Sunday, July 20, 2014

MechAssault: Done in One Shot

The MechAssault games released on the original Xbox represent one of the last pushes of the BattleTech franchise to reach mainstream popularity.  Unlike the console ports in the previous decade (which with the exception of two games were all ports), special consideration was taken to appeal directly to the console gamer with a new game franchise within the BattleTech universe, which I believe was actually a pivotal moment for this type of thing.  While I lack the burden of proof, it seems likely that a direct port of MechWarrior 4 would have been easier, considering the "off the shelf" hardware of the Xbox.  Instead the game was designed with the console gamer in mind, taking away a lot of the micromanagement and customization options of the PC games in favor of a more streamlined weapon and mech organization.  There are few breaks in the story, as you go from briefing, to mech selection, to mission profile, to mission.  All mechs come with a prepackaged set of weapons organized into three categories (ballistic, energy, and missile), with no switching between mechs; if you want a particular weapon load-out you have to use that particular mech.  A nice addition (and also maddening to sim purists, I imagine) are power-ups.  You can upgrade your weapons two additional times (up to a level of three) with power-ups littered through the game.  Sometimes under buildings, in trucks, and always within attacking mechs, these also add a bit of greatly needed strategy to the game, as unlike the main weapons of each mech, these upgrades have limited ammunition, and the game is often designed to take advantage of this.  I can't tell you how many times I fully upgraded my weapons and hear the "mech approaching" music only to see it preceded by a flock of worthless tanks.  Luckily for us there are also health power-ups scattered about the landscape, which helps remind you that this is a console game.  Video game logic, right?

One of the few carry-overs from the PC games is the need to manage heat buildup. While I never really noticed this until near the end of the game, it nonetheless necessitates your attention, especially when you consider the basic weapons of each mech have unlimited ammunition.  Environment plays a part in this as well, as walking into a body of water will help cool you mech off, while fighting on "lava worlds" will cause you to overheat much more quickly.  Luckily the afore mentioned power-ups allow for less heat buildup than without your basic weapons do.  Again, video game logic.

The visuals in this game, while not stunning compared to today's games, nonetheless still manage to hold up.  There are plenty of details and visual treats to be had here.  Shoot at a building and see glass explode in tiny shards from the windows, and watch as mechs take gradual damage then light up in a satisfying explosion, which also affects the buildings, equipment, and terrain around them.  Sound is equally impressive, with great weapon sounds and explosions to be heard.  If your sound system has a sub-woofer you will also feel them a bit.

But with all of this there has to be faults, right?  Indeed there are.  The weapons, fully powered up are very unbalanced.  Once might think that the slower and heavier weapons (PPCs and mortors) would be the most powerful, but you are much more served wading into battle with your regular machine guns powered up to the maximum.  You will shred enemy mechs like paper with this tactic.  Also, while taking away the big choices the PC games had to offer surely makes for a more simple experience, it also introduces another problem, that when one takes away the customization and general mech options (powering down, dumping coolant, grouping weapons), it lays bare the main fault that the entire MechWarrior franchise has, which is that at heart it is a game where you walk around your enemies in a circle and shoot them.  This is less true in MechAssault, but only in that you zig-zag instead of strafe.  But the greatest issue with this game is the camera.  Released only a few years before Resident Evil 4 innovated the over-the-shoulder camera, in MechAssault we are a few dozen feet behind and above our mech.  While this simplifies aiming without locking on, it makes anything behind the mech fair game to obscure the action.  Smoke and slightly shorter buildings are pretty common annoyances.

Despite that last paragraph (which had to be said), I really enjoyed this game from beginning to end.  While single mech-to-mech combat is a little bit simple, mixing it up with two, three, or more mechs becomes a great exercise in tactical combat, especially taking into account the splash damage the destruction of mechs causes.  The game, while a bit easy, managed to entertain me throughout, even though I pretty much skipped the entire story.  It's really no wonder there was a sequel to this game.

So that is that.  The game is great and is a definite recommendation to those that enjoy the BattleTech universe or just third-person shooters in general.  It is pretty cheap on ebay and even Amazon (in some cases less than $5), but due to no backwards compatibility it requires an original Xbox to play, which unless you happen to have one on hand or a friend whose you can buy, trade, or borrow, can be prohibitively expensive to ship.  A better way to play such a title (should you not have the original hardware) would be to purchase it on Xbox, but as far as I know it is not available on the Xbox On Demand service or in the store for sale.  I'm not sure why, though it is perfectly reasonable that MS doesn't have the license any longer.   Due to the low cost of the MechAssault, I would really recommend trying to pick up an original Xbox to play it.  This could be your gateway to play some awesome exclusive Xbox games that will are obscure enough to never appear on another system, and given the null state of Xbox emulation, likely never will again.

(Sorry about the lack of screenshots.  I currently have no way to get pics of this game, and since I was unable to get any of the original press shots of the game sans watermarks I don't really feel comfortable posting them.)

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