Game Name: Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries (2002)
Developer: FASA / Studio MekTek Inc. (Heavy Gear Assault, Beneath the Surface)
Categories: Battletech Pilot Simulator, 1st/3rd Person Shooter, Single Player Campaign, Multiplayer Deathmatch, Multiple Endings, Squad Tactics, Walking BattleTanks and Equipment Juggling, borderline overwhelming Mech Loadout Designer. Lasers, Missiles, and multi-ton 31st century Shotguns to the Armored Face, oh my!
May Appeal To: aging gamers with a hard-on for big, clunky, 80’s robot brawls. (Demographic outliers need not apply.)
May Repulse: those expecting modern finesse, flow, balance, and graphics from their gaming excursions. Fair warning: if you liked Mechwarrior then, you’d like it now. If you weren’t aware of it then, you’ll wonder what the fuss is/was about.
Comparable To: Hawken’s plodding arena battles with a kick, featuring mechs less maneuverable than Gundam games but more fluid than Armored Core. The mech garage sections remind me of Front Mission 3; it’s more interesting than Mechwarrior 4, more immersive than Mech Commander, it’s less thematic than Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries, has better gameplay and design than Mechwarrior 3, is less ‘modern’ than MWO, has considerably more depth than Mech Assault, and made me wish my Mechwarrior 3050 SNES emulator would just work dammit.
Learning Curve: Torso twisting, weapon cycling, target locking, objective searching, lance commanding, and fringe mechanics like powering down, overriding shutdown limits, vision modes, flushing coolant, and others are enough to keep you busy without the shitty default controls – which are customizable. All in all, this is a true simulator in both name and game so I expect 3+ hours before a noob is comfortable in the cockpit. Depending on aptitude, this estimation may also include a player’s initial hurtle when assimilating the essentials of mech weapon loadouts – whose optimizations are eternally arguable.
Game Length: 30 hours = 10 hour story + Multiplayer + Alternate Company Replays?
Difficulty: Easy conceptual difficulty; Mid-High execution difficulty
Mastery: The Battletech universe is surely imbalanced though it is intentionally designed to destabilize the dominance of any particular mech. I’d say campaign mastery can occur with a well-rounded force or one tailored for every mission type. Consistent multiplayer mastery would take considerable effort since range, maneuvering ability, and mech size are vaguely a rock, paper, scissors throw to claiming victory.
Story: This setting is staggeringly well-documented in hundreds of Battletech sourcebooks and paperback novels across the decades though only snippets of a grade schooler’s cliff notes surface in this particular telling of it.
In the wake of the devastating clan invasion -where foreign invaders rocked the known universe with overwhelming numbers of superior mechs- the once OP unification of houses Steiner and Davion reaches its end. The year 3066 is a period of interstellar Civil War as the ‘Federated Commonwealth’ turns upon itself in what is best described as a PBJ sandwich looking to excommunicate the peanut butter from the jelly for morality reasons. To perpetuate the centuries-long tradition of unending lazorbeamz, ‘splosions, and pewpews exchanges, the next impetus for mass destruction arrives in the form of a far-flung familial feud between the reticent Peter Davion and his matricidal sister Katherine Steiner (whom takes her beloved grandmother’s name “Katrina” for publicity’s sake).
The player finds themselves sponsored by one of four established merc companies looking to profiteer these squabbles, the directive: wade ankle deep through proxy wars, rebellion, and general mayhem that polarizes the region. You don’t actively conquer territories or spread the lance’s focus outside Steiner/Davion territory, though a mercenary’s job description involves tilting disputes towards the paying side or providing expendable help in missions where the local militia lacks the skills to deliver prejudiced, hot leaded finality through a battlemech’s canopy. Think, “protect this governor from 16 mechs” or “defeat the invading force our military couldn’t”.
In picking employment, your reputation eventually seals the side you become aligned with. Whether it be Clan, Davion, or the murderous, contemptuous, egregious Katherine Steiner (hint hint), your character “Spectre” loses the ability to freely play the table and has their missions whittled down to but a paltry few. Luckily, the intergalactic news reports are around to trumpet your victories and punctuate contextual hindsight as to what effect your greed-driven presence has on thousands of lives, your personal participation in a galaxy where the dust never settles.
Presentation: This isn’t the bare polygon graphics of Mechwarriors 2: Mercenaries (one of my faves) though the lack of technical wizardry we’ve become accustomed to is sorely apparent. The low-res textures aren’t much more than four colors mottling a landscape of repeated tiles stretching before you. Audio is bass-y, a whirling chaos of roughcut sound clips in the heat of battle, yet still somehow appropriate. However, if I’m exposed to 10 more minutes of that looping tech garage musical riff [overlaid with weird, stupid voice samples] I’m going to Clan ER small laser myself in the face.
Unique Features: You can personally command up to 2 lances (8 battlemechs) to target invaders and defend nav points, which adds a welcomed tactical wrinkle into the straightforward action this series is known for. Mechwarrior has always offered the most in-depth customization and simulation regarding fictional bipedal tanks for my tastes and I’ll attest that it’s still uniquely the king of the genre. Everything from assigning armor points for chassis sections to utilizing electronics equipment to balancing rosters and a SPAAACE budget in SPAAACE is unequivocally immersive as a mercenary leader.
Gameplay: Read a news stub about the sad state of affairs regarding infinite warfare across 2000 star systems. Compare the payout, requester, and specs for three or less available missions. Spend a whole lotta time tweaking your machines and teams of 2, 4, or 8 colleagues -some of which won’t be coming back. (Peruse the stats and personalities of applicants while you’re at it.) After you’ve bought and sold armaments, trading your way towards a respectable force of laser slinging behemoths of unwarranted destructive prowess, fend off waves of equally armed juggernauts aimed at your center torso. Should you survive, the battlefield is scraped for potential salvage, you’re assigned the husks of your fallen foes, space accounting is to be had, and then the next set of obstacles await. The cycle begins anew as the targets get bigger and the weapons hit harder.
Should the player get strapped for cash, well, maybe a trip to the Solaris VII arena will yield some quick funds to keep your war machine from stalling.
Additional Comments: The wow factor here is how well the turn-based spreadsheet crunching I’m used to translates to some crazy, pitched battle with lasers burning ozone and multiple missile racks streaking death around your pilot’s ears. It just feels right.
What I Liked: 120 playable mechs and battle armor! I love the frenetic, true-to-form action, the scope of the available vehicles and weapons, the ability to influence the outcome of the Steiner/Davion struggle, and blasting a name for myself in the war-torn galaxy. Clan combat is particular crunchy and challenging. There are mines, helicopters, hovercraft, and more. In this game, you certainly roleplay as more than just a mech pilot with the presence of a meticulous risk/reward system that had me second guessing the deployment of two assault lances at the expense of extra transportation fees. Detail and personalization take center stage for this game.
What I Disliked: Mech designs are a bit blocky and inferred (squinting is required to recognize some of my old favorites). Liberties were taken with gamifying weapon statistics and the campaign felt short. Missions could have been diversified by applying weapon or mech restrictions through permissible dropship tonnage, for example. Destroyed legs only cause mild limping instead of a devastating fall. This game’s version of ‘stealth’ is laughable and a chance to push the envelope with the electronics suites never truly arrives. Melee attacks (with or without physical weapons) and internal ammo explosions are conspicuously missing from the entire Mechwarrior series. (Without these, facets of mech design are wholly dismissed and battles lack a flavor distinct to this universe.)
Glitches Experienced: The game switches aspect ratios dependent on battlefield and intermission screens. Not a glitch I’m guessing, just an oddity. The game also defaulted to the onboard software renderer for some reason. Appalled at the choppiness I experienced on an ancient game, I had to update a configuration file to use my laptop’s hardware.
Hours I Played: ~15 hour campaign as the Kell Hounds (Davion Ending)
My Personal Reaction: Mechwarrior represents one of the core genres that I’ll never be able to shake the craving for: futuristic battle simulator. The ability to tool around with a customized engine of lumbering destruction and then testing your own skill at design and finesse in hitting a moving target satisfies in ways other games simply can’t. Real numbers and statistics exist in this theater of war and operating both in front and behind the curtain is executed really well here. Throw in the team building and financial aspect of running an infamous merc company and it equates to a winning formula for me. Battletech, itself, is unparalleled in scope and lore even if the background fluff isn’t fully evident here. I’m just glad I have another format in which to participate!
Noob Tips: Watch that heat. There are a lot of superfluous buttons though the ‘F’ key for flushing coolant is a life saver. (Only pros chance the override keys.) On the subject, practicing the complex piloting controls via skirmishes and tweaking them until they’re mildly comfortable is a must. A joystick is not required, though comes heartily recommended. Regarding mech design: consolidate weapons to the torso and you can get away with zero armor for arms and half armor on each leg. Strafe, strafe, strafe – walking head-on will incur detrimental body shots for certain. Also, lancemates should target a single mech as frequently as possible. Lastly, hitting the enemy in the back has fantastic results.
Depth and Replayability: High – multiplayer against human opponents is a blast. Bonus: the solo campaign offers a positively different experience instead of just being ‘training’ for online play and there are four established companies to choose from. Re-speccing obliterated mechs can be a chore, but multiple endings is another driver.
Suggested Value: $10 maybe, but….
Where to Buy: It’s freeware! Just stop and imagine a world where Microsoft allows free downloads of anything that isn’t data-mined. The links were assumedly pulled for Tech Support reasons so I’m hesitant to reveal the Reddit page I got mine from, but Amazon is always available should your Google keywords fail you.