Over two months ago, I mentioned that I was in the closed beta for Mechwarrior Online. Since then, my love affair with the game has fluctuated rather wildly, and now that they’ve lifted the NDA, I can talk about it.
My apologies that none of my screenshots show the game from the perspective of an experienced character; they’ve wiped the game repeatedly during closed beta, and I haven’t played since the last wipe, so I’m back to 0 XP, no unlocked abilities and no money.
What is it?
Mechwarrior Online is a free to play FPS from Piranha Games set in the Battletech universe. You take on the job of battlemech pilot, driving around giant mechs — twenty metres tall and bristling with weapons — in an attempt to defend or destroy strategic objectives.
Battletech has a rich story background as a tabletop miniatures game originally developed by FASA Corporation with the same development and licensing history as Shadowrun, but at this stage in MWO’s development that background setting is almost entirely invisible, acting merely as a justification for blowing each other up in giant mechs. Piranha Games have promised future play modes involving more of the politics and story of the setting, but so far all we’ve seen is the default team deathmatch mode.
When you start the game you’re limited to one of four Trial Mechs, one from each weight category – at the moment the offerings are a Jenner (Light), a Hunchback (Medium), a Catapult (Heavy) and an Atlas (Assault). Trial Mechs are very limited; you can’t change their equipment in any way, and games played in a trial mech offer less money and XP than a normal mech.
Of course, you can bypass these limitations (and the need to grind endless matches to save up for a ‘proper’ mech) by dropping some cash on the game; you can buy new mechs with C-Bills (ingame currency) or Mech Credits (bought with RL money), and purchasing one of the high-end Founder’s Packs gives you access to Founder’s Mechs which can be customised like a normal mech — and Founder’s Mechs also earn extra XP and cash compared with a normal mech.
Once you’ve got a customisable mech, whether a Founder’s Mech or one you purchased, you can use the Mech Lab to change its fit-out to suit your preferences. There’s a wealth of options, all derived from the tabletop game, and unfortunately the game obscures some stats. Kris painstakingly combed through the game’s XML files to produce a very handy MWO reference spreadsheet to help with mech customisation. (Although it’s a patch or two behind at the moment thanks to the siren call of Firefall.)
So that’s where your money goes – that, and rearming, and repairing your mech after you get blown to smithereens. XP, on the other hand, is spent unlocking bonuses for the mech in which you earnt the XP – faster acceleration, faster turning speed, better heat dissipation, and so on. For now those boosts are token values, but they’ll be tweaked to get the balance right.
There are a couple of great things this game has going for it:
First of all, Piranha are fans themselves of the tabletop game, which means that there are few glaring inaccuracies and they’re trying to replicate the tabletop experience as much as possible. (At least, inasmuch as they can when turning a third-person tactical miniatures game into a first-person shooter.)
Second, their movement engine feels good to me. Assault mechs are ponderous juggernauts with terrifying momentum when they get moving; light mechs are zippy and responsive. Apart from a few glitches, the mechs ‘feel’ like they’re the right weight. It’s not just like driving a human body in a normal FPS.
Thirdly, the pace of the game feels good – again, that’s subjective. But Battletech is fundamentally about tactics – careful positioning, terrain advantage, line of sight, and so on. MWO doesn’t have the fast-and-furious pace of most shooters, and to me that’s a good thing, because it feels more like Battletech than a faster game would.
And most importantly: you’re driving a giant weaponised mech, raining down death upon other giant weaponised mechs. That is, inherently, pretty damn awesome.
Unfortunately, I see two huge problems with the game as it is now, and one smaller problem.
The first problem is that there’s only one game mode at the moment: Assault, which is an 8v8 no-respawn team deathmatch where victory comes from eliminating the other team or capturing their “base”, a small unremarkable area of flat terrain. (Matchmaking for this involves balancing by weight class, so a team with seven Jenners and one Atlas should end up facing a team of seven Light mechs and one Assault.) There may be internal playtesting of other game modes, but so far they haven’t been tested in beta at all, and all the beta balancing is using Assault mode as a basis.
This is an issue because — assuming equal player skill — heavier mechs are better for straight-up combat than light mechs, because they can pack more weapons, more ammo and more armour. So there’s no incentive to take light mechs (unless you really like them), and the devs are treating the Light › Medium › Heavy › Assault path as progression, as Bryan Ekman (the Creative Director) says:
There will be some progression – Light to Assault by virtue of how we’ve designed the economy. This is a good thing.
He doesn’t, however, explain how it’s a good thing, and I don’t think it is. In the tabletop game, mech classes have different jobs and different strengths, and light mechs aren’t at such a disadvantage because you can use heavier mechs to support and cover them. As it stands in MWO, you get one mech to pilot per game and if you want to play a light mech, you’d better hope that your teammates are coordinated and interested in backing you up.
To a certain extent that’s an unavoidable problem when you’re turning a squad-based tabletop minis game into a first-person computer game where the player only controls a single mech, but I’d been hoping that other game modes would mitigate the power differential somewhat by giving more value and tactical advantage to the scouting and evasion abilities of lighter mechs. However, the devs treating Assault mechs as inherently ‘the best’ mechs (which is the logical result of Ekman’s ‘progression’ attitude) does not bode well for the playability or balance of other potential game modes. Obviously this is still a case of wait-and-see, but it has shaken my confidence somewhat.
The other – more serious – problem is a mechanics issue. In order to make the game ‘feel’ right as a first-person shooter, the devs reduced the cycle time of mech weapons (and doubled mech armor to make sure people weren’t falling over within seconds of being targeted). However, they didn’t adjust other numbers to compensate for this. To clarify the problem, I should explain some mechanics of the tabletop game:
- You can fire every weapon once per ten-second turn.
- Each weapon builds up heat in your mech; as you reach certain heat thresholds you suffer negative effects up to total shutdown and often-fatal ammo explosions.
- Your mech has heat sinks; there are some built into the engine, and extras in other parts of the mech.
- Each heat sink dissipates one point of heat per ten-second round (or twice that if they’re submerged; eg. they’re in your mech’s legs and you’re standing waist-deep in water).
- So, as an example, if you’ve got a stock HBK-4G Hunchback with 13 heat sinks, you can fire off both its Medium Lasers (3 heat each) and its Autocannon 20 (7 heat) indefinitely while stationary without building up any heat. If you fire its final weapon, a Small Laser (1 heat), you’d slowly build up heat every turn until you shed some by not firing all your weapons for a turn or two, or by standing in water for a while.
So that’s how it works in the tabletop game. If you were playing the same Hunchback variant in MWO, and fired both Medium Lasers and your AC20 under the same conditions at every opportunity, you’d shut down or blow up in short order — you’d build up 44 heat over ten seconds (or 53 heat if you fired that Small Laser as well), and you’d still only be able to shed 13 of that. That’s because they’ve reduced the cycle time of all the weapons, meaning you build up heat much faster, but they haven’t increased the heat dissipation of heat sinks to compensate.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if it applied uniformly — it’d just mean everyone has to ease off on the trigger now and then. However, based on the tabletop rules, heat is just one balancing mechanic, and not every weapon generates significant heat. Energy weapons like PPCs and Lasers have high heat to compensate for the fact that you don’t have to pack ammo for them, while ballistic weapons like Autocannons and Gauss Rifles have low heat because you’re limited by ammunition. This means that high-heat weapons are very problematic in MWO — energy weapons are at a serious disadvantage compared with other weapons, especially ballistics — and yet I’ve never seen the devs explain why they haven’t beefed up heat sinks to cope with the faster pace of MWO, and the game has had patch after patch without a single tweak to (or even mention of) this fundamental imbalance.
If you try mentioning this on the forums, however, you get a chorus of yes-men shouting you down with “it’s a beta, it’s not done yet”. Of course it’s a beta; of course I’m not judging it like a finished game. But there’s a difference between “this is buggy and incomplete” and “this is a fundamental design problem that the devs seem to be happy with”. This is the third problem with the game: the community. It’s entirely too full of mindless fans eager to applaud Piranha for everything they do. (Today on the forums I saw a long, detailed post of criticism and suggestions and the first response to it was literally “don’t worry, it’ll all turn out fine”.) I’m all for positivity and giving a game a fair chance to succeed, but this is meant to be a closed beta; this is the time to improve the game and solve the problems. Uncritical backpatting does nobody any favours.
The bottom line.
Right now, I have serious concerns about the long term playability of MWO. I want it to be a success, but some of the balancing decisions seem absolutely mystifying, and without more game modes and more tactical options I fear MWO will devolve into a mindless Assault mech slugfest that’s only satisfying to let off a bit of steam at the end of a long day.