GDC 2012: Looking at MechWarrior’s big free-to-play return in 2012

mechwarrior-online

Infinite Game Publishing is bringing back MechWarrior in a big way for 2012 with two sharp-looking online titles, MechWarrior Online from Piranha Games and MechWarrior Tactics from Roadhouse Interactive and Acronym Games. They’re both free-to-play titles that offer vastly different experiences: the former is an action-focused first-person mech combat game that’s been built on CryEngine 3 and the latter is a turn-based strategy game playable in your browser using the Unity plug-in.

I got a chance to see both of these games in action as the doors officially opened on GDC 2012 earlier today.

MechWarrior Online

The aim in MechWarrior Online is to put players directly in the pilot’s seat of their own, highly customized mech. At the core you’re looking at a 12 versus 12 multiplayer experience, with each team broken into four mech squads, known as Lances in the MechWarrior parlance.

A standard 12v12 match in MechWarrior Online is a no-respawn affair; if your mech is destroyed, your time in the match is over. These mechs are persistent too; whether your is destroyed or simply damaged in a match, you’ll need to make sure it’s repaired once the match is over. Other modes are possible in addition to the core 12v12. Drop Ship is one example, allowing players to bring three mechs into battle; if what you’re piloting is destroyed, the next mech in your lineup gets dropped into the battle.

CryEngine 3 renders some impressive visuals for this free-to-play game. The sample battle I got to see played out against the backdrop of rolling green hills and skyscraping rock outcroppings. Players can expect to see other environments as well: icy regions, deserts, city centers and the like. More importantly, the weather conditions in a given region can have an impact on gameplay. Your overheat-prone mech is going to be able to fire its weapons more frequently in a snowy environment than it will in warmer climates.

Much attention has been put into the look of the mechs themselves, with each type having a unique design and feel. Not just from the outside either. Each mech cockpit is filled with all manner of displays and readouts, and they all update in real-time with relevant information. Much of this information is also provided by the HUD, but the in-cockpit readouts offer more detail; the tradeoff is that you’ll need to free-look around the cockpit to take them all in.

The level of detail extends to combat as well. As your own mech takes damage, screens will flicker, sparks will spurt out from panels, waves of heat will wash through the cockpit and chunks of metal will break off on the outside. You’ll see the effects of your attacks on other mechs as well, with limbs breaking off under sustained fire. This isn’t just a cosmetic thing either; shoot the the weapon-equipped arm off of an enemy mech, and that weapon will effectively be put out of commission.

The team is putting a big emphasis in the game on role warfare. You’ll earn experience for taking a heavy assault chassis into the field and scoring kills of course, but scouting around and marking potential threats or softening up distant foes in more of a support role are equally viable sources of XP. You’ll ultimately spend this XP on improving both your mech and your pilot in various ways.

For those who wish to dive deeper, Piranha is planning some elaborate community features to give players the feel that they’re fighting in a persistent future war. The calendar that we use today is still in place in the game’s 3048 setting, so there’s a sense of everything in the ongoing war unfolding in real time.

There’s no official set of required and recommended specs yet for MechWarrior Online, though Piranha acknowledges that CryEngine 3 scales well. Expect the open beta to launch this summer.

MechWarrior-Tactics

MechWarrior Tactics

Also coming later this year is MechWarrior Tactics, the product of a collaboration between Roadhouse Interactive and Acronym Games. While the focus can still be boiled down to “giant robots pounding the crap out of one another with large guns,” the moment-to-moment play is slowed down to tactical turn-based strategy that plays out in a variety of environments on a hex-based grid. It’s a bit like a tabletop strategy game, only it’s playable in any browser equipped with the Unity player plug-in.

The self-stated goal with Tactics for the two studios is to “bring intensity to the turn-based genre” by mixing cinematic elements in alongside the turn-based, stats-focused play. Multiplayer is asynchronous, so you can have multiple confrontations. There’s no limit to how many battles you can have going at any one time.

You’ll typically be watching the action unfold from an isometric perspective. There’s a notable exception to this, as you can see once all orders have been handed out during the game’s Attack Phase. The camera switches to a dynamic, cinematic perspective as the hex grid disappears and the mechs let loose with their varies weapons, as orders dictate.

The actual play should be immediately familiar to any fan of tactical turn-based strategy games. You’ll move your mechs around on the map grid, taking care to be mindful of the environments around you and potentially advantageous/disadvantages positions. Trees, for example, provide good cover, while elevated positions — some of which are only accessible to smaller mechs with jump capabilities — help players extend how much of the map is visible.

Once all move orders have been issued, the Attack Phase begins. Selecting one of your mechs and clicking on an enemy target brings up two windows: one informing you of how damaged the enemy is and the other listing the various weapons you’re able to bring to bear on that enemy.

While there’s an elaborate numbers game going on behind the scenes, players can simply look at the list of weapons and how they’re color-coded to get a sense of how effective an attack will be against the chosen target. The color coding, in descending order, goes from green to yellow to orange to red.

Of course, combat is only a portion of the play in Tactics. Gamers who enjoy obsessing over building giant robots of death and destruction will be able to get their fill in the Mech Bay. Parts can be interchanged freely between chassis’ here.

You might want to try kitting out your heavy Atlas mech in more of a ground support role, since its slow advance makes it ideal for pounding enemy forces with artillery. You could instead opt to load it down with lasers and other shorter-range weapons, relying on its thick armor to soak up enemy fire on the front lines.

Your assortment of customization options grows as you collect STACs, shorthand for Surplus Tech/Armament Container. These are essentially booster packs; you can pick them up while playing online in multiplayer, offline in a bot-filled training mode (though with much less effective gear) and in the game’s microtransaction-based store. STACs contain everything from pilots and chassis’ to heatsinks, armor, and, of course, weapons.

The idea is to constantly push players to be toying with new builds for their mechs, experimenting to find more effective combinations for completing various objectives. You can also spend real money on customizable elements like details to distinguish your mechs from others on the battlefield.

Separate from all of this is a ranking system. It’s less like the dangling carrots of the Call of Duty games and more like the community elements of Gears of War and Halo. Earning ranks in MechWarrior Tactics has zero effect on the gameplay; it’s more meant to be used as a measure of how players compare with one another.

There’s no date more specific that 2012 for Tactics right now, but it seems to be coming along well. The play probably isn’t for all players, but it’s certainly a good-looking browser-based game and it really seems to nail the core goal of bringing tabletop gaming to life in a new and interesting way. Between this and MechWarrior Online, 2012 is definitely shaping up to be a good year for fans of giant fighting robots.

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