FASA has held one of the most impressive licenses in all of gaming with the BattleTech universe. With the exception of TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons and Game Workshop’s Warhammer series, I can’t really think of anything that has found mainstream success in both computer and the tabletop genres. While FASA has been passing its license around in the gaming industry, we’ve seen Infocom, Activision, Microprose, and now, more recently Microsoft take this series along a path that’s seen various changes to the combat system of the Mechwarriors.
Microprose created the first Mech Commander (MC1), in what was virtually a first, a RTS that didn’t rely heavily on resource management and unit stockpiling. Giving you limited dropweights and cash flow based on performance and salvage, you had to make decisions prior to actually getting into action. Mech Commander 2 (MC2) was also one of the first games to put emphasis on elevation and 3D mapping, breaking away from the flat wastelands of Warcraft/Starcraft, Command and Conquer, and the like.
Mech Commander 2 carries on the same ideas, just adding some spruced up graphics, some new features, new mechs, and taking the player out of the InnerSphere vs. Clan battles of MC1 and putting you into the shoes of a mercenary commander, who’s paycheck determines who he works for. Timeline for the game takes place around the same time as Mechwarrior 4. The Clan Wars are over and tensions are running high between the houses of Davion and Steiner, as well as an effort by House Liao to recover losses from the Clan Wars. All this brought into one tiny planet called Carver V. The game will have you dealing with all of the parties involved on Carver V, from employer to enemy.
Now that the story’s been covered, lets move on to the gameplay. For those of you familiar with the original Mech Commander, MC2 is very similar. Each of the various combat locations will begin with a briefing by your employer, telling you what’s going on and what needs to be done. It then moves to a command screen, where you assign what mechs you’re going to use, buy and sell mechs, configure your mechs, and assign the mechs’ pilots. This setup is easy enough to use, but I prefer the layout of MC1.
In-game is much like the original MC1 and the majority of all other RTS’s. Select your units, point and click, and away you go. The game has similar controls to a few of the other 3D RTS’s that have come out. The right mouse button allows you to spin the camera while the mouse wheel allows you to zoom in and out. Unlike MC1, with its single zoom mode, MC2 has multiple levels. Everything within the game world is destructible; vehicles, buildings, mechs, turrets, etc. can all be targeted. The plentiful numbers of highly explosive targets, like gas tanks and ammo dumps, are strategic elements of sabotage. Taking out gas tanks next to enemy units is a great way to do serious damage without direct confrontation.
Combat works a little bit better than it did in MC1. Based on weapon configurations, each mech will fight at a range based on the weapons. Long ranged units will back themselves up from close range while short ranged units will charge up to them. Units can also be forced to attack from given ranges, but it’s usually best suited to let them fight from proper distances. Units will attack if fired upon, although if a squad is sitting together, not all mechs will move to engage. Sometimes mechs will take it upon themselves to go track down enemies on their own and that also gets annoying as you watch a single unit run up into a group of enemy mechs while you were busy getting organized elsewhere. There should have been some way to set up groups so that groups would fight together, so if I’m off doing some recon with other mechs, they can think as a group instead of one of the units wandering off into enemy LRM’s (though the guard command can come in handy if you remember to use it). MC1 had this feature, although even it was limited in what it could do. I do like how it allows you to target mech components, power down, and, if you’re playing in limited ammo mode, set your units to conservative ammo usage. I’m sort of iffy about the new skill system in MC2. MC1 had an experience based system based on four scores; piloting, gunnery, sensors, and jumpjets. MC2 cuts this down to just piloting and gunnery, while adding specialized skills that you get to pick from. For each level of advancement, regular, veteran, elite, and ace, you get a skill choice. These skills range from sensor skills and weapon specialization to mech specialization and range specialization. The only real issue I had was picking bad choices early on that weren’t particularly useful in the mechs I got later (ie: Light Mech Specialist, Small Arms Specialist).
The coolest new feature in MC2 is the ability to call in support units from the battlefield. The use of zone resources allows you to provide additional support to your units. Resource points can be gained by capturing resource buildings and resource vehicles, just as in MC1. These points can then be used to call in air strikes, recon helicopters, fixed artillery, minelayers, sensor probes, and the two very handy ones, repair trucks and salvage craft. Salvage craft allow you to field salvage a mech and get it up and running while playing. It’s great if you take out a big mech and then use it against your enemy. I found it’s also handy if you accidentally lose one of your sensor mechs (the Raven or the Men Shen) and need some radar back. Field salvage is also a cheap way to pick up mechs, as it’s 10,000 resource points vs. the 20 – 70k credits it will cost you to salvage at the end of the mission. Plus, since resource points don’t roll over into credits, its great to just burn the extra ones on mechs.
Multiplayer has some great game styles and supports up to 8 players. It has the standard elimination game, capture the base (a few different variants including an attack and defend and a control point version), last man standing, king of the hill, and last man in control. I played a few of these with friends and they’re all very cool maps and I thought the variety between the game styles was great. I haven’t seen quite this many different styles in a single game in a long time (if ever).
The mission editor is yet another bonus to add to the replay value. It’s pretty intensive though, so the casual level designer might find it a little challenging. I monkeyed around with it for a little while and could make some basic designs, but I found it very hard to use some of the building components (ie: there’s only one corner piece for certain things and I couldn’t find ANY way to rotate it or any other building components). I also couldn’t find a turret generator in the list of buildings to properly link up a turret system. The terrain system is also somewhat confusing, but with a little work I figured it out and had a decent looking map with hills and plains. I don’t know if I just couldn’t find stuff or figure stuff out, but it seems like the editor needs a little work.
Now with all that said, there are a lot of things I DON’T like about Mech Commander 2. I’ll start with the SIMPLIFICATION of many of the more unique elements that MC1 had. First off, you have a single drop zone, so you don’t get multiple groups of mechs that are easy to control. Instead you get one group of mechs with no easy way to divide them into sub groups. I loved being able to bring two (or more) groups in from different angles on the enemy in MC1 and it’s not easy to pull off in MC2. Next, I hate how they simplified (just like in Mechwarrior 4) the damage is. In MC2, you don’t have to spend any money repairing your mechs after battle. It takes out a level of micromanagement and that might be convenient to some people, but I really think it takes out a lot of the realism. Mechwarriors also don’t get injured (well, they complain that they’re bleeding during the battle) so you don’t have to let them sit out the next battle healing. MC1 had a complete separate health bar for the pilot. Another simplification is the sensor system. In MC1, your radar was affected by running and by elevation. In MC2, it’s always the same distance no matter what you’re doing. I like some level of realism, so these little bits add up when removed and rather annoy me. Normal (and easy) difficulty is way too easy. The only mission I ever really had to replay was the one and only timed mission where I couldn’t extract in time because there were enemy units around the extraction point. It took me no more than fifteen hours to beat the entire game on normal. This leads me to another complaint; the game is SHORT. Sure 24 missions sounds like a lot, MC1 only had six more, but a lot of the early ones are five to ten minutes long and even the harder ones probably won’t take you more than 45 minutes to complete. Adding to this is the fact that the only games you can play in the single mission mode are ones you’ve already completed in the campaign or made yourself. I really wish they’d let you play the multiplayer levels versus the computer since it’s not that easy to find people to play with you all the time.
Load times are also particularly long, taking about 30-40 seconds to load up each level. The Quick Save / Quick Load doesn’t make this much faster either, especially since you can only access the Quick Load from IN GAME. It’s especially annoying if you have to go do something real quick and you want to save your game so you can exit out because you have to go in, open up a mission, wait for it to load, and THEN click on Quick Load. Not to mention that the quick save is the only way to save in game and there’s only one slot available for this. In addition, this game is a memory hog. On certain missions, particularly night or ones with lots of mechs/units, you’ll get some significant slow down. I have a decent system (P3 750 w/ a GF2 and 256MB of RAM) and I don’t expect poor performance like this. I’ve heard mention of people having significant amounts of crashing as well and I experienced this to a minor degree as well. My final gripe is directed at some of the graphics. LRM missiles are poorly animated for one. If the enemy is at long range then it’s okay, but once they get in closer, the missiles arc up normally and then jerk back in a straight line toward the target. My other complaint in this department is when attacking halos, half the time the weapons (I’m presuming the misses but some of these actually damage the halos) hit the ground underneath the help. It looks rather tacky.
Overall I enjoyed most of Mech Commander 2. I hate how Microsoft has dumbed down the Battletech series to “appeal to more people,” because this really detracts from the realism that Mechwarrior games of the past have given us. It can’t get points for originality like its predecessor so it loses a lot of the sparkle I found in the original Mech Commander (which to this day is one of my all time favorite RTS games). It’s nothing groundbreaking and while it’s a fresh breath from the typical RTS game, it leaves you feeling like there could have been so much more. I’m planning on taking MC2 to the online leagues and getting some action there. I’m also hoping for some end user campaigns and scenarios to fill in for the lack of pre-designed ones. Mech Commander 2 has potential for a big online following, so I’ll cross my fingers and keep the box close to my desk.
Highs: Not your typical RTS – lots of unique concepts, great multiplayer
Lows: Got dumbed down significantly from the original, too easy, too short, longish load times, some crappy animations, some crappy performance.