Activision built the giant robot genre, first with the Dynamix-created MechWarrior and then with its in-house-designed MechWarrior 2 series. But when the company lost the BattleTech license, it also lost its hard-developed reputation. The company's first attempt at a post-MechWarrior game, Heavy Gear, was a rush job that disappointed fans of MechWarrior and the Dream Pod 9 Heavy Gear universe alike. But when Activision redeems itself, it does so with a vengeance. Heavy Gear II is everything the first game wasn't. Many members of the team that developed it worked on MechWarrior 2: Ghost Bear's Legacy, considered by many to be the best giant robot game ever. Well, Heavy Gear II has just stolen that title.
Considering Activision's history with this genre, and considering this game's release hot on the heels of MechWarrior 3, Heavy Gear II obviously begs comparison with MicroProse's game. But other than some general similarities - a far-future science fiction universe; large, armored, humanoid-shaped battle vehicles; a dystopian future society - they are actually rather different games. MechWarrior 3 puts you in the cockpit of a giant robot-shaped tank, while Heavy Gear II drops you into much smaller battle armor. More to the point, however, whereas MechWarrior 3 relies upon superb special effects and occasional technology enhancements over previous mech games while suffering from a short, weak campaign, Heavy Gear II significantly advances the genre. Here, the dazzling graphics engine is supported by an almost strategic battle system, a challenging campaign, squadmates who are actually useful, and unpredictable enemies. The immersion here is unprecedented.
Heavy Gear II is built on an entirely new graphics engine, called Dark Side. It's very impressive, with detailed, heavily articulated gears and vehicles, natural-looking fauna, vivid landscapes ranging from forests to Martian-like craterscapes, weather, and smoke and dust effects. There's plenty of variety here - you'll fight in desert canyons, forests, caverns, and even deep space. The game requires a Direct3D-capable graphics card, and graphics performance overall is very good, with only occasional slowdowns in the middle of big firefights with lots of explosions going on or zoom targeting active. Sound effects are equally impressive, from the movement of your gear to explosions to combat chatter. With only a couple of exceptions, the voice acting is quite convincing.
The main program interface is sparse but intuitive. After choosing a mission, fairly simple menus let you customize your gear and choose your squad members. This game is a tweaker's dream, with hundreds of possible combinations of equipment for your gear. Instead of limiting your gear's equipment by weight, you're given a maximum threat level. By balancing your weapons, armor, movement capabilities, and miscellaneous perks (such as jump jets, stealth, and reinforced armor) and flaws (such as exposed fire-control systems, weak armor in a particular quarter, or defective sensors), you must bring your gear's threat level to the maximum allowed by a particular mission. It's a somewhat artificial limitation, but it gives you lots of flexibility if you're willing to risk balancing perks and flaws. Unfortunately, you can't modify your squadmates' gears; you can only select from preconfigured variants.
Controls are also highly customizable. Out of the box, the game offers an almost Quake-like control setup using the mouse and the numeric keypad. This default has been the subject of much debate online, and while I had no trouble adapting to it, experienced MechWarrior players may want to shift to a setup taking advantage of joystick, pedals, and throttle controllers. Gears are more nimble than mechs, and in close-in combat, precise control is a must.
If you work through the series of seven interactive training missions before entering combat, you should be comfortable with the controls before tackling real missions. Next you might want to try a couple of the eight included "historical" missions, so you don't risk losing campaign missions while you're getting a feel for the game. Be warned, though, these can be very challenging.
The meat of the game is the campaign. Although there aren't many more missions here than in MechWarrior 3, these are likely to take you much longer to play through. The missions are well designed and balanced (if you pay close attention to maxing out your available threat level), with plenty of interesting plot twists. Although sim-style games like this don't typically include an in-level save feature, you may find yourself wishing for one here. Some of the longer missions have cinematic sequences when various goals are accomplished, followed by new objectives you'll need to meet. It can be quite frustrating to work your way through two segments of a mission successfully only to be taken down after 20 minutes and have to start over.
To make it through the campaign alive, you'll need help. You can bring along additional gears; the maximum number and threat level available vary from mission to mission. The command interface for handling your squad is superb. A couple of keypresses will send attack, regroup, and other simple commands. The Tab key brings up a 3D overhead tactical map (shades of Activision's underappreciated Battlezone). Here you can send gears off to scout an area, have them follow a path, or give them orders to attack a target or defend a friendly. Such detailed control makes this far more than a simple blast-fest. Send one unit out to distract with a frontal attack while sending the rest of the gears in for an attack from left-flank position.
Your squadmates are fairly smart and can react independently. In fact, pilots have individual personalities, and some may not be as obedient as others. Enemy pilots vary in skill, but some are deadly. Tanks can be taken down pretty easily, but enemy gears will sneak up behind you, move out of your range of fire, and even use team tactics against you.
An instant-action mode lets you pit one to five gears on each side against each other in a wide variety of environs. In addition, Activision has made a mission editor available for download online, which means you should see user-created historical missions in the near future.
The only area of Heavy Gear II that may leave you wanting more is multiplayer. You will find more than the basics here: It supports LAN play, Internet play on free Activision servers, and Mplayer, and there are plenty of options for limiting the types of gears and weapons that can be used. There are strategic conquest, capture the flag, steal the beacon, deathmatch, and duelist options, so there's plenty of variety. What's missing, though, is the ability to play with and against AI gears. The AI is so good in this game that it would be a blast to be able to take a group of buddies up against a group of computer-controlled gears. Or even better, play the campaign missions cooperatively. Still, multiplayer is more entertaining than the "shoot the leg" combat of MechWarrior 3.
Overall, Heavy Gear II is the most impressive game yet in the giant robot genre. You'll definitely have to break from tradition - there's almost as much Tribes and Terra Nova here as there is MechWarrior (not to mention a pinch of Quake). Still, it's an adaptation well worth making, and Activision's designers deserve praise for realizing that exciting missions and challenging AI are as important as flashy graphics and feature checklists.