For years I’ve had Saitek Cyborg 3D USB Gold sitting right above me on the shelf, next to the desktop computer. It’s pretty hardcore. It comes with a hex key. It makes me feel somewhat superior to today’s kids. Who has joysticks these days?
Not that I’ve used it in years. It was initially bought for the original IL-2 Sturmovik (2001) or Heavy Gear II (1999). (Speaking of Heavy Gear, the videogame license has been granted just a couple of months ago to Stompy Bot Productions. This fills me with joy. Do it justice, guys.) Regardless, joysticks are basically only valid tools for flight sims, the these days exceedingly rare space sims and giant robot games. As a man who still dreams, I must have my own joystick so I may pilot a giant robot when the day comes.
That day is here with the open beta phase of the new, free to play, Mechwarrior Online. I never played the original series, not having a gaming PC at the time. I am familiar with the Battletech universe, though, having bought into both the original board game and the pen and paper RPG (also called Mechwarrior). It’s good fun, although as a game it never really grabbed me. The scenario of controlling skyscraper scale robots in gladiatorial combat is very appealing.
Heavy Gear II was everything I ever wanted in a videogame, much like I imagine the Mechwarrior series was for most western mecha fans. Compared to that this new Mechwarrior is slow and limited, but it does a better job of conveying that compelling scenario in the heart of Battletech than the hardcopy games ever did. Marching with your lance mates to meet the enemy, throttling up your ‘mech, assigning weapon groups, it’s every bit the giant robot fantasy. It hasn’t felt this authentic since Steel Battalion.
But how does it fare as a game? They’ve taken a very conservative approach here, not really expanding the game to all the directions it could go. With only the ‘mechs on the battlefield, the fighting feels a little empty, sterile and dreamy. It’s hard to buy into it. But everything that’s strictly about the ‘mech on ‘mech combat just works. As long as you have some semblance of teamwork going on, it’s a very enjoyable game. Few things in online combat feel as good as landing a killing blow to a house-sized fighting machine. Powered by CryEngine 3, it looks and feels the part, too, even if there’s a distinct lack of detail. If they could marry this scale with the bombast of Battlefield 3, we’d have a game I’d be happy to play for years to come. (Hawken is trying just that, as it happens, but it’s closer to something like Unreal Tournament than the slow, methodical, mechanical combat of what a mech experience should be.)
An interesting choice is how expensive the machines are. A basic one will cost you around 10 real money (USD/EUR) or some 3-4 nights of saving up for one, fighting in loaned machines (which don’t award you XP at all). Of course this makes them matter more. Once you finally do get one, it feels special, even without any customization. As it stands, the customization options are a tad limited. For a mech game, the customization should be the beef, and here it feels rather cumbersome and limited. It just doesn’t compare to something like Armored Core. I would imagine it’s a high priority for them to expand on upon launch.
Somewhat to my surprise, that dear old Saitek still works. If I’m perfectly honest, it’s easier and more effective to pilot with a mouse and a keyboard, but that matters not. Dying with your fingers on four triggers is a worthy death.