MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries Hands-On Preview

Vancouver was covered in fog. Nearby the North Shore Mountains kept their beauty veiled behind a dense, low cloud, and everywhere the tops of buildings crept up and away into smoky white nothingness. I had crossed the border and infiltrated MechCon as an outsider -- a total stranger to the BattleTech universe -- and for a couple of hours I was able to get my hands on the first single-player MechWarrior game we've seen in fifteen years.

The fans and attendees here are frenzied in their anticipation, and I'm starting to understand why. If you're a MechWarrior fan, MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is gearing up to deliver one of the most compelling and comprehensive single-player experiences you could hope for.

If you're completely ignorant of BattleTech's 30-plus-year history, and know absolutely nothing about its incredibly complex canon, let me sort this out straight away: the Mechs are the stars of the show. If your heart flutters at the prospect of piloting a massive walking tank, and wielding obscenely destructive weapons capable of leveling entire fortresses, this is your bag.

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(Photo: Piranha Games)

In our demo we had three Mech models to choose from. The Atlas-class Mech was by far the largest and most intimidating, and so naturally, I decided to take that one for a spin. I deployed to Denbar Prime, and landed in an area densely covered with forest greenery and mountains.

Trees cracked and snapped like twigs as I walked over them, and with every step a deep and satisfying thud pounded through my headphones. I felt unstoppable, and with fully-engaged thrusters I crushed a path through the forest toward my target, who I assume was probably doing some paperwork and feeling quite secure in his lofty tower surrounded by military fortifications.

I encountered some small tanks, turrets, and attack helicopters along the way, and this is when I realized just how effectively immersive MechWarrior 5's presentation can be. These tanks and choppers might as well have been ants and gnats -- they seemed so small and puny from my cockpit -- but as they opened fire I was startled by the percussive and muffled impacts that shot into my ears. Ping! Bom! Pong! I started to panic, and soon I was making hurried efforts to stop my momentum, lock on to my enemies, and retaliate.

This is where things get tricky, and very satisfying. You have to take command of your Mech in order to effectively take out your targets. Lasers, rockets, cannons, ballistics... These are all at your disposal (depending on your particular Mech's loadout), but this is different from the first-person shooters you're used to.

There is an art to managing your directional momentum and positioning. With fingers flying you will constantly be steering and turning your stories-tall war machine, rotating and twisting to protect damaged limbs and fire upon enemies. There's no sprinting or quickly ducking behind cover here. You have to fully commit to your actions in MechWarrior, and sometimes losing an arm means losing your most powerful weapon. There is a cost for every action you take, and an opportunity cost for every chance you don't take.

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(Photo: Piranha Games)

The same can be said off of the battlefield as well, and this is what I find most exciting about MechWarrior 5. You are going to forge your own path within this war-torn universe, and endeavor to make a name for yourself. This game takes place within a very specific stretch of the BattleTech timeline, and with every new game you're telling a brand new story.

You show up on the scene in the year 3015 as a nobody. You've inherited a mercenary company and a single, unimpressive Mech. As feudal warfare rages in the inner sphere between long-standing houses of power, it is your goal to build an elite mercenary group capable of impacting the momentum of history through your might on the field, and your cunning off of it. You're not a hero, and you're not a great leader. You're you, in this universe, and you will decide how your life plays out.

You will decide which great house you want to work with, or work against. You will decide how to spend your time and money. You will witness the evolution of military technology and use it to your advantage as you endeavor to form a respectable squad of mercenaries, and every single time you play through this game it's going to be different.

Speaking with Piranha Games Junior Producer Alex Garden, it dawned on me that this is going to be role-playing heaven for long-time BattleTech fans. He explained that every time you take on a mission, the parameters are generated on the spot. Enemy placement, objective placement, dynamic difficulty, terrain... all of this is overseen by an "intelligent director" and will be unique with every playthrough.

That means that if you want to experience the most formative years of the BattleTech canon as the leader of a pirate mercenary group who partners with the lawless forces along the outer perimeter of the system, actively sabotaging the efforts of the great houses, you can do that. If you want to relive this arc as the loyal muscle of the Federated Suns, serving the House Davion and enjoying all of the privileges and alliances that come with that loyalty, you can do that too.

While there is a defined meta-story that is playing out in the greater universe around you, you will never tell the same story twice as you play through, and your missions, Mechs, upgrades, alliances, and rivalries will always be changing. It's as if you've been given the opportunity to live as many lives as you want, selecting one avatar after another and using their life as a kind of sandbox in this storied and bizarre universe that fans have come to love so much over the decades.

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(Photo: Piranha Games)

Can you see the big picture? Are the pieces starting to fall into place for you like they have for me? Piranha Games is endeavoring to take a stretch of this very precious canon, crack it open, and let you go play inside of it however you like. Master your machine; multiply your resources; recruit your crew; form your alliances; forge your own fate and tug on the strings from which the great houses dangle and sway. Or, you know, just have fun blowing shit up with your giant robot.

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries will be launching in 2018. We'll have an official release date and more preview coverage for you very soon, so stay tuned!