MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries Review
Conquering intergalactic battlefields at the head of your own mech mercenary company
A good chunk of my history dissertation discussed the ascension of mercenary companies in late medieval Italy. When researching this topic, I discovered a whole host of very peculiar characters, and their conduct in times of strife, that made for very engaging reading. By the time I was done with the subject, I remember thinking that mercenary life would make for an enthralling thematic setting. It blends action with adventure, it can be used to introduce a strategic dimension to a title (via the management of the company) and allows for an exploration of morality by placing the player in ambiguous situations. MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries takes this theme and catapults you 1000 years in the future, in a human colonised universe torn by factional warfare. With it, Piranha Games has created a fun first/third person shooter in an engaging narrative universe. However, I did find that there are certain elements (primarily to the campaign) which could use some work.
MW 5 is set in 3015. It has been many centuries since humanity had first taken to the stars, having colonized by then an enormous network of systems and planets (the Inner Sphere). Because of the great distances between systems, governance of the Inner Sphere would consolidate around five Great Houses. These aristocratic dynasties would come to control (or influence) states with significant cultural, political and economic differences. The universe did see a period of great unity and stability, a sort a ‘pax galactica’ if you will, where the ‘Inner Sphere’ was governed through a single political entity (the Star League) with the support of the Great Houses. But this is just a relatively short parenthesis, the millennium since our time has been mostly characterized by war and destruction. These conflicts, especially after the fall of the Star League, are focused around the power struggle between the Great Houses for universal hegemony. Battles are fought primarily through the use of large robotic war machines, mechs, which have become commonplace since the 25th century. It is in such a backdrop that we see the rise of MechWarriors and their pilot mercenaries.
The game is playable in one of two modes: instant action and campaign. For the former, the name says it all. Instant action are customisable battles which simulate a mission in the campaign that can be played cooperatively with three other players. You get to set the type of mode, the biome and customize your mech - then immediately load into the battlefield. When selecting a loadout, you can equip any of the 50 mech chassis in the game. Most mech classes also come with numerous ‘variations’, each allowing for a different weapon layout on a chassis. This is a great way to try out mechs which are available only towards the later phases of the campaign (their availability limited because of lore reasons). This mode also taught me what weapons/mechs I should look out for in the marketplace and on the battlefield during the campaign. Though instant action is fun for a bit, the lack of any meaningful progression and actual stakes (i.e. these are contained skirmishes where you don’t risk losing mech, pilots or progress) makes it a bit dull after a while. Perhaps a sort of survival mode might have given players a more involving experience.
The real meat of the game is in the campaign. You play as Mason, a young MechWarrior, who inherits command of a mercenary company. After a certain ‘incident’, you are thrust into a war-torn universe in which you both seek vengeance while making a name for your company and yourself. During the arc of 34 years, your efforts will take you around an enormous universe - selling your services to various factions while building up your elite squad of mech and pilots. The rich and evolving lore of the universe, filled with interesting factions and character, generally comes through with this storyline. Though not always conveyed in interactive ways (sometimes you learn it via blocks of text rather than by playing missions, voiced narration or in-game dialogue), it has usually kept me invested. This said, I do sometimes wish that my actions had a more evident impact on the universe. For example, when fulfilling a contract to aid the invasion of one faction on the system of another, I wish that my successful execution would shift the borders of the universe map. Instead, most changes seem to be locked on rails, occurring automatically as the player moves forward time (by completing missions or advancing time manually).
What is great about the campaign is that it can be fully experienced in co-op. Up to 4 players can take on the story arc, with the host taking on the role of Mason and the three remaining players replacing the AI pilots of your lance. Though this system means that the progress (and the save file) are on the host’s side only, this is a more than adequate compromise to allow players to experience the core game mode with friends.
There are two main portions to the campaign’s gameplay: the company’s management and the battles. Of these, the first portion has left me with some mixed opinions. Not because in its whole it is a bad system. Actually, I did find that, when considered in its completeness, it is more than satisfactory in simulating the dynamics of a futuristic mercenary company. Nonetheless, there are individual components to the company management which feel underdeveloped.
One of the weaker elements is the pilot roster and management. The player can hire as many pilots as he wants to keep on his payroll (paid every 90 days) and can bring up to three of them in each mission. All pilots have the same six passive skills (ballistic damage, laser damage, missile damage, shielding, heat management, evasion) which are levelled up as they participate in battles. The only thing that differs between pilots is the cap for each of these abilities. These maximum thresholds are randomly generated and are set in stone. There is no room for development after they have been maxed out. While I understand the developers wanted to keep the RPG side of things light, this system is too simplistic. Players are ultimately encouraged to replace long-time employees with new pilots simply on the basis that the latter have a higher ‘Skill’ rating. The prospect of better performance in the long run of your squad-mates is your main and only directive to pilot selection. I feel that some sort of ‘squad chemistry’ or a series of positive/negative/neutral character traits might give some weight to your roster choices.
Pilot development as well feels stale and uncontrolled. All you get to see is a series of green bars which slowly and automatically go up in the after-battle report. Perhaps, taking a page from XCOM or Battle Brothers, having some sort of training field or random events between missions regarding character skills might make this system more interactive for the player. It would also be nice to have indicators which show you exactly how a pilot influences the stats of its equipped mech. I’ve never felt able to make a truly informed choice when having to decide which pilot gets which mech.
When it comes to your company’s movement throughout the universe, there is a very straightforward meta-game to it. There are two main types of areas of interest on the starmap: conflict zones and industrial hubs. The former zones consist of groups of systems in which active fighting is taking place. Here is where you can find contracts to fulfil. Depending on the positions of these areas, the nature of your mission (in story terms) will drastically change. If operating in the inner regions of a faction’s territory, you’ll be asked to suppress insurgents and pirates. When on the border with other factions, you might have to take hostile actions against other major powers (potentially hurting your negotiating position with a future employer). An important aspect to conflict zone is that mech repair costs/times as well as item prices are heavily inflated (sometimes to crippling heights). Industrial hubs instead are groups of well-stocked systems where you can purchase chassis and components at decent rates. You can also hire pilots here and repair your mechs at a normal price. Considering that jumping between systems costs a whopping 50,000 credit per system, your main directive is to plan a cost-efficient itinerary. These will be routes which allow you to take on several contracts while also leading you through industrial hubs where you can repair heavily battered mech and spend your hard-earned credits. There are also further layers to your travel planning. Should you stick to zones where you have high relations with an employer who will pay you a greater bounty? Or should you venture out to work for multiple employers (who only with time will start paying you more)? Should you travel to isolated, high reputation conflict zones and risk your team in difficult contracts? Or should you stick with the “big fish, small pond” mentality in low rep areas? Overall, this design - though simple - has sufficient depth to it.
Mech customization is arguably the most developed and interesting aspect to company management. Players are given a good degree of control over their loadout and considerable variation in equipment. You can customize a mech’s armament, the armour plating on each of its body components, ammo carried for weapons, and amount of heat dissipation. All of these changes must occur within the tonnage cap allowed by each chassis. As well, each mech variation has specific weapon slots which temper overall player choice. Sometimes then you’ll be unable to equip weapons of specific dimensions or of a particular class. Through such customization, you can have a noticeable (but not always recommendable) impact on the playstyle or performance of a mech. For example, you can make the light ‘Raven’ chassis (a close-quarter brawler type) into a very fast sniper by stripping it of armour, renouncing some of its weapons, and equipping the long-range AC-2 ballistic weapons.
The “weapon grouping” function can also be used to change how a mech plays. All individual weapons on a mech can be assigned to one of six fire-groups. By assigning all weapons to a single group, a player could give their mech a supernova heavy attack which causes massive damage but sends your mech on the verge of overheating (therefore lowering drastically its fire rate). Or, if reasonable, a player can divide the weapons in smaller groupings that allow for greater sustained fire. All in all, making these choices is the best aspect to running your company. But a note of warning; by default, the first two fire groups are assigned to your mouse buttons, the remaining four to your keyboard. Managing the four on the keyboard can sometimes become a bit hectic as it requires you to move your fingers from the movement keys. A mouse with side buttons makes fire-group management far more reasonable.
When it comes to battles, all are first preceded by contract negotiations. All contracts have a base pay-out, rewarded regardless of outcome, and come with a couple of salvage shares (a resource you use to claim salvaged enemy equipment from the battlefield). Depending on your company’s standing with your employer, you are given ‘negotiation points’ with which to influence the terms of the contract. These can be spent on three clauses: to increase total pay-out, to increase your salvage shares (potentially allowing you to retrieve an entire mech chassis), and to add insurance coverage on your mech up to a certain amount of damage. This system is very ‘concise’ - it gets the job done with few components to it. I do however think that there was room to implement a greater number of interactions to contract negotiations. For example, the possibility to waive your fees to nurture your relationship with a faction.
Story wise, all contracts have a nice caption to them that help you contextualize your actions. These are sometimes supplemented by a few voice lines spoken by characters once you load into the mission. However, the contracts don’t play all that different. There are five possible types - raid, demolition, assassination, defence, warzone. There is technically a sixth type, multiple mission operation, which chains the five just mentioned and has you undertake these immediately (meaning that you can’t repair mechs in between battles). Though fun for a bit, after a while it becomes repetitive, with similar missions in different biomes. This is not helped by the fact that many entities in a mission seem to repeat themselves across contracts. The structures you destroy feel identical and generic (i.e. with little difference across the various factions). The same goes for the legions of the small land vehicles which enemies send forward as cannon fodder. Despite having a universe with such character, MechWarrior 5 does not always manage to convey it through its battle gameplay.
If you get over the repetitive nature of most missions, the game takes a turn for the best when it comes to the combat. Mechs, in this universe, are not an extension of infantry combat. They don’t have that sort of agility they do in a game like Titanfall. These are hulking machines and even the lightest of chassis has very mechanical movements and machinations. What you may then lose in fluidity of movement/action, you gain in the ‘weight’ to your mech’s actions. You get to fight in a variety of well-rendered intergalactic biomes, ranging from typical ones (like urban, mountain and desert environments) to more futuristic ones (on molten or sulphurous landscapes). Weapons are accompanied by powerful and detailed visuals, with laser weapons scorching both mechs and the ground (if you miss) while ballistic ones causing massive explosions. These weapons, and the mechs’ movement, are further accompanied by a sound design which really conveys their devastating impact. Friendly and enemy mechs, when damaged, will also experience the progressive destruction of their components. You’ll witness mechs losing arms and legs, armours which are charred to a crisp or are sending sparks everywhere, and core explosions of devastating impact. The procedural generation for each level, which manages to implement verticality in an impressive way, also tends to create very scenic situations. This one time, while navigating through a glacial canyon with entrances in all four cardinal directions, my lance got swarmed by enemies. We had to fight shoulder to shoulder, our movements limited by the canyon’s walls, fending off countless vehicles and mechs. It was epic, a sort of future day battle of Thermopylae.
Another strength of the combat is the diversity in playstyle which comes with each chassis. All different mechs play (or can sometimes be made to play, through customization) in a particular way. You have your close quarter flyweight mechs who zoom around the enemy taking them out piece by piece (i.e. the COM-2D). Or you can purchase a ‘Catapult’ A1 mechs which, thanks to its two large missile weapon slots, can act as a long-range artillery piece. Unfortunately, this variety is hard to showcase unless you are playing multiplayer. When playing with the AI, the simplistic command system (i.e. attack my target, follow, stay, hold/fire weapons) which uses the player’s mech as an anchor point makes it impossible to exploit the tactical potential of each mech. Most of the time you’ll end up having the AI follow you closely, engaging whatever enemy you are shooting at.
The game is at its best when you engage in some mech on mech combat. This is when you get the most scenic, challenging and intense gameplay. Despite this, the game will keep throwing turrets and small vehicles at you (helicopters, tanks, and missile launching APCs) which make the fighting boring and grindy. They are frustrating distractions from the main focus of the game. Fighting them feels like farming minions in a MOBA. It a numbing task which nobody wants to do but you have to if you want to be successful. Honestly, it just made me wish there was some sort of fielded battle contract where you get to fight only an enemy mech company instead of droves of these superfluous enemies.
I ultimately had a fun time with MechWarrior 5. It felt a bit like a Michael Bay movie. A flashy game with cool action that manages to keep you entertained but lacks in depth throughout. Depth which is particularly absent in places (such as in the company’s management or battle command system) where the MW 5 could have gained meaningful tactical or strategic dimensions to it. There were also moments when the repetitive gameplay got unbearable. Other times, however, the intensity of battles, the progression of the story and the variety in mechs and playstyles kept me hooked and playing for hours. It is at times a game which lives up to its long legacy, but also falls a bit short.