A game like MechAssault poses an interesting problem in terms of how it should be reviewed. The problem revolves around the dual nature of the game. MechAssault is a transition point in terms of console gaming, and it's a transition between a mainly single-player existence and the fairly recent addition of multiplayer action via an online connection. PC games have been forcing critics to deal with this question for quite a while, but this is a fairly new experience for console games. The question becomes what balance is given to the two experiences, and whether one or the other goes further in influencing the direction of the review. I've come to the conclusion that I can't worry too much about the balance between the two different modes of play and just try and talk about what makes up the nature of each and how that reflects on the game as a whole.
The idea behind MechAssault is fairly simple. Pilot a giant mechanized war machine. Blow stuff up. That's pretty much it, really. Those expecting a continuation of the MechWarrior series of games are likely to be disappointed, as MechAssault is seriously simplified in comparison. This is not a sim, but rather a very arcade-like take on the Battletech universe. The graphics and sound of the game are functional without being impressive, and there is little here to distinguish the game from any other next-generation title.
From a single-player perspective, the essential nature of MechAssault is, to use a word, "retro." What this means to the player depends on what exactly the player enjoys about, and expects of, videogames. Although the terrain that the player explores may initially feel open and spacious, it soon becomes obvious that the player is being herded down the same old corridors seen on pretty much every game system in existence. Grand Theft Auto, this is not—which isn't entirely bad on its own, but there are aspects of the system that drag it down.
The most jarring moment in MechAssault came when I encountered a Mech factory for the first time. I was alerted (via radio) of its existence, then set out in its general direction, intent on stopping the interplanetary terrorists from creating more war machines. Heading up a hill and into a small depression, I was waylaid by two Mechs. I dispatched them fairly easily, and was almost immediately beset by two more. Engaged at first by the dance and parry of Mech to Mech combat, I didn't figure it out until the fourth or fifth pair of Mechs. That's when I noticed there was a building, not so much bigger than the other buildings, not so much bigger than the Mechs themselveswhich begged the question why Mechs were popping out of it, synchronized to the destruction of the Mechs that had preceded them, with no end in sight.
Mechs are supposed to be the most advanced terrestrial war machine known to man. They are prestige items, impossibly technologically advanced and incredibly expensive to produce. Yet here is this building, barely larger than a Mech itself, pumping them out like fast food cheeseburgers. Not only that, but the production is visibly linked to the destruction of previously produced machines. This is not suspension of disbelief, but leaving it to hang in a tree until the smell drives everyone away.
The most annoying moment in MechAssault was when the developers tried to switch things up on me. "Let's make the player do a stealth mission," they doubtlessly said, hoping to expand the vocabulary of the game beyond being a simple shooter—which is all well and good, except that when new mechanics are introduced, it's important to make sure that the underlying game engine is capable of supporting such changes. What happened specifically is that I was presented with an enemy encampment, complete with streams of people and vehicles coming and going out of the front gate. The initial portion of the mission? Infiltrate the base while piloting a captured enemy Mech. No problem, I thought, clunking my Mech forward towards the base. Hmmm, is this the right gate to go through? Better look around. I stop the Mech and survey the area, checking out local landmarks and unexpectedly being on the receiving end of a hit-and-run. Well, more like a hit-and-explode. A small truck, part of the incoming convoy, had smashed into my Mech's left leg. Alerted to my devious, truck-blocking nature, the enemy descended en masse, smushing me like a fly on the bathroom wall. Silly me, I'd somehow expected that a truck, given warning of a few hundred yards, would be able to avoid a stationary obstacle. Do they shoot everybody who gets involved in accidents? After a brief reflection on the Bizzaro-world nature of the universe of MechAssault, I shouldered my load and began replaying the level, knowing now that I was playing something closer to Frogger than Metal Gear Solid.
Doubtlessly, some people will not care about this. It is, after all, just a videogame that's being played. What is to be expected? Perhaps if the game was presented as "just a videogame," this kind of logic would be more acceptable. But it's not. It's being presented as part of a previously existing universe and more specifically as a world with characters with interactions and motivations that at least resemble real life. So why have such clunky and obvious mechanics in the game? Because the developers are lazy about such details, and that's because as a whole, videogame players are too lazy to demand more. We can't complain about these aspects if we're willing to accept them. Unfortunately, these lapses of internal coherence mean that it is both frustrating and alienating to play the single-player portion of MechAssault, making that entire mode of play pretty much forgettable.
If there is salvation for MechAssault, it lies in the online portions of the game. After it was first released, MechAssault enjoyed a pretty-much singular existence as the lone bright spot on Xbox Live. As the service has developed, it would be expected that MechAssault would be left behind. However, MechAssault has been the beneficiary of by far the best Live support in terms of content upgrades. This means that even as the essential experience remains largely unchanged, the options available to the user have increased slowly over time, so MechAssault remains compelling even well past its sell-by-date.
And the compelling nature of the online game is thanks to the same simplicity that makes the single-player game utterly forgettable. Simple to pick up and understand, the game mechanics allow the player to concentrate on the strategies of the various online games and immerse themselves in an action-based flow. The main concern with playing online is trying to find people that make for good gaming company. As good as the game might be as an online experience, it is always going to be mediated by the other people playing. It's important to be able to find like-minded players and to develop a network of trustworthy friends online, otherwise the experience may well become frustrating.
MechAssault is the spiritual successor of the Quake series. Not just because it's primarily about shooting things, but because it is part of the abandonment of the single-player game in favor of the multi-player. A staple of the PC world, it is increasingly becoming a reality of the console one as well. The question will be how much the traditionally isolated console fans will be willing to accept this level of change in the fundamental way that games are played and produced. With any luck, developers will be able to figure out which or the other they want to do and market the game accordingly, and thus hopefully making more coherent games than the essentially confused MechAssault.