Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries Review — Flawed But Extremely Fun Robot Action
Years ago, a nerdy 10-year-old with coke bottle glasses cracked open the classic Battletech: A Game Of Armored Combat tabletop box. That little guy never could have imagined how many iterations Battletech and Mechwarrior would have between then and now, and in how many different styles it would hit different platforms.
Seeing the way my three-year-old son stares in awe at the giant robot combat in Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries, I suspect I'll soon be searching eBay for another copy of that Battletech box.
As a successor to the franchise, Mercenaries gets the job done, hitting all the right notes with a combination of old and new mechanics, although it does have some drawbacks.
Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries Review — Flawed But Extremely Fun Robot Action
Without question, Mechwarrior's big draw lies in large-scale devastation. On that front, Mercenaries more than delivers.
Properly getting into that action takes a bit of re-thinking when it comes to the series' typical controls, as these giant mechs feature torsos that move independently of their legs. And while that's slightly cumbersome, it is a design that creates more opportunities to blow things up in multiple directions.
All that destruction can take place in the immersive but more difficult first-person mode or in the easier third-person mode. I absolutely adore the fact that the developers offered an in-game reason to see from this vantage point with a drone camera, and that they give players multiple viewing options.
Mechwarrior 5 is also notable because it skillfully communicates the massive scale of its mechs. In that regard, it does a better job than the tactical, turn-based Battletech from Harebrained Schemes.
In many ways, Mercenaries goes out of its way to impress scale upon you right away, letting you see the damage done after a mission, as, for example, missing limbs are still gone when your lance goes into the ship's mech bays for repairs.
More than just a visual element, the massive size of each mech is baked into the gameplay. Using terrain and buildings to block incoming fire becomes critical since you are such a big, easy target to hit from any direction.
The Physics Of 31st Century Warfare
However, while most objects and landmarks work as you'd expect, some objects, like overhanging ice or boulders lying on the ground, are inexplicably indestructible and immediately stop your momentum in odd ways.
Thankfully, Mercenaries provides plenty of variety in terms of terrain to keep missions interesting. So far I've come across biomes such as desert, glacial ice, lush canyon, volcanic waste, winter forest, summer forest, iron oxide, and sulfurous.
Sadly, the biome differences are only aesthetic at launch. For example, you don't generate less heat in an arctic biome or more heat in a volcanic setting. Your mech can literally stand on lava and take no damage. Although these missing mechanics don't have a huge impact on gameplay, this is an aspect that should be added in with a future patch or mod.
Even if they aren't as realistic as I'd expect, the different biomes are incredibly eye-catching. From aurora borealis to frozen settlements that will absolutely get destroyed, there's always something to gawk at.
Matching those visuals is a pulse-pounding synthwave/metal soundtrack. When playing Battletech, I normally turn the music volume off and have Spotify playing in the background, but that's not the case with Mercenaries.
What's Changed in Mechwarrior
The Harebrained Schemes turn-based game is a good place to start for comparisons since so many of the systems are identical. The weapon loadout screens, in particular, are very similar. Both the post-mission salvage selling screen and mech repair UI are also quite familiar.
There are some differences, though, and not just in the switch to first-person combat. Mechwarrior 5 is notably more restrictive in how you can build out mechs, especially until the mid-game when you start making enough money to buy new units.
Anchor points on each mech body part are more focused in Mercenaries, with one for jump jets, one for small class lasers (which effectively means just S Lasers or Flamers) and so on. In Mercenaries, the developers have basically built your mechs for you. The only "customization" comes in getting better, rarer versions of specific weapon types in different markets.
Mechwarrior 5 is also significantly less deadly than Battletech. While injuries are common, death is a rarity. That's a strong contrast to Battletech, where headshots regularly ruin your day.
Rather than selecting different skills when leveling up, each pilot increases skill ranks by using specific weapon types in combat. The more a pilot uses laser weapons, for instance, the better that pilot will get at dealing energy damage.
More enemy types are available right from the start as well, as you need to worry about aerial opponents, ground vehicles, and mechs simultaneously in the more action-packed Mercenaries.
And while the star map and transportation costs are on par with Battletech, Mercenaries' map is incredibly huge. Jobs for your merc crew are plentiful, although missions don't seem to ever expire — even when the flavor text mentions that they need to be completed quickly.
The one major difference between Battletech and Mercenaries, though, is that there is currently no physical mech to mech combat in Mechwarrior 5.
Sure, you can crush tanks beneath your armored feat, but you can't ram, punch, or kick enemy mechs, or perform a dreaded "death from above" maneuver. If a pilot loses all their ranged weapons, they are forced to eject, because Mercenaries isn't built with melee combat in mind.
Nicely, co-op is available in campaign missions, so that may be enough of a reason to overlook such an obvious omission. It works well, too, because the focus in Mechwarrior 5 is different than the focus in a turn-based game.
Of course, you have to deal with friendly fire more often in Mercenaries, but defense missions are much more fun in co-op than they are in single-player.
The destructive force of a mech takes on a different tone in defending missions, and when you need to avoid accidentally destroying the facility you were hired to protect, doing so with human players is a lot easier than with AI players.
A major AI issue lies in the fact that a lance is absolutely awful at containing collateral damage. The AI will usually end up destroying more buildings than the enemy units, making some defense missions intensely frustrating in single-player.
One of the problems of translating a tabletop war game into a video game medium is dealing with difficulty spikes in specific missions with specific weapon combos. Most of the game is significantly too easy with the right load outs, while some missions are devastatingly hard. I suspect we'll see several rounds of balance patches in the coming months as the community starts leaving feedback.
Mechwarrior 5 Review — The Bottom Line
- Beautiful mech combat with plenty of biomes
- No lack of contracts for replay value
- Co-op battles available
- An editor is coming and mods will be supported
- Much of the game is far too easy
- The AI needs tweaking
- Slow load times
- Can't interact with mech pilots
- Throwaway story
- You can't truly customize your mechs until several hours into the game
Here's the thing: Mechwarrior 5 is kind of hard to give a specific score out of 10. For starters, the game already saw multiple major updates during the pre-release review period, and more are likely coming.
The level editor also wasn't available in my pre-release build, so I can't comment on its capabilities. However, the fact that Mercenaries is even getting an editor is noteworthy and seems like it will significantly extend the game's life.
As an Epic exclusive, Mechwarrior 5 won't get Steam Workshop functionality for at least a year, but official mod support — including full conversion mods — is due to arrive in early 2020. If the community gets serious about modding, it seems likely we'll get melee combat and AI tweaks rather quickly.
For all its flaws, Mechwarrior 5 is still extremely fun. Even though there are changes I'd like to see, I'm still having a blast dropping into quick action or completing random jobs in different terrain types.
[Note: A copy of Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries was provided Piranha Games for the purpose of this review.]