When it comes to giant robot fisticuffs and explosions, there isn’t much of a talent pool to be diluted. So, when a new game does come around, it’s a bit “all or nothing” in terms of how good it’ll be. Fortunately MechWarrior, as a series, has had thirty two years to get it right.
Borne from the BattleTech tabletop games, MechWarrior made the jump to video games in 1989 with its first person wargames. From then, each offering has expanded on the lore and technical prowess each system allows it. Giant robot games have never really held the spotlight in games, usually relegated to plot device or occasional mode of transport. Yet MechWarrior has stood the test of time, for better or worse.
So, by number five, you’d think that the formula would be locked in for an amazing robotic warfare simulator, right? Or would you think the returns have been thoroughly diminished and trodden into the dirt? Jump into that ‘Mech, prime the engines and we’ll find out.
Fighting That Endless Battle
Again, with my limited knowledge of the BattleTech universe, I didn’t realise how vast the established story was. But then, that’d be nothing different than jumping into Command & Conquer at Red Alert 3 and being surprised by the lore.
The story so far, in recap form, is that this is set in the final stages of the Third Succession War. Which, retroactively, makes it a prequel to the first MechWarrior game. Honestly, there’s such a jump between the games, you’ll have to forgive me not knowing it all. War breeds mercenaries, and as such, various clans and factions have popped up in that time.
You are the son of Nikolai Mason, the leader of the imaginatively named Nik’s Cavaliers. Yet weirdly, you don’t have a name. You’re always referred to as Commander which, whilst being correct in military terminology, is somewhat generic and disjointing. Shortly after the tutorial, you and the old man are mech-jumped by another mercenary unit and as is the way, your father becomes the noble sacrifice.
As narratives go, the son surpasses those with inexplicably more experience to become the leader of Nik’s Cavaliers and thus the story begins proper. As the unit builds up reputation over missions and time, Nik’s son seeks to avenge his death and discover the secrets that were worth hunting him down for. It’s a surprisingly large campaign, spanning various planets and terrains as the Cavaliers expand their reach.
The Right ‘Mech for the Right Job
Clichéd revenge story aside, MechWarrior is and has always been about one primary thing: giant robot warfare. It’s been a staple since the beginning, and thankfully, Mercenaries maintains that standard.
It’s hard to write a review with no prior knowledge of a series, but I have a valid excuse: I preferred Front Mission. So when it comes to the classes of mechs and factions, my brain wants to call them Wanzers. So again, pardon my ignorance if you’ve got a MechWarrior duvet set and I’m murdering the franchise with my lack of preparation.
There are four classes of battle mech in MechWarrior 5: Light, Medium, Heavy and Assault. Within each class is a whole host of different types, with different specifications to cater to many. Naturally the Light’s are quick at the expense of armour, whilst Heavy’s are the opposite. Quite literally walking tanks, when you think about it. Then there’s the Assault Mechs, a class that outweighs the Heavy is actual weight, fuel consumption and maintenance costs. These fellas are the equalizers, the biggun’s that you bring into to play to level the playing think.
Fortunately, players aren’t restricted to just one ‘Mech to personalise. You can host quite a few mechs in a frankly massive hangar, so much that it’s like evening wear: which stomping machine would look best on this battlefield? Each robot feels lived in, for lack of pretention, especially when you ride out in cockpit view. Seeing the variety of console layout and windows shows that Piranha Games pays attention to detail, which is nice.
There is a caveat to owning a fleet of these beasts, which we’ll get into, but it’s very cool seeing the fruits of your labour laid out. Want your Banshee sporting some sick flames, or the beefy Jagermech looking slick with digital camo paint? You’re more than welcome to do so.
As always, a Mech is only as good as the pilot controlling it. It can have all the bells and whistles going, but if you don’t know how to ring or blow on them, it won’t be much fun. MechWarrior 5 does have a fair few bells, but thankfully it’s not as convoluted as the old Steel Battalion controllers used to be. No plastic eject buttons here.
Piloting these bipedal beasts is relatively easy. Well, as easily accommodating to us console peasants as can be, at least. Movement, as one might expect, is left stick for walking and right for camera. But whilst that sounds simple, it’s a bit finickity at times. Legs move independent of cockpit, on a pivot, meaning that whilst you might be facing the right way, you’re actually about to walk off of a ledge. There’s a button to snap back to alignment, but it also just pays to be mindful. Luckily, the HUD shows players which way both torso and legs are facing.
Movement itself comes in two forms: a “set and forget” mode and ‘Throttle Decay’. The former lets you set a speed and the legs will maintain that, allowing movement and strafing whilst not having to worry about jamming left stick forward. The latter is that though; speed is determined by how far you push the stick and maintain it, like any other game. Again, bit fiddly at first, but over time players will find their preference.
Weapons are mapped to the shoulder and trigger buttons, as standard. Your hangar will let you swap out weapons from a whole host of launchers, lasers, flamethrowers and more, but that’s not all. You can pair, for example, two weapons up to one button: pair a laser up with a launcher, use said laser to paint the target as missiles fly at them too. Have a play around, is my advice. Each mech can handle different weights and loadouts, meaning half the joy is in finding out what suits which and unleashing merry hell when it works.
Lancing the Boil
With big, destructable-ish environments you’d think it a bit sparse with only you in it. Well, and the various ground and flying enemy vehicles in it, but that’s to be expected. Thankfully, you don’t have to do it alone. MechWarrior 5 supports up to four player co-op, meaning you and your squad (or “Lances” in this universe) can wreck shit up and divide the spoils.
In the longer-than-expected time I had to review it, I did jump on a few missions with some friends. By coincidence, I got my review code around the time it came to Xbox Game Pass, which was helpful. What few missions we did together was immense fun, spent between being a tactical strike team and dicking about. If you don’t have friends to play with, however, MechWarrior 5 lets players fill out their Lance with AI pilots.
For the most part, it works. Basic commands can be issued with the D-pad and more often than not, things will run relatively smoothly. Not always, mind, as the AI sometimes has a habit of destroying the objective you’re about to save, or getting stuck on walls. But then, name a game that doesn’t have the odd foible or temperamental AI in it, and I’ll call you a fibber.
But say you’re further than a mate in the campaign, or vice versa, and don’t want to spoil it. Well in that regard, MechWarrior 5 has you covered. Have you ever thought about a career as a mercenary?
For The Right Price
Back when this was launched in 2020, MechWarrior 5 only had the story mode going for it. Thankfully, its console port has been timed to release at the same time as the Heroes of the Inner Sphere DLC. Fans disappointed by the single-player only version of this game last year will be pleased, as this DLC brings PvP back to the mix.
Found under Career Mode in the main menu, HotIS puts you as a mercenary (surprisingly enough). As such, you are bound to no loyalty, only the highest earning jobs. Much like the campaign, a savvy mercenary can negotiate their price and pick the best paying jobs, all whilst competing against others for top billing jobs.
This mode also offers new ‘Mechs and weapons to explore and splash that cash on, as well as several “Hero” war machines hidden across planets. It’s more fleshed out than, say, the Division’s Dark Zones, and I would hesitate to call the second course after the campaign’s by-the-numbers story.
However, you can share your progress between campaign and career, so fortunately you don’t have to keep starting new ‘Mechs from scratch between the two. Which is good, as it turns out running a successful, giant robot warband is not a cheap enterprise.
When An Arm and a Leg Costs… Well, An Arm and a Leg
One of MechWarrior 5’s greatest strengths, or weaknesses if you’re a tightwad, is its base management system. Personally, I fall apart at these things. RPG menus is one thing, fine, but ‘Mech micromanagement is not my forte. But for those who can enjoy them, then you’re in your element here.
As it transpires, players generally want to aim to keep their mechs in a reasonable state between missions. Whilst you might think that losing an arm is a cheap and quick fix, it is quite the opposite. Cosmetic damage isn’t too bad, but it may not surprise you that 10ft long arms that function as an extension of a human’s are not cheap. That, and the repair time of your favourite robot could set you back an in-game, leaving you short to take on a big mission.
The looming threat of bankruptcy and lack of income looms here, so players will sometimes need to be frugal or plan ahead. It may seem a big paying job, but if the cost outweighs the gain, is it really worth it? Will the bounty really feel rewarding when it’s stretched five ways across your base, robots and staff?
These were questions I wasn’t prepared for when I got the “giant robot game” to review. But as it was, I embraced it. Mirroring my own financial state, I managed… but it was tense at times. Thanks for keeping it real, giant robot game.
Not Just the Paintwork That Has Chips and Cracks
When it comes to the negatives, I think I’ve already mentioned a few of them already. The story is largely forgettable. I could tell you that Mason avenges his father, or one of his crew betrays him down the line. One or both could be true, but that I came up with them on the spot shows how cliché it is.
Technically, the aforementioned AI issues can break a mission’s progress sometimes. Sure, with its roguelike level structure, you can hit restart if you want to. But again, that breaks the “natural” flow of the game. Surely you’d want it to be organic, the pros and cons of mercenary management? Hitting restart when things get tough is almost cheap, but that’s on you.
The other gripe is that outside of the mechs themselves, the environments are somewhat lacklustre. That’s the caveat with attention to the minute detail on the robots: the large scale suffers from “it looks alright”-ness. It’s not noticeable when you’re playing in-cockpit, for the above. But when that external camera is utilised and you stop admiring your paintjob, keen eyes will notice the copy-paste, generic looking randomised warzones.
Don’t let that put you off, though. MechWarrior 5 doesn’t claim to be pushing boundaries like a first-party Sony title. The attention and craft is in the robots, and if you’re a series veteran, you’ll share that level of appreciation too. It’s just for the newcomers; look at the pretty robots, don’t worry about the set dressing.
Ending on a positive, don’t let the few dings above put you off. Whilst the cynical ol’ me may jab at the plot, it’s still entertaining enough to build up the reputation of Nik’s Cavaliers like the proverbial phoenix. Yes, it’s been done… but not in giant robots.
It’s also got decent voice acting and delivery, featured some diverse and stereotypically corny accents in there. Even Elias Toufexis, of Adam “I never asked for this” Jensen fame, props up the narrative somewhat, which is nice. As long as you go in with tempered expectations, there’s some fun to be had here.
If you’re playing solo, there’s a massive campaign to get your teeth into. Yet if you’ve got some friends that fancy some robo-et-robo action too, then Heroes of the Inner Sphere will wet those whistles. Divvying up those spoils like contracted space pirates is great, as is the action required to obtain them.
It’s not AAA, high-value stuff, but then it doesn’t need to be. MechWarrior, as a series, has carved its comfortable niche so it can afford to be mid-level. For fans, this will be a nice continuation (unless you’re that particular about changes). The only drawback is that to newcomers, this might be overwhelming. However, and this is a biased statement, if you are an Xbox Game Pass player, PC or console, there’s nothing to lose by giving it a go with friends.
It might be overwhelming for newcomers, but stick with it and MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries offers some surprisingly deep and rewarding giant robot combat. The management side might confuse, but stick with it, and you’ll enjoy the ups and down of mercenary life.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is available now on Xbox One (reviewed on), PS4, PS5 and Xbox Series S|X via backwards compatibility, and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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