MechWarrior 4: Vengeance
Some things are huge in the US, but never so big over here. Hips, for a start. Sorry, cheap joke. Seriously though, there are many titles which hold a fascination for the US public that leave us absolutely stumped, from the mild does-not-compute of gridiron through to the what-planet-are-you-on tedium of deer hunting.
The MechWarrior series of robot war simulations falls somewhere in the middle of this Brit-bafflemeni scenario. Based on the 18-year-old BattleTech universe of board games, books, merchandise and other spinoffs, the series has, at times, approached almost religious status in the US. Yet with the exception of a brief flurry of excitement over the 1995 release (through Activision) of MechWarrior II: 31st Century, these 40ft stomping behemoths have singularly failed to capture our imagination. What interest there was plummeted with the workmanlike clones (think Heavy Gear and EarthSiege) which followed, and the extremes of pedantic detail to which the last outing, Mech 3, aspired. So the only possible reason we're devoting two whole pages to MechWarrior 4: Vengeance is that it's showing dramatic signs of breaking this pattern. And the reasons for this are threefold. First and foremost, from the US review code we've been looking at, it's living up to its stated intent of action-oriented gameplay as opposed to the ludicrously overcomplicated Mech 3.
"We're going back to our roots and making action the focus, while keeping it relatively simple. This won't be Falcon 4," explains Jordan Weisman, one of the founders of FASA (BattleTech) and creative boss at Microsoft's game division.
"Our goal is not to make a Mech-type game; it's to make a great action game set in the BattleTech universe. For Mech 4 we want to get more in touch with that - to have a sweaty-hand-on-joystick feel rather than that keyboard jockey feel."
The second major change to the way the game is being shaped concerns the player's role. The BattleTech universe has always been a Machiavellian mess of power struggles between noble houses. And yet, in your role as what amounted to a metal-assed squaddie in previous games, you had little sense of involvement in the higher picture.
Mech 4 will put you in a very central role, according to Weisman: "Story alone is fine, but this time we were determined that there'd be no more linear campaigns - the player needs power. It's about having things that basically we all want: importance, power and control. "You are nobility - you're a 30ft knight in shining amour with the fate of a world hanging in the balance. We're giving you that key, central role, but we're also giving you a supporting cast of characters to interact with."
The nuts and bolts of all this are that you'll be taking the role of Ian Dresari, prodigal son of the Duke of Kentares IV, returning to a homeworld in the throes of a civil war and then leading a rebellion against the occupying forces of House Steiner.
It'll be a dynamic universe with 21 different types of Mech (all of them pilotable by the player). Seven of these have never been seen before in BattleTech, and although you start out with a light Mech you'll soon be able to work your way up to more powerful machines. However, the developers are particularly keen to maintain the distinctions between Mech capabilities. So, yes, you can still head to the lab to customise your tin can, but you won't be able to fiddle around with the engine characteristics or bolt on inappropriate gear willy-nilly. You'll see why this is relevant in a moment.
The game's campaign will be based around 25 single-player missions in a node-based structure (three to five different missions per node, which you can do in any order), across seven terrain types including lunar, arctic, swamp, urban and desert. The single missions will be dynamic, in so far as you control a number of variables such as time of attack, loadouts, drop zones and extraction.
And this brings us to the third major change to the Mech way of thinking. In Mech 4, the campaign will rely on a persistent resource model throughout the entire game. You get a set amount of money, supplies, Mechs and so on at the beginning and that's your lot. If you lose a Mech in a given mission, it's gone for the duration. It's up to you to maintain enough of each - or scavenge equipment from the enemy - to get you through the campaign. With the neutered lab options mentioned earlier, you simply won't be able to refit a Mech to fill a totally new role.
Your lancemates (effectively, robotic wingmen) are also part of this persistent picture. Each is a character with variable personality, piloting ability and type of Mech. So when you choose who to take on a mission, you'll have to take into account the risk of losing their skill and experience permanently.
The MechWarrior game engines of old were well suited to their role, but hardly the stuff of eye-candy legend. However, the new graphics engine renders landscapes just as well as it draws loads of objects in detail (it was also designed from day one with multiplayer in mind, supporting up to 32 players in eight different game modes). As a result, you can expect a much busier place than the previous rather flat, sparse environments.
It's a toss-up as to which is the most impressive new feature but, forced to make a choice, the Christmas tree weapon effects narrowly lose out to the way each Mech has more than 100 animations, of which up to 30 can be blended simultaneously.
The Mechs look better and feel more responsive, and that's what we all want out of life, no? But technological hops forward are far less important to the success - or otherwise - of the latest Mech installment than the broader changes in the game's goals. A return to intense action in stomping great big stupidly armed Mechanoids, an ego-inflating role in a world where people bow down to your might (as you've always secretly known they should), and some harsh decisions to make in a cause-and-effect campaign has potential, you have to admit. Even if that does put us in momentary agreement with the scary people from the land of lard and the family AK-47.
It only seems like yesterday that MechWarrior3 stomped its way into the PC and yet here we are with a shiny new model, ready to cause death and destruction on a biblical scale. What can have changed to have made a great game even better? Quite a lot, actually.
For those who have missed this series of highly entertaining action blasters, MechWarrioris the first-person combat version of strategy game BattleTech, and FASA - the game's originators -are still involved at every level to ensure full Battle Tech authenticity. In this latest instalment, MechWarrior4: Vengeance, you play Ian Dresari, a member of the Royal House that rules the planet Kentaries IV. You have just returned home from the Clan Wars, only to find that most of your family has been murdered by a blood-thirsty faction of House Steiner. With only Uncle Peter and your sister Joanna surviving the massacre, your lot decide to open up the garage, get out the industrial size tins of Brasso, and get polishing the old BattleMechs.
Who's A Pretty Boy Then?
From the intro sequence onwards, the new game is a real treat for the senses. Visually, the buildings, installations and gun emplacements fit into the landscape so well, it actually seems a shame to reduce them to molten rubble. Additionally, the vastly increased number of textures, combined with rolling landscapes of varied terrain, is a great improvement on the relatively desolate maps of previous versions. The Mechs themselves are, as ever, beautifully animated, from their purposeful strut to the way they now lean into corners like giant dispatch riders. Certainly the third person, out-of-body view is the most helpful for pilots, as not only can you goggle at all the detail, it's also a lot easier to work out which way your legs are facing - the way they go is the way you go.
When it comes to sound, the detail is equally impressive. The snow goes crunch, the marshland goes squish, and even the sand makes a peculiar sifting noise as you charge across it. You can even see little puffs of dust kicking up from your size 34 metal sneakers.
Once you get into battle, which usually happens only a few seconds from the drop zone, the sensual treat continues. The enemy Mechs are altogether rather imposing as they stump, stump, stump over the land, their metal torsos twisting and buckling with such realism that any engagement becomes a rather sadistic feast for the senses.
As before, Mech components can be individually targeted, so if an enemy unit is giving you a hard time with an auto cannon, you can target the offending limb and take it out. This is aided by partial screen zoom, so you can be a true coward and keep a safe distance when doing so. That said, fighting ain't like shooting rats in a barrel: the intelligence engine is as good as before, if not better. Just as you're getting a warm sense of invincibility after the first few missions, you suddenly bump into the big boys who really give you a working over. They're worryingly smart, and if you don't keep one eye on the radar the whole time, you can find them sneaking round behind you for a surprise attack.
More Than Just Mech
The BattleTech consists of more than robots the size of movie theatres. As you might expect, the smaller units are a lot easier to deal with than the big ones, and so, if all else fails, you can always chicken out and run at small tanks instead (stomping them to death has a perverse satisfaction about it). Just don't try and stomp an enemy Mech, because it won't work. For starters, you take only minor collision damage - he'll have to be very injured for that to be fatal - and, secondly, apart from the sound of crunching metal, you'll very quickly hear a volley of distressingly accurate arms fire, followed by the sound of someone reading out your obituary.
The one offensive enemy unit that seems a bit ineffectual is the chopper, which, although armed with a seemingly limitless brace of missiles, rarely seems to make them count. Even in groups they're exceptionally weedy, and you feel you could knock them out of the sky with an elastic band.
It's quite common to suffer more damage from being too close to helicopter crash sites than from the preceding combat. Other than Mechs and tanks and aircraft, pretty much everything else you see is a valid target. For example, trees explode into a shower of twigs and leaves (it's not a particularly eco-friendly approach to gaming, we know, but running into them hurts and so they're better off out the way). Fuel trucks detonate with a spectacular foomph and a flash, and usually take any neighbouring units with them. The only odd thing is that the little people who inhabit the Mech Warrior world wander about, doing their daily business, entirely oblivious to the metal titans casting colossal shadows over their homes and gardens, and making their windows rattle. Only when you try and mash them with your feet or fire missiles in their direction do they look even remotely startled.
A Game Of Two Halves
Mech Warrior 4 has 30 singleplayer missions in total - ten more than the last instalment. Before each mission begins, you have to opportunity to tinker with your behemoth and organise your Lancemates. Weapon placement is more strictly controlled than in MechWarrior 3 because, not only is overall Mech weight limited, but lasers will only fit specific laser mounting points, and additionally these points are restricted by size. A Mech might have plenty of free space overall, but if the space available isn't big enough nor is it of the right type, you won't be allowed out to crank up that niftylooking Gauss Cannon. This might sound like too much restriction, but it does impose a certain level of balance right from the outset, and forces you to give your Mech a decent variety of weaponry. Each mission starts with a briefing, and your Lancemates then introduce themselves (presumably in a vain attempt to get you to stop shooting them by mistake), although you can skip straight past these bits if you're keen to get to the action.
After a brief cut scene, it's just a short stomp from the drop zone before you find the enemy or, as is usually the case, they come and find you. You'll hear calls from your Lancemates informing you they're taking fire but, apart from that, they keep pretty quiet. This is a pity, as we're sure they could provide more helpful information in many combat situations but, having said that, incessant jabbering would be a pain in the backside, so perhaps the strong silent type is best after all.
The MechWarrior 4 campaign takes you through arctic, alpine, swamp and desert scenarios, before a series of titanic clashes in an urban jungle. As you progress, you gain experience, and, more valuable still, you pick up bits of broken Mechs. These are added to the body shop optional extras for the start of the next mission so, if you come up against a low-slung sporty Mech that you fancy cruising around in, do your best to try and take it out, because, with luck, you'll be able to add it to your fleet. If you decide to keep your existing Mech, you can always opt for a fancy respray - although some of the pre-defined colour schemes seem to be inspired more by Salvador Dali than by camouflage.
Where MechWarrior3 concentrated on the single-player mission style of gaming, it unfortunately missed out on the growing multiplayer community. Microsoft has made sure that MechWarrior 4 makes no such mistake. The multiplayer game engine is well designed and, even when using a regular 56K dial-up connection, we were able to participate in extensive online battles without any noticeable lag. There are a variety of multiplayer game styles to choose from, with one of the most popular being Team Attrition, where you score points not only for killing the opposing team members, but also for damaging them within a set time limit. With some accurate targeting, you can leave them unarmed and shove them about in typical bully-boy style. Just remember that, when you finally do finish them off, they're going to respawn at full strength and be ever-so-slightly miffed.
If you're a fan of team based shooters, then you're really in for a treat. Fancy playing Capture The Flag in a hundred tons of metallic stomping machine? No problem! After the Mech experience, the Heavy Weapons Guy from Team Fortress games will never look intimating again. Other popular styles which are supported by the latest Mech Warrior include King Of The Hill, where you score points for holding a specific point on the map for as long as possible, and Team Destruction, where the focus is on outright kills only.
Does It Walk The Walk?
Although the controls are initially daunting (as with every other title in this genre), you'll find yourself stomping in no time at all. The graphics are fantastic, the missions are challenging, and the multiplayer options give you the means to finally sort out any friends who think they're made of tougher stuff. The only downside is the huge bite it takes from your hard drive - the minimum install is just shy of 500Mb, and the recommended install is over 1 Gb. Er, ouch.
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode