Taking A Successful Table-Top Game to the PC screen isn't as easy as you might think. Sure, you've got a rich universe and characters to draw on, but start to mess with the structure too much and things can very quickly get messy. Only now can the Warhammer fans who got their fingers burned with Shadow Of The Horned Rat seek solace with the 3D iiber-sequel that is Dark Omen. With this in mind, it perhaps comes as no surprise that when news broke of a real-time strategy game set within the BattleTech universe, the reaction from many fans of the original table-top series was one of trepidation and muted excitement. If it was so difficult to get the Warhammer series onto the small screen, would the same mistakes be made with their beloved futuristic fantasy world?
Chicago-based FASA (the people behind the BattleTech games) are obviously keen not to fall into a similar trap, and are desperate to get it right first time. "Activision did a great job with MechWarrior and MechWarrior 2," explains Denny Thorley, head honcho at FASA and producer of MechCommander. "And as a result, expectations for any game set within the BattleTech universe are understandably high. The idea was born many years ago. Both Jordan Weisman (creator of the BattleTech universe) and I believed there was an opportunity to develop a computer game that would deliver the true experience of command. While many real-time strategy games explore this theme, few include real-world conseguences. We really wanted players to feel a sense of responsibility and genuine emotional connection with the individuals under their command. When players lose a member of their team, we want them to feel it in the pit of their stomach, just like real life."
Of course, sentiment and immersion are important, but all people really want to know is: Why will it be better than C&C? From the expression on Denny's face, it's pretty obvious that it's a guestion he's answered many times before. Co-producer Frank Savage, a lifelong BattleTech fan and ex-Origin programmer who worked on Wing Commander III, chips in: "We're not out to create just another C&C clone and use the BattleTech licence to sell it. We saw an opportunity to provide computer gamers with a new means of interacting with the BattleTech universe, not from the perspective of a MechWarrior, but from that of a commander.
We knew expectations would be very high for our game. On the one hand there are literally millions of BattleTech enthusiasts who have been playing the pen-and-paper BottleTech games for over 14 years, and we want them to play MechCommander. These people are intimately familiar with the BottleTech universe, its BattleMechs and storyline. On the other hand, we want the game to appeal to real-time strategy fans who aren't that familiar with the BattleTech world, but might enjoy playing a game set within what is a very rich and diverse universe. Consequently we wanted to break out of the traditional confines typically associated with real-time strategy games; we wanted to develop a game that didn't burden players with building and accumulating resources. Instead we decided to focus on other, more dynamic aspects of command that are more enjoyable, as well as working on a rich storyline and developing what we like to call a persistent strategy that forces the player to look after his pilots and Meehs. We've also split the game into two stages: logistics and battle. Before embarking on a mission, players will have to choose the right Meehs for the job, choose the right pilots, weapons and sensors. Once they're confident with their selection they can get in there and start to kick some ass. If you just dive in without giving a thought to your selection and with no strategy you'll just get toasted. Each mission, and there are 30 of 'em, can be completed in a number of different ways, so players will have to manage their resources very carefully if they are to progress very far into the campaign. The thing is, you just don't know what's out there. Do you send out a scout Meeh to see what's there? Do you launch artillery support to soften 'em up, or do you risk a frontal assault and try and use some of your jet Meehs to jump the wall at the back of the base? Overall there's a lot more strategy and planning involved than with C&C. And if you mess up and lose valuable pilots and units, then you're in for a real fight."
An hour spent with some early - but pretty stable - code shows that MechCommander plays very differently from your average C&C clone. Those people unfamiliar with the BattleTech universe may find it a little confusing at first, and the FMV-laden intro sequence may serve to distance you rather than encourage the level of immersion. But a few minutes experimenting with the drag-and-drop menu and some tips from Frank and we're ready for battle.
At first glance the engine might look a little dated when compared to the likes of Total Annihilation or even Dark Reign - a sign that the game's been in development for three years or so, perhaps? Further investigation and interrogation reveals that although a two-stage zoom facility, coloured lighting and smoke effects are in evidence, the lack of new innovations such as line of sight and a Myth-like 3D rotational engine have been ignored. "We'd just have to make too many compromises with the gameplay and look of the game if we included everything," argues Frank. "Put too much stuff in and it becomes very difficult to balance, and the whole thing just grinds to a halt. At the moment we're very happy with the way the Meehs look and move - each one is animated in 100,000 frames - and there are 18 of them. As for line of sight, if you're on top of a mountain you'll be able to see more of the map, and different terrain will affect the movement of your Meeh. You can burn down forests, for example, and trample on trees."
MechCommander undoubtedly contains some interesting elements that will challenge your perceptions of what you really want in a C&C-style game. Whether FASA will be able to create a game that will appeal to both BattleTech and real-time strategy fans alike is open to question. From what we've seen so far however, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
MechCommander, the fourth installment in the MechWarrior-series, although the first by Microprose, is also the first to take the Mechwarrior series back to its roots as a tactical-level strategy game. The creators of the ‘Mech universe, FASA, chose to go with Microprose and their time-tested skill with such strategy classics as Sid Meier’s Civilization and Master of Orion rather than with the more action-oriented approach of previous licensee Activision, who spun off their own ‘mech-themed Heavy Gear earlier this year to less-than-stellar reviews.
The decision to return, more or less, to the roots of the FASA game structure is quite well carried off in MechCommander, although perhaps a bit too much so for gamers used to the more lenient battle structure of the Command and Conquer style of strategy games. Although MechCommander is a real-time strategy title, it maintains enough of the tactical level decisions such as Mech loadouts, pilot skills and support vehicle selection to be both an intriguing mix and at times a frustrating real-time experience, as there is at least as much tuning and tweaking of units in this game as there is fighting.
If you’re a fan of the original turn-based die and hex board Mechwarrior games from FASA, I think you’ll feel right at home with MechCommander and will likely think it deserves a higher score than 83. However, I feel that it is more important and honest to the gaming community in general to put MechCommander in context with its 1998 competitors than to compare it to a completely different gaming genre. Having said that, I think MechCommander unquestionably ranks at the top of its Mech-themed competition, while not quite standing up with the cream of the crop in the real-time strategy crowd.
Much as in Mechwarrior and Mechwarrior 2, the action centers around two distant-future clans at war with one another for dominance of a handful of planets. Unlike its predecessors, though, MechCommander puts you in charge of a whole squadron of Mechs, rather than as the solo pilot of a Mech taking on missions from a first-person perspective.
The tactical level mix of pre-mission decisions and Mech construction works well to set the tone of your role as squadron commander—in fact, during the missions you not only assign drop zones for your teams of mechwarriors, you can call in air strikes, reconnaissance flights, etc. to back up your troops.
The missions themselves, however, are extremely rigid, and can often seem nearly impossible to defeat until you’ve tried 20 different approaches and strategies. The first time you succeed in figuring out the key sequence of orders and movements, this can be very rewarding, but after coming up against three or four consecutive missions that have to replayed time and again before some minor nuance of terrain or Mech loadouts occurs to you as the linchpin to success, you just want to shut the game down and move on to something a bit more balanced. In fact, the bulk of the criticisms I have heard are directed at the mission structure in single player mode—perhaps not a crippling factor to a game, but certainly one that the designers may want to consider when creating mission packs or subsequent installations in the series.
Overall, MechCommander makes a worthwhile addition to any gamer’s library who enjoys real-time strategy and is looking for a new challenge—you won’t play through this one in a couple of days, and even if you somehow manage to, there is a real challenge awaiting you in the multiplayer realm of MechCommander.
On the Mech front, you have the good, the bad, and the downright ugly and unfinished. My money’s on MechCommander for a couple of reasons—a good supporting game universe and a decent enough balance of frustration and payoff to keep me coming back for more, plus it will hopefully bring back into the fold some of the die-hard board gamers out there who’ve been waiting for a decent computerized version of the FASA game.
Dominion will get a turn or two more in the old CD drive before being retired, if nothing else just to look at those Imperial walkers and keep me fired up for Force Commander. And Cyberstorm 2, well, while long since being mercifully removed from my hard disk, it’s at least still proving useful (except my glass of iced tea keeps getting stuck to the CD).
Snapshots and Media
- Age of Empires
- Civil War Generals 2: Grant, Lee, Sherman
- Commandos: Beyond the Call of Duty
- Imperium Galactica
- Lords of the Realm II
- Magic: The Gathering Battlegrounds
- Medieval: Total War
- Moonbase Commander
- Panzer General II
- Rome: Total War
- Shogun: Total War - Warlord Edition
- Space Colony
- Star Command: Revolution
- Star Trek: Away Team
- Warcraft 2: The Dark Saga
- Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness
- Warcraft III