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MechAssault Review
game: MechAssault
four star
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Microsoft
date posted: 09:10 AM Sun Dec 22nd, 2002
last revision: 05:53 AM Fri Sep 23rd, 2005

Since Battletech was first released as a pen-and-paper game, legions of fans have become familiar with the politics, intrigue, social strife, and, perhaps most importantly the \'Mechs of the Inner Sphere. Battletech kicked things off as a tabletop strategic battle game ? sort of like a really complicated game of chess. FASA Studio, now one and the same as Microsoft, but back then an independent pen-and-paper game publisher from Chicago, cranked out a series of add-on games including the wildly popular MechWarrior, which gave Battletech an RPG spin. With the addition of MechWarrior, Battletech players gained tangible reasons for waging their tabletop wars, and gamers ate it up. Battletech has seen a whole library of books published, most of which fill in the details of a future history in which the galctic federation has fractured and mutated into a Romanesque empire threatened by outsiders, freedom fighters, rebels, and mercenaries, not to mention internal political strife. Battletech happens in the 31st Century, and it\'s interesting for a wide variety of reasons. From the fetishized BattleMech culture, fans who memorize every technical specification and spend weeks hunkered over miniature replicas of their destructive robots, to the hardcore MechWarrior fans, who spend hours and hours memorizing insignia, histories, and the intricacies of a fictional system of social striafication, Battletech inspires allegiance and devotion.

As with any popular subculture, the Battletech and MechWarrior worlds have been developed, re-developed, enhanced, re-enhanced, and generally made very complicated. Battletech games are seen as early as 1988 on the Amiga, Commodore 64, and in arcades. FASA Studios in Chicago unveiled their famous Battletech simulators early on, creating a scenic destination for early BattleTech fanatics. Since MechWarrior for the PC first debuted in 1992, the franchise has seen a lot of action in the videogame world. MechWarrior was released for Super Nintendo, but it hasn\'t been since the 1997 release of MechWarrior 2 for PlayStation and Saturn that we\'ve seen a Battletech title on the console system. This makes since for a couple of reasons, not the least of which being that Battletech is a complicated game. On the PC, gamers can take advantage of their joystick, keyboard and mouse to facilitate all kinds of complexity, better simulating the board game and the imagined difficulty of actually driving a \'Mech as well as including roleplaying elements to round out the storylines. Add in the more robust technical specs PCs can often lay claim to, as well as online multiplayer and mission pack updates, and you\'ve got yourself a hit PC game series, which is exactly what MechWarrior is. In a MechWarrior game, you get to simulate not just the action, but the life of a \'Mech driving soldier in a dark future of intergalactic strife.

That\'s all fine and dandy, but after awhile gamers became nostalgic for the simple joy of commanding a battlefield full of 90 ton metal monsters, focusing on strategy over reflex, which is really what the Battletech board game was all about in the first place. To fill in that gap, Microsoft offered us MechCommander, and it was good. In Battletech it wasn\'t all about managing your heat and ammo usage ? it was also about getting high ground, using cover effectively, flanking enemy lances, and a lot more strategic and tactical elements. MechCommander allowed gamers to focus on that element of the Battletech universe without all the worry of actually controlling the cockpit.

The MechWarrior and MechCommander games represent two distinct takes on the Battletech universe in an effort to bring it into the videogame medium. Now, Microsoft adds a third take on things: MechAssault. MechAssault is a vision of the BattleTech universe tailored to the Xbox console. This year we\'ve seen a wide spectrum of big robot games, from innovative titles like Robot Alchemic Drive to \"realistic\" simulators like Steel Battallion, there is no shortage of games. MechAssault fits somewhere in the middle. The focus of the game is definitely not on the story, as in Robotech: Battlecry, and the play of the game is not focused on complexity, as with Steel Battallion. In fact, the focus of MechAssault is probably most appropriately summed up as this: online multiplayer.

MechAssault does away with the roleplaying elements of MechWarrior almost altogether. There is a 20 mission single player story mode, which is robust for this kind of game, and throughout it you\'ll gain control of 20 big \'Mechs, which is certainly more variety than present in most other big robot games. The story mode is not bad: You\'re a MechWarrior in Wolf\'s Dragoons, a mercenary group who lands on the planet Helios in time to confront a cult of techno-zealots called the Word of Blake. The Word of Blake proves to be stiff competition, and the single player missions can be quite difficult, but the variety of missions, goals and techniques with which you are presented keeps you interested and moving ahead. In addition, you practice and hone skills that will pay off in multiplayer games.

One of the first things you notice in MechAssault is the graphical quality. This game looks really pretty. Many of the levels feature ambient effects such as steam, snow, dust storms, etc., and they all look super. The snow levels, especially, create a weird, calm feel, with muffled sound and lingering footprints. Textures are excellent, and the level design is great. In most missions, there are several ways you can choose to attack the task ? storm in with a heavy \'Mech or sneak around the back way with an agile \'Mech? The choice is often yours, which is nice not only because it adds variety to the missions, but also because it showcases the talents of the various \'Mechs. And any Battletech fan will tell you that variety is the spice of life when it comes to \'Mechs.

Driving around big war machines is, of course, all about destruction. Weapon effects are rendered beautifully. The \'Mechs all look really, really great, and things like explosions, muzzle flash, and smoke are rendered beautifully. Lighting effects glisten and spark on the screen, making charged PPC blasts devastatingly beautiful in addition to the regular kind of devastating. Missles take off with that surreal missle look, floating out of their launchers and trailed by a dynamic cloud of smoke. Just watching the destruction happen can keep you entertained for hours. And then you can blow up the environments, too. There are plenty of destructible elements in the landscape, from rock bridges and outcroppings to buildings, bases and entire cities. Fighting a \'Mech who just happens to be standing downhill from a giant boulder? Blow that boulder to bits and it will reign down some serious damage on your foe. Enemy \'Mech standing too close to the power station? Take it out, and you\'ll take him out, too. Little \'Mechs sniping you from the skyscrapers in River City? Bring those suckers down and then shoot them while they\'re trying to stand up. The destructible environments add a whole other level of strategy and technique to MechAssault, and when there\'s nothing else to do, blowing up buildings is just fun. In some of the nighttime levels the buildings are lit up until you shoot a rocket into them. At that point the lights flicker and everything goes dark ? if that\'s not paying attnetion to detail, I don\'t know what is.

The second thing you\'ll notice in MechAssault is how easy the controls are. This has led a lot of reviewers and gamers to complain about the \"dumbing-down\" of the Battletech franchise, but they are wrong. To control your \'Mech you use both analog joysticks in typical first person shooter style, plus the triggers. The left trigger cycles through your weapons and the right trigger fires. The left analog stick can be pressed to activate jump jets (if you\'re driving a \'Mech with jump jets) and the right analog stick can be pressed to activate your defensive ability (chaff, anti-lock on, null signature, etc.). These controls are simple and effective. They give you control over pretty much everything you could want to control.

But the game doesn\'t take care of all the other strategy. This is where MechAssault becomes a blend of MechWarrior and MechCommander. The simulation aspect of the game has been reduced by the third person viewpoint and the simple controls, but the strategy aspect remains basically intact. You must still keep an eye on the heat of your \'Mech ? these things are notorious for overheating, which reduces speed and firing rate. So doing things like avoiding lava pools or standing in rivers while firing can help you win a battle. You should probably always keep moving, as in many shooters, but it isn\'t as fast as a shooter like Unreal Championship, so using environmental elements like trees and buildings for cover is crucial. Levels remain important, meaning that balancing high ground and low ground is essential (and, usually, higher ground is better). In addition, coordinating with teammates, especially in the team-based multiplayer modes, is essential to flank enemy units, stay alive, and best utilize the various types of \'Mechs on each team. Thanks to the Xbox LIVE communicator, keeping in close contact with teammates is no problem at all.

As I mentioned above, the online multiplayer aspect of MechAssault is a big focus of the game. It would be nice if the single player mode were a bit bigger, but only because it\'s fun to play the missions that are there. However, the online multiplayer will keep you playing this game for ages. The local multiplayer game is somewhat disappointing because it only supports two player, so you\'ll definitely want to play with either a few Xboxes hooked up through system link or, preferably, via Xbox LIVE.

Currently, there really isn\'t enough to the online multiplayer, but it\'s still incredibly enjoyable. There are five modes of play right now: Destruction, Team Destruction, Last Man Standing, Team Last Man Standing, and Not It. The most popular of these modes is Team Destruction, and with good reason ? it is the most rewarding way to play, both cooperating and competing with the folks online. There also aren\'t enough multiplayer maps included with the game, although all five maps are well-designed and fun. Anyone playing MechAssault online will tell you that there needs to be more city maps (people love tearing up River City) and more gameplay modes.

Fortunately, Microsoft has already listened, and the first updates for MechAssault will be released in January 2003. This includes two new \'Mechs, a new multiplayer map, and a new multiplayer game mode, Capture the Flag. With the variety and number of \'Mechs available in MechAssault, and taking into account the voice communication of Xbox LIVE, a rousing session of Capture the Flag will be tough to tear yourself away from. It\'s great to see this kind of continuing development, and if these content updates work out well, I definitely see a bright future for MechAssault as an online staple.

Of course, no amount of geeky detail is going to make some folks enjoy MechAssault. It is a mid-speed shooter. It\'s not as slow and thoughtful as a game like Ghost Recon, and it\'s not nearly as fast and twitchy as a game like Unreal Championship. It inhabits a middle territory which hasn\'t been explored a whole lot. Newbies find themselves dying a lot when they first come online, but experienced MechWarriors often get out of a round with barely a death or two. Some folks are turned off by the simple controls because they want the complexity of a real big robot simulator. Other folks are turned off because subtleties like controlling heat and battlefield strategy are not foregrounded in the manual or gameplay instructions. That means you have to learn a lot through trial and error, and maybe through helpful online gamers. On the one hand, it\'s easy to pick up MechAssault, drive your \'Mech, and blow up some stuff. On the other, it\'s very tough to be any good at it.

However, if you are of the right mindset, MechAssault can become your favorite game. It has bumped other pressing titles out of my Xbox on more than a few occasions, and it has kept me up way too late playing robot soldier with people I don\'t even know. That\'s a measure of success for me. If you\'re looking for a high quality big robot title and you have an Xbox, I definitely recommend MechAssault. If you have Xbox LIVE, it is a must have title.