MechAssault Review

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Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Microsoft / Day 1 Studios

Platform: Xbox
Reviewed on Xbox

As part of a mercenary contingent under contract to protect civilians and liberate a planet, you have the pleasure of getting paid while doing good. The planet Helios is under the control of fanatical technologists called the Word of Blake. They are engaged in extensive mining and research, while simultaneously enslaving portions of the planet's populace and savagely quelling any active resistance. MechAssault begins with the planetary invasion by Wolf's Dragoons, a mercenary company of which you are a member. Unfortunately, the Word of Blake has orbital guns that destroy and disperse your attacking force. Left with a single working 'Mech and a damaged dropship, you get to test your skills as a gun-for-hire against overwhelming odds.

Kyle Ackerman

The MechWarrior franchise has a long and noble history, including in its pedigree such computer titles as MechCommander and MechWarrior 4: Vengeance, and derives from the pen, paper & miniature wargame set in the detailed BattleTech universe. This legacy brings rich source material and an enormous catalog of futuristic hardware to bear in a setting of massive galactic conflict. This universe of walking tanks that can weigh up to one hundred tons and stand forty feet tall provides a detailed setting, but also comes with some hefty expectations. Viewed purely as an action game in which the player controls a massive battle machine against a seemingly impossible number of foes, MechAssault contains a short, but well-constructed single player campaign and some spectacular multi-player gaming using the new Xbox Live service. MechAssault could only fall short if judged against expectations built from the PC games or paper wargaming rules.

Nearly all the missions in the single player campaign are designed so that you are drastically outnumbered in a target-rich environment. The mantra is simple: "shoot everything in sight." 'Mechs, tanks, helicopters and more all come at you in waves to be reduced to scrap under the merciless fire of your weapons. Because the odds are so stacked in the enemy's favor, the only way to survive is by grabbing "salvage." In MechAssault, salvage is similar to power-ups in other games – small objects that restore protective armor or upgrade your three classes of weapons. Destroying an enemy 'Mech always results in salvage, so your most potent foes usually give you the tools to survive your next battle. Because salvage can be picked up on the run, victory means that you keep moving, gunning all the while. A lot of salvage is concealed in buildings, making the urge to completely level all the structures in every city and military base strong. Your mercenary employers won't be occupying any captured facilities after the full campaign – not after you're done looking for salvage.

Beware Heat and Bridges

MechAssault looks good, although visibility in many of the scenarios is kept necessarily low. Battlefields are usually filled with an atmospheric haze from smoking lava or snow, which accentuates surprise entrances. Seeing a 'Mech jumping in from altitude, with only the glow of twin PPCs abuzz with destructive force, draws your attention to the impending threat in a way that can be intimidating. The terrain is full of destructible objects, ranging from buildings to bridges to explosive fuel tanks. These aren't just for show. Both in the campaign and in multiplayer action you can use collapsing buildings and bridges to your advantage, destroying 'Mechs foolish enough to stand in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The familiar 'Mechs of the BattleTech universe are present in MechAssault, but in a simplified form more suited to arcade-style action. You'll still find the Atlas, Mad Cat, Uller and Thor, among many other 'Mechs. They range from vehicles of a few tons to heavy monstrosities, and heavier 'Mechs are slower (with more armor) than smaller 'Mechs. There are a few defensive systems which can be activated, such as chaff to ward off missiles. A heat system has been implemented, so 'Mech systems such as weapons or jump jets will generate heat (as will standing in lava), and too much heat will cause system malfunctions. You can even see the heat sinks on your 'Mech glow as they try to radiate waste heat away from your critical systems. If you aviod heat problems and get your weapons close enough to your target, you can do devastating damage. 'Mechs have access to energy weapons, missiles and ballistic weapons. Each type has three variants, and each variant has multiple strengths, based on salvage power-ups. Most 'Mechs will have one of each type, although some smaller 'Mechs may only have two weapons.

Less Sim, More Action

All of these details come together to make an action game that is engaging, easy to learn and fun to master. The developers deserve further credit for making the control scheme so simple that it becomes easy to switch between weapons. An accessible BattleTech-styled game for a console is an exciting achievement, but MechWarrior fans will be disappointed. The PC games are both a combat game and a detailed simulation, so a lot of the more complex features from the computer or paper games are missing. 'Mechs do get damaged to point of limping slowly, and can be knocked down by excessively powerful volleys. Limbs and weapons, however, cannot be blown off by a precise shot, and heat management is very simple, never requiring a battlefield shutdown. There is no way to deliver a devastating shot from all weapons simultaneously, risking damage to your own vehicle in order to unleash the havoc caused by an "Alpha Strike." Most of all, there is no such thing as configuring your own 'Mech, and customization is limited to a few paintjobs. The greatest joy for some MechWarrior and BattleTech addicts is configuring your 'Mech, deciding where to place your ammunition, and debating the merits of a Clan LBX Scatter 20 as opposed to a lot of pulse lasers and heat sinks. In MechAssault, you can choose an Atlas or a Prometheus, and while everything can be driven right off the lot, there is no such thing as a custom job.

The single player campaign can easily be completed on normal difficulty in a single day (or a long afternoon if you are reasonably skilled). The levels are well designed, with enemies and ambushes that are challenging without being impossible, and the computer fights a fairly skilled battle. The campaign doesn't have much replay value, because much of the excitement is in discovering the layout of the areas and ambushes. The plot line is well executed, provides a justification for each of the missions, and some of the tasks require a bit more savvy than just leveling everything in sight, but the single player campaign could still be improved. Some of the missions are long for a game with no in-mission saves, while others have level transitions that serve as checkpoints, preventing you from repeating too much of the game should you perish. Mostly, the game needs a briefing map. Perhaps the developers were concerned that you would discover how closely packed the levels are, but a simple briefing map would have cut considerable time off the task of campaign completion – time wasted running around without direction. Also, at least one mission (in which you pilot an Elemental suit) was desperately in need of waypoints to guide the player's progress. These issues are minor, but detracted from an otherwise exciting (if short) single player experience.

A First-Kill Advantage

MechAssault gets really good when you get down to the multiplayer component over Xbox Live. It is also worth noting that tucked in the multiplayer menu is the ability to play a Grinder mode against the computer, allowing you to fight endless waves of 'Mechs and just survive as long as you can. Other modes (with team and individual variants) exist, so that you can play Destruction, Last Man Standing or Not It! against human opponents. While not perfect, playing against live enemies (with live teammates) makes for exciting, and sometimes very difficult, matches. The game functions very smoothly over Xbox Live, and if you have already installed the service, integrates seamlessly with the main game menu. The action is fast paced, and big 'Mechs usually have a substantial advantage over small 'Mechs, but it's a great way to play and even to improve your 'Mech piloting skills. With a group of friends you can set up interesting battle variants, but against strangers the basic match styles offer a good fight for all comers.

Because a fallen 'Mech generates salvage, the first pilot to successfully land a kill and grab the power-ups can land a significant advantage over the remaining 'Mechs. This is more of a factor in Last Man Standing games, in which you have only one life, and want to take everyone else's. In Destruction games, once you die, you just come back for more, so salvage is not nearly as much of a concern, making it easier to learn the ropes against humans. Another issue is that players who complete the single player campaign get access to two special (and powerful) 'Mechs, the Ragnarok and the Ymir. Honed piloting skills are often more important than having the most powerful machine, but it would be nice if there were a way to auto balance teams by tonnage, or perhaps limit 'Mechs available in certain matches to ensure matches consist of more than just a horde of heavy 'Mechs blasting it out. You don't want to be the one who brings a suit of human-sized power armor to a 'Mech fight.

Whatever minor quibbles one might have with the balance in multiplayer, its a great way to fight it out with giant walking tanks anytime you have a few minutes, and humans offer tactical challenges more diverse than even the best A.I. Rent MechAssault and take it out for a spin. You'll easily have enough time to finish the single player game, and if you have access to Xbox Live, you may enjoy the multiplayer games enough to buy yourself a copy to throw into the Xbox whenever you fancy charging up your PPC. There's even a promise of downloadable content for Xbox Live gamers that might open up more play options in the future.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on November 19, 2002 8:05 PM.

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