Once the King of PC Gaming, MechWarrior is Now the Big Stompy Ghost of a Bygone Era

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It’s easy to forget how big MechWarrior 2 was when it first lumbered on to the scene back in 1995. It earned plaudits for its realism; won multiple awards, and was generally considered a major showcase for the platform. It was big enough that Microsoft actually went ahead and acquired its developer a few years later .

It was a different time, honestly. It was a period when flight sims still did big business, and joysticks weren’t quite the barrier to entry they are now. PC gaming still attracts its share of hardcore grognards, but its traditional genres are more niche now. MechWarrior 5 would have made a titanic splash in 1995, but as it’s now 2019, its arrival has barely made a ripple outside of hardcore gaming forums.

I still care though. As USgamer’s resident mech fan, I offered to take on MechWarrior 5, even knowing that my five-year-old PC was barely up to the task. I still have fond memories of those gouraud-shaded landscapes and massive, highly-customizable robots. You could practically smell the oil and feel the grind of the gears as you stomped around the battlefield in those games, such was its attention to detail.

Ah, that’s the stuff. | Abandonware

It’s immediately obvious that MechWarrior 5 is meant to hearken back to those days. Every mech has multiple weapons racks, on which you can load autocannons, lasers, and missiles. You can target individual parts on enemy units, and you still have to keep a close eye on your hear gauge. The first time I fired my cannon and blew a chunk out of a nearby office building, I cackled. This is what driving a mech is all about, I thought.

To my relief, it ran passably well on my i5 PC with its AMD R9 280X video card after grabbing the latest video drivers. I’ve seen complaints that it’s poorly optimized in some forums, and it was indeed pretty slow and glitchy on the Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti I had in another computer, but it was at least playable on my main rig. I hopped into Instant Action, a mode featuring some pre-generated objectives and a full list of mechs, and soon enough got to shooting.

Combat in MechWarrior 5 is slower and more tactical than the bulk of vehicle action games. You’ll throttle up and rumble forward continuously, at which point you can turn your torso and fire at passing enemies. Because you aren’t particularly agile, and a big target to boot, it’s often best to grab the high ground and engage enemies individually. Helicopters and tanks will buzz angrily, missiles will rain the sky, and if you take enough damage, you can start to lose limbs.

In that regard, MechWarrior 5 can be quite unforgiving. In the campaign mode, in which you play the son of a veteran pilot who is broke and on the run, repair and travel costs can get so prohibitive that you have to reload your game. And the missions are hard. After just a few hours, you will find yourself swarmed, barely able to stay alive let alone complete your objective.

Like BattleTech, the Harebrained Schemes tactical game set in the same universe, MechWarrior 5 is meant to reflect the harsh realities of being a mercenary. Factions will play you off against their foes, and supporting one will invariably mean angering another. Combat zones will send repair costs through the roof. You will have to grind, grind, and grind some more in order to build up the capital to truly thrive.

It’s the sort of experience that requires the sort of patience that many people just don’t have anymore. Add in questionable A.I., weird unit spawning behavior, and limited map variety, and you have a game that’s unlikely to appeal to anyone outside of a very specific audience. It barely even has multiplayer, offering only basic co-op through its Instant Action mode.

Still, it occurred to me that I hadn’t had the specific experience that MechWarrior 5 offers in probably more than a decade. Yeah, Elite Dangerous exists, but it’s mostly about exploration and being a space trucker. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw was released earlier this year, and it hits at many of the same elements that make MechWarrior unique, but flying a starship is still a bit different than piloting a mech. It made me sad to realize how rare action sims like MechWarrior are these days. Even TIE Fighter, which I would put in a similar bucket, just can’t seem to catch a break. We’re a long way from the days when Capcom put out a full-size mech controller with a big red self-destruct button.

Destructive environments really make accentuate the action in MechWarrior 5. | Piranha Games

We didn’t know it yet, but MechWarrior 2 was the beginning of the end for that particular flavor of gaming. When MechWarrior 3 disappointed in 1999, observers were forced to wonder if the era of the simulator was dead. First-person shooters were fully established by then; consoles and PCs were becoming more and more indistinguishable, and legacy genres were falling by the wayside. Microsoft wound up shutting down FASA Interactive in 2007—less than a decade after acquiring the company.

Things have shifted in recent years to where we either get extremely dense simulators, or we get flatout arcade experiences like Battlefront 2’s starfighter mode. MechWarrior 5 skews more toward the former than the latter, but it’s still a surprisingly accessible, action-oriented sim that I was able to largely master after one tutorial mission. Its mixture of sim elements and action is what I want to see more of on PC.

Beyond that, MechWarrior is a legacy series that hearkens back to the heyday of PC sims, and still sparks a great deal of nostalgia in people of a certain age. I happen to be one of those people.

MechWarrior 5 has seen mixed reviews, and the hype on social media and elsewhere has been non-existent, even with little else to play. It seems unlikely to break out in the same way as BattleTech. I’m rooting for it though. There’s something about literally walking through a building to melt enemy mechs that still speaks deeply to my soul. I hope we get more games like it.

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