Hands-on with a sequel people have been waiting 17 years to play.
Getting back into the pilot’s seat of a giant mech felt just like coming home – albeit, a dangerous and challenging to control home that I hadn’t been to in 17 years… but home nonetheless. I grew up with the MechWarrior games, and am thrilled to say that demo I played for MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries makes the long wait for a sequel seem like it may be worth it.
MechWarrior 5 sits somewhere between an FPS and a flight sim, with quick action and lots of explosions, but some complex controls to make that happen. Your mech moves more like a tank than a Gundam, with a throttle instead of simple WASD controls. There’s also heat to manage, specific health and armor for each body part, and whole lot of other systems that make MechWarrior 5 an extremely engaging shooter without ever getting too overwhelming.
Watch the video above to see new MechWarrior 5 gameplay as the Atlas mech.
Learning to master my mech’s throttle control while also aiming more than half a dozen different weapons at the same time is challenging but extremely satisfying to get right. The body pivots separately from the legs, making strafing super important and allowing weapons attached to arms to aim differently than those on your shoulders. It’s a control scheme with a high skill cap, and one that goes even higher when you start getting into how you outfit and customize your mechs.
Effortlessly trampling trees and buildings makes these machines feel appropriately massive.
That challenge is undermined a bit by the enemies I was facing. I had to play smart in how I approached certain situations, hiding behind hills to stay out of sight from turrets, for example. But fighting enemies, and especially other mechs, generally seemed like a matter of “shoot them till they die” without much other thought. It also wasn’t totally uncommon to see enemy helicopters fly straight into mountain sides, which exposed the simple AI that may be at the core of this problem.
But one thing MechWarrior 5 has impressively managed to capture is a sense of scale. From the cockpit of a massive mech, it can be hard to get any sense of how big you are in relation to the stuff around you. But being able to effortlessly trample trees and buildings along the way makes these massive machines feel like exactly that. They are powerful and chunky, it feels great to pilot that power.
Their size and weight can also be felt in their maneuverability and speed. The spry ShadowHawk mech is lightning fast compared to the massive but much tankier Atlas. Sometimes I wanted that speed (and the awesome jump jets that come with it), but other times I wanted to feel indestructible, if slow. They aren’t just different character models and weapon loadouts, they’re genuinely different experiences to pilot.
And for the first time in a MechWarrior game, you can get an even more accurate sense of scale by walking around the hangar of your dropship. Not sure how big your mech is in the heat of combat? You will be when you’re standing at its feet before a mission. It’s effectively just a level and character select menu, but one oozing with flavor.
The biggest question left unanswered for me is one of mission variety. I enjoyed what I played quite a bit, but despite getting to play on four different planet types and as three different mechs, there was only one type of mission for my demo. I was impressed by how much the mechs changed up the experience, but each of the planet types felt like little more than a coat of paint.
To be fair, this was a very early playable demo of MechWarrior 5, so I don’t necessarily think that’s indicative of the game that will arrive next December. A healthy variety of mission types and more variation in its randomized map design could make this a game I want to keep coming back to, but even this single-mission demo kept me amused through eight playthroughs.
Watch the video above to see new MechWarrior 5 gameplay as the ShadowHawk mech.
Another thing that will definitely help its replayability is co-op. Normally you’d take up to three AI-controlled mechs with you into battle, but you’ll also have the option to let your friends take control of them instead. I’m hoping the increased strategy and communication that comes with that will allow for some seriously challenging missions in the late game, ones where just “shoot all the things” isn’t going to cut it.
I can’t wait to see what the modding community brings to this game.
Developer Piranha Games also said that MechWarrior 5 will have full mod support at launch, including integration into the Steam Workshop, which is extremely exciting. Official mod support can often give games unnaturally long life, and a game like MechWarrior seems perfect for it. I can’t wait to see what the community comes up with, and will almost certainly download the first Voltron model that’s uploaded.
All in all, MechWarrior 5 seems to be taking shape as the game I hoped it would be. This early demo definitely has some rough edges, but it was also a ton of fun. With a turn-based BattleTech video game coming in 2018 as well, it feels like we’re going through a bit of a mech renaissance, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Tom Marks is an Associate Editor focusing on PC gaming at IGN. You can follow him on Twitter.