|From Transformers to imported Japanese mecha anime to Disneys
soon-to-be-released Iron Giant, an entire generation of Americans has grown up indulging a
fascination with giant robots. This fascination undoubtedly springs from the same twisted
strands of the US psyche as those that engender our love of big-ass vehicles and big-ass
guns, so its probably best not to consider it too closely. But whatever its origin,
our mania for big bots has produced an entire giant robot industry, the gaming division of
which has always been forefronted by the Battletech miniatures and board games. The
franchises ascendancy has manifested itself on the PC as well, especially since the
appearance of MechWarrior 2 in 1995 (yeah, its been that long). Though
pretendersStarsiege and Heavy Gear, to cite the most prominent exampleshave
since attempted to wrest the giant bot crown from MechWarrior 2, the King stayed on top.
But now the much-anticipated MechWarrior 3 has appeared, and The King is Dead. Long Live
MechWarrior 3 takes all the gameplay and features that made MechWarrior 2 such a terrific game and improves upon them. It also adds some nice new twists, upgrades the graphics engine, cleans up the interface, and takes advantage of the technological advances that have transpired in the last four yearsincluding great force-feedback support. It all adds up to the most fun and immersive giant mech game yet. And thats why the few flaws the game does have, chief amongst them some pretty terrible AI, tend to detract disproportionately from the games overall excellence.MechWarrior 3s campaign game takes its narrative from the ongoing Battletech universe saga. You take the role of a lance commander in the Eridani Light Horse, the "elite of the elite" of the Inner Spheres fighting forces. Your mission is to act as part of a commando raiding force against the Smoke Jaguar Clan, a notorious group of bad-apple types. Unfortunately, the mission starts off badly, and most of your forces are scattered or lost. This leaves you to do the brunt of the dirty work, aided by whatever remnants of Eridani Light Horse you stumble upon during your actions. The campaign game has taken a lot of heat from reviewers, mostly for coming in a little on the short side at only 20 missions. Frankly, the campaigns alleged brevityits not that shortisnt as much a problem to me as its relentless linearity and sameness. Though each mission is preceded by a great briefingthis games got some of the best voice acting aroundthe missions themselves tend to play out very similarly, and objectives are almost always of the "go blow up these buildings and oh yeah blow up any enemy mechs you run across " variety. And theres not a lot of replay value, either; each mission is rigidly scripted, and youll meet the same enemies in the same place each time you play. Given the obvious care Microprose put into setting the missions up, playing them out is a bit of a letdown.
Of course you can always choose to play the Instant Action option, which allows you to select and configure a mech and fight either by yourself or with lance mates against enemy forces. You can also vary the battle type, map, and friendly and enemy mechs, so Instant Action adds a lot of the replay value the campaign lacks.The games graphics are excellent; though not up to par with, say, Unreals, this is by far the best-looking mech game yet. The mechs themselves are lovingly detailed, and the landscape--though mostly barren with only the occasional tree--is very atmospheric. Weapons effects, from pulse lasers to broadsides of guided missles, are way cool, as are the games lighting effects. But the best thing about the graphics is the unstinting attention paid to detail throughout. Big explosions leave big holes in the ground that you can use for cover, and damage to mechs is exceptionally well-represented; if a mech overheats, gets an arm blown off, and takes damage to its leg, youll see a smoking, limping mech with cables hanging from where its arm used to be.
Likewise, the sound is very good, especially for weapons and mech effects. Theres nothing that will raise your morale faster than the reassuring and imposing sound of your mechs footfalls as it stalks its prey, and nothing that will lower it faster than the sound of enemy autocannon shells hammering away at your armor. The detail and care put into graphics and sound go a long way towards drawing you into the game.And the games interface doesnt get in the way of your enjoyment, either; not only does your mechs HUD give you all the info you need at a glance, but the keyboard commands seem to have been simplified from the previous game. I played with my Force Feedback Pro joystick, and the preset configuration allowed me to play the game with only occasional recourse to keystrokes. The only clunky part of the games interface was the lancemate controls, which were clumsy to implement and very limited.
Getting into the game is easy, too; MechWarrior 3 comes with a solid manualthough it could be a little more explicit about how to use the mech laband an excellent tutorial.
But gameplay is the bottom line, and gameplay is where MechWarrior 3 really shines. The typical MechWarrior 3 mission begins in the mech lab, where youll choose a mech and its equipment. Different mechs are good for different missions; some are fast but fragile, some big but lumbering, some all-round average. After selecting a mech chassis, youll have to configure its weapons loadout. Mechs have a limited number of "critical locations" where equipment can be mounted and a limited amount of weight they can bear, so configuring them is a delicate balancing act. This is complicated by the fact that weapons fall into one of two categories--energy weapons that produce massive amounts of heat that can cause your mech to shut down, and ordnance weapons that require space-consuming ammo. Of course there are lots of other little niceties that youll want to slap on your mechextra armor, heat sinks, anti-missile systems, targeting systems, jump jets, enhanced radarand of course there will never be enough room for everything you want. You can, if you wish, forgo all this fussing around in the mech lab and accept the mechs default configuration, but I wouldnt advise it. A good part of a missions success depends upon how you configure your mech, and when you get the hang of it its a great deal of fun as well.Once youve configured your mech, youll begin your mission. At first, youll fight alone, accompanied by only three mobile field bases (MFBs) for support. The MFBs are fragile support vehicles that allow you to refit, rearm, and repair your vehicle in the field, and believe me, youll need them. Manys the time my damaged and out of ammo mech has limped into the welcoming arms of MFBs. MFBs also gather the salvage you accrue during your missions, and as you advance youll use this salvage to add new, more powerful mechs and weapons to your arsenal.
After beginning your mission, youll almost immediately find yourself in the thick of battle. This is the real fun of MechWarrior 3, and mech combat has never been so good. The games intuitive controls and interface allow you to focus on controlling your lumbering mech and engaging enemy forces, and most battles are nail-biting affairs. Theres nothing like desperately hoping your reeling mechs armor will hold up against enemy missiles until your lasers recharge enough to allow you to deal the coup de grace. Combat has been refined and improved by the additions of some really nifty features, like the ability to zoom your targeting reticule (great for those long-range laser shots) and to target specific locations on enemy mechs. And if your mech overheats (almost a certainty in the heat of battle) you can avoid the ensuing shut-down by flushing your coolant, at least a couple of times each mission.As your advance in the game, youll meet up with members of the Eridani Light Horse, and these lancemates will accompany you through the campaign. Unfortunately, the lancemate controls are very limited, and lancemate AI is very weak. The only useful lancemate combat command is "attack my target", and the only useful movement command is "follow me." It would be nice to have a few more combat attack options, and its beyond me why formations were not included in the movement options. As it is, your fellow mechs will usually just trail along behind you like chicks after a hen, which is not, I think, the sort of formation the "elite of the elite" would use in combat. Even worse, your lancemates are also terribly stupid. Examples of their blighted AI includes getting in the way of MFB deployment, running into your line of fire and then complaining when you shoot them, getting hung up while moving, and calmly standing around and watching while you struggle with 3 enemy mechs. These AI problems extend to enemy AI as well. The Smoke Jaguars sometimes behave like theyve been smoking something indeed. Theyll often let you fire away at range without reacting, and in combat theyll sometimes inexplicably fail to press an advantage.
Multiplayer is a blast, though somewhat limited as well. The only options are team or FFA deathmatch, though when I played on the Zone, the team option wasnt running just yet. Still, multiplayer was smooth and mostly lag-free, though a few more game optionslike capture and hold or capture the flagmight prevent the ubiquitous overuse of jump jets that plagues the Zones MechWarrior rooms. From a distance, some multiplayer games look like nothing so much as a field swarming with grasshoppers. Stupid jump jets.
But overall MechWarrior 3 is a terrific game, and very much worth your hard-earned cash. Though Id like to see the AI tweaked, the campaign improved, and the multiplayer options increased, its not like this is gonna be the last MechWarrior 3 game. The game will undoubtedly spawn a long series of expansion packs, and given that most of the engine is in place and exceptional, perhaps the design team can direct their energies toward remedying these minor but still irritating problems.