Microsoft’s project to dominate all facets of the computer industry continues as it buys FASA and manages to make a game out of Battletech that’s enjoyable for a while.

The Mechwarrior franchise has had a number of ups and downs since it blistered into the simulator world when Activision gave away a Glide version of Mechwarrior 2 with Voodoo I cards. There followed Ghost Bear’s Legacy, which was a decent and low overhead version of MW2, and the first Mercenaries, which apparently some people managed to get running without catastrophic system failures at framerates higher than 1.5 fps. (Not me though.) After they lost the license and set to half-making the quirkily good clone Heavy Gear, Mechwarrior games were more or less uninteresting. Nobody really cared all that much about Mech 3 or Mech Commander, and really I suppose not many cared much about the Mech 4 series, since even the relatively minor level of planning and management required to pretend to run around in a giant robot is beyond the ken of the modern brain-numbed gamer weaned on tripe like Black & White and [Generic Game Title] IV-XXIII. Not having played any of the others in the series, I can’t comment on the games that preceded Mechwarrior 4 Mercenaries, but found myself oddly enjoying this title. I say oddly because I’ve been so horribly disappointed by just about everything I’ve tried recently.

Mercenaries does pretty well as a sim; the action speed falls somewhere in between the somewhat lumbering pace of Mech 2 and the 2D flight sim environment of Heavy Gear, which seems perfectly suitable to the game’s twitch control requirements. Processes have been streamlined and readings like you heat level are presented in an intuitive fashion. The mechanics of weapons and hardpoints have been drastically changed by now from their origins in the tabletop miniatures rules, probably for the better. At least there is something of a tradeoff in heat when using Clan technology energy weapons, although (sigh) clan ballistics and missile systems are just flat-out better. Without going into a cranky old rant about clan technology, suffice to say that clan tech is one of those "cursed expansion" things that destroys game balance out of a misguided adolescent need to kill things faster. Think X-ships for Star Fleet Battles (or SFC: OP) or any overpowered uber-character supplement for any pen and paper system that needs to milk a little extra income from its geek fanbase, and you have the right idea. But I digress.

The worst thing about the game, for me, is (yes here’s the cranky old man part) the fact that money, good mech frames, and great weapons are way too plentiful. One of the charming things about the old school tabletop mercenaries idea is that you scrounge for parts, hastily stapling captured medium lasers onto your mech’s arm where your autocannon used to be, eventually winding up in a strange hodgepodge vehicle that you have to learn to pilot because that’s all you have, learning how to best deal with your patchwork mech’s abilities in varying conditions and ranges. Not here. As long as you don’t suck too much, you can rely on a virtual "magic item shop" of hyperefficient weapons to mount and super-powerful clan chassis to shove them on by about the midgame.

This problem is most obvious in multiplayer. Far and away, the most popular mech design is generally based on the heaviest chassis the server will allow, mounted with a variety of ER PPC’s and Gauss Rifles for pegging people at superlong ranges. Of course, there are those people who take the variant of "LRM guy", or the guy in the fast mech who tries to run behind the enemy snipers and hit them with autocannon, but generally speaking the strategy of the multiplayer engagement is all hinged on the standard of the Gauss Rifle/ER PPC mech. My most successful game in the few days I managed to play multi Mercenaries before getting too bored was in a 95 ton Gladiator with 4 ER PPC’s, some heat sinks, and nothing else. Point and destroy, shut myself down about 24 times during the battle from excessive heat, but who cares. The massive sniper overpopulation in multi is a direct result of the ready availability of all weapons, but there’s not much that can be done about this.

Still, all and all, the game is highly enjoyable. The single player campaign is well designed, if relatively linear (you can play it through three times and have explored the available options), the economic element is fun even if too generous, and yes, even multiplayer is fun, for a while. The tempo and style of play, falling as it does neatly between the standards of Mechwarrior 2 and Heavy Gear, make it easily accessible to players of both games, who will probably enjoy this new version of a tired old formula. Unlike so many other games, however, this one doesn’t completely screw up what make the originals so interesting.

Rating: 7/10. Good design, okay balance, fun play. Three things remarkably absent from most other things being churned out today.

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