2019 has shaped up to look like the year for a handful of long dormant franchises with dedicated fanbases finally getting the follow up they’ve been wanting for ages. I ended up in that camp being one of the people who were excited enough to throw money at Yu Suzuki’s Kickstarter campaign to see the next (and hopefully not last) entry in the Shenmue franchise. It seems a similar fate had befallen the equally quiet BattleTech franchise, as there hasn’t been a proper single player MechWarrior installment in the series since 2002.
Cut to now, and Piranha Studios has stepped up to revive this franchise and let their fanbase get back to the heavy-stomping laser-laden action that they’ve been craving for years on end. Most who grew up in the ’90s were quite familiar with how dense the franchise was and, assuredly, enjoyed the heydey that it found itself in. With Piranha taking up developing and publishing duties on the project, MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries initially releases on PC as an Epic Games Store exclusive on December 10, 2019.
Starting in the year 3015, you fill the shoes of Commander Mason as he and his mercenary unit (that the player can name) try and make a name for themselves in the galaxy in the final throes of the Third Succession War. Your specific unit is mounting a comeback from their previously demolished past. Helping keep things together on the command end of things is Major Campbell, as she keeps you informed of the vast opportunities available to you. She also provides you with appropriate intelligence on the relatively diverse sets of missions you set out to do.
Though insofar as story is concerned, it would seem about par for the course for a combat-focused mech action game. Given the title, you’re not the only band of mercenaries shooting around star systems for money. Naturally, competition can be fierce in missions where you run into other mechs also trying to get paid. Much of the game sees its share of power shifting while you try to satisfy your clients, but for the most part it isn’t super deep. You can tell that there was some obvious effort put into a little bit of world building, given that it does have a canon to hold up.
Perhaps I might be a tad bit on the spoiled side since I have watched my fair share of Gundam series in my time and am used to the (usual) nuance and drama that their brand of fighting robots provide, but it does somewhat throw me off that the story in this game in particular is relatively straightforward. The execution of many of the main cast’s performances feel very safe, but obviously not lazy. Ryana Campbell is the typical no-nonsense commanding officer that is happy to get right down to brass tacks and only show as much emotion as necessary. Mason is your typical focused and semi-emotional player character, and he’s not afraid to show that. While you will hire other MechWarriors in your travels and they perform well enough, more side characters and rivals do feel somewhat one note in their scripting. This is definitely a game that put its primary focus on the gameplay and uses the story as a way to complement it.
Laser Focused on Getting Paid
If there’s one thing that I immediately noticed on the onset of my playthrough, it’s how much the game tries to appeal to longtime fans of the series, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Though curious newcomers may be thrown off with the brand of gameplay style that BattleTech games are known for. These guys aren’t your Metal Gears, Gundam/Mobile Suits, Gunmen, Megazords, or other nimble and human-esque mechs. BattleMechs are much slower, and the game isn’t afraid to show you that.
There are three different size classifications of ‘Mechs, all with their own breed of specifications. Small ‘Mechs are weak in armor and payload, but predictably faster than their bigger bretheren. Medium ‘Mechs are the obvious balance between mobility, armor, and payload. Large ‘Mechs are the natural conclusion of all these things save for speed because they’re so damn big.
Because of this adherence to treating ‘Mechs like heavy-duty equipment instead of being a bigger more robotic human, the keyboard and mouse controls have a twinge of a semi-Steel Batallion feel to it. While it’s nowhere near as complex as that game by a long shot, there’s definitely a bit of a learning curve when adjusting to these controls. It’s kind of like trying to operate a twin-thumbstick setup, only the throttle is adjusted on the left side and visual movement on the right.
I primarily played with keyboard and mouse, but it does support gamepads and certain models of joystick. Movement is paramount here because you’ll need to be aware of the orientation of the body position of your ‘Mech. The upper torso has some serious movement range, and the crosshairs aren’t always going to match up with where you want to fire if your legs aren’t aligned with the upper torso. There is a button to realign the body, which naturally helps on top of a deditated full stop button (throttle controls can be adjusted). But when you’re engaged in a firefight it can be a bit disorienting, especially if you’re a new player, though longtime fans are probably used to this dynamic. There is a tutorial that I highly recommend using if you’re going into this completely green. Once I adjusted to the controls, I found myself getting quite used to them in practice.
Before you deploy on story missions and other mercenary jobs, you’ll get the chance to outfit your chosen ‘Mech with the weapons and equipment you prefer while on board your dropship. By completing these missions you’ll not only get money and increased reputation, you’ll also get the chance to bring back salvage weapons and other parts to replace equipment you’ll inevitably damage in battle. Not only that, but your mercenary staff and selection of ‘Mechs will increase over your playthrough. Some you’ll get through story events, others through missions, and some you can just outright purchase.
This is by far the most dense aspect of the game, and adds some real consequence to your own skill while on missions. Damage and injury to your ‘Mechs and ‘Warriors does take in-game time and money to repair and resolve, and those very same pilots have a real chance of death if you don’t support them in combat or outfit their ‘Mech in the appropriate way. While it may not seem like the most exciting thing on paper, it’s very important to equip properly to ensure mission success, and something I very much appreciate. This sort of gameplay doesn’t exactly play kindly to Leroy Jenkins-type of combat, and basically forces you to strategize and put some serious thought into every move you make and the weapons you let loose.
While I do enjoy the dense customization options of the former, actual gameplay is the traditional slow and calculated combat one would expect from large lumbering robots. Half the challenge is conquering the controls, which will acclimate you to the flow of combat. More often than not you’ll be engaging with smaller tanks/turrets and the like, but you’ll eventually run into combat with rival ‘Mechs. While somewhat awkward, it can get tense because mission failure will force you to restart the entire mission over again. This can be frustrating if you are engaged in a multi-part mission, because replaying an entire cluster of a mission only to fail at the end can be really annoying. Save scumming can only get you so far, and that’s the last thing I’m thinking about when I’m getting blasted by a barrage of rockets and lasers.
Thankfully, the variety of missions are not as narrow as you would think. While you jump around the star systems, sometimes you’ll raze or defend a plot of land. Other times you’re out on an assassination mission, and sometimes you’ll be helping defend new allies in the heat of battle that join your mercenary company. It’s nice to see this variety, obviously, though it’s not like it hasn’t been done before. But sometimes you just want to do it right.
‘Mo Mercenaries ‘Mo Problems
It seems like when it came to graphical presentation here, the primary focus was put on the environments and ‘Mechs in the field, because some character models were a bit off putting when you’re aboard your dropship. However, overall execution is by no means terrible for the most part.
The vast environments you traverse aren’t overly barren, and actually look rather nice. ‘Mech design is about as walking-tank-y as you can get. Planet environments are quite detailed and aren’t any sort of bland terrain, thankfully. Weather effects look natural, but also don’t get in the way of combat. Buildings in different states of repair look decent, though some particle effects look strange when destroyed. If you have an RTX card (I’m sporting a GTX 1660TI in my build which doesn’t support RTX features), you’ll have the option to use ray-tracing. It did kind of strike me as odd to see certain character models inside your dropship look unnatural and kinda creepy, but considering that you spend the majority of your time stomping around in your ‘Mech it can be semi-glossed over.
Looking from a performance standpoint, most modern builds will be able to handle high graphical settings with little to no issue. I was getting a relatively consistent 60FPS on a Ryzen 2600 CPU in conjunction with my GPU, and thermals weren’t much of an issue even with the settings set to maximum. Very rarely did I ever see any temperature spikes above 60 degrees Celsius from my processor and graphics card combo.
Sound design hits for the most part, though some may be dismayed at some decisions for the music. The sounds of combat make sense and, thankfully, don’t grate like you think a buzzing laser might end up being. Voice acting is decent enough with the general story exchanges, but I ended up somewhat annoyed with repeated lines from your fellow pilots in the field mission after mission. Certain rival mercenaries sport a high-pitched robotic voice, but they’re thankfully rare.
With the music, it seems to want to take a slight dual approach here. Hanging out in your dropship will have a synth-type soundtrack, which isn’t really a bad choice given that you’re basically chilling out in space. It’s an entirely different story when you set foot planetside. It screams “generic crunchy four chord guitar” riffs so hard that if you mistook it for a GarageBand loop, I’d let it slide. While it does lend itself to some exciting moments, it ultimately falls flat for me. Part of me wishes that there was a bit more variety here, but at the very least it isn’t awful in this regard.
Comin’ Out Stompin’
The first thing that pops into my mind, thanks to Shenmue III, is whether or not MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries was worth the wait. While Piranha is by no means a newcomer to the franchise thanks to their involvement in MechWarrior Online, shifting to a single player focus and also reviving the main series on top of that wasn’t going to be an easy task by a long shot. But while there are some questionable design choices from an aesthetic standpoint, the gameplay here is rewarding if you give it a fair shake.
My biggest concern here is how fast and how easily modern audiences, much less PC gamers in general, will latch onto this despite the first-run exclusivity with the Epic Games Store. What’s presented here isn’t entirely something that would be totally out of place in gaming today, but MechWarrior 5 knows its roots and embraces the past in a way that longtime fans are sure to appreciate. It may not offer the twitchest of gameplay, but getting past some antiquated aspects will yield an enjoyable time.
Review copy provided by Piranha Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Piranha Games.