Hands-on with MechWarrior Online: My life as a Jenner pilot
Piloting a Mech shouldn’t feel like controlling a soldier in a war game, and it sure as hell shouldn’t feel like driving a tank. I’ve spent a number of hours playing the closed beta of MechWarrior Online and the game succeeds in making it feel like you’re strapped into a walking death machine. You don’t walk forward, you increase or decrease your throttle. You can turn the entirety of your Mech, and also twist on your torso to fire to either side while moving forward. Mechs aren’t easy to pilot, and you can expect a multi-hour learning curve while you get the hang of everything your ride can do. MechWarrior Online is an intense, often scary experience, and the best pilots will be the ones who can keep their heads clear during intense engagements. There's much to keep straight; this isn't a game aimed at casual action gamers.
How this is different
We’re used to playing competitive games where it’s easy to kill your opponent if you surprise them and have the advantage of a better position. There are no “easy” kills in MechWarrior Online; every Mech goes down hard and is able to take a beating. Even the smallest Jenner can present a threat to a larger Mech in the right situation. It’s hard to do well when playing with a team you don’t know, but set up a TeamSpeak server and start planning and you can dominate the battlefield. Getting a kill is often the matter of having one player spot an enemy at range while another rains munitions down on the target from across the map. Or you can find an enemy Mech away from his pack of friends, and focus your fire on them until they fall. It’s not just a matter of taking down your target, you have to make sure they don’t do so much damage to you during the fight that you’re ineffective for the rest of the round. Fighting well isn't a matter of doing the maximum amount of damage in the shortest amount of time, that would be too simple. The secret to success is to manage your heat. Everything you do causes your Mech's temperate to rise, and if you don't pay close attention you can find yourself overheating on the battlefield, which is often a fatal mistake. Knowing when it's safe to fire your weapons and how many times you can fire is critical, and there is a grid on the lower right hand section of the screen that lists all the weapons attached to your Mech. You can link up a series of weapons so that your left mouse button fires all your lasers at a time for maximum damage but also maximum heat gain, or you can split your laser banks into two groups of two in order to harass your targets while still managing your heat. Being smart about your weapon configuration and knowing just how much room you have in your heat gauge becomes second nature in time, but it does take time.The map is a grid, and each enemy Mech is assigned a letter, and you're going to have to learn what each class of Mech looks like at a glance. “Go to D7, there is a Jenner and an Atlas,” a teammate may tell you. “Focus your fire on Beta.” That's all you need to know: a light and a heavy Mech are at a specific place on the map, and everyone is attacking the Mech designated “B.” This isn't a game where voice chat is a nice thing to have, it's absolutely mandatory. If you can't let everyone know where their fire should go and move the lance as a unit you're going to be toasted. During one match I simply throttled up to maximum, ran headlong into the enemy Jenner, and knocked them over. “Take your shots!” I told my team mates, and they all opened fire on the fallen Mech. It's not exactly sporting but screw it, only one of us got up. That's a good outcome. I've always loved speed in a Mech, and piloting a Jenner again feels amazing. Running rings around the big boys, calling out targets for LRM (long-range missile) bombardment, and going deep behind enemy lines to report on enemy location while dodging laser fire is something close to bliss. MechWarrior Online is a free-to-play game, and I'm still trying to understand the different forms of experience and virtual currency you earn and use to upgrade your pilot and Mech, but the play itself is exactly what you want it to be. Even the few available levels in the closed beta change the flow of battle, as the frozen level allows you to be more free with your fire while the hotter level makes fire much more sporadic. Balancing your weapons, speed, team, and heat all at once is a hard job, but when you have everything dialed in and get off a clean kill it feels like nothing else in gaming. There will be an open beta soon, and we'll dig into the economy and upgrade paths then, but for now I can report that MechWarrior Online is fun, tactical, and difficult. You wouldn't want it any other way. All of the Mechs