What’s your method of relieving stress? Some people prefer working out, taking out their tension on weights. Others prefer going for long drives, revving their engines as they streak down the road. Personally, while I like both of those, one of my favorite ways is jumping into an 80-ton robot, targeting an enemy and melting them in a hail of lasers, bullets and missiles. Of course, I’m talking about the well-respected Mechwarrior series. Lasting well over six years in duration and numerous PC and console titles, Mechwarrior titles have been known for their engaging gameplay and storylines. With the recent announcement that development on the latest Mechwarrior title has been suspended, we thought that we’d take another look at the last released expansion in the series, Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries.
Mercenaries takes a page from the Mechwarrior 2 expansion pack of the same name: Instead of fighting for the honor of a clan, or seeking to avenge the deaths of your unjustly slaughtered house, you’re waging war for the almighty dollar, or should I say, C-Bill. Before strains of “It’s All About The Benjamins, Baby” start rolling through your heads, things are a little more complicated than that. Players are cast as the leader of a mercenary company seeking to establish a name. Once you’ve chosen a famous mercenary unit to sponsor you, your next task is to build up your team by hiring freelancing gunners to your team and outfitting them with the best mechs and weapons that your money can buy from the black market. As the leader of the company, you’ll be tasked with choosing the missions that your squad embarks upon, who your wingmen (or women) will be, and leading them to glory.
You’re not just dealing with the old school “search and destroy” missions that you might expect from previous Mechwarrior titles. You’ll find yourself tasked with everything from covert strikes against supply convoys, base or checkpoint defense against invading forces, and regional patrols all around the galaxy. Once you’ve been deployed, you’ll often discover that secondary and tertiary objectives will arise in the course of your mission. Choosing to undertake and complete these new tasks results in bonuses for your company when you return to your ship for your debriefing. What’s more, doing so increases your team’s reputation as a mercenary outfit, which can open up new missions, launch friendships or even rivalries. But you won’t be without cover as you engage these targets, potentially putting yourself mission in danger. In fact, Mercenaries is the first time that you’ll be able to launch with two full lances completely under your command to cover your six. That’s right, you can unleash eight fully loaded mechs bristling with weapons bearing down upon a target that you designate, amongst other directives. Ah, smell the smoky, burned metallic goodness.
In between missions, you may want to give your team a little R&R, letting them have time to repair their mechs or take a break from fragging clanners. Mechwarriors don’t have peaceful vacations; instead, much like knights of the Middle Ages, they fight for money and fame on Solaris VII. Players that wish to test their skills against some of the best guns in the game can enter the Jungle, Factory or Coliseum arenas and joust fellow mercenaries in four tournaments ranging from light to heavy mechs. Only the best fighters can qualify themselves for the final tournament, that of the stadium championship. The purses that can be won are merely part of the Solaris story. If they want, warriors can dedicate their arena performances to either the Steiner or Davion Houses, allying their company to a specific faction and thereby deciding where they stand in the civil war that might rip the galaxy apart.
Mechwarrior games have always been visually striking, and Mercenaries is no exception to this rule. Using the same engine as Mechwarrior: Vengeance The sheer scale of Mechs towering above trees, buildings, and other vehicles is rather impressive, and gives a sense of the power involved with controlling these gigantic machines. Watching a star or a lance scramble their way over a hill as they launch an attack can still be an awesome sight, especially as they go weapons hot and disable an enemy. Mech modeling is still well animated, differentiating between the lumbering gait of a Black Knight and the unsteady ambling of a Flea. Mechs also display the sparking, disabled arms that have been blown off in battle or the limp brought about by legs that have continually been targeted. The largest downside to Mercenaries’ graphics is that the engine is beginning to show its age, which casts a shadow on the luster of this game. There’s plenty of times where backgrounds and other features pixel out into bland textures even if you’ve got the best graphics card on the market. This is one of those situations where it might have been necessary to perform a light facelift on the engine to make it stand out a bit more
Sound effects have also been lifted straight from Vengeance, so the crackle of fried electrical circuits, fired weapons and advancing mechs sounds just as solid as it did in the previous title. Similarly, a lot of the music comes from Vengeance as well, so the large sweeping score that comes with battles makes another comeback in this game. What’s of particular note is the voice acting, which is basically solid throughout most of the game. Consisting of a sizable cast, each actor infuses their characters with a large degree of personality, which can make fighting and dying with them an extremely personal experience. Particularly noteworthy are the two actors who voice Castle, your team’s communications and operations manager and Spectre, your character’s callsign. These two characters have the majority of the lines in the game, and deliver them well.
While Mercenaries is designed to be a stand-alone product, it comes across much like an expansion pack that builds upon Vengeance. Much like the Black Knight add-on, Mercenaries provides a new set of missions, mechs and multiplayer maps. It also compiles any previous expansions, allowing the new features to be added to any of these games interchangeably. So if you’re a Mechwarrior fanatic, you have the option to play with over forty Mechs courtesy of the Black Knight, Inner Sphere and Clan paks. Granted, that’ll be another 60 bucks out of your pocket, but if you have to have every mech designed, it’s an adequate investment.
Regardless of having the mech paks or not, you’ll still want to customize and tweak each robot to fit your personal needs. While the mech lab returns with its typical set of options, the inclusion/dependence upon the black market for new weapons and chassis diminishes its effectiveness. For example, selling mechs can be complicated because individual part numbers don't specify robots; instead, they’re grouped by their brand name, which means that you can accidentally sell the wrong machine. Additionally, the market doesn’t restock its shelves with new equipment too frequently, meaning that you can potentially suffer shortages of certain weapons that you might find especially effective in combat if your team’s equipment gets damaged.
Finally, players never have to worry about the consequences of choosing a mission because of the inherent autosave feature. If, for example, you and your forces get completely decimated, or you feel like avoiding a certain mission, you can essentially reload and try all over again without any penalty. The problem arises because the game is designed to look as though it’s responding to your successes and failures, when in fact you’re merely placed on a specifically scripted track. Plus, people aren’t going to seek you out and offer missions, go out of their way to track down your company, or any other “random” encounters that other games have managed to implement well. These factors could’ve easily extended the replay of the campaign. There are scenarios that you can roam through, and a much more improved multiplayer experience. In fact, you’ll probably wind up playing multiplayer much more than placing yourself in a scenario.
Overall though, Mercenaries is a worthy successor to the Mechwarrior crown. It’s merely unfortunate that it may wind up being the last one in the series for quite a while, especially because the universe isn’t close to being exhausted. The real-time strategy of MechCommander and the action of MechAssault are merely two examples of how the Inner Sphere and Clan battles in the 31st century can still engage gamers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a team battle to join and an Atlas to jump into....