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by Microsoft

Yet another edition of Mechwarrior, and that means it's time yet again to trot out one of my favorite gaming stories, this one from the olden days of early 1996. At that time my co-editor Al and I were invited to a network party being thrown by and for all the local computer geeks. About 20 or so folks packed their computers into the local computer store and networked up. Simple enough nowadays, but back then, almost five years ago, it took us until midnight just to get the network semi-stable. And then we commenced to game until the sun came up. Mostly we played Warcraft II and Big Red Racing, but some folks were playing an intriguing little game called Mechwarrior 2. It was, at the time, gorgeous. Take a gander at this:

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Stunned by its beauty, we
gleefully went about blowing each other up during those brief moments that the network wasn't crashing. Well, most of us did. Al had never played Mechwarrior before that evening, but since it looked so good and we seemed to be having so much fun, he gave it a whirl. And got thrashed. While he was breaking his fingers on the keyboard trying to figure out how to target and rotate his torso, the old pros were circle-strafing and LRMing him into oblivion. It put him off Mechwarrior for years. 

After playing Mechwarrior 4 for the last couple of weeks, the above story forces me to consider just how far computer gaming has come in the last four years.  In fact, the differences between Mechwarrior 2 and Mechwarrior 4 in many ways encapsulate the gaming industry's priorities over the last four years. First of all, let's take on look at Mechwarrior 4's graphics:

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I'd say MW4 ekes out a win in the swimsuit portion of the competition. And while graphics might be the most noticeable improvement from '96, Mechwarrior 4 is also much more accessible; its learning curve is about as steep as a Kansas highway. Even Al could play it. As for multiplayer, those unstable connections and laggy games Mechwarrior 2 are truly a thing of the past. Mechwarrior has some of the smoothest multiplayer I've ever seen. Better graphics, simpler interfaces, improved multiplayer. They're all expected of games nowadays, and Mechwarrior 4 delivers--but a good-looking easy-to-play game with excellent online support can still be a really bad game. Does Mechwarrior 4 have anything more to offer than surface flash?  

ss_b_4-01.jpg (4843 bytes)Well, yeah. In short, Mechwarrior 4 is the best giant robot game yet, and a real improvement on Microprose's Mechwarrior 3. While Mechwarrior 3 was an attractive and promising game hamstrung by repetitive missions, lackluster AI, and poor multiplayer support, Mechwarrior 4 has addressed and remedied all these problems. The end result is a game that's a joy to play, even for those who haven't been hardcore Battletech fans for the last ten years.

In Mechwarrior 4's single-player game you take the part of Prince Ian of the House of Dresari. While you've been away from home playing the prodigal son, the Steiner Alliance has seized your homeworld of Kentares IV and assassinated your family. It's up to you to exact vengeance for these deeds and to free Kentares from Steiner domination. To that end, you'll embark on a series of 30 missions that take you from light raids on isolated Steiner outposts to slugfests against major Stiener forces. The missions take place in all manner of terrain--swamp, desert, snow, lunar, city, and alpine.

ss_b_16-01.jpg (7000 bytes)While the game's narrative is not all that original and the voice acting is mediocre, the missions themselves are usually pretty solid, much better than the linear “kill ‘em all” scenarios of Mechwarrior 3. In one of my favorite missions, you'll be asked to fight your way to a pinned-down convoy, destroy the forces attacking it, and escort it to a bridge crossing. While escorting the force, swarms of enemy tanks, choppers, and mechs will descend upon it, and you won't have time to take them all out. What develops is a nail-biter of a running battle as you attempt to stave off the destruction of your convoy. Most of the missions have multiple objectives, and you'll often find yourself altering your plans in mid-battle. The only real niggle I have with the missions is that it is sometimes difficult to determine what you need to do, or how to do it. Oh, and here's one big non-spoiler hint—be on the lookout for repair bays, and use them at every opportunity. Enemies will come at you in waves in Mechwarrior 4, and without the occasional repair and reload some missions--especially the early ones, when you're limited to smaller, less powerful mechs--can be damn near impossible to beat.

ss_b_18-01.jpg (6165 bytes)Since you play the role of the dispossessed rebel throughout the campaign, it's important to salvage weapons and mechs from the Steiner forces. Fortunately, you can collect them from captured enemy bases and enemy wrecks, so it's a good idea to avoid destroying enemy weapons hardpoints (if you can) by focusing on head and leg shots. Once you've completed a mission and scavenged some mechs and weapons, you'll proceed to the mechlab, where you can customize your mech (and your lancemates') or create an entirely new one.   Mechwarrior 4's new mechlab is one of my favorite things about the game. While it's easy to use, Microsoft has done a good job of adding depth and strategy to mech selection and arming. For instance, now weapons hardpoints are weapon-type specific--you can only mount a certain type and size of weapon in each hardpoint slot--either beam, missile, or ballistic. This means that you can't turn every mech into a laserboat. In fact, some mechs will restricted to missiles only, which makes them wildly effective for standoff fire, but really bad bets in a circle-strafe contest. You can also configure armor type and thickness, and choose to deck out your chassis with such extras as anti-missile systems, jump jets, and radars. And there's a nice collection of camo schemes as well--some of them pretty wacky. 

As far as gameplay goes,   the circle of death is still the most effective combat maneuver for most mechs, but the new, more restrictive weapons configurations ensure that some mechs (especially missile-armed long range ones) will have to find new tactics.  All mechs seem more heavily armored than before, and until you get the big assault mechs with LBX 20s towards the end of the game, it’ll take a while to put one down. Most battles in mechwarrior are nail-biting fast-moving battles of attrition as you wear away enemy armor, and some of the time-tested quick kill stratagems--like taking out your enemy's legs--are not nearly as effective in Mechwarrior 4. On the other hand, taking careful aim and focusing on damaged areas is as important as ever, and Mechwarrior's damage model is very good--it even takes collateral damage into account (at least in some cases). 

ss_b_5-01.jpg (6581 bytes)Mechwarrior 4's interface is mostly good and easy to navigate, and if you're running an eight-button joystick you'll seldom have to mess with the keyboard. The zoom reticule does take up a large amount of space on the screen, and while some have complained about this, I’m not too bothered by it. I figure that zooming on someone probably should decrease overall situational awareness, so the reticule's size seems a fair trade-off. More problematic is the fact that there’s no indicator on the screen to let you know if you're in group, single or chain fire; this could use fixing. Commands to lancemates are much easier to issue and much more useful than in Mechwarrior 3.

Lancemate AI is a lot smarter, too. In Mechwarrior 3 your lancemates tended to wander off, to ignore immediate threats, and to show a disturbing lack of concern for your welfare. In Mechwarrior 4 your buddies are actually useful. While they'll occasionally get hung up on terrain features, most of the time they'll follow orders.  Even more surprisingly, they're very handy in a tussle, often taking out enemy mechs on thier own. On the other hand, enemy AI is pretty good, too--Steiner mechs seek cover, keep moving, and shoot dauntingly well. 

ss_b_11-01.jpg (5458 bytes)The game's graphics are nothing short of stunning, and you won't need a bleeding-edge system to enjoy them. This is one of the best-optimized games in recent memory, and it only takes a decent video card to revel in its splendor. Of course, if you've got a fast processor and a blazing card, you can max this baby out and really enjoy the show. Mechs are very well done and colorful, as are weapons effects and explosions. The game's wide variety of terrain looks plenty good--and not only is it pretty, but it's also tactically useful, offering loads of places to go hull-down, to establish long-range fire bases, or to seek cover.  The only quibble I have with that graphics is that even though Microsoft has tried to make the terrain a little less sterile by including scads of trees and the occasional mountain goat, the landscape of Kentares is still mostly unpopulated, and therefore not quite as convincing as the rest of the game's graphics. Sound is also very good, and force feedback is very well-implemented. In fact, the feedback from the mech’s footsteps or taking hits will often throw off your aim. Frustrating? Yep. Way Cool? Oh yeah. 

But for all the single player game's merits, Mechwarrior 4's real strength lies in its multiplayer game, which is a vast improvement on Mechwarrior 3's underdeveloped multiplayer.  It's a snap to connect, and you don't even have to go through the Zone. A couple of clicks, and you're there. Once on a server, you can play two kinds of deathmatch and team deathmatch—attrition and destruction, as well as king of the hill, capture the flag, and steal the beacon. Games can support up to sixteen players, and they play very smoothly.  The only problem with multiplayer is the lack of coordination of team members in most games--they tend to degenerate into confused but really fun dogfights--and the fact that there just aren’t enough maps.

Well, there you have it. Bottom line--Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance is the best mech game so far. It looks great, plays great, and has terrific multiplayer support. I wholeheartedly recommend it not just to mech freaks, but to any gamers--even those who have had traumatic experiences with mech games in the past. Even to Al.

Rick Fehrenbacher


Ups: Beautiful graphics, simple interface, fast gameplay, excellent multiplayer support

Downs: Single-player story a little weak. 

System Reqs: PII 300, 64 MB RAM, 8X CD-ROM,  8MB 3D Accelerator,   DirectX 8


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