold old fans back in.
I was one of those old fans, someone that was there at launch when the game started with barely a handful of mechs and even fewer maps. Despite my love of the franchise, it didn’t take long for me to drift away from the game. Some of my fondest memories might be playing the old BattleTech CCG with my friends or booting up MechWarrior 2 along with my uncle – for those confused, MechWarrior is a series of video games adapted from the BattleTech tabletop game – but there was only so many times you could load into the same maps with the same load-outs.
However, there’s just something about this universe that sticks with you. For some it’s a political intrigue of the warring houses, think Game of Thrones with walking tanks. Other folks really enjoy the gameplay, which is more about attrition tactics than quick reflexes. Releasing to Steam, adding Oculus Support, and having tournaments are great and all, but I wanted to start fresh and see if now was a good time to jump back in with my old account.
I’ve been playing pretty frequently over the last month, and the game has come a long way in the past few years. There’s been some development bumps along the way, but there are now more maps, more game modes, and perhaps most importantly a lot more mechs to pilot. (Including the oh so favorite Clan mechs.) They haven’t exhausted every BattleTech Technical Readout quite yet, but there’s a pretty good chance a few of your favorites are in the 60-some odd mechs available. I, for one, am looking forward to reuniting with an old friend soon: the Rifleman.
One huge improvement is the inclusion of a proper tutorial. According the developers, this was necessary groundwork for the release on Steam. They wanted new players to have an opportunity to learn outside of a live match, which is pretty damn important for a complex game like MechWarrior. Having this in-depth experience is great for fostering a hardcore community (the game has had a core 100,000 player fan base since founding) but the depth creates a barrier for new players.
For those unfamiliar, mechs in MechWarrior behave like tanks. Your legs always move forward, or backwards, and you can independently twist the torso. In addition to getting used to this movement, there’s also heat management from firing your weapons, individually tracked armor sections, ideal weapon ranges, the list goes on. There’s just way more gameplay information that the player needs to have a handle on than simply ‘You’re a space marine. Here’s a gun. Go shoot the aliens.’
Perhaps one of the best aspects of the game is slowly discovering the niche you have the most fun with. Maybe it’s plodding along laden with more armor and firepower than anything else on the field, zipping around at high speed helping to scout the opposition, or just getting up close and blasting limbs off. From tiny 20-ton scouts to 100 ton-assault mechs, from autocannons or lasers to missiles and particle cannons, there’s a glut of customization to explore.
In addition to the in-game resources, there’s just a huge amount of community driven content to draw from. As mentioned before, BattleTech has had a really dedicated following for decades, and since the game launched players have filled forum threads discussing basically every aspect of the game, created online mech builders, and fostered a core MechWarrior: Online community. Want to know what the best mech is for shooting missiles or which mechs are best for new pilots? A quick google search will turn up a lot of suggestions. I found these kind of resources almost invaluable for jumping back in… and this is a franchise I know quite well already.
MechWarrior: Online also has the free-to-play hurdle to tackle, and it’s a pretty tall one to jump over. From what I’ve seen and read, the game avoids the “pay-to-win” bugbear fairly well, but it does lean on paying for early access and time-saving boosters. You can certainly still play for free, but premium time helps you accrue experience and money significantly faster. Heroic mechs feature unique loadouts, and you’re always going to want more mech bays – you need a mech bay for each mech you own. Some of these items and features do get given away in special online events, however, rewarding you for logging in during certain times and completing goals.
Like a lot of MMOs, MOBAs, and such, if you really want to succeed in MechWarrior: Online you need to be pretty heavily invested. The big reason for this is how much playtime grinding is necessary. In addition to pilot skills and unlocking modules, every mech has its own skill tree. None of the skills are game-breaking on their own, and I’ve been plenty capable of topping damage and kills with an unmastered mech. But a fully skilled mech will run a little faster, have shorter weapon cooldowns, turn quicker, and otherwise perform a few percentages better than its counterparts. You need to be pretty committed to MechWarrior: Online because in order to unlock the deeper skills you need to master the basic skills on three different variants of the same mech, which means having earned enough resources to essentially buy the same mech three times.
That’s not to say that the developers haven’t tried to cater to the different kinds of players. They are certainly seeding a world championship tournaments with $100,000 for those competitive-minded players. There’s been a lot of time devoted into the other folks, like those that enjoy the culture of BattleTech more so than the game itself. The game’s Community Warfare lets pilots sign up with their favorite in-game factions and contest territory and planets. And the still beyond the horizon development is to work on the game’s AI, with the opportunity of finally revisiting a “MechWarrior 5” single player in the future.
Is now a good time to play MechWarrior: Online? Tentatively yes, go for it. However there are some caveats of knowing what you’re jumping into, particularly from a time investment standpoint. If you’re a returning player there’s a lot more content now, which should stave off burnout. New mechs are getting steadily marched out, along with more maps, greater game mode variety, and more features for Community Warfare. If you’re a brand-new player. The barrier for entry can be a little daunting, especially if you’re unfamiliar with MechWarrior and BattleTech, but there hasn’t been a better time to strap into the cockpit. You’ll certainly be behind the curve of having a big pool of skilled out mechs, but you can more easily get started with the resources available.