Mechwarrior Online: the good, the bad and the ugly

Mechwarrior Online

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.

Trouble right here in River City

Battletech has a rich story background as a tabletop miniatures game originally developed by FASA Corporation with the same development and licensing history as Shadowrun1, 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.

Buying a 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.

Customisation in the Mech Lab

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.

Unlocking mech bonuses in the Pilot Lab

The good.

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.

The LRM rain of death

The bad.

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.

The River City assault

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.

Shutdown sequence enabled

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.

  1. It also spawned a pen-and-paper roleplaying game and a series of very popular video games.

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5 Responses to “Mechwarrior Online: the good, the bad and the ugly”

  1. October 7, 2012 at 11:47 #

    That progression quote you give is about ecomomic progression, not an arms race type progression where Assault trumps everything. That’s how I read it anyway, especially as it was taken from a thread called “On the matter of Economics”, and the very next sentence was “Keep in mind our goal is NOT to create an arms race. ” They have stated over and over that the last thing they want is everyone in an assault mech and that they are trying hard to make all mechs viable by giving them their own roles, and by rewarding them when they play those roles.

    Also, I don’t get on board with the idea that currently Assault Mechs are the best mechs in the game. That hasn’t ben my experience. Yes, they have a lot of armour and weapons, but they are slow and unmaneuverable. Suggesting that piloting a light mech is a waste of time “unless that is your thing” is simply not true. A stock Jenner verse a stock Atlas will see the Jenner win the bulk of the time. The Jenner speed tanks (to borrow an EVE Online term) far too well for the Atlas to handle. You can’t shoot something if it is constantly at your back, and your armour doesn’t mean much when you are getting shot in the rear. The only chance the Atlas has is to back up against a wall and pray for a lucky shot. To be honest, when I pilot a Catapult or Atlas of any variant, there is only one mech I truely fear, and that is the Jenner. When I see one I run screaming like a little girl, looking for the nearest medium mech to kill it for me. :)

    You bring up some interesting points about heat management. I’m not sure how I feel about this one. The math that I’ve seen seems to back your claims up, but experience seems to go against this. I mean it was only a couple of months ago when everyone was saying ballistics suck and were crying for medium lasers to be nerfed. Also, as it stands, I can fit an Awesome with 7 medium lasers (40 heats sinks) and alpha strike to my hearts content without fear of overheating EVER (except in Caustic Valley every now and then). The best you can come to that with ballistics is a dual Guass set up, and then you’ve got the hassle of factoring in lead time and such; not to mention ammo. If heat was messed with too much I can see laser boating becoming even more of a problem than it had been. I think I’d rather see them tweak ballistics if they were going to tweak anything (and they have done a bit of that over the various patches)

    As to “the bottom line”, there are two more game modes planned to be added over the next 2 months, “Conquest” and “DropShip Mutator”. They are also adding more tactical options all the time. We just saw TAG and NARC added, the map now gives more information, there are plans for a Commander role. Also, there is plenty of room for tactics as is. Pubs rarely use them of course, and the premades that we have both run with have been barely more than pubs on voice chat. It reminds me a lot of BF3 in that regard. You don’t see a lot of tactics involved on public servers, but clan V clan scrims can be a tactical marvel to behold. The potential for tactical gameplay is already there.

    Hope I don’t come off like too much of a fanboy! :P

  2. The Mickull
    October 8, 2012 at 17:10 #

    I’m pretty much in agreement with Urs’s comments here.

    – new game modes are coming, and are listed in the roadmap for upcoming features and changes. But, yes, during this phase of the beta, it does get more than a little boring playing the same maps and same modes over and over again.

    – The heat issue is a a debate, but I can see good reasons why they wouldn’t want to change it. Keeping it as it is now, gives an advantage to ballistic weapons, which is not present in the TT game.
    From all my time playing TT, I loathed ballistic mechs with a passion. The requirement for carrying ammunition, and the increased vulnerability from ammo explosions, along with the heavier weight of the weapons, was not a good offset for the decreased heat. In MWO, that is not the case. Lower heat/damage is good. My only issue, is that gauss rifles are TOO heat efficient compared to other weapons…

    – I must be looking at the progression thing differently to other people. At my point in the current stage of beta, I have managed to purchase all three variants of Centurion, because I love me some medium mech. Had I not bought the 2nd and 3rd ones, I could also have bought a heavy mech. but instead, I stuck with my mediums, and will be continuing to earn cash, for the express purpose of upgrading and tweaking my chosen chassis of mech, rather than progressing through to heavy or assault mechs.

    Not going to shout “it’s still Beta” because I agree that it still needs more work before release.
    Things I am looking forward to:
    – more mech types
    – different game modes
    – the “community warfare metagame”
    That third one, is the feature that will make or break this game, compared to other F2P simulator games out there…

  3. ME
    January 26, 2013 at 05:19 #

    Do you ever go back to these games? It has been over 4 months since you wrote this and now it does not really reflect that game any more, yet lingers here leaving behind a false impression of what once was. Just curious… ;)

    • February 4, 2013 at 14:23 #

      I do sometimes go back to games – heck, I’m actually resubbed to WoW at the moment after leaving over a year ago. I’m glad to hear that the game has changed and grown, although I still have some fundamental issues with the game that I don’t think can ever be resolved because of its nature as a first-person action shooter trying to represent rules designed for a squad-based tabletop game.

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