MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is a game about big stompy robots and, like every other big stompy robot game that has come before it, MechWarrior 5 requires an awful lot of buttons to play. Bombastic guitar riffs thunder over every combat encounter, lasers sizzle, PPCs crackle, and Gauss Rifles make that weird pew noise. Mechs stomp and break and explode spectacularly, leveling buildings around them. In short: MechWarrior is extremely back. Not everything about the MW5 is a throwback. The overall aesthetic fits into the contemporary look of the BattleTech universe.
The UI is clean, inspired by and of a piece with Harebrained Schemes’ interface for 2018’s BattleTech. Piranha’s modern ‘Mech designs are memorable updates to the dated ’80s designs. They stomp menacingly at each other across a pretty diverse set of battlefields that sits starkly opposed to the near-featureless plains of the MechWarrior past. It also brings in your friends in a co-op mode, both for the campaign and one-off skirmishes, that is both stable and tactically rich. It runs pretty well—a first for me in the MechWarrior series—aside from one glitchy randomly-generated mission and some occasional chug-on mission starts.
The arcade-style simulation game is about flinging yourself into battle inside a building-sized walking tank. You and up to three allies — which comprise a “lance” in the series’ vernacular — are bristling with exotic weapons, and only by working together can you take down the dozens of enemies aligned against you in each mission. The game can be played in third-person mode to get a better sense of your surroundings, but you can also get right inside the cockpit by playing in the first-person view.
There’s a lot to keep track of inside your ’Mech, and a lot of buttons that control the various systems. There are buttons for lasers, buttons for missiles, buttons to issue orders to your lance, and buttons to move your ’Mech. There’s even a button to make sure that your legs are lined up with your torso, which forces you to look in the same direction in which you’re moving. This makes it easier to avoid accidentally falling off a cliff, or into a lava flow in the heat of battle. But the most fascinating button in the game is a very taboo button indeed. It’s the restart button.
The game is an interstellar sandbox about running a company of mercenary mech pilots and pursuing some casual revenge. It’s a campaign mode that really plays into the themes of the setting, ones of scarcity and technological regression, the so-called LosTech. It often forces you to make hard choices about how to re-arm a mech when you can’t find a replacement part—or simply sell the whole thing when it’ll be too time-consuming and expensive to repair.
ROGUELIKE AT A DIFFERENT SCALE
MechWarrior 5 is structured like a roguelike. While it’s not quite as twitchy as Spelunky or capricious as FTL: Faster Than Light, you’re meant to make a run at the whole story, carrying over both losses and wins from each battle. Having to rebuild your lance after a mission goes bad is part of the drama, and having your entire career ended by bankruptcy if you don’t manage your resources well across multiple missions is a feature of the game. Failure isn’t the end; it’s just another wrinkle in your campaign.
It’s not a design that should lend itself to a “restart” button. In fact, that button kind of flies in the face of what games of this nature do well, which is build stakes. Why worry about a battle if you can start from the beginning of that skirmish at any time?
But MechWarrior 5 would be unplayable without the restart button. That’s because MechWarrior 5 is a little broken. Or maybe a lot broke, depending on who you ask in the community. And that’s fine, or at least not an instant deal-breaker, because I can always restart a mission if it all goes to hell.
And it almost always goes to hell, because all the other computer-controlled pilots on the battlefield are idiots.
I’ve watched the AI drive a Commando with abandon, loping across a battlefield only to stomp directly through the warehouse full of women and children they were sent there to protect. I’ve seen Cicadas that rattle around inside their fortifications, tearing their own bases to shreds trying to get out and into the fray. Some of these ’Mechs have jump jets, of course, but not one of them has thought to actually use them. These 30-ton war machines can literally fly, but not a single one of them has ever lifted off on my watch. It’s remarkable.
The team at Piranha Games absolutely nailed that aspect of the game, from the way the units move to the impact of the weapons that they carry. When I fire ballistic shells, my massive machine jerks to one side. I cause a shower of sparks, and chunks of the enemy ’Mech — sometimes entire limbs — fall off when a shot lands right where I aimed it. ’Mechs will stagger and limp, cowering before my blows. It’s the kind of visual and animated feedback that’s usually only found in the best melee brawlers or competitive fighting games.
MechWarrior 5 is impressive when it’s able to work long enough to live up to its own potential. Until it’s patched enough for that to happen consistently, however, I’ll remain grateful for that forbidden restart button, and I refuse to feel bad for hitting it, no matter how many times it takes. The highs are pretty high, but the lows are just as low. It’s a good thing the core experience is so enjoyable because actual campaign progress often feels nearly impossible.