All Systems Phenomenal

HIGH The mech combat is the best it’s been in decades.

LOW Rough edges and jumbled systems dilute the Battletech identity.

WTF What .INI file do I have to edit to get my joystick to work?!

Out of the many games that have influenced me throughout my life, a few prominent spots go to the Mechwarrior franchise. I still remember long summer days in the late ’90s spent with a sweaty hand clamped around a creaking Microsoft Sidewinder 3D Pro controller. Each twist and tilt of the stick sent my vehicle careening through battlefields of the far future, and each press of the trigger spewed laser-guided death at low-polygon enemies.

It’s been seventeen years since the last singleplayer Mechwarrior game and almost twenty-five since Mechwarrior 2 (the best-remembered entry) but it’s a welcome relief to see that Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries proves that there’s still life in these old war machines.

Indeed, stomping around in a huge robot is by far the best part of the experience. The time developer Piranha Games spent tuning and maintaining Mechwarrior Online — a competitive multiplayer title launched in 2013 — have paid off. Combat is a robust, thrilling, and uncompromisingly destructive affair.

Key to that destruction is the fact that the signature BattleMech vehicles are less like the agile, humanoid mecha of Mobile Suit Gundam or Titanfall and more like tanks that decided standing upright was the best way to fight. They move like tanks, too — this is a control experience quite unlike that of a typical first- or third-person shooter, and more in line with that found in a flight or military simulator. Players throttle their ‘Mechs up and down to manage their speed and control their weapon-festooned torso like a turret. It’s a bit strange at first, but quickly makes sense with practice.

The weapons are a highlight, pulling from a crowded stable of military sci-fi staples, with sound and visual effects turned up for maximum impact. Ballistic autocannons belch thunder, their recoil jerking a mech’s torso around and potentially spoiling one’s aim. Lasers sear the air, leaving a shimmering heat haze while setting trees and foliage in the firing line alight. My personal favorite, Particle Projection Cannons, send crackling shockwaves out from the point of impact that even cause disruptions in the in-game UI.

Learning the intricacies of the weapons and the various ‘mechs that can accommodate them forms the bulk of Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries‘ skill-building. Every ‘mech has a unique weapon layout and characteristics, and even their placement on the mech itself (such as on the arms or torso) plays a role in how they handle — arm-mounted weapons have a wider field of fire, but are more vulnerable to being targeted and taken out of commission, while torso-mounted weapons suffer less recoil and are simpler to aim. Players can expect to hop between dozens of available BattleMechs as their whims (and finances) permit. I found myself gravitating to the slower Heavy and Assault models.

There’s no shortage of combat in Mechwarrior 5 to use these weapons in. Taking a page from 2018’s BattleTech strategy game, Mechwarrior 5 incorporates a “strategic layer” structure, patterning progression after the player’s career as a mercenary. The plot is a bog-standard revenge plot after the player’s father is killed, and it just barely serves as a narrative scaffold on which to layer free-form, player-directed progression. The writing is stiff and cheesy in all the wrong ways, with one-liners from a previous, worse era of game writing and no nostalgia-inducing FMV footage backing it up.

Following the story intro and tutorials, players are set loose upon the Inner Sphere (the BattleTech fiction’s setting) and can go anywhere and do anything they’re capable of to build up their reputations as mercenaries. This is largely taking on procedurally-generated mercenary contract missions for money.

Prior to taking a mission, players can negotiate the contract in hopes of extracting a better payout, increased claims on salvaged weapons, equipment, or BattleMechs, and even “insurance” that allays the cost of repairing damaged ‘mechs after a mission. Every mission affects the player’s reputation level, and better reputations increase the available missions and negotiating power.

Contracts pull from a handful of basic mission types ranging from simplistic “Warzone” missions that task a player with killing a set number of enemies, to more complex “Assassination” assignments that require destroying specific, often challenging foes. The scenarios are easy to understand and challenge players with limited timeframes and the ever-present pressure to minimize damage in order to avoid spending all one’s earnings on post-mission repair costs. Mercenary life isn’t cheap, and it’s a clever way of reflecting that hustle.

Unfortunately, mission types are limited and repetition can set in, but most contracts are relatively short and almost always punchy. In between random contracts, a set of bespoke campaign missions unlock at specific reputation thresholds. These campaign missions will often hold the surprise objectives, narrative twists, and scripted flavor that’s missing from the procedurally generated missions.

Technical shortcomings put a damper on proceedings, as well. A number of crash bugs surfaced for me, both in the pre-release build I received and in the launch version I purchased separately. However, while bugs aren’t ideal, more concerning are issues with accessibility.

Some graphical effects (particularly lasers) lack visibility, and can be hard to see even for someone with no vision or color perception problems.

Controls are another issue, in light of the fact that Mechwarrior‘s control experience is inherently different from most contemporary action games. The game includes support for joysticks and even a variety of “HOTAS”-style flight controllers, though at the time of writing customized button mappings for some models require a complicated manual edit of the configuration files. As such, I couldn’t properly configure my own personal HOTAS (A Thrustmaster T-Flight HOTAS X) the way I liked, and ended up preferring the mouse-and-keyboard controls. Gamepads are supported, though there was no full default control scheme, meaning that key functions were not properly mapped. It’s an odd oversight and may turn off players unwilling to go above and beyond to make sure the game works for them.

Aside from these concerns, Mechwarrior 5 is admirable in its effort to revive a spirit left dormant for the better part of twenty years. With some time and patience, players will find a substantial and potentially endless mecha game to sink their teeth into.

Rating: 7.0 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Piranha Games. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game is based on a pre-release build, provided by the publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 36 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. Online multiplayer was tested. The game was completed.

Parents: At the time of writing, this game was unrated by the ESRB. However, it would likely be rated T with descriptors for Strong Language and Violence. This is an science-fiction military action game. Players control large walking tank-like vehicles in combat which can be observed from a cockpit perspective, with the player’s limbs represented operating the vehicle controls. No visible human characters are directly involved in battle, though taking weapons fire can cause shaking and sparks to affect the cockpit. Characters swear mildly in dialogue.

Colorblind Modes: The game has no colorblind modes selectable. Some laser weapons are tinted a light green or red that can blend easily into some environments or lighting conditions. Some HUD elements are represented in red without a clear way to change the color from the options menu.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue and cinematics are represented with subtitle text. There are no audio cues needed for gameplay, though the game does not show especially noticeable feedback for attacks coming from behind when in first-person view.

Remappable Controls: This game’s button controls are fully remappable, though default configurations were not set up for gamepad controls, requiring manual assignment of functions. Controllers such as joysticks and HOTAS peripherals are supported, but require manual reconfiguration.

Josh Tolentino
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