Wednesday, October 02, 2013

MechWarrior Online review (updated for October 2nd 2013)

Just for fun, I'll try to put down my 'Evaluation" of MechWarrior Online as of today. This tries to stay away from my feelings for the game, which would easily award it a perfect 10 considering simply how much fun I've been having with this for the past 14 months.

Aesthetics – 4

No doubt the 'mechs look good if you have everything maxed up and you stop for a while to look them up close, but the game and the designers decision make a solid effort to try and make it look like shit. The UI is so ugly that your pretty 'mechs are basically hidden in the store and mechlab screens, so no matter how much you paid them they are for the most part held hostage by the shitty UI. There is never a point in the game, be it in or outside of a match, where you can enjoy some fulfilling [i]'mech porn[/i]. And it doesn't help that so many maps seem to have some sort of film grain or heat distortion or fog, snow, night, or whatever else just to take away even more from the beauty of the 'mechs. And aside of the 'mechs, let's face it,  the maps are a piece of junk. Scale is fucked up, details are ridiculous (oh my eyes every time I see the little cars in River City or Crimson strait!), vegetation and trees are literally a bad joke from EQ1 times, and most importantly colours are an insult. About ten maps and not a single one that makes an effort to vibrate outside of its own washed out palette. I really would like to know what is going on here, it's like they put an effort to make sure the maps look as colourless and bland as possible. And sure I understand the need to make sure it all keeps together a certain rugged feel and it all doesn't degenerate into some crazy carnival extravaganza (after all, the 'mechs are already colourful enough), but there has to be some middle ground between HYPERBROWN and a Rainbow Brite convention. As much as I love the 'mech models, aesthetics in this game are unjustifiably terrible for a 2013 game based on the CryEngine 3, and while they make a great comeback when it comes to the actual fighting, with laser scarring 'mechs' armours and autocannon shot booming all over the place in a blaze of what would seem like real 'mech combat from the 31st century, it is simply not enough to save the day.

Gameplay - 9

Luckily, poor visuals do not impact the amazing gameplay. This is where the game shines and earns its right to be played, over and over. First of all, the gameplay is unique. There is no other game on the market that sports big giant metallic things fighting each other in slow motion with a deep layer of tactical and strategical management of your own vehicle and your team. The concept of heat and multiple weapons has always been the genius idea at the core of BattleTech, and while in MechWarrior Online this mechanic has been twisted in dubious ways to remove the dice rolls, the end result while questionable still puts a lot of emphasis on choices, choices and more choices, from the 'mechlab part where you have to conceive and build not just a 'mech that is universally considered efficient, but one that suits your needs and playstyle, on to the actual fighting part where you will have to always be aware of your heat gauge in order to avoid a dreaded self shut down which is the closest thing to self-inflicted Crowd Control and pretty much always leads to a very bad outcome. So, as I was saying, no other game on the market allows for people to test their aim in a FPS environment while at the same time having to constantly consider what weapon to shoot in a pinch (or IF you can afford to shoot at all) based on range, generated heat, size and relative speed of the target, ammo left, state of the portions of their armour based on the 'mech type and so on. This game is one of a kind and while at first look it might just appear to be some sort of 'meched-up' version of World of Tanks the two games don't really share much. Customization, horizontal progression (this is huge: every 'mech including the lightest ones pose a threat to all the other ones. So no chasing higher tiers, cause your weapons will always damage other  'mechs and you will always be dangerous, no matter how new or tiny your robot is), manual aiming mechanics, multiple weapons on a single 'mech, and most importantly different spots on the enemy vehicles to aim to based on different circumstances are what earned this game the infamous definition of "shooter for the thinking person". I jokingly prefer to call it "The first FPS in slow-motion" but that definition doesn't do it enough justice. This game hits a spot that didn't exist before in the gaming world, and while it certainly might not be for everyone, for a multitude of reason ranging from the steep learning curve to the amateurish visual department and up to the lack of features as we speak, it still managed to achieve something unique and obviously engaging enough to keep a vast community on the hook for more than a year based on its gameplay alone.

Longevity - 5

Considering the absolute lack of any persistent element in the game outside of the expansion of your 'mech stable for the sake of it, longevity should be an absolute zero. Community Warfare, a complicated mechanism that will put every single random match into the context of a large scale war with shifting fronts in the huge BattleTech lore is coming, along with the possibility for groups of players to form Merc Corps and wage war to each other in what would be a very simplified version of EVE war for territory. But this stuff has been promised more than a year ago and it is still far away in the future, so the score has to be based on what is there now. And it should be a perfect zero, but as with any game there's no objective evaluation of fun. This has been the game I've played the most in ten years and for that I should [i]subjectively[/i] give it a 10. At the same time, in what seems to be a return to the Quake deathmatch times of the 90s not everyone will find enough motivation to stick with it. While the learning curve is a challenge in itself, that pushes you to become better and feel rewarded for it, too much random Public Grouping can easily kill your progress, and even the self-assigned quest to improve your personal stats isn't made any easier when said stats are hidden somewhere on the webpage, outside of the actual client. The game(play) has legs, but in its current state there is simply not enough to do outside of racking up game after game after game of random arenas where the ELO system seems to try hard to make sure you are gonna win and lose pretty much the same amount of games over time, no matter how good you are.

Value – 7

It is a free to play game. It really is free. There is literally nothing you need to spend your money on unless you feel like it. Sure, as a non-paying customer your progression will be slowed down by about 100% as opposed to paying customers, but this doesn't change the fact that you are enjoying the full game for absolutely free and the only thing you are missing on are a few "Premium" ' mechs (here called Heroes) which are in no way better than the standards 'mechs and don't look any different from the in-game currency purchasable variants. Different yes, but better? Not really (although they provide another boost to your in-game currency earning hence speeding up your growth a bit more). So yes, considering the game is absolutely free I just can't see how this could be a negative score. PGI being a company that has to pay salaries, the game has plenty of ways for you to spend real money on it if you feel like it, but for a game with horizontal progression, where every 'mech is efficient and you can pretty much buy the one of your dreams in a couple of weeks and not need anything else ever to be more competitive I say this is a great break from games with infinite tiers of collectible tanks/planes/spaceships where you always feel that you just got owned because you are a tier or two lower than your enemy. This game's business model, at the moment, is in my opinion the best you can ask for from a free to play game. And while I think cockpit flavour items and banners are overpriced, I am not silly enough to care about them, so big 'whatever' here. I am not giving it a higher score simply because I try to balance the "value" score with the lack of general features that are haunting every other aspect of the MWO short of gameplay.

Social – ZERO

This is just the lowest, ugliest aspect of MWO. Sure, a new UI is coming and Community Warfare is coming too. This score could easily jump to a 10 in a few weeks should all the promised features make it into the game the way they have been promised. But as of now, this is a perfect ZERO. Worst UI ever, worst social interface ever, it is close to impossible to do anything with your friends unless you coordinate outside of the game. No private chat, abysmal friend list and party tools. A true disaster. Sure, this is a placeholder system, but one that should have NEVER made it to release if they didn't want to earn a zero in this department.

Polish – 4

The lack of polish is what connects all the issues mentioned so far. There isn't a single polished aspect in this game. Even the celebrated combat part feels so raw polish-wise when you see 'mechs rubberbanding into each other due to a disabled (because buggy) collision mechanic, or when your weapons fail to reach a target stopped mid-air by the invisible corner of a terrain texture, or when hits clearly on target don't register due to a wonky netcode (this has been in fairness greatly improved and almost eliminated recently), or your giant warmachine struggles to climb a 3 feet step or gets hindered by a negligible bump in the terrain. Outside of the combat NOTHING is polished, the interface is a placeholder mess but it seriously looks like something that wouldn't have been that good even in 2002, and everywhere there are signs of what is clearly a project that started small and had to build on top of unstable code in order to keep pushing forward. While many things are about to be dramatically improved, there is no way to say when this will happen and what will happen, so the score for polish as of now can't be any good.

Innovation – 9

This isn't so apparent at first. But as I said before this game managed to do something that hasn't been done before (that I know of), not in an online game anyway. Introducing simple but effective mechanics borrowed from the tabletop game to create a slow-paced while still skill-based gameplay with lots of room for solo and team based tactical and strategic decisions are what set this game apart from anything else more than the giant robots setting. Having different weapons with really different mechanics is just icing on the cake, and for once a game of this kind deserves an additional mention for having found a way to implement a defense-mechanic which heavily relies on positioning instead of pressing a button (or none at all). Maybe 'innovation' isn't the right word as this game will probably never set a trend, but at the same time there's a need to acknowledge its peculiarities which offer us a new and unique breed of FPS. It might not be everyone's favourite, but there's no denying its gameplay is truly unique and for that the game deserves the highest praise.


The countless flaws of a project that started with an odd lack of talent in many departments and a shortage of money don't overshadow the goodness of the gameplay itself which would shine even if it wasn't for the everly charming giant stompy robots. Having nailed the difficult part down, the actual combat, there is no doubt PGI can improve everything else and eventually bring this game up where it deserves to be, but it is undeniable that they have strained everyone's patience to the limit through bad communication and endless delays. Evaluating only the present state and not what the game could be or become, what we have here is a niche gem with all the problems and issues of 'specialist' games, the shortcomings of unstable software houses and uneven development teams, but with a solid, unique and rewarding core game that is just too engaging and one-of-its-kind to be passed on. Obviously not for everyone, in the rubble of a messy product there's something that didn't exist before which creates a itch that can't be scratched in any other way. It deserves to be tried and have copious amount of slack cut for a good dozen of matches to see if, flaws or not, this is that game you've been looking for for years but couldn't find anywhere.


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