The greatest feat a science-fiction combat simulation can achieve is to suspend your disbelief for moments or stretches of time and to actually convince you in those instants that you're piloting some sort of incredible military machine. Activision's MechWarrior 2 achieved this feat back in 1995. It was one of the pioneers of high-resolution 3D graphics, and beyond that, it was an excellent futuristic combat simulation. Since the MechWarrior series is, for better or for worse, confined to the rules of its source material, FASA's pen-and-paper tactical combat game, the real goal of Zipper Interactive's game is to update its predecessor with state-of-the-art graphics while retaining the action and simulation elements intact. And MechWarrior 3 accomplishes this goal gracefully, even as it tactfully deviates from certain traditions laid down by its ancestors to enhance the depth and complexity of the game. It might seem rough around the edges once in a while, but nevertheless, MechWarrior 3 is a worthy successor to one of the best games of the decade.
Of course graphics aren't everything, but it doesn't hurt when a game looks as good as this. The attention to detail is what's especially impressive - although all the different mechs in the game look great, it's the way they move that makes them seem so real. You can see their toes flex, and they leave tracks in the earth and kick up clouds of dust and dirt with each and every step. They topple over slowly and painfully if they lose balance from a powerful attack, and struggle back to a standing position. As they're shot apart in battle, their limbs don't just fall off but rather rip from their sockets, leaving exposed pipes and cables where the arm or leg used to be. Their weapons fire independently and look powerful and are easily distinguishable on the battlefield. Laser weapons pierce their target instantly, while pulse lasers generate a steady stream of concentrated energy. Autocannons are so powerful that your mech recoils as it lets loose each hail of bullets, while your missiles fill the screen with their contrails. Certainly lasers, machine guns, and missiles aren't anything unusual for a science-fiction game, but in MechWarrior 3, these archetypal weapons are in top form, not only because they look great, but also because they are finely balanced with proportional strengths and weaknesses.
As they fight, the BattleMechs look right at home in the beautiful, desolate terrain of the aptly named planet Tranquil. Though the hills might look a little blocky sometimes, everything else, like thunderstorms, beaches, ravines, and deserted cityscapes, looks realistic and detailed. You can even see rays of sunlight pierce through the overcast sky, while explosive weapons leave huge craters in the ground. Other special effects, like the fires caused by internal explosions in damaged mechs, as well as the deadly blue swirl of the particle projection cannon, look as good as just about everything else in the game. All the while, the 3D cockpit shudders with every step and every shot. MechWarrior 3's great sound effects make the game feel even more true to life, as each step is accompanied by a resounding, dull thud that perfectly conveys the awesome scale of the machine under your control. Weapons and explosions also sound good, although most of the speech in the game, including your onboard computer and assorted banter between rival MechWarriors, isn't anything especially exciting. The game's soundtrack, while suitably grandiose and serious-sounding, is also a bit of a disappointment after MechWarrior 2 and comes across as a pale imitation of its predecessor's striking orchestral score.
But you won't be worried about the music once you're in the game, trying to fend off enemy mechs as well as tanks and stationary defenses. MechWarrior 3 plays similarly to its predecessor by forcing you to compensate for your machine's sluggishness with precision piloting and for its propensity to overheat with deadly aim. Mechs can twist at the torso, but you can also aim and fire easily at any point onscreen by using the mouse. One important new feature lets you magnify the area around your targeting reticle, so that you can strike a target from a much longer range than your eyes can see. Another new trick that works along with this one lets you lock onto specific parts of the enemy mech, so that you can try to disable key weapons systems or internal components. But pinpoint accuracy isn't quite so important if you decide to use an alpha strike, which unloads every weapon on your mech simultaneously. This devastating attack will overheat your mech more often than not, and overheating causes your sensors to malfunction and may cause your mech to shut down or even explode. But fortunately for you, MechWarrior 3 also introduces a coolant flush device that can be used a limited number of times to rapidly dissipate your machine's heat. Together, these abilities make MechWarrior 3 battles tense and exciting, since a quick decision can just as quickly determine the outcome.
Most missions also put you in charge of a trio of vehicles that form your mobile field base, which is essentially a pit crew that can be ordered to reload and repair your mech on the battlefield. Although the MFB will try to stay out of the action, it can be destroyed if you aren't careful. So while the MFB is your lifeline, even as it renders the especially powerful BattleTech weapons (which hold very little ammunition) far more practical, it's also an all-new liability. Luckily, you usually won't have to fight alone and can order your lancemates to protect the MFB at the touch of a button. Communicating with your team is simple, and friendly pilots do a good job following orders, even as enemy pilots do a good job trying to put an end to you and your allies alike. Enemy mechs maneuver effectively, changing directions often and dodging and weaving to avoid your attacks, and their aim is good but not so perfect that you can't get away from their guns with some fancy footwork of your own. But being quick on your feet won't keep you alive for long, especially if you're up against several enemies at once, as they'll try to take advantage of their superior numbers by flanking and surrounding you.
It's too bad, then, that the campaign is a little too straightforward and short for its own good, with only around 20 missions. Though they're linked seamlessly, the missions aren't terribly unique either, and in light of how good the game looks otherwise, it's disappointing that the campaign wasn't quite as bold or impressive as most everything else about MechWarrior 3. You'll probably end up spending a lot of time in the excellent instant-action mode instead, which you can use to easily set up fights against any number of enemies of any size and strength. You can even choose to fight wave after wave or progressively more challenging opponents, as well as pit yourself in base-attack and base-defense missions. Multiplayer MechWarrior 3 is similarly flexible and allows for both deathmatch and team-play battles, with plenty of opponents guaranteed on Microsoft's Gaming Zone.
You could nitpick about how MechWarrior 3's mech lab interface is a little convoluted, making it cumbersome to customize your machine; and it's true that the campaign isn't quite as exciting as it might have been. Long-time fans will also lament the absence of some of the most interesting mech chassis types, like the marauder and the rifleman, which have been quietly discontinued because of legal concerns surrounding BattleTech's borrowing too much from the Japanese animation that inspired it. But these concerns aren't so very important once you find that MechWarrior 3 looks, sounds, and controls better than anything else like it.