MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries Preview
We go hands-on with the next MechWarrior game from FASA Interactive.
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There's nothing quite like bringing a gigantic 80-ton robot (or "mech") onto a field full of enemy vehicles and other equally large robots and blasting them all to smithereens. You could say that mech games really came into their own with Activision's classic 1995 mech simulation, MechWarrior 2. And you could also say that for some fans, it doesn't get much better than being a one-mech army--strutting your stuff in a heavily armored combat mech bristling with autocannons, particle projection cannons, and missile racks--except when you've got a lance squad of teammates in mechs that are just as big and packing just as much firepower as you are. Large-scale team-based campaigns are where the really big fights happen, and for serious mech fans who regularly compete in matches online, that's where the real fun is.
But the next game in FASA Studio's long-running series, MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries, won't just be for die-hard fans. In fact, the next game won't require you to have followed the previous MechWarrior games, won't require you to play them first, and won't even require you to own them. Instead, this stand-alone game will combine the improved graphics and gameplay of MechWarrior 4 with the intriguing mercenary-hiring mechanics of MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries, the 1996 expansion pack for the now-classic mech simulator. MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries let you play as the leader of a lance, a squad of mech pilots, but in that expansion, you played as a team of mercenaries that was more interested in getting paid for their jobs (and scavenging valuable mech parts from fallen enemies) than in participating in the complex politics of the MechWarrior universe.
Piloting a mech in MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries will be surprisingly simple, at least to begin with. Mercenaries has the same sort of general control scheme as the previous games: Your mech can accelerate forward or backward with the throttle, it can turn in any direction, and it can also swivel the top of its chassis (where most of its weapons are stored) independently of the direction in which it's moving, which is handy for locking onto tougher enemies while continuously moving to avoid incoming fire. And you tap the Enter key on your keyboard (or press the trigger on your joystick, if you're using one) to fire. Mechs essentially handle like tanks with legs, but choosing a relatively agile one, like the Cougar or the Uller, can help you get into and out of skirmishes quickly.
But there's a lot more to MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries than pointing and shooting. MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries will let you equip your mech with up to six different types of weapons, including short-range weapons like mounted machine guns and more far-reaching weapons like particle beams and long-range missiles. As in previous MechWarrior games, the most effective way to fight enemy mechs in Mercenaries will be with finesse and precision. Smacking an enemy Vulcan mech right in the torso with a Gauss cannon will be a great way to put it out of commission quickly but will also turn it into a pile of smoking rubble. A much more profitable, but more dangerous, approach is disabling an enemy mech by shooting out its legs so you can salvage its parts later to add to your own mechs, or you can sell the parts for C-bills on the black market. Since MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries will eventually let you command two full lance squads, it'll be in your best interests to make sure you can grab at least some salvage on the battlefield to augment your income. Fortunately, MechWarrior 4's single-player campaign will have numerous optional side missions that you can perform for extra cash.
Load 16 tons, and What Do You Get?
There's no question that the developer wants to make sure you have a fat wallet in Mercenaries, because you'll have a lot of things to spend your money on. For instance, in the single-player campaign, in the game's instant-action mode, and in multiplayer play, you'll need to stop by the MechLab, a no-nonsense interface that lets you put together the mech you want for yourself and your lancemates. MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries will have more than 30 mechs right out of the box, and the game will also be fully compatible with Microsoft's recently released independent mech packs, which are sold separately. Just like in MechWarrior 4, you'll equip your mechs using predetermined slots, or hard points, for different sizes and types of weapons, armor, and electronics.
Mercenaries will have the same sort of weapon-armor dynamic as the previous MechWarrior 4 games. You'll be able to choose from three major classes of weapons: ballistics, like machine guns; beam weapons, like particle cannons; and missiles, like LRMs. You'll also have access to three kinds of armor: reflective, which is especially effective against beam weapons; reactive, which is especially effective against projectiles; and ferro fibrous, which provides less protection than heavy armor but is much lighter. You'll also be able to equip your mechs with various electronic additions, like enhanced optics that will improve your accuracy at long distances, electronic countermeasures that thwart incoming missile tracking and enemy radar, and new features like advanced gyro, which acts to stabilize your mech and keep it from rocking wildly when it takes a serious hit. Depending on how you wish to play the game, you may want to make sure you don't get too greedy and weigh down your mech with heavy weapons; if you prefer to play the role of a scout or an advance charger, for instance, you'll want to stay mobile. On the other hand, you may very well want to armor up, saddle your mech with the biggest guns possible, then hang back and bombard your enemies while your lancemates get up-close and personal.
That's the beauty of being a mercenary lance leader--you can get your troops to fill whatever role you don't feel like playing. While you're browsing the free market for new mechs and weapons, you'll also want to stockpile a few C-bills to hire the top mech jockeys, who will appear and reappear over the course of the game's campaign. Each will have four statistics--gunnery, piloting, sensors, and blindfighting--and the better the pilot, the higher the price. Though previous games let you command a full lance of four pilots (yourself and three teammates), MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries will actually let you command two full lances for a total of eight mechs in all. Later on in the campaign game, and in the expanded multiplayer game (which will feature a few new options, like a cooperative mission mode), this expanded roster will let you fight some truly spectacular battles with herds of mechs in the field. You'll need a good computer to play through these battles with all the detail settings turned up, but the continuous volleys of lasers and gunfire and the spectacular explosions definitely seem worth it at this point.
MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries has looked better and better each time we've seen it. You'll be able to strap yourself into a brand-new mech and fight for gold and glory when the game is released in November.