The MechWarrior series is one that has eluded me for some time. Watching from afar, it is exactly the kind of thing that a younger me would have wanted in a game. I mean, who doesn’t want to take control of a walking war machine that towers over infantry and buildings alike? However, with the MechWarrior series taking part in the Battletech tabletop RPG universe, there are a few hang-ups that have kept the series at lengthy robotic arm’s reach for me.
Firstly, when you talk about anything with a tabletop RPG attached to it, you are looking at a few years of baggage. The Battletech universe is one that is vast and has been iterated upon since its inception back in the 80’s. This is great for those that are already invested, it gives those guys plenty to work with and lots of moments to recreate or look for. For the rest of us, this means that there is a lot to learn if there is any hope for a story to emerge that we can even remotely get behind.
When it comes to video games, a lot can be said about the roots of the MechWarrior franchise and how it plays out. With games from the series first debuting on MS DOS back in 1989, the franchise has always leaned into the simulator side of things, partially to sate the fans of Battletech who want deeper mechanics, while also hiding the limitations of gaming hardware at the time with deeper menu and conversation-based mechanics. This is as opposed to the otherwise ho-hum first-person gameplay. This kind of thing is fine if that is what you like. But for this philistine, if I see a robot on a box, standing in front of an inferno it has likely created, then I want a taste of action and simply put, earlier MechWarrior games just weren’t really about that.
Of course, things move on over the years and when I saw MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries get placed in our review pool, I decided that now was the time break the habit of a lifetime and give the game a go. While I found that yes, the deep RPG/Sim mechanics are still present and initially daunting as I would expect, I also found a title that respected my desire for action while keeping the game accessible enough for me to continue progressing through the campaign. While not perfect for reasons I will get into, it certainly isn’t some overly pedantic simulator that puts graphs in the way of a good time like I was initially expecting.
In MechWarrior 5, you play as commander Mason, a pilot that uses battlemechs to make a living in a universe filled with political and personal conflicts. Early on, Mason’s team is ambushed by a particularly nasty group of MechWarriors that decimate his team and kills his father in the process. After licking his wounds, Mason decides to take the remnants of his mercenary group and to rebuild his reputation, while investigating the perpetrators to bring them to justice in his own way. What results is a somewhat trite revenge story that spans a large campaign across the stars and over hundreds of worlds and missions as the player pushes Mason to become the biggest and most revered mercenary group in the Battletech universe.
Besides the formulaic story, there is a real sense of intrigue here that leads beautifully to the tertiary gameplay. As much as this is a game about smashing things up in giant robots, there is a deeply involved management simulator built in to sink your teeth into. Just about every aspect of running a mercenary squad is represented here; from earning/spending funds, ensuring mechs are fully equipped to the next mission to hiring pilots to act as your wingmen, either making your life a lot easier or harder depending on the player’s choices.
Then you get to the mechs themselves. Each walking behemoth needs to be prepared for the next mission and this results in some of the most involved customisation and resource management that I have seen in a game, let alone of this type. Just about everything has a status bar attached to it, ranging from the repair level, weapon tiers to the multitude of different armaments and upgrades that can be attached to the things. There are so many different types of mechs and features, that to the uninitiated like me, there is almost too much to take in and it would be far too easy at an early stage to call it day, but the game is worth sticking with, especially when it comes to the missions, which range from simple smash and runs to all-out warzones.
Touching down on planet with a squad of armoured walking tanks feels like something that should never get old, especially missions that begin with the dropship lowering you into a hotzone. Taking control of the mech feels satisfying yet about as clunky as you would expect. As walking tanks, they move appropriately, with the left stick dictating the walking direction and forward/back throttle motion. The right stick is concerned only with the aim of various onboard weaponry, while the D-Pad gives you access to HUD commands that cycle between viewpoints, special abilities, and squad commands.
Just like the menu systems, the controls will take a bit of getting used to and the nuances of moving your mech around the battlefield is something that will take some time to master. While I have seen some feedback about the movement being awful, I must disagree in my experience with the game. It certainly doesn’t have the fluidity of an arcade-like mech title, but everything feels as it should for a simulator of this kind. The mechs feel heavy and deliberate, with momentum that requires commitment to move effectively. Likewise, once the initial quirkiness of movement is overcome, it is an absolute blast to exploit the weight of the mechs by deliberately ploughing into destructible scenery, using it to both hide away from enemy salvos while also getting to a more advantageous position on the map.
Speaking of maps, the variety on display is quite impressive. While most of the landscapes can appear barren with only pockets of civilisation to navigate through or around. There are times when the game can be downright beautiful, with either starlit vistas to guide your way or full-blown cityscapes that make for gloriously destructive playgrounds. However, I must admit, I did lean to preferring the less populated zones over time as while they look cool and have a lot of character, they can sometimes make the framerate dip to levels I have not yet seen before on the PS5. Especially when there is a cavalry of enemies bearing down on you.
Getting used to the weight and heft of each mech is all part of the game and a part that dictates a success of failure, but most importantly for MechWarrior, it can be tweaked to your liking. A faster mech like the Cicada, is best when it is constantly moving on the field, as otherwise it is a sitting duck against heavier craft. Pick a Centurion however and the tactics change to a longer-range approach, with the larger mech being better suited to sniping with cannons from a safer vantage point. Of course, with customisations you can change this somewhat and turn that Centurion mech from a long-range attacker to one that wades in as a tank with higher armour and shorter-range weaponry, it all just depends on your chosen playstyle and team makeup.
Regarding team makeup, this is something I wish that was explained better in the earlier stages of the game as it makes everything that bit more accessible and fun to play. After the initial round of missions, you are sent on one that sees you defending a town against a series of invading mechs and artillery alongside one of the remaining survivors. After completing this mission, the survivor becomes part of your crew and able to pilot a mech alongside you for the missions to come. The only issue here, is that it is not explained well enough that you can equip this new team member, or even that further squad mates can be hired when visiting other systems on your star map. This meant I played too many missions where I would pilot my mech into battle alone, either scraping through the mission barely or failing them outright.
Considering this is the way in which to unlock online co-op with your friends list, arguably MW5’s best feature, it is a poor way in which to introduce everything. It is also definitely something you would want as the AI in MW5 can be somewhat twitchy. Your squad mates at times can be a downright liability, with protection missions being turned into self-sabotage when your friendly mechs accidentally wonder through the buildings they are supposed to defend. Likewise, enemy opponents can be equally inept, with some taking the longest road to get to you, getting stuck on scenery or simply just not engaging you at all, whether they are a mandatory kill for the mission.
The game’s main weakness, just like with the multiplayer aspect is the fact that it does a poor job of explaining just about anything. It took me far too long to realise that I had to replace weapons when they got damaged and how to do the act of replacing them in the dropship menus. The jobs picked up in cantina’s are fun to do, but the rewards for completion go entirely wasted when the tutorial stops short of telling you how to equip the upgrades. There are many other examples of this and your mileage of enjoyment with MW5 will mostly be based on how much of this you can take without losing your patience. It is odd that a game that relies on such a seemingly intricate balance is marred by poor explanations, which is completely the opposite of what anyone wants.
The reason why this lack of explanation, the wonky AI and daunting start is so palpable, is that there is such a strong threat of failure through MechWarrior 5. This game has Rogue-like elements and as many would have guessed, this means that there is a real chance of failure and having to start over if things go severely wrong. This is all dictated by the money you earn throughout the campaign and how much or how little you can keep in the bank. Everything costs money, from hiring pilots, repairing mechs to travelling. Get too close to the red and it’s all over. It makes for a compelling balancing act, with each decision contributing to a healthy squad or an inch towards a game over screen. It’s just a shame that there are a few elements which make this a bit harder to manage as some mission failures can come as no fault of your own, just because your friendly AI is being a bit clumsy or with risky investments not being explained thoroughly enough to overcome.
In essence then, there is a lot to like about MechWarrior 5’s approach. As a sim title, the level of customisation to sink your teeth into is unrivalled so far on the PS5 and if you can get used to it, the act of balancing resources and action is brilliant. However, the niggling issues do raise their head a bit too often and can be a detriment to the overall experience. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle. While I love the intricacy and the fun of smashing things up in mechs, I cannot get over how poorly some elements are explained, and the patience required to get to the juicy center of the game. Stick with it though and there is plenty to see, just understand that this may not be for everyone.
+ Deep mechanics and customisation for those that want to play this like a simulator
+ There is a lot of game for your money here
- Doesn’t explain itself all that well, leading to many early failures
- AI teammates can be very unreliable at times