Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Mechwarrior Online (Video Game Review)

So after many months of beta both open and closed, Mechwarrior Online is to finally to be launched in proper to the public. Displaying far more of the supposedly first person combat aspect than Mechwarrior Tactics, it’s the title fans of the video games will be most drawn to. Having undergone many changes and tweaks over an extended beta, how is the released product?

The story here is set several years prior to the Clan invasion, relatively early on in Battletech’s timeline. With multiple houses in a state of continual war against one another, massive battlemechs scavenged from the technology of old are sent against one another to take worlds or rob their foes of talented warriors. Beyond a few factual points however, the story barely comes into this.

The game’s big draw is naturally building towering mechs and proceeding to fight others with it. Selecting the one best suited to your skills tooling it up to carry the weapons you can use best and fragging people with them. These it definitely gets right with the sheer variety of weapons and mechs to take.

There are a large number of mechs divided into various weight classes, each capable of carrying out their own set role with different set ups and weapons slots. For example most versions of the Catapult are missile slot heavy, making them perfect for support roles while the Dragons are more varied in their layouts. There’s a good deal of flexibility with each one as each slot doesn’t designate a specific weight or class of weapon, only their type. For example, a laser slot could go for anything from a small laser, effective only at close range and very weak, to a Particle Projection Cannon AKA the “I just blew your arms of at 800 meters” gun. This has led to many kinds of customisations, such as huge AC/20s being mounted on light Raven mechs for sudden ambushes.

The only real limitation with what you can give a mech are two things: Heat and weight. Heat efficiency is judged by a counter to the right in the mech bay and shows how many times your mech can fire continuously before it shuts down. At that point you’re left exposed, unable to move or fight back for several seconds. The higher your efficiency, the more times you can fire continuously so you need to add as many heat sinks as you can to stay in the fight.

Weight is the obvious one, but everything has a weight value along with a maximum load each mech can take. So long as you don’t exceed that limit you can carry as many big guns as you have slots. More or less all the internal components save for essentials or those in a fixed position can also be shifted around. Storing ammo in a place less likely to cause harm if it explodes is one use of this and even points of armour can be removed to save weight or shunted to one specific place.

Much of the above is basic stuff, present throughout most games set in this universe, but Piranha Games Inc. are sticking with what works in this respect. Further allowing customisation can be made with bonus add-ons like the ability to cap bases faster or consumables like calling in air strikes. Admittedly the latter example isn’t worth the cash though.

The actual fighting environments are well varied and designed. While by no means the most complex of maps, the variation between urban, frozen and volcano locations is decent as is their size. In some brawlers will have a clear advantage while others are so vast that anyone who can pick off people with a gauss rifle will be taking heads. You can’t choose between them specifically and the map you turn up in is completely randomised, which is definitely a good way to force strangers to adapt and work as a unit. Well, sometimes anyway.

The map variety is only further improved by the two game modes of Assault and Conquest, the former emphasising upon combat while the latter relies upon racking up points via capturing various bases. This has gone a long way to solving the cap rushes which once plagued the game and it adds some very welcome additions to the title.

The combat itself is definitely solid on the whole. As each mech has segmented areas to fire upon and specialisations, meaning you can have your arm shot off and keep fighting, but will lose anything you had in that arm. Some are harder than others thanks to higher armour values, others are essential to remaining operational (head, centre torso, at least one leg), but it allows you to stay in the game with horrendous amounts of damage. It also forces you to be tactical with where you are shooting and opt where to hit the hardest in extended fights. A mechanic which never fails to make firefights feel far more enjoyable than the common FPS problem of killing someone with one bullet by shooting him in the foot. With the addition of various capabilities such as the now thankfully balanced ECM, jump jets for additional manoeuvrability and flexibility with all mech designs the most advertised points are definitely very strong.

The unfortunate thing is that the design, planning and good ideas in combat is almost ruined by the matchmaking system. Online runs on an ELO rating system for planning matches and selecting players, which only works in theory and is a very strange choice for a team based game. Originally designed for one on one matches, it’s fine with teams who’ve banded together but just doesn’t work with individual players. Oh it’s been modified to supposedly account for this, but it honestly just doesn’t work and can’t account for team balance, weight balance or the possibility of greater co-ordination between other players. In fact, the system itself seems to have an adverse reaction to victories.

After you’ve been PUGing for a while here’s the sort of trend you’re going to fall into: You end up being completely steamrolled by the enemy for a good number of matches. Over time this eventually becomes less and less until you’re losing, but your side takes out almost as much of the opposing force as they do of you. Then you win a couple of matches, two or three at most, and the system promptly throws a fit. It suddenly thinks you’re a god among players and you end up being thrown against players far above your skill, and the cycle starts again. Others might have different experiences, but for myself and those I’ve spoken to playing individually, this always happens. It ends up just removing a lot of the fun from matches as they become predictable with you losing a good 85% of the time.

Unfortunately for the Mechwarrior Online, its problems don’t stop with matchmaking.

While the core basics of the game are solid, there are a few elements which work against it and other things which need to be accounted for. As it’s an MMO this is namely its friendliness to new players and future developments.

New players are thrown in at the deep end and tend to have an even harder time than other people due to the mechs they have available. Rather than models which have been bought by people and then customised to their needs, players are stuck with stock designs. These tend to have multiple weapon groups already set up, poor heat management and a good number seem to be built to try and be “Jack of all trades, master of none”. As such you tend to overheat much more, can’t specialise in what you want to do, and have a weapons set up which the tutorials don’t explain very well. The first two points do have their exceptions, mechs designs are cycled every few months to new models, but you’re almost never not going to be fighting an uphill battle with them.

Having stock, ready built mechs would be fine if you were only in games facing people with these pre-built designs but you’re not. Instead you’re thrown into matches where people will turn up with their own tweaked designs intended to rip everyone to bits, like Hero Cataphracts with three Gauss rifles. You’re just going to die a lot, even ignoring the poorly implemented matchmaking.

Even if you loathe light mechs I’d still recommend buying one just to have a fighting chance, as the few bonuses are meant to give an edge to new players don’t work. Hell, the implemented gameplay choices intended to make it easier to learn do nothing and often teach the wrong thing. Third person perspective only seems to encourage solo-play rather than co-ordinating as a group as it removes all need for spotters. Not to mention it makes jump sniping tediously easy. Throttle decay is a hindrance more than a help as it feels as if it’s taking control away from you. The only useful one is Arm-Lock for beginners as that helps getting used to aiming, but removes the ability to make precise shots meaning you’re going to want to turn it off after only a short while.

Besides that there’s the tutorials which effectively just explain the bare basics of the game. You know the barely interactive walls of text which try to ram information down your throat a-la Final Fantasy? It’s just a step about that. You’re faced with pop-up screen after pop-up screen with paragraphs of text at a time telling you what to do, then occasionally allowing you to actually act out what is stated. They feel unintuitive and you’d honestly have a better experience learning through trial and error on the testing grounds.

All of this could have been overlooked were it not for one thing: The developer. PGI seems utterly rudderless when it comes to having a focused direction, improving upon problems and above all actually catering to the audience it already has. The problems with trial mechs compared to bought ones is something which has remained unchanged throughout the entire beta. The few additions feel like steps back and when they do follow suggestions like with the tutorials it feels like a bare bones inclusion.

Many problems and balance issues go unfixed for months it seems and are often only solved via making something else unbalanced. Just for example, the Jenner was infamous for being the ubermech during months of the beta. It could cut the other two lights at the time to ribbons, had seemingly no weaknesses and thanks to lag-shielding could merrily take multiple mechs on at a time without much risk of being taken out. The only way to accurately take it out it seemed was thanks to Streak SRMS which could lock on and always hit the centre “torso” armour. This weakness was going to be removed by giving it ECM until a forum wide poll widely opposed this decision. As a result Jenners began to have some actual competition with the other light mechs, but only because they were armed with the new game breaking item ECM.

ECM turned into an “I win” button as it prevented target locks, made the mech and any allies nearby invisible, and effectively switched off enemy radar once in range. It turned the game from a tactical MOBA into a borderline Call of Duty rush-brawler as no one took LRM missiles, and light mechs couldn’t be hit by anything. Worse still, for some reason they refused to fix this game breaking problem for months. PGI only agreeing to give very minor tweaks to power and ability before eventually bringing it down to something remotely balanced.

While this isn’t how every patch, inclusion and update has gone, it’s how too many have gone and continue to go. There’s no clear direction to each decision and it feels more like the group is making things up on whims at times than following any concise plan for a finished product. Or it is taking the Star Wars: Galaxies route of ignoring its current community in a desperate attempt to draw in some new unknown audience. This has been an accusation repeatedly seen for some time, and has only gotten worse since the inclusion of a third person perspective.

PGI has repeatedly gone back on its word time and time again to the point of completely contradicting the basic outline of Mechwarrior Online when it was released, even outright lying to its players. This needs an entire article to itself to really examine, but if you’re interested in the problems on the developer side look here, and see an analysis of their response to their latest PR disaster here. For the sake of space: They are unreliable and cannot be trusted in the slightest by its own customers.

Mechwarrior Online is a good game at first glance, but the longer you look and the more you play it, the more problems become evident. For all the issues weapons currently have, fighting against mechs is the most balanced it has been in a long time and can be genuinely fun. Building and customising your down designs is definitely a fun point even given the grinding, as actively fighting other people makes it much more fun. At least when you’re getting between 80-100K per match anyway. Despite that however, there are just way too many problems in the game’s current form to properly recommend.

If you have friends who all play it or join an active House/Clan/Merc Corp then you might be able to have some fun with this one. The game is designed for teamwork and it really is the only way to properly play the title while having fun (or at least occasionally winning). Otherwise, give it a miss until PGI includes more features they promised or start to address its bigger problems.

1 comment:

  1. This is depressingly an accurate blog.
    I've been beta testing since closed beta. How I rate the game currently.
    As a FPS 7.5/10, overall fun but ECM,and other balance issues prevent a higher score.

    As a multiplayer game 4/10. You can fight with a group of 2-4 or 12 players. If you have a group of 5-11 friends they will have to play in different battles. Does this make sense? No, but it's how they decided to do it.

    As a new player friendly game 3/10. There is 1 tutorial. How to walk. For weapons systems, heat and everything else you need to search the forums or ask while fighting for your life.

    The game needs 3 months before it's ready to launch.