Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Piranha Games has poured every last bit of budget and effort into recreating the original Mechwarrior experience in Mechwarrior Mercenaries 5. Fans of earlier Mechwarrior installments will find a lot to like here: weapon groups, heat management, targeting, and circle fighting - it’s all here. If your only purchase condition is “Does it feel like the original Mechwarrior games?” then yes, it does. Go buy it.
But this installment isn’t about new ideas; it’s about bringing the classic experience to a new generation of gamers. Will that new generation like it? I’m not sure. Fans of Harebrained Schemes Battletech isometric strategy game will definitely get a charge out of MM5. If you’re tired of watching the battles from above and want to hop into the cockpit, MM5 is the ticket.
But folks who aren’t already fans of the franchise may struggle with the bad user interface, bugs, and lack of polish. Remember how I said all of Piranha’s budget and effort went into combat? Certain parts of MM5 feel poorly planned and implemented, more like a late-stage early access game than a finished product.
Combat - the core of the Mechwarrior experience
I’ve been a fan of the franchise since Mechwarrior 2 back in 1995, and this feels like a very credible recreation of that experience. It’s a slow and intense waltz of robotic death as you attempt to outmaneuver and outshoot your AI opponents.
Your mech’s upper torso turns independently of your legs, which allows you to strafe and circle fight around your enemy. One of your primary goals is to manipulate your throttle, twist your torso, and aim to land more shots on your opponent than they land on you. Faster mechs will attempt to run circles around you, while heavier, slower mechs with more firepower and armor will try to overpower you with sheer damage.
You aren’t on an endless flat plain though - almost all the missions take place in valleys of various sizes, with walls and terrain you have to handle while fighting. You’re going to crash into walls a lot - the AI does it pretty often as well. I wish there more open areas in missions so I could practice my aim without crashing my mech. It makes a tough part of the game even harder, but for many veteran Mechwarriors, that’s a feature, not a bug.
You also have to manage your mech’s heat output. Firing your weapons or using your jump jets generates heat. If you generate too much heat, your mech shuts down. If this happens in the middle of combat, your enemies will exploit your robonap and shoot the hell out of you. So you can’t just spray and pray, hoping to land a hit. You have to be careful about when you fire, and if you’re generating too much heat, you might have to focus on dodging rather than shooting for a bit.
The heat system also creates some interesting choices when you’re outfitting your mech with weapons systems. Autocannons generate less heat, but have a limited ammo supply that can detonate if struck by enemy fire. Medium lasers require no ammo but fire slower and generate a ton of heat. You can slap heat sinks onto your mech to compensate for that, but they take up space that could be used for more armor or weapons.
These familiar systems create interesting choices in every fight. How do I approach this incoming lance of enemy mechs? Will I be able to duck behind that building before my opponent’s weapons recharge? Should I try to handle the smaller, lighter mech first, or should I focus on the bigger mech coming over the ridge? Is it worth it to try to bring the last few mechs down or should I just run like hell and evacuate from this mission? This is the core of the Mechwarrior experience, and it’s well-replicated here, with a few caveats.
MM5 is at its best when you’re fighting other mechs, yet it insists on throwing tanks, turrets, and VTOLs at you constantly. They can’t take a lot of damage, but can deal out quite a bit if you let them.
The game often throws these smaller enemies at you when you’re attempting to fight enemy mechs. Mech versus mech combat is the awesome core of this game, and having mobs of VTOLs and tanks detracts from the experience.
I’ve definitely spent more time shooting at enemy tanks and VTOLs than I have at mechs, and I can’t understand why Piranha Games thought this was a good idea. I’m not playing Ace Combat or World of Tanks! I’m playing Mechwarrior. Let me fight MECHS!
I hate VTOLs in particular. Fighting VTOLs feels like swatting fast, annoying flies. You can only aim so far up, so a VTOL that’s directly above you can rain weapons fire down on you and you can’t do much about it other than try to run away from it, turn around, and shoot at it. It’s annoying and feels like a weird hack to increase the difficulty. It doesn’t help that the game likes to throw these at you when you’re in tight valleys where you can’t turn and run easily.
I’m also not a huge fan of the way the game implemented radar. Its range is short, and it keeps your situational awareness low. It feels less like radar and more like a top-down representation of what you can see out of the front of your mech. This is troublesome in defense missions where you have to defend a sprawling base. You see its health ticking down, but you have no idea where the enemy is. You just have to wander around a bit until you get lucky.
Also, this game could’ve really used some kind of melee attack. We’ve lived through two installments of the Pacific Rim series - why can’t I punch an enemy robot in the face? You can do it in Battletech!
Mechwarrior middle management
Mechwarrior Mercenaries 5 is set in the Battletech universe, a far future sci-fi world of feuding noble houses and giant robot war machines. You play as the lead pilot and manager of a mercenary company. You pilot mechs, manage the company’s finances, and pick and choose which missions to take on.
It’s hard being the boss. You’ve got to keep track of Battlemech repairs, pilot health, spare part stock, contract negotiations, and more. It’s a lot and it often feels like a lot. The game’s clunky interface doesn’t help matters.
Every time you take on a mercenary contract, you get a number of negotiation points. You can spend these points to increase your payout, repair insurance, or salvage shares. As far as I can tell, you always want to spend all of those points.
But the game lets you take on a contract without spending all of your points. I screwed this up a bunch of times in my first playthrough. The game should throw up a warning if you haven’t spent all your negotiation points, but it doesn’t. This is a minor thing that you get used to quickly. Mech maintenance is more annoying.
Losing chunks of your mech to combat damage is an integral part of this game. If you lose a component (missile system, laser, jump jet, whatever), you need a replacement part to fix your mech. There are two ways to get parts: you can buy them at markets or you can salvage them as part of your mission completion reward. The game lets you choose a few components from a random list of stuff at the end of every mission.
But the game doesn’t present you with a list of everything you lost during the mission while you’re selecting your salvage items. So getting what you need can be a crap shoot. Your AI allies will often beat the everloving hell out of their mechs, losing parts and systems throughout the mission. To prevent this, I had to take notes and memorize exactly what I had loaded on every mech I owned. It’s ridiculous in 2019 that I have to do this.
Also, I discussed this exact quality of life issue in my Battletech review over a year ago! Yes, I know that Piranha Games and Hare Brained Schemes are not the same company, but it seems like an easy fix to implement.
Sometimes, even when you do have the parts you need, clicking the “repair all” button doesn’t bother to replace the missing systems. I’ve been playing this game for days and I still have no idea why this happens. Occasionally, the game will tell me a mech is fully repaired, and while its armor is fully patched up, none of the busted weapons have been replaced.
I have to click around the repair interface and manually replace all the broken parts, then order my mechanic to perform a “refit” which adds on additional repair time. This isn’t an insignificant issue. The game’s economy revolves around a ticking clock - your mercenary company has bills to pay every month so time is money.
Stuff like this is annoying as hell and makes me want to avoid the management experience entirely (Battletech, despite its flaws, does it way better) and jump into the game’s Instant Action custom mission section. Combat is the core of the experience; the management often feels like unnecessary window dressing.
Fit and finish
While the core experience of combat is good, there are so many issues with the interface surrounding it. Everything outside of mech control is wonky as hell.
On PC, you can pause with your game controller, but you can’t unpause or navigate the pause menu at all. You have to use KBAM to do that. I know that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it feels straight up mind boggling when it happens to you. You hit pause to get up and get a drink. You pick your controller back up and try to unpause. You can’t. You also can’t use the controller to navigate any of the company management screens. I don’t know how Piranha let MM5 leave the house like this.
HOTAS support is another pain point. MM5 can detect my HOTAS button presses when reassigning buttons in the options menu, but I can’t use it to drive my mech, despite Piranha claiming native support for my Thrustmaster T-Flight Stick X in a recent patch. Luckily, mechs control very well with the XBOX One gamepad. (Pro tip - remap “center legs to torso” to pressing down your right stick, rather than the default mapping. It makes everything SO much easier).
For some reason, Piranha turned your mercenary company’s jumpship into a 3D space. After every mission, the game dumps you into first person view in your mech bay. Sometimes you have to go talk to your company manager or your mechanic, but there’s really nothing to be done there. You just hit tab and access every major management system from a series of menus. Why does this game include a 3D jumpship space at all? Why not perform all management through menus?
I’ve also encountered some annoying bugs. I was piloting a Centurion mech, which has an AC/10 on one arm. At one point I lost that arm completely, but could still fire my AC/10. When I got back to the mech bay, I was told that it was destroyed. Another time, I took heavy damage, but didn’t lose the arm. My weapons readout said I still had an AC/10, but I couldn’t fire it. And this is a week after release, after a large patch. These kinds of bugs really screw with an otherwise great combat experience.