From a BattleTech universe that's almost old enough to have legal sex, MechCommander 2 will be the latest miniaturised stomping ground for the giant robots. And with Jordan Weisman - FASA's (the BattleTech board game people) founder - now creative director in Microsoft's games division, the hope is to create something more in keeping with the board games than previous computerised efforts.
The game will stick closely to BattleTech storylines so, as a mercenary Mech commander, you'll fight for three powerful noble houses in the Inner Sphere, caught up in a vicious battle to change the balance of power in the Chaos March region of space. A lot of store is being put into evolving the storyline within the game, but we won't know a great deal about that until it has, ahem, evolved.
Weisman describes MC2 as "a squad level real-time tactical game, with real-time strategy". Your command post will be an orbital carrier from where you despatch roving squads of Mech mercenaries wherever they are most needed, before zooming - smoothly - right down into the thick of the action at ground level.
The key thing is that you won't just be fighting individual battles (30 missions, to be pedantic), it's an ongoing, persistent campaign. Subject to the overall strategic situation, you may need to bring in repair units or mine-laying Mechs, send down reinforcements, or even call in air strikes to stave off defeat in a crucial sector.
Once you're on the ground, though, it's about making every Mech count. This is a squad game not a build, hoard 'n' rush real-time affair, and you only have up to 12 Mechs per mission. The idea is to develop individuals from rookies to 30ft iron-assed veterans, and equip them for specific roles within a squad. If you don't conserve them, they won't be fit to fight in later missions - if a Mech's arm gets blown off, you either buy him a new set for later missions or start calling him Stumpy.
The gameplay will try to emphasise cunning and a spot of invention. You'll be using sensors, probes, captured enemy equipment, and - of course - the 3D terrain to your advantage. It's line-of-sight rather than fog-of-war based (to emphasise the tactical rather than the strategic), so you will be able to use this to capitalise on your Mechs' abilities to blast through walls, jump over cliffs and kill dangerous trees. Once you've battered the enemy AI into submission, there will also be eight-player and eight-team multiplayer modes, plus a mission editor to tinker with.
MC2 has the promise of being a delightful tactical headache when it ships next year, but there's one aspect of the game we haven't talked about as yet - the look of the thing. It's easy to get blase about visuals these days, but there's no escaping the fact that a throbbing great chunk of MC2's charm lies in the graphics. Gone are the murky textures and fuzziness we've come to associate with units in real-time games ever since they went 3D - these tiny Mechs are pin-sharp, with a definition and level of detail that harks back to the best days of sprite-based animation. Cute might seem an inappropriate way to describe things that are supposed to be 100-ton death-dealing tin cans, but cute they bloody well are.
What's the first thing that comes into your head when you think of the term Robot Wars? Go on, be honest, it's that wannabe-wacky BBC2 early evening show you used to watch (and maybe still do), with its cheeky-chappy has-been scouse presenter, isn't it? And somewhere deep within you there's still that distant hankering you had all those years ago of being huddled up in a sweaty and dimly lit garage with your bearded father and his collection of geeky mates, building your own robot out of a biscuit tin, four yoghurt carton lids and a wind-up clock, looking over the plans of a machine that looked like a 1970s vacuum cleaner. Isn't there? Isn't there?! Hmm? Hmmmm? Ha, I knew you'd crack in the end.
However, there came a time when we all realised just how unsatisfying the whole show was. Nothing ever really got destroyed did it, not even by that big house robot that looked like a giant aardvark? The best we could ever expect was a scratched aerial and the odd puncture. And when you think back, it's hardly surprising. After all, there's only so much damage two metal machines the size of your average lawn mower, powered by blender motors and sporting weaponry like drawing pin bumpers and pneumatic bicycle pump-powered hammers can do to each other. Which is probably why just about every robot from the second series looked like a doorstop on wheels. Oh look, it's flipped the opposition robot again. Quick turn over, I think Gardener's World is on.
Atale Ofthree Houses
Apparently though, robot wars of the future will be far more violent and exotic affairs, if we're to believe Microsoft's latest RTS offering, MechCommander 2. Set in a far-off part of space called the Inner Sphere, three rival corporations are locked in conflict in an effort to stake their claims to the territory. As a mercenary, in charge of a small group of skilled and well-armed mech-driving soldiers, you must help your employers achieve their goals by blowing up anything that stands in their way. If you successfully complete your tasks you're rewarded with credits and new equipment to improve your outfit with. It's a common tale really.
The feel and look of MechCommander 2 is similar to the C&Cseries, as each mission is preceded by an FMV briefing, but the small number of units available to you (16 max) makes the gameplay far more similar to the likes of Ground Control. Which of course means brute force is out and tactics are in. And that means you have to think. Yes, think. Novel I know.
A New Dimension
Unlike its predecessor, MechCommander 2 is fully 3D, with a 360-degree rotatable camera and a versatile zoom function, which allows you to survey your surroundings from just about any angle or trajectory. It's nearly impossible to become disorientated when you swing the camera around - unless you're the kind of person who regularly gets lost in their own house - as a handy and discreet compass always allows you to keep track of your bearings no matter which way you're facing. Each mech is superbly drawn and animated, and if anything, the closer you zoom in on the action, the more impressive everything looks.
Breaking From The Norm
You may have noticed that most new RTS games don't have resource management anymore. Which means no more hours of mining, building storage facilities, creating massive armies and then charging the enemy in the hope you've got more units than them, only to fail to get past their front gates and then spending another three hours doing it all over again. If this image brings back horrific memories of futile all-night C&C sessions, then you'll probably be quite relieved to hear that MechCommander 2 has moved away from this laborious process, replacing it with a far more entertaining and rewarding system. And here's how it works...
Tell Me How It Works Martin, Oh Ok...
You begin with four mechs and a collection of pilots with various skills. Although they look like a collection of middle-aged fishermen, concentration camp victims and games developers (funny that), the fact that each one has a face and personality, actually makes you care about them. Perhaps not to the point where you're prepared to listen to their personal problems, but the fact that they can each gain experience and new skills (which you can choose from an extensive list of piloting and gunnery abilities), means that you can customise your team in just about any way you want.
So if you prefer to have a small group of elite pilots, backed up by a bunch of idiots who flinch every time they fire a gun, then that's up to you. Of course you can just as easily build up a well-balanced force of semi-competent pilots. Before each mission you have the chance to arm each mech with an impressive array of lasers, machine guns, armour and engines, depending on what you think you'll need for each mission.
Count Your Losses
But it doesn't stop there. If you lose any mechs or drivers then you have no choice but to blood some new ones. Only problem is, there's a limited amount of both. Your arsenal, funds and team are transferred from one mission to the next, so it's just as well that you can salvage both your own and enemy mechs from the battlefield if you've got enough money. You can s' also buy new ones. The problem with this though, is that the better you are at the game, the easier it gets. So by the time you get to the later missions your forces are so powerful that things start to be a little too easy, although this is countered somewhat by a limit on the amount of mechs you can take into combat.
If you're a hardcore RTS fan, some of the missions will probably pose about as much of a challenge as having a fight with your gran, but this doesn't stop it being a superb strategy game full of action and intrigue, with enough plot twists to keep you captivated till the end. If you're an RTS vet, you'll probably find that once you've worked out how to use the terrain to your advantage, most of the earlier and some of the later missions turn out to be little more than a formality. Fortunately they're still highly entertaining, as you're always worried about preserving your prized and limited supply of warriors. Battles are a joy to watch, with lasers and missiles connecting with satisfying brutality, while explosions light up your face with sadistic pleasure as you watch your units prance around the screen using evasive manoeuvres to avoid enemy fire.
That is, so long as they're not your units that are being fried, an all-too-common occurrence due to a lack of a formations option. This inevitably causes your mechs to get split up and isolated, and along with some suspect pathfinding, is the game's major weakness.
Meching A Decision
MechCommander 2 is undoubtedly one of the best RTS games of the year, with some of the most entertaining multiplayer RTS action I've seen for a while and an incredibly easy-to-use mission editor prolonging the carnage. Its collection of well thought-out missions, hugely customisable units and slick presentation propel it well ahead of the likes of C&C: Red Alert 2, and the atmosphere generated by a pounding soundtrack and sound effects so real you'd think someone's bored holes in your head and put an Uzi in your skull, will leave you with a real sense of satisfaction. A little too easy it may be, but it beats watching radio-controlled shoeboxes gently shunt each other into pits on TV. This is robot wars how it should be, and there's not even a whiff of a wizened middle-aged man with an unhealthy interest in amateur robotics to be seen. And that can only be a good thing.
Download MechCommander 2
PC compatible, P-100
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode