Friday , July 10 2020

Videogame Review: ‘MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries’

As I settled into the world of MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries I swiftly cycled through many different feelings and opinions. The game itself is a bit of a dichotomy to me, with parts brilliant and basic conflicting with each other.

The story, despite being part of an incredibly deep and rich universe, is generic and frankly boring. The main protagonist is, get this, the son of a prominent commander of a BattleMech Mercenary unit. His father is killed in a brutal ambush, and without reservation he is appointed leader of the unit.

There is no depth to this character, nothing aside from the fact we are told he is a good commander. The fact that he is yet another white male protagonist gets this white male reviewer severely annoyed. I had a great talk with Loukia Kyriakidou at MIGS this year and bemoaned this continuing and uninteresting trend with her.

That simple aspect aside, the story follows the typical beats of any generic action game. Mentor and godlike authority figure dies and young progeny takes over determined to avenge him. Of course there are larger things afoot, this is the messy Battletech Universe, but I just wish they tried harder in the setup.

The story itself also takes a lot of time to get rolling, with a lot of reputation grind needed before the story beats kick in again. I think some small story nods during the grind aspects could have been really cool. In this game I was able to walk around and chat with people in my ship, but only at the most basic of levels. That could have been expanded.

The story, though, is just the window dressing to get us into huge lumbering Battlemechs and start raining hell on whatever crosses our path. In that respect MechWarrior 5 does a fine job of delivering a very visceral if somewhat repetitive experience.

The core gameplay revolves around first accepting contracts in conflict zones and then engaging in story or quest missions. These all kind of blend together as they all follow the same patterns and mission structures, but at times they’re loaded with story moments and the occasional cinematic.

Generally, contracts will be to assassinate enemies, destroy bases or structures, or stop enemies from controlling certain areas. There is a fairly large variety of mission types but eventually they amount to hunting down enemies or destroying as much as possible.

This is not a bad thing, as the environments and carnage can get incredibly interesting. What I did find fairly quickly is how patterns continually emerge when you’re not in scripted story missions.

First we land and then head towards the objective. Inevitably, forward units, who are incredibly over matched by my BattleMechs, attack in ones and twos. If I’m attacking a base or defended site, there will be stiff competition and defenses, but really no coordinated attacks.

Story missions and to a lesser extent quest missions fare much better, with diverse objectives and special requirements that add much-needed variety to the day-to-day action. Environmental conditions sometimes creep up, which add much needed variety to the action and would have been appreciated sooner.

This is when interesting choices and targets often present themselves, with much better challenges, as the developer, Piranha Games, worked at these scenarios instead of generating them with algorithms. The contracts serve a purpose – to add reputation and much-needed money – but the more developed missions are where the combat gets truly fun.

What I did find interesting is the, well, mercenary aspect of all the missions. If the task is to destroy a base or kill a commander then the mission can end once that’s done. There’s simply no need to mop up any stragglers, and frankly it’s a waste of precious resources.

Speaking of resources leads me to my favorite part of MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries which is actually the part where I ran and maintained the company. This deep and complex set of systems became the part of the game I obsessed over.

I was always concerned about resources – my pool of BattleMechs and able-bodied pilots. Did I have enough weapons to replace damaged ones, new ‘Mechs to replace inferior models, and pilots kept healthy as they gained levels?

The ability to completely strip and re-outfit BattleMechs as well as customize and paint them took many, many cycles of time from me. But it was all worth it when I saw a full pod of hulking death machines ready to deploy and destroy.

That is, until the missions actually start, and the AI-controlled members of my squad seemingly ignore basic rules like to protect civilian buildings or stay behind and fight when outnumbered. Sure, I can issue basic orders to try and corral the squad, but why the hell do these idiots trample over bases we are supposed to protect?

This issue, as well as odd spikes and drops in the difficulty of the game, severely pulled me out of enjoying my time in MechWarrior 5 over and over again. The missions are way to hard to do solo, so additional pilots are needed, and I am not a huge fan of playing with randos, so bad AI partners had to do.

I can say that they at least kill their fair share of enemies. Though they do so without any seemingly logical prioritization matrices, at least they cause damage. I’m severely hoping the developer continues to patch that aspect (especially how they act in friendly bases) because it’s a big glaring weak spot in the game.

I should mention that MechWarrior 5 has a full co-op mode for up to four players in both Instant Action mode and Campaign mode post Act 1. Instant Action is pre-determined scenarios, but if I chose I could have hosted a session and had players join me as I ran through my campaign. I did not explore this since, as mentioned, I dislike random players joining me.

Visually this game falls in that odd area for an AA game, beautiful but flawed. The graphics seem dated yet modern all at the same time. The BatteMechs uniformly look amazing and move incredibly well, but the environments belong in a PS3-era game, with tanks and buildings not up to the glory of the ‘Mechs.

Graphics truly are not everything, and, some anomalies aside, the action in MechWarrior 5 is smooth and satisfying even if at times the weight of the BattleMechs feels off. The explosions and chaos feel somewhat disconnected, but still satisfying.

Have a look at some gameplay I captured focusing on systems as well as customization and repairs on top of battles in contract missions. It should give you a great sense of what the game feels like, warts and all.

As you read through my thoughts it may seem like MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is not enjoyable, but it actually can be if some expectations are put aside and the game is experienced in a particular manner.

I initially entered the game looking for a spacefaring romp as a BattleMech-armed Mercenary captain of death, writing my name across the cosmos. The story itself failed to pull me into that mythos, but through building the Mercenary group (which I dubbed Legion of Manetheren), customizing and developing my pilots and ‘Mechs, and building a treasure trove of credits, I felt closer to it at least.

The story and main protagonist are wasted opportunities, the generated missions are repetitive, and the AI can be atrocious, but you know what? The game can be damn fun. This is an example of a title delivering when you dig into the systems and just enjoy what the developer poured into the meat of the game. In my case that was enough for me to enjoy my time in MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries.

About Michael Prince

A longtime video game fan starting from simple games on the Atari 2600 to newer titles on a bleeding edge PC I play everything I can get my hands on.

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