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by Microsoft

With MechAssault making its fast paced, simplified way onto the Xbox, it’s easy to forget sometimes that it’s only a rather small representation of an entire universe backed by a well established legion of fans. The Battletech universe is as complex as it is vast, spawning numerous PC titles, board games, and novels. It’s true that MechAssault provides some action packed moments and some solid combat with big machines, but for the pure blood among us, for those who desire to control the true power of a massive 100-ton war machine, there is nothing that can compare to the old-fashioned detailed campaign of the MechWarrior series on the PC. MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries, the latest release, serves up the same old feel, and a level of detail the old console jockeys couldn’t match with an eleven button controller if they tried. A combination of hot blooded combat and cold resource management, MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries is the latest in an aging series that still has quite a kick when given a chance. With somewhat lackluster graphics, and fundamental gameplay that’s been found in the MechWarrior games for some time, MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries feels a bit like a retired master coming back for another fight, as opposed to a fresh game with fresh blood for the kill. Worth a look if you loved the games of the past, Mercenaries doesn’t offer much new, aside from a few improved weapons and a number of cut scenes, but it still has something to show to a gamer with an eye for big toys.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the games of the past, MechWarrior places you in command of various sized Mechs, war machines capable of leveling entire cities single-handedly. In the future, almost all combat is fought with squads of these machines, and there’s good money out there for a pilot willing to work for whoever pays the most. As one such pilot, you start the game at the helm of your own starter mercenary team, just on the street, and ready to frame your first dollar of business and hang it behind the counter. The first thing to do is choose an affiliation with a clan. Which clan you choose influences which weapons you can purchase, and how early into the game you can buy them. As you earn your way up in the ranks, you’ll find yourself at the helm of some truly devastating gas-guzzlers that pack quite a punch.

The gameplay itself is quite polished; years of experience building past games have made MechWarrior relatively well refined. You’ll find yourself against larger numbers of units this game through, fighting helicopters and tanks, as well as other mechs, to your heart’s content. While in the middle of combat, you’ll be kept up-to-date by your teammates, specifically a crewmember who helps brief you before and during combat. The radios crackle with perfect static; the missiles leave your shoulders with beautifully rendered timing, and they arc in just the right way on long distance shots. These elements combine to make the physical combat of the game – its heart – an enjoyable and addicting experience. However, there is more to the campaign mode than simply blowing things up. You also have to decide such basic things as what you’re going to blow up, and exactly how you’re going to do it. To that end, before any combat is to be had, you’ll find yourself going through a series of control screens equipping your mech, buying new weapons, and making decisions as to what contracts your team is going to take on. By allowing you to select from various missions, the storyline is somewhat branching, allowing for a variety of final outcomes. There are numerous planets in the universe which you can ship your team to for a price and a little bit of time. New planets contain new mission and become available as you go through the game, keeping you from getting killed through your own overconfidence when you take on missions too big for your skills as a mech warrior. One planet is of special interest, Solaris VII, the universe’s equivalent of Rome (or maybe Las Vegas), where the baddest mech pilots battle it out in a form of big-bot Olympics.

The Solaris circuits – there are several divisions depending on the size and weight of your mech – are a unique aspect of the game that are quite capable of distracting you from your real job of being a mercenary for quite some time. After signing up, you’re dropped into an arena (there are several) with a number of other mechs, and left to battle it out until only one is left standing. That’s right, no room for misjudging or vote swapping; as long as there are still two mechs with the ability to ram their enemy into submission (assuming you’ve lost all your weapons), the battle is not over. The entire match is commentated on by an announcer, and even though the list of various comments is quite limited – if you play an instant action combat mission in one of the arenas, he’ll start repeating himself in short order -- the overall effect is quite engaging.

Unfortunately, not everything in Mercenaries is top of the line. The graphics engine is basically the same used in the original Mechwarrior 4 released three years ago in 2000. While the overall atmosphere is compelling, the world itself is looking old and somewhat flat. The ground lacks details, and items are often defined by a blocky or polygon look (for the best example of this, take a look at your mech’s own shadow). On the same token, the landscape itself comes across as almost too smooth, without texture. The trees, while destructible, tend to simply vanish quickly into dust when shot at or walked through, as opposed to tipping over or falling down like one would expect. Other details also sometimes seem to lack that special touch. For example, the opening motion videos often come across as grainy and pixilated by modern standards. With the quality of modern video codecs, the encoding quality of the video looks straight out of a game from several years ago. In-game touches are missing, too. Nighttime missions are dark, yes, that’s pretty cool, but your mechs headlights often fail to highlight many objects, even when they highlight others on either side, and are almost useless when on the water. If you would have been able to turn high beams onto the watery surface to reveal rippling currents glittering in the light, my heart would have floated away in delight. Instead, you are hard pressed to tell if your lights were on at all. And just go ahead and try and squash the tiny ground units under foot in the training missions. They’re surprisingly resilient to crushing weights in a game about mass destruction. For that matter, try playing the training missions after you’ve reset your movement keys. Not only will your settings not work, neither will the default setting. You’ll have to quit out of the game and reset your keys back to default from the main menu if you want to do that. This isn’t a big deal, I mean, who’s playing the tutorial after knowing the game well enough to reconfigure the board? Not many people, I wager, but any time you manage to work yourself into a situation that requires you to quit in order to continue playing is an oversight in the programming.

Game controls are well designed, if not simple by any means. Fully mastering your mech takes time and practice--especially memorizing a vast number of keys, commands, and quick reference buttons. Mechwarrior is best played with a joystick, and is in fact designed for it. If using a keyboard is your chosen form of cockpit, though, you’ll find yourself quickly remapping the controls (default has you firing with the insert, home, and page up keys and steering with the keypad, which cramps your two hands uncomfortably close together). Luckily, MechWarrior allows you to fully customize your experience, from the keyboard layout to the 1st or 3rd person perspectives available to you.

With the recent popularity of MechAssault on the console, in no small part due to Xbox LIVE, it’s good to remember that there are still many things that the PC systems can hold over the heads of their living room counterparts. In the Battletech universe, MechWarrior is a far more accurate and detailed battle creation than MechAssault could possibly hope for. With a level of detail, weapons, and options for your mech’s improvement that makes the game a true joy to play, you’ll find yourself putting in a few extra hours after dark to earn the extra cash to purchase that new mech chassis, or the HUD jammer that Xbox owners simply don’t know exist for their battle units. It’s too bad that the release wasn’t treated to a better visual upgrade, and instead leaves you feeling like you’re playing a game past its prime, only in a new box. While the game is easily worthy if you’re looking to enter the Battletech universe for the first time, don’t expect a modern polish. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of the past games, you’ll find everything here that you loved about the others in the series. The developers have stayed surprisingly close to the elements that made the first-to-come so successful. The combination makes Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries an entertaining, solid game that doesn’t represent anything substantially new to the Mechwarrior lineup. While fun, it won’t change how you look upon big battle machines.

Aaron Stanton   (01/19/2003)


Ups: Good atmosphere; all the good things that made Mechwarrior famous are still here in style; very detailed in its representation of the Battletech universe; the gladiator-style combat is a nice touch.

Downs: Doesn't add a great deal of anything new to the series; dated looking graphics, and some minor inconveniences in game design; some little things, like knocking over trees, are missing.

Platform: PC