Saturday, July 5, 2014

MechWarrior Online - A Newbie's First Impression

One of my gaming friends has been a long-time fan of the MechWarrior video games. He finally convinced me to give the latest incarnation MechWarrior Online (MWO), a spin a couple weeks ago. I've been resisting, because I was never a huge fan of giant stompy war robots (a.k.a. juicy targets), but I finally suspended my disbelief and joined up. Pacific Rim may or may not have had something to do with that.

Avoid laser to the face, if possible.

The Basics

MWO is a free-to-play action combat game featuring giant stompy robots armed with lasers, missiles, and big guns. Gameplay centers on 12 vs. 12 PvP matches in three formats:

  • Conquest - Capture resource nodes to build a resource pool. First team to 750 resources wins.
  • Skirmish - Kill everyone.
  • Assault - Capture the enemy base before they capture yours.

Each of the three modes can also be won by killing all enemy mechs, or by time expiring (15 minute max matches). There are eight or ten different maps, with more coming.

Each player (pilot) in the game controls an individual mech. Mechs themselves are divided into four weight classes. Light mechs are small and fast, often used as scouts and to harass larger mechs. Mediums are slightly larger, can pack a heavier punch, but are slower. Heavy mechs are bigger still, and carry bigger load-outs and more armor. Again, slower than mediums. Assaults are the biggest, slowest, and nastiest of the mechs.

Conquest loss - that one guy held out just long enough
If I had to name the closest play-style to MWO, I'd say first-person shooter, but there are some significant differences. Mechs are generally slower (light mechs actually feel very FPS), and more complicated to control. In an FPS you run and shoot in the same direction. Mechs have separate leg sections that control movement direction, torso twist, which controls overall camera / weapon orientation, and arms, which have faster, freer movement than the torso. I used to be a pretty fair FPS player, but starting up a mech is a different ballgame. My first attempts are best described as pitiful. The WASD keys control the leg position, while the mouse rotates torso/arms. You can effectively be running west and looking north for example. Mechs are also heavy, so starting up and stopping take a bit of effort. Oh, they also have jump jets, so you can hop some obstacles or control your fall off a building.

On top of the basic movement, you have two targeting reticules, one for arm-mounted weapons, one for torso-mounted weapons. Since arms have more freedom of movement, and are faster, you usually cluster your weapons so you can fire arm-mounted separately from torso-mounted. As a FPS player it's easy to get fixated on the torso reticule, which is center screen, and fire your arm weapons at the ground, the wall, or your nearest ally, because that reticule is off on the left or right, or wherever you're pointing.

The Mechs

Lasers. Lots of lasers.
Getting started, you'll want to try out the free trial mechs, which come in a variety of sizes and weapon load-outs. You can get used to moving, target locking, shooting, heat management, and the rest of the game details in the trial arenas. Solo instances with stationary target mechs. This is also a good way to get familiar with the maps, since they can all be previewed here.

How do you join a game? Easy, there's a big Play Now button at the top of the screen. You drop with your currently equipped mech, and you'll randomly be matched up with players with a similar Elo rating. What's Elo? It's a magical secret number generated by the game to rank your play. Theoretically good players face good players, weak players play weak players. Your first couple games may be intimidating. Odds are you'll do something stupid and get killed within the first minute. Don't feel bad. Some rules of thumb? Stick with your lance (squad of four), stick with the group, and don't stand in open ground.

There's a free player's guide to the game on the forums that offers some good starting advice. Once you're ready to start playing, play one game with each trial mech, then win one game with each trial mech. That'll likely burn all your cadet bonus games - your first 25 games give you a big cash bonus, win or lose. Once that's done you'll both have a good idea which mechs suit your play-style, and a big chunk of cash to buy your first mech.

But before you do... hit up Smurfy, a web-based mech builder. You can load up any of the standard mechs, apply their standard load-out, and then fiddle with weapons, heat sinks, sensors, armor, and the all the other stuff that goes into a mech. It's complicated. I was reminded of the first time I tried to build a ship load-out for Eve Online the first time I tried to build a mech. You definitely want a build ready going in, because you can see what it will cost, and you'll spend as little time as possible in the absolutely terrible MWO mech-builder UI. Seriously, it's horrible.

So many icons, all the same. Dumb.
Once you have a mech of your own, you'll be able to spend XP on your mech by earning XP in matches and applying it to skills. There are three skill tiers, basic, elite, master. You can earn basic skill on any non-trial mech. To unlock elite tier, you need to complete basic in three variants of the same mech. For example I started with Blackjacks, a medium mech. My first was BJ-3 variant, which I quickly finished off basic tier on. Then I picked up two more variants, a BJ-1, and a BJ-1DC. I spent the next few days leveling these through basic too. Once that was done, it unlocked elite tier on all three variants. Master is the third skill tier, and unlocking that requires elite status on three mechs of the same weight class. My plan is to do this with my three Blackjacks, all medium mechs, but I could have also done it with two Blackjacks and Shadowhawk.

The skill tiers are confusing at first, but by the time you've hit all the basic skills on your first mech, it'll start making sense.

Pilot Skills

You can also expend GXP (a separate category from mech XP), on pilot skills. These allow you to equip specialized equipment modules for things like advanced zoom, air strikes, specialized sensors, and target lock modifications. I have exactly zero pilot skills, so I won't say much more about these.


Challenging: big learning curve. Getting basic movement under control took me longer than expected, and is a bit of a mindset shift. Movement in MWO is a lot more deliberate and involves more degrees of freedom than in most FPS type games. Accuracy also takes some getting used to, especially the split arm/torso reticules.
Fog of war.

Good: matches are fun and easy to get into. Once you grab a mech, getting into a solo game is very very fast, typically under a minute. Grouping up can be a little slower, because the matchmaker has to align teams. Game play itself is really fun, and once you start getting familiar with maps, and various mechs, you can play smarter and live longer. Playing with friends, especially if you have voice available to coordinate, is even better, though drop prep can take a bit longer. It'd be nice to see some new maps and additional match types.

Bad: The non-match UI is embarrassingly bad. I keep reading about UI 2.0 that's supposed to make things better, but the dev team has a huge amount of work in front of them to fix this mess. Building a mech out involves clicking through a series of nested menus to find the slot / equipment type you want, then scrolling through a list of components to find the one you want. For some reason the devs decided we needed to see an icon for every single item, and there's no filtering to eliminate items that don't actually fit, so you end up with a big array of red icons. When a free web site is orders of magnitude better for building mechs than the game itself? The UI is broken. Always use smurfy first. The group / social UI button is a tiny thing in the bottom bar, instead of being front and center up top with the rest of the main UI elements. The whole mess is annoying, disappointing, and obviously not designed by anyone that understands UI.

OK: The community is generally good. Most solo matches are pretty quiet, and there's not a lot of trash talk in chat. Of course there's no real voice support so that's subject to change. The forums have the usual quotient of player rage and bickering, the training grounds sub-forums have some good guides and helpful players.

Overall: I'm enjoying this a lot more than I expected. There are some rough spots and complications that are tough on new players, but the answers are available with some Googling. I didn't really talk about the cash side of things, because I haven't delved into it, and don't really feel a need to do that yet. The cash shop sells a bunch of stuff: premium time, which offers accelerated XP and in game cash accrual; clan mechs; mech bays, so you can own more mechs; c-bills, in-game currency for real money; and priority modules, whatever they are.

Final answer: If you're turned off by control complexity, MWO may not be the best game for you. If you like giant robots, shooting things in the face (or, more optimally, the back), and PvP team play, you might want to give MWO a try. You can definitely experience enough of the game to form an opinion without paying a cent, which is always a big plus in my book.

Like what you read? If so, you may want to check out my other video-game related posts, either via the convenient tag or the summary page here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: all comments are moderated to block spammers. Please be polite.