Among PC gamers, the MechWarrior
series has always stood out in the sparsely populated "giant robot" sub-genre of video games, not so much for being a more visual representation of the tabletop strategy/role-playing game, Battletech
, but for being a pretty hardcore simulation. But, no longer. A free-to-play online version has been available since late 2013, but has since lost it's sim and story-line focus in favor of team-based action. With a tantalizing tease of a new "real" MechWarrior
game in the near future, what better time to take a gander at the road that led us here.
The PC has always been a haven for simulations. We of course have flight sims, and tank sims, and driving sims, but we also have simulations focusing on reenacting historical battles (Birth of America
and its sequel), presidential elections (the President Forever
series), and space flight (Microsoft Space Simulator
). My personal favorite are sims that are based on something in the real world, yet don't have a real world analog. Space sims, which are games that have to do with (generally) interstellar space travel, trading, and empire building, are a great example. Car combat sims, such as the excellent Interstate '76
, are another. But the weirdest of all, perhaps, are the Battletech
series of games. While many consider the first MechWarrior
game (released in 1989) to be the bomb that started the "giant robot sim" craze on the PC during the '90s, it was the landmark title, MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat
that most people seem to remember. Heck, a slightly arcadier version was ported to the home consoles of the time, and despite running a bit on the choppy side, is still fun to play on those platforms, at least on the Sony PlayStation. Not so sure about the Saturn, but my experiences with 3D on that platform (outside of some of the fighting games) was never very good. I'd love to hear from someone who did play it, though.
Just to fill in a bit, the MechWarrior
games are set in a future universe locked in combat, and for so long that oftentimes being a mechwarrior equates you to being a knight in medieval Europe, with a mech being passed down sometimes for generations, yet lovingly maintained and deadly. The Battletech
tabletop game (upon which MechWarrior
is based) has a long and detailed history, with more than a thousand years of detailed battles and skirmishes. I find it as interesting as I do exhausting. You start MechWarrior 2
by choosing a side; Clan Jade Falcon or Clan Wolf, and participate is a 32 mission campaign (16 per clan). See, there is this great big mucking war happening between them, and I have no idea what is going on. What I do know is if I hit the "t" key whilst in combat, I can cycle through targets, and the enemies are highlighted in red. Exposition be damned! Well, the history is present if you do want to read on it, unlike other sims such as Wing Commander
, it is very easy to forgo the happenings of the game in favor of grinding out missions. Kind of a shame really, as there are plenty of characters the devs could have used.
A successful mission. Clicking on "Aftermath" gives you some RP-style flavor text
So, is this game fun? Heck, yeah! It is a little button crazy, but remember this was the era before controllers for PCs more than six buttons, so compromises were made. I personally played with the keyboard for movement and the mouse for aiming and firing, but mouse "movement" only accounts for the twist of the mech's torso, so making sure to coordinate moving and strafing on the keyboard with aiming and firing on the mouse takes a little bit more practice than in modern FPS games, but within about thirty minutes I was circle-strafing around enemies like a pro. What took longer was how the weapons are fired. First, clicking on the "fire" button rapidly will quickly cycle through all of your mech's weapons, firing each one in order. If you want to only
fire one weapon, you need only hold in the "fire" button (mouse button one for me). Of course, this doesn't help with weapons that require a few seconds to reload, and it certainly doesn't help with overheating... Oh, did I forget to mention that? Management of heat is a big strategy in this game, as if you charge into battle at full speed, firing your weapons willy-nilly, you will inevitably overheat your mech, which will force an shutdown shutdown. As you can imagine, when this happens in the middle of a battle, it is a most inconvenient event. You can override the shutdown ("o" on the keyboard), but overheat too much and your mech explodes. Something to think about, right? Back to the weapons, I find the best thing to do is to group weapons together and cycle through them, but that leads us right back to the third sentence of this paragraph; there are a lot of buttons, and sometimes they aren't very close together. I'd say looking down at your keyboard is as detrimental in the game as overheating.
List of equipable weapons on the right, in the middle: Machinegun Mech!!!
What is truly amazing about MechWarrior 2
is the sheer amount of control you have over your mech's load-out. Basically, as long as you are obeying a few rules, the sky is the limit. Want to make a pure missile platform? Do it. Want a super-fast autocannon gunner? Go for it. It does take a few tries to get certain things right, such as balancing heat sinks vs. heat generating weapons, amount of ammo, or different types of armor, but before you know it you'll find your sweet spot for each mech, and be able to create different load-outs for each environment. Close quarters combat? SRMs (short range missiles) and autocannons (think, tank bullets). Defending from a distance? LRMs (long range missiles), and a ton of ammo. Whatever floats your boat.
I think the graphics and sound also deserve a nod. While in later games the music takes a backseat to giant robot and weapon noises as well as voice actors, this is not so in MechWarrior 2
. The music is general MIDI, but will play on a number of old school sound cards, though I can report that it will sound better on a SoundBlaster AWE32, or better on a SC-55. DOSbox will output it through the wretched MS Wavetable synth (you know, the thing you don't remember is there anymore), but even then it is upbeat and fast, much in the way of the DOOM games. Not atmospheric at all, instead it makes you want to blow up some mechs, which is nice. Regarding the graphics, they do not have the flash that is associated with the better textures from the special graphic card editions of MechWarrior 2
, but they more than get the job done, especially at 1024x768 (!), which is pretty special considering the year the game came out. It even looks great on an LCD monitor, though not nearly as crispy as a CRT ;P.
And with that we finally come to the main fault of MechWarrior 2
: it has serious balancing issues. Not with the enemies, but with your mech. See, with the ability to customize your walking tank, you can pretty much load them out however your want. This brings me to my favorite (and game breaking) build, the Machinegun Mech, which is a mech armed with nothing but machine guns. Eight, ten; as many as you can fit (with appropriate amounts of ammo). Not missiles or giant tank bullets, but relatively small bullets, that when grouped together and fired upon an enemy in an sustained manner, will destroy them in a hurry. And since this game allows for targeting of specific limbs, one can annihilate the legs, very quickly in most cases, of any mech in the game. Now, since you have to be at close range to do this, it isn't perfect, but a medium or heavy mech armed to the teeth with machine guns and ammo will be unstoppable. I won't lie and say this technique isn't fun, but it does make for a very short game.
I tried this mission without my Machinegun Mech to spice things up. About a minute after this I was dead.
While many DOS games have found their way onto modern digital software services, the MechWarrior
games have not, finding homes only on warez and abandonware sites. Fortunately, physical copies are pretty easy to find, and of you have a DOS capable system it is a snap to get working. It is almost as easy if you play on DOSbox, assuming that you have an optical drive and IMGBurn (which is free). I like to use a DOSbox front-end called DBGL, which has an option for installing from real media (via image, disk, or disc). Of course you can just use command line with DOSbox (sans front-end), but I generally save that for the real hardware. It took me a little bit to get the music working, but if there is demand I might write up a tutorial or something.
If you plan on picking the game up (and I think you should), you need to be very careful of exactly what version you get. Simply put, there are a large number of versions of MechWarrior 2
floating around, and most of them are not DOS, or even remotely easy to get running. Most are specifically for Windows 95 as well as one or two different video cards, and all are highly unstable and prone to crashing without extensive patching, and even then there are no guarantees. After about three hours I was unable to get the Titanium Trilogy
(which supports 3DFX and PowerVR graphics cards) working on any of my systems, be it original hardware or emulated (via MechVM or direct install), on any OS. Prices for all editions are all over the place, but you can get a disc for less than $10 in most cases, be it DOS or otherwise. Finally, there are expansions you can get, the standalone Mercenaries
and Ghost Bear
, which requires the original title. Given the choice, I would go Mercenaries
, as it features more of everything, along with some more balancing the original title didn't have, though still pretty buggy, just not so much as the Windows 95 versions.
Thanks for reading!