Game Reviews

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries Review

A satisfying return to single-player with a few scorch marks.

by Brandon Adams
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries Review

I begin to power up my Atlas as the dock swivels around toward the entry doors of my Leopard dropship. Power on; weapons on – everything appears ready as my mech blinks to life. I’m here on this distant desert world to assassinate a band of pirates who have been giving House Kurita no shortage of trouble, and I made sure to load myself and my lance with our best weapons. The door of the Leopard rises, and I thunder outside into the arid, dry air.

Two minutes later my Atlas is cored by an Awesome after an entire army of tanks and VTOLs blasted my armor away the moment I left my dropship. Just another day in Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries.

It’s been nearly twenty years…

Yes, you are read that correctly: MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is indeed a thing; it does truly exist. I wouldn’t fault anyone for being a bit dazed by this revelation: MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries released back in 2002, and there hasn’t been a single-player entry since. MechWarrior: Online aside, the franchise has been dormant almost two whole decades. Unless you kept up with MechWarrior: Online, or Hairbrained Schemes excellent turn-based BattleTech, you probably don’t remember your Riflemen from your JagerMechs. I was twelve when I last played a MechWarrior game, and in the intervening years the venerable franchise had faded from my memory. Pair all that with the delay MechWarrior 5 endured since its announcement, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting it exists.

But it’s here, it’s real, and it’s largely great. Mechs still feel powerful and stompy, as I recall behind rose-tinted glasses, and I can’t deny the simple fact that blowing shit up with a one-hundred ton Atlas makes me smile as much today as it did in the late nineties and early aughts. Yet, despite all the nostalgic dopamine MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries loves to pump into my veins, it made a terrible first impression. The lackluster MechBay and the first story act almost turned me away from the game entirely. I’m glad they didn’t, however, because the rest of the game is solid, and I’m thoroughly addicted to it.

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Let’s start with the bad.

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries provides you a Leopard dropship with a fully detailed MechBay to explore in a first-person perspective. It’s essentially your base of operations, but it’s so lifeless and dull that you’ll ignore it over the more easily accessible menus. The interactive portions of the MechBay are never worth using, seeing as the game has the bright idea to drop you off between missions at the foot of a MechLab terminal you can’t use unless you first walk away. I honestly want to know why, of all places, this was the location Piranha chose to deposit your character, when the command deck upstairs has all the important interactable objects! 

Seriously, the command deck has the Starmap, Market, Contracts, and terminals for the MechLab: why in the Hell am I being left downstairs by the lifeless Fahad, the mech engineer? What’s even more annoying, is whenever you start or finish a campaign milestone you need to talk to your right-hand, Ryana. Can you guess where she is on the Leopard?

You sprint across the bay, up the stairs, and into the command deck to find Ryana just standing there at the command console, where she monologues at you; she never moves, interacts, or even acknowledges your existence otherwise. Better yet, all the NPCs on the Leopard are like this. They stare at you with cold, dead eyes, barely moving until you are directly in their face. Even then, their silence is deafening.

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There is absolutely no incentive to explore your MechBay, outside the occasional screenshot. Simply click the Tab key, and ta-freaking-da, there is the entire menu UI with everything you need. Which, is exactly what most people will do once they load back on to their ships: click Tab and forget the MechBay even exists. It’s such a damn shame, because it could have been an awesome base of operations.

The lifeless NPCs, poor spawn placement, and general lack of anything to do in it made me wonder if the time spent developing it could have been better spent elsewhere (the A.I. comes to mind, but more on that later). This became more infuriating once I realized most of the graphical bells and whistles were reserved for this damn place. That’s not to say that MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is a bad looking game; it’s a fine looking game inside and outside the cockpit, but knowing the delayed RTX implementation is for the MechBay…just, why?

The game even opens with you in a hanger on a planet, and all it did was tease me with dreams of what could have been. What if were able to pick a world as our base, and had to slowly build it up over the course of the campaign? What if the NPCs walked around and actually did things? None of these things ever become a reality, and with the Leopard being your sole base, it feels like a large, missed opportunity.

Of course, the flaccid story doesn’t do the intro any favors either.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

You play the son of a famed MechWarrior who is immediately assassinated, leaving his company in your hands as you seek revenge. Yep, it’s this plot again. You spend most of the story tracking down Black Inferno, the merc squad that did your old man in, and that’s about as exciting as it gets. All the storytelling is either done at the command console where Ryana or your benefactor, Sparks, will deliver exposition dumps, or by Ryana via her mission chatter (she is the voice forever in your ear in MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries). Not only is this approach dull, it doesn’t give the supporting cast any room to grow or contribute. There isn’t an emotional pull to any of the events that occur in game, if “events” is the word I want to use.

I say that, because campaign missions rarely deviate from the template used in the normal missions. I’m fine with standard contracts being simple “go here, kill the dude,” or, “go here, destroy the thing” variants, but I expected the campaign to mix things up. This is largely due to the regular missions being procedurally generated, and the campaign missions being tailor made. Unless you count “interact with these crates” and “maybe turn on these generators for turrets” as exciting permutations, most campaign missions are retreads that sometimes feature a simple gimmick.

I eventually made peace with this, and after the first Act (Act I is a giant tutorial), the game finds its groove. At this junction, the campaign missions begin to more coherently slot in with the mercenary-themed gameplay rhythm of “take on contracts to earn more money, equipment, and reputation; repeat.” While I was still disappointed by their simplicity, they at least began to blend in with the core loop. Later Acts do see some plot twists, and lore-hounds will enjoy the intrigue, but the main campaign never becomes anything more than a carrot on a stick.

I found the various quests dotting the Starmap to be more entertaining. Not so much for their storytelling – that was still “meh” at best – but because of the world-building and lore they provided. As someone who only realized MechWarrior and BattleTech were the same thing five years ago (a sin I’ve since gone on to amend), these quests provided me further insight into the state of the Inner Sphere circa the early 31st century. Yes, dedicated BattleTech fans may not be as fond of this world-building as I, considering their existing investment with the franchise, but the quests nonetheless provided the most enjoyable writing found within the game.

But, let’s stop for a second and ask ourselves: are we really playing MechWarrior 5 for the story? I’m not trying to argue story doesn’t matter (it does), but it isn’t the main attraction here. That billeting belongs to the mechs.

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Oh, what worlds we will see. And destroy.

And what beautifully, stompy, and destructive mechs they are. There are well over fifty BattleMechs on offer here, with each one having at least a variant or two possessing different hardpoints. Yes, you read that right: hardpoints are based on which variant you own. For those coming over from MechWarrior: Online, this may be a touch disappointing. You won’t be swapping engines, altering the structure, or changing hardpoints in MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries. This makes sense from a lore-perspective: no one was ballsy enough to tinker with these ancient BattleMechs quite yet, but it will certainly feel limiting to anyone making the transition.

While this may seem a negative to some, it establishes a sense of progression as you take on contracts to increase your mercenary company’s reputation. See, not only are there the various BattleTech factions you can improve your standing with, but each mission contributes to your overall reputation as a professional outfit. Helping The Federated Suns will increase your reputation with them and allow you to negotiate better rewards in future missions, but it’s that company rank that will hang around your neck acting as a soft barrier to harder content, and as an initial hard wall to additional campaign missions.

As you rank up, take on additional jobs, and complete campaign missions you’ll advance the in-game calendar, pushing the days, months, and even years ahead. This mechanic may appear annoying at first, acting as a way to stall BattleMech repairs and pilot recovery, but what it is actually doing is gradually unlocking additional toys to play with. MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is faithful to canon, so if certain LosTech isn’t found until 3038 by the Grey Death Legion then don’t expect to see it in the markets in 3020.

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The same goes for mechs and missions: it may not be openly telegraphed by any prompt within the game, but the Fourth Succession War does kick off in 3028, and there will be flavor text in the appropriate missions to ensure everything stays lore friendly. The Starmap shifts and evolves to compensate for these changes, like a large swathe of the northern sector becoming the Free Rasalhague Republic in 3034. Lore-hounds will undoubtedly enjoy this little touch, as it keeps the game from breaking three decades of established canon.

It doesn’t assist the story as much as you’d hope, with everyone in the main cast seemingly never aging, and campaign events feeling like they take place days apart, instead over the course of decades. Considering the overall weakness of the story, it’s not the largest complaint I can levy at the system, considering it serves it primary purpose – gradually unlocking things to play with over time – well. It additionally acts as a small money sink to ensure enterprising pilots are taking on harder contracts, considering all mechs in your active MechBay (not those in cold storage) and pilots on your roster will cost you a substantial fee every quarter.

Atop that, there are High Reward and High Reputation quests, which are lore driven side-quests outside the regular contracts. These missions do not deviate from the established rotation of missions (Raid, Defense, Demolish, Warzone, and Assassination), but they are usually multi-part affairs with a giant payout of bonus rewards at the end. Furthermore, there are multi-mission contracts where you can’t advance time between each individual objective, meaning you have to plan out your roster of available mechs in advance. These are great for farming additional income and salvage if you can make it out in the black, though.

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Because, damn, can you lose money if you don’t prepare properly. The game has a generous auto-save system, and you can restart a mission at any point, but you can still emerge from the crucible with your mechs heavily damaged. Damage takes time and C-Bills to repair, and broken equipment is gone forever. Take your King Crab out loaded with Tier 5 AC-20s and you run the risk of losing them if things go sideways: a few million C-Bills in damages all said. Same goes for your lance: pilots you recruit level up, and if they die during a mission they stay dead.

Furthermore, repair costs and time are increased in Conflict Zones, where contracts are found, with some zones increasing repair costs by 300%. You can flee to an Industrial Hub where there are no penalties for repairing, but you will need to pay for the travel as well as advance time to get there (which means a costly quarterly payment could hit in transit). This can cost a small fortune itself if you are out in the deeper recesses of the Inner Sphere. It’s easy to stay in the black, but even easier to go into the red if you are impatient.

MechWarrior eases you into this punishing reality by displaying the recommended clan rank for each Conflict Zone, which acts as a general indicator of your current progress in the game. You level your rank by completing contracts, which in turn means you have more money and better equipment at your disposal. Once you are around clan rank eight (when mission difficulty is around 35 on the games sliding 1-100 difficulty scale) the kiddie gloves come off. Enemy A.I. may not be bright, but the game uses swarm techniques and hidden modifiers to enemy accuracy to punish the impetuous. It’s all fun and games leveling tanks and VTOLs until they attack you in droves with pinpoint accuracy. This hurdle can be overcome: more armor and better damage for a start, sure, but by also hiring on better pilots with better stats.

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Oh yeah, not only are you worried about getting better equipment and the right mechs, but you also need to hire more capable pilots as you progress. These aspiring MechWarriors can be found in Industrial Hubs, and they all come with a spread of stats across six categories: one for each weapon type, the ability to withstand damage, mech heat management, and damage avoidance. This becomes crucial later, as a pilot with only a cap of four to their damage avoidance will wind up cored within milliseconds on harder missions.

These stats also allow you to tailor each mech in your MechLab to a pilot. If Capt. Logan has six out of eight on his ballistics, you’ll want to set him in a mech that has a ballistic lean. Not only will you be able to level the pilot up and eventually get them to eight of eight ballistic skill points, but they’ll contribute more towards your lance than if you had wedged them into an energy-focused mech.

All of this ties together into a surprisingly engaging and fun progression loop. It reminds me of early Warframe in a way: jump into a quick mission, collect your rewards, then use those rewards to push further out into more difficult content. Mission objectives may not be the most diverse batch, but they are great for quick bouts of mechanical rampage. The casual player can accomplish much in a thirty-minute window, while the hardcore will plot every point and contract with precision and care. Layer on top of this the Negotiation system, which sees you using your ever increasing reputation to barter for better rewards (such as a better payout, additional loot to salvage at the end, or insurance against mech damage), and you’ll find MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries delivers on its guns-for-hire fantasy.

I couldn’t pull myself away from this loop, having to review the game notwithstanding. I’d be going about my daily routine thinking of what equipment I needed to farm up to progress, dreaming of the BattleMechs I would soon acquire, and wanting desperately to jump back into the cockpit for another bout of destruction. For as great as the core loop is, God does it feel amazing to pilot one of these towering behemoths.

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Eighty tons of righteous fury.

All of the above would be meaningless if the actual experience of piloting a BattleMech was terrible. In this regard, Piranha delivered, the UI aside. I’ll get that bit out of the way upfront: the UI is bland, and some elements are in curious positions. Coming off of MechWarrior: Online, I expected both the feel of piloting a mech and the UI for controlling one to be on point, but for reasons I cannot ascertain, Piranha decided not to imitate the UI from their multiplayer offering. Each element is flat on the screen, with little personality. It is Spartan in design, though it does convey all the necessary information. It is all function, and no form.

Additionally, some elements could have been placed in better positions. Take the radar for example: in MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries it is in the top-left side of the screen, unlike MechWarrior: Online where it is in the bottom-center. Having the radar in the upper-left I found it more aggravating to track targets, my torso, and my legs. It’s an easy fix, one I am confident mods will provide, but I can’t help but wonder why Piranha took a UI layout that wasn’t broken and tried to…fix it? When I first had access to the game there were no cooldown pips for my cross-hair, which was the oddest omission, but a few days prior to release they patched in the option to enable them, which I did immediately. You can also toggle throttle decay and arm-lock, both from the menu and with a keybinding, which is a relief.

If you can stomach the uninspired UI, you’ll find piloting a mech is a real treat. Every chassis has a real heft to them, with even the faster, lighter mechs feeling weighty. From how the cockpit bobbles with each thunderous step, to the sense of true inertia as you alter your speed, being within a BattleMech feels right. I can’t say the same for third-person, which is an option (and a perfectly serviceable one), but you’d be doing yourself a disservice playing MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries in that perspective. Each cockpit is unique, and holding down left-control lets you look around at all the strapped wiring and control consoles on offer.

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Then there are the weapons; oh sweet heavens, the weapons. They all have the right ooomph to them, from autocannons, to pulse lasers, and more. While I wish the lasers left more visible burn trails on opposing BattleMechs, all weapons feel punchy and powerful. Sure, you will need better tiers of each to take on the harder challenges, but drilling an enemy assault mech in the dome with dual gauss cannons never grows old (though Piranha needs to tune down the mech ragdolling ASAP). Sharp sound design goes a long way here, and every weapon you fire is an auditory treat. Missiles thwump out of their pods, AC-20 rounds sound like boulders being hurled against enemy armor, and lasers crackle and singe. Everything sounds appropriately violent and heavy, just how I like it.

You can alter weapon grouping either in the MechLab, on on the fly with the arrow keys and right-control, meaning you are never locked into a weapon grouping you are unhappy with. You can chainfire as well, though there currently isn’t an option for an Alphastrike, outside mapping all of your weapons to a single weapons group.

You can even pilot your mech with an Xbox controller, or HOTAS: though HOTAS setup requires some ingenuity and file editing on your part. The controller, however, is plug and play. It should be noted, though, that it isn’t perfect. You can’t map combination keybindings, meaning you’ll still need your keyboard to issue commands to your lance, or set your speed by percentage. That said, you can move, aim, and shoot with ease, and it feels good.

And there is plenty to shoot, trust me. Anyone who played the Instant Action beta will already know this, because the game uses swarm tactics in place of brilliant A.I. Actually, the A.I. is a sometimes a few pins short a full pincushion, occasionally pathing into objects or buildings. Enemy mechs love to brawl if you get close enough, though as the difficulty ramps up ranged mechs will try to keep their distance. This, naturally, includes your lance, but you can issue them commands that allow you to mitigate their inherent stupidity.

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The A.I. is by no means broken, though the increased swarms of cannon-fodder and their improved accuracy will make you wish they were smarter instead of precise at the higher level 75 and above difficulties. Better mechs, equipment, and pilots make the hump one you can overcome, but the A.I. never becomes more tactical. I fear the procedurally generated missions are to blame for this, considering the A.I. has to figure its life out on tilesets with a variety of elevation changes, buildings, and overall scale.

This may irk more traditional, tactical players, but the aggressive A.I. works here, because it’s mostly the easily disposed cannon-fodder that will have an issue. The enemy mechs may not be the brightest (you won’t find them torso-twisting here), but they know to move, reposition, and aim. The only major quibble I have is threat: enemies will attack the target hitting them the hardest, or the first target they see (which is you the vast majority of time). Simply assigning a lancemate to a mech is enough to pull it off your ass, but you will need to be judicious and accurate if you wish to escape a mission with most of your mechs intact.

Speaking of the procedural levels, they are a surprisingly good. On the one hand, repetition sets in quickly due to a handful of available biomes. On the other, the generator is capable slapping together tilesets that feel cohesive. Long desert mesas can drop suddenly into a looming valley dominated by a towering city, or a rainy forest can be pocked with farmlands and corporate bunkers. The general look of each biome will become familiar within an hour of play, but how everything snaps together ensures each mission remains engaging. The hand-crafted campaign missions fair better – there is no doubt about that – but the map generator Piranha built is impressive regardless.

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Performance on these maps is largely good as well, but like the rest of the game there are some notable issues. First, there is a weird graininess to the graphics when out on patrol that isn’t present in your Leopard. Altering your post-processing can remove it somewhat, but I wish it was its own setting. Secondly, level-of-detail pop-in is absurdly short. Better quality textures and assets will literally load in right on top of you, with gates around bases becoming real as you step on them.

I get it: we are in a three-story death-machine, so the distance seems shorter than if we were at a more normal, human scale. That thought doesn’t make the constant pop-in any less noticeable. This is apparent even at max settings, and I hope its something Piranha is able to improve in the future.

There is a bit of a secret sauce to the map design in MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, and it tastes a whole lot like wanton destruction. You can plow through walls, level buildings, turn the majority of world into scrap, and all of it feels great. There are even contracts dedicated to leveling entire cities or bases (and even preventing destruction), and I’d be lying if I said they weren’t my favorites.

There is something special about getting into a brawl with an enemy lance deep within the downtown stretch of a civilian city, where cars are crushed underfoot, and there is nothing but rubble left in your wake as you and your opponents waltz around each other for cover. As a mech stackpoles and demolishes a block of residential buildings I can’t help but grin like an idiot. The destruction adds a fun wrinkle to affairs, and while it has some issues (plowing through a building to find it empty is always jarring, and lancemate A.I. sometimes forgets you are trying to defend a settlement), I’m glad it was included.

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Bring some friends.

MechWarrior 5 doesn’t have to be a solo affair if you want to bring in your buddies. The game features both co-op in its campaign, and an Instant Action option for you and a lance of friends to tool around in. Campaign co-op is exactly what it sounds like: you invite friends into your campaign to play alongside you. There are some limitations: they can’t bring over their mechs and progression: they simply become human pilots in your roster, using your mechs and equipment.

When they leave they get…a pat on the back. I really wish this wasn’t the case. I can understand the limitation on mechs and general progression, but as a game with “Mercenaries” in the title, it would have made sense to allow players a cut of the goods. Even if it were reduced to 25% of the coin it would mean no one person’s time was truly wasted. As it stands, it’s really there for when you need a human pilot to help you overcome a hump in the campaign.

Instant Action is the superior co-op experience, because nothing is on the line. Nothing to gain; nothing to lose: just some good ole’ fashioned stompy romps with mates. Every mech and all equipment is available to use in Instant Action, and the host is able to choose from a wide set of variables to create the mission everyone will partake in (or, they can copy a code that other players can paste into their games to see what they created).

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You can even enter Instant Action solo with A.I. teammates (whose skill level you can choose) if you want a quick bout of mechanical murder without worrying over your well cultivated armory in the campaign mode. You can even choose from some pre-built missions if you don’t feel like crafting your own. It’s here in Instant Action that the map generator is allowed the space it needs to fully flex, with players able to push it to its limits. It’s a great way to jump in and enjoy a guilt-free tussle if you aren’t feeling the grind in the campaign.

There is a caveat to both modes: no matchmaking. If you wanna play co-op you need to invite friends, or be invited. Piranha didn’t include VoIP, and they actively encourage players to use Discord and other services. I’m sure there will be a Discord channel for pilots looking for a group, but it’s a bit of a shame Instant Action doesn’t at least feature a lobby system. Because of this, I didn’t have a chance to fully test the co-op, so I can’t accurately talk about performance. Here’s to hoping it all works out as planned on launch.

Additionally, for those who like to share with their friends, Piranha will be launching their full editor with the game, allowing players to craft mods and alter their local version. They promise a packaging tool will debut early next year that will allow everyone to share their mods, but I’m confident modders will figure something out long before that drops. Whoever crafts the first proper mod to alter the mech UI will certainly earn an install from me.

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The Verdict

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is an imperfect game. It makes a terrible first impression, but given time proves itself a belligerently fun experience. It’s story is lackluster, and your dropship as a base is an unquestionable disappointment, but touring around the Inner Sphere taking on more harrowing contracts is a delight once you press beyond Act I. Watching your MechBay expand with increasingly powerful mechs, and witnessing your armory become a proper arsenal as your war chest expands is a compelling reason to continue playing.

This core loop is bolstered by mech combat that is both engaging and satisfying. I’d lob LRMs across the map into the face of an enemy Catapult as I dodged their volley, before pivoting my torso to lay waste to the tanks nipping at my heels, only to find myself plowing through an office building because I forgot to adjust the trajectory of my legs: even when I am playing at my worst it all feels so damn good.

Yet, the game suffers from a thousand little cuts, like dodgy A.I., difficulty based on swarms and accuracy that almost undermines the whole experience at the highest levels, and questionable UI choices. Each one of this little things adds up, and lead to inevitable frustration. I cursed my lancemates more than I praised them, I groaned with anger as I was cored by a tank halfway across the map during my evac, and I damn near quit when the final mission refused to topple against my Tier 5 equipped Assault BattleMechs. There were many times MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries infuriated me. I lost count of all the times I quit the game and walked away for a few minutes.

But I always returned, wanting and eager. Always under the prospect of “just one more mission.” And then a mission after that, and a mission following that. Always “just one more.” It’s in this mantra that MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries excels. It’s not the prettiest, most polished, or the robust of games available, but – damn me – do I want to keep playing it. There will always be more mechs to acquire, more weapons to load my armory with, and more factions to piss off. And I’m more than happy to plug a gauss round into their smug Black Knight faces.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if I can kick that Awesome’s ass.

 

 

 

 

"loved"
loved

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries

  • Available On: PC
  • Published By: Piranha Games
  • Developed By: Piranha Games
  • Genre: Action Mech-Combat
  • US Release Date: December 10th, 2019
  • Reviewed On: PC
  • Quote: "But I always returned, wanting and eager. Always under the prospect of "just one more mission." And then a mission after that, and a mission following that. Always "just one more." It's in this mantra that MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries excels. It's not the prettiest, most polished, or robust of games available, but - damn me - do I want to keep playing it."
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