Hawken (PC)

Hawken screenshot

Hawken. It’s really pretty.

Every artist in the studio knew when that trailer hit. Hawken became a household name overnight. It took a while to register for a larger audience, but if you attended any game tradeshow over the past year or so, you couldn’t miss Hawken. This tiny team out of nowhere was seriously competing with the triple-A productions.

It’s still something of a mystery how they do it. They’re punching so much above their weight it’s like the rules and the laws just don’t apply.

When the previews started hitting, it was obvious Hawken was going to be big. It reaches that place where you’re effectively above casual criticism – you’re great and everybody wants to love you.

It’s now in open beta. I wasn’t too impressed by my time in the closed beta, but hey – happy to be proven wrong! It’s come a long way since, being much more responsive, looking the part, and performing a ways better. There is no way I’m not going to play this a lot in the immediate future. It’s a fast-moving shooter in a super-cool, original world with its own language and mood. It’s free to play and very simple to pick up and run and gun, so go ahead and see if you like it. For me it hits a nice spot between Mechwarrior Online’s slow pace and the too-fast-for-me modern shooters like Call Of Duty.

All of that’s beside the point, because what’s interesting to me is the fact that this phenomenon of a free to play title is a… mecha title through and through. That’s not supposed to be marketable.

Science fiction in general is not supposed to sell – even though, hello, Gears Of War, Halo, Mass Effect – and come on, giant robots. Like anybody gives a toss about those! Today’s marketplace is all about serious soldiers. Mechwarrior was the one somewhat big name way back when, but in the west, there hasn’t been a giant robot IP that did well since.

I was talking to someone who deals with giant robots and markets and he was really surprised to hear that Hawken was a mecha title. “But giant robots and the west don’t mix!” I tried to explain why he had the view that he did and why this could be changed, but did a poor job of it. Here’s a better take on it.

It’s true that there haven’t been very many successful mecha titles in the west since Battletech/Mechwarrior. That franchise enjoys a die-hard reputation among old-time PC geeks, but nobody outside of that group really knows it. It’s so old and clunky, it’s like comparing a 1950s car to whatever the kids want to drive these days. You can’t draw too many conclusions from Battletech.

Myself, I’ve always been all over the mecha designs of the east. I never cared for any of the series they came from. The few games that have found some fans in the west are Armored Core and Front Mission. They are both far too obscure and hardcore for their own good, not built for mainstream audiences, much as I adore them. It doesn’t matter if they were built in the east or the west: this kind of game will never reach a big audience (a dedicated, super faithful hardcore audience? Sure!).

The notable omission from Japanese mainstays is the complete lack of Gundam. The impression is that the western audience doesn’t care for Gundam, but as far as I know, they never really attempted to make it popular over here. I don’t actually know if any of the Gundam shows or game series are any good – the only one I ever played was the decent 2D brawler (SNES, I believe). I just worship the art and design of the machines.

Based on what I’ve seen of Gundam games, I don’t really believe they could be popular in the west. They seem like they’re too much fan service, simplistic gameplay, token fandom. You can’t build them for the fans if you want to grab a western audience that knows next to nothing about your world. As an example, I reviewed one of the recent Naruto games. It was actually really good (much to my surprise, I admit), but I didn’t understand anything that was going on. It was hard to care when I was so painfully obviously not the target audience. I suspect there’s a similar problem with the Gundam games.

So I don’t believe the west care about giant robots per se. You need to have a good game and a world we’re welcome to enter.

That’s what Hawken is doing. It’s a bona fide mecha property, all about the machines, built from the ground up. Everybody is exploring it at the same time, starting with zero knowledge. It’s got a lot that you know: even though you’re customizing a walking tank, it’s not that different from customizing a tank in World Of Tanks. Yeah, it’s gorgeous mecha blowing each other to bits, but it’s the domination gameplay you know from Battlefield. The action is straight out of slowed down Unreal Tournament or even Counter-Strike. It’s a great shooter – just with a cool world and unique looks.

It can compete with anything you care to throw at it. Plus it’s got these cool giant robots.

Hawken has only surprised me once, but it’s oozing quality. Everything they put in there is just shining. The single surprise was my new starter mech, the one that looks like a walking microwave oven or CRT monitor with legs? It’s funny and sympathetic. Pulling that off in a supposedly serious military-themed shooter is a grand feat.

Oh and Transformers? That’s no giant robot series. Watch the trailer for Pacific Rim – though the mecha designs are uninspired, all the mecha tropes are there, straight out of Neon Genesis Evangelion. That’s a giant robot movie.

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