An interesting bit of news surfaced this past week that caught my attention. IGN reported that Smith and Tinker and Piranha Games are rebooting the storied PC Mech franchise with an all new game on the PC and Xbox 360 entitled MechWarrior. Now you can read the article in its entirety and watch a teaser trailer for the upcoming title here, but what I want to write about today is what this announcement means to me by looking back on my Mech battling past.
To start of I am going to go way back. All the way back to 1988. I was in my mid teens and a Commodore 64 owner looking for a fresh and exciting RPG to sink my teeth into. I was recently wowed by my first experiences with the Robotech animated series and was looking to find a game that was comparable in story and scope. Via the magazines of the time I was introduced to the Battletech series, seeing ads for the game Battletech: The Crescent Hawk Inception. Even though the C64 version was mildly ‘nerfed’ compared to its PC counterparts it was a solid RPG and was an unusual genre for the franchise as future games would focus on the direct piloting of the Mechs. I quickly completed this game, but little did I know that it would be the better part of two decades before I would get to revisit the Battletech/MechWarrior series. This time it would sport a new, hipper title, MechAssault.
In the first days of Xbox LIVE is was really about two games, Ghost Recon and MechAssault. For me I was not as interested in the complex military action of Ghost Recon so I quickly latched onto MechAssault. I appreciated its variety of Mechs, online teamwork, and accessibility of play. A spent many an evening playing the multiplayer component if favour of the single player campaign. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that this game was a moderate success on the platform. It also brought twitch gameplay to the franchise that had been firmly rooted on the PC since A couple of years later a sequel was released entitled MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf.
When MechAssault 2 came out it appeared that it would be a sure fire hit as it looked to have improved on the original title in everyway possible on paper. One of the big bullet points for this title was a persistent online conflict where your conflicts had an overall effect on the balance of power within the games universe. While the game pushed forward the mythology of the Battletech universe the game was mired in several game breaking problems. The games poor matchmaking and lack of flexibility to chose your Mech within its persistent online battle often left me and my friends stuck in lobbies waiting for enough people to make a game. We not so fondly began to refer to the game as ‘Lobby-Assault’. The poor performance of two fan favourite properties (the other being Shadowrun) led to Microsoft disbanding the development studies and selling the rights to Smith and Tinker. Now I led with where that went, but I am not ready to return to that story. Two other great games were yet to be played, Steel Battalion and Chromehounds.
Steel Battalion and its online sequel, Steel Battalion: Line of Contact, were games in my opinion that were well ahead of their time. Unfortunately the game’s greatest strength was its greatest weakness, the prohibitively priced, but oh so awesome controller. Steel Battalion weighed in at a hefty $250 price tag, its price at the time was comparable to the price of the entire console it ran on (the Xbox if you did not know already). Also due to the pricing the game was available in very limited numbers. But those who were able to find the game and pay the price discovered a game experience that you could not find anywhere else on home consoles.
Capcom’s ambition increased ten fold with the release of the online expansion, Line of Contact. The online game supported 5 vs.. 5 Vertical Tank combat, collectable rare items, chat rooms, an action house, and a persistent online conflict where your battles again would effect the state of the overall conflict. I had an awesome personal campaign going in LoC, but two things in this game doomed my interest. When you die in Steel Battalion, you die. Your career is over and all you have accumulated is gone. So when my character died I actually was shocked and felt like somebody kicked me in the stomach. That coupled with the ‘lobby assault’ where it could take up to 30 minutes to get a game together spelled the end for this game for me. Steel Battalion burned the brightest, but certainly not the longest. I often wonder what could have been had this game waited one more generation to be released. Again it would be a couple more years before the torch was picked up again with Sega’s Chromehounds on the Xbox 360.
I was very excited for the arrival of Chromehounds. I had a lot of confidence that the third time would be the charm and this persistent online world thing would finally take a hold in the Xbox LIVE community. Once again though it appeared that poor net coding would be the bane of this genre of gaming on the Xbox console space. While I and my friends had a lot of fun building ‘Hounds and taking part in the battle, in the end we had to settle for playing against the computer as the game could just not handle the scope of the games online play. At the end of the day I am left to wonder if this genre, this style of play had anywhere to go this generation. Fortunately it appears that we will get at least one more opportunity with the franchise that started it all for me, MechWarrior.
While we are only introduced to this game with a teaser trailer, from what I observed it appears to strike a balance between Steel Battalion and MechAssault. The inclusion of 4-player co-op is a huge win as well. So after years of hits and misses in this genre I am very confident that the retooled MechAssault franchise will strike the correct chord once and for all. I will be watching closely any developments on this game. Xbox 360 and PC owners be on the lookout, the new generation of Mech assaulting will soon be at hand.