Despite weak AI, MechWarrior 5 is shaping up to be the mech game I’ve always wanted

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is deeply obsessed with the fantasy of piloting a giant 100-ton suit of mechanized armor. It doesn’t just revel in the blistering thuds as volleys of short-range missiles catch your shoulder, but all the little minutiae that makes MechWarrior a universe you want to submerge yourself in. Each mission kicks off with a lengthy scene as your mech is slowly brought online and prepared for battle. It’s a contemplative prelude to the chaos that will erupt the moment I step out from my dropship and onto the battlefield. I love it.

It’s that fantasy that draws hundreds of people to Vancouver each year for Piranha Games annual MechCon. It’s a celebration of everything mech, with the tabletop game, MechWarrior Online, and sister games like Harebrained Scheme’s BattleTech coming together under one roof. While the main event of MechCon is usually the world championship MechWarrior Online tournament, this year Piranha is also showing off a playable demo of MechWarrior 5. It’s a significantly more fleshed out build than what I played back in June, and it’s a ton of fun.

Rock ’em, sock ’em

When I first laid hands on MW5 this summer, it was mostly to check out a proof of concept build and talk to Piranha Games president Russ Bullock about what the game will one day look like. The demo I’m playing now is much more fully-realized. It’s cool to see how closely it resembles that initial vision Bullock had. MechWarrior 5 is shaping up nicely.

Like my first experience with MW5, this version was still primarily focused on combat instead of business management—the other side of the Mercenary coin. My merc company was limited to just one solar system with four different planets to fight on and a single mission type, assassination. I didn’t have a lance of AI teammates backing me up either, so it was MechWarrior 5 at its most basic. In spite of that, stomping through forests while weaving through barrages of SRM fire was still exciting.

While the mission type was the same between planets, how I approached that mission changed dramatically depending on MW5’s random map generation. While my primary objective was sometimes right next to my drop zone, other times it’d be at the far end of the map, safely behind several secondary outposts looking to pepper me with autocannon fire.

There’s a whole lot more than enemy mechs I had to worry about. Manticore and Scorpion tanks were a constant threat while the sky was filled with attack helicopters whittling away my armor whenever they had a clear shot. At any one time, my HUD was littered with targets looking to zap me.

At first I found the addition of combined armored forces to be a bit annoying as they’re such small targets to hit and are constantly harassing me. But once I became capable behind the controls, it was fun having so many things to shoot at. Being able to soldier forward while consistently landing difficult shots on small enemies really reinforced the fantasy of being in the cockpit of a formidable war machine.

Of course, it would be a shitty MechWarrior game if the only thing to kill were tiny tanks. My assassination target was always protected by two mechs that would quickly close the distance and engage me. Mech combat is as gripping as ever—especially with MechWarrior 5’s stellar audio design. Explosions and gunfire impact with blistering oomph, at once making you feel powerful and extremely vulnerable.

That vulnerability was really driven home once I completed my final objective. Almost immediately, I was warned that reinforcements were arriving to take revenge and I needed to evacuate back to the dropship. As I hurried along, an enemy dropship slowly descended from orbit and unleashed a trio of enemy mechs.

At this point my poor Shadowhawk had already received so much damage that I knew I’d never stand a chance, but as I neared the dropship I felt there was a sliver of hope. At 100 meters away, a laser blast from an enemy light mech destroyed my leg, severely cramping my movement speed. A second later an SRM volley put me out of my misery. Despite losing, it was a thrilling conclusion.

If I have one concern after my time with MechWarrior 5, it’s with the enemy AI. Being an early demo build, it’s obvious that the AI isn’t anywhere close to being the final version we’d expect to see at launch. Attack helicopters, for example, frequently flew into one another and exploded. Enemy mechs would sometimes stand completely still or willingly expose their backs to me. It made it easy enough that, with some careful planning, I was soon able to win that three-on-one escape fight. There’s a lot of work left to be done on MechWarrior 5, particularly with the AI, and I’m a little nervous because I feel like the game will live or die by how believable and challenging its combatants are.

I’m still very optimistic, though. With only one 15-minute mission to play, you’d think I’d be bored after half an hour or so, but I ended up playing for almost two hours. The random level generation and weighty combat kept me coming back, even if the enemies were kind of dumb. I can only imagine how alluring MechWarrior 5 will become once the entire business simulation aspect opens up and I have an entire galaxy of (hopefully) smarter opponents to battle and sell my mercenary services to.