Published in The National on March 30, 2001

War takes on gigantic proportions


By Daniel Lam
In the far future, the purpose of war remains the same ... to crush your enemies. But the "toys"  have changed. Now elite soldiers, known as "MechWarriors", deal death and destruction from the cockpit of towering war machines. Welcome to the world of MechWarrior 4: Vengeance.

Way back in the early 90s a friend brought out a game with paper cutout figures and a foldable game board. The game was FASA's BattleTech, and we played Mech Warriors. BattleTech tagline was something cool like "in the 31st century, life is cheap. Mechs are not". Mech Warriors pilot 12m (40 feet) 100-tonne, vaguely humanoid war machines with enough firepower to level whole cities. These war machines are known as BattleMechs (Mechs for short).

The point of the game was simple ... blow up the enemy, be it with long range missiles, autocannon bursts or a blast from the particle projection cannon (PPC). We had lots of fun. Sigh, those were the days. 

In the mid-1990s BattleTech took on the world of virtual reality. First we had MechWarrior for the PC. Despite the title, the player played Mechs, not the men who pilot the machines. It boasted impressive graphics and gameplay (then). Following that were a string of PC games featuring the lovable behemoths. My friends and I even got to enter the "cockpit" of Mechs and slug it out ... capsules (at BattleTech virtual reality centres) complete with pedals, rudders, etc and a screen showing the networked action. Now we have the fourth instalment in the MechWarrior series. 

It is time for Vengeance. 

What you need
MechWarrior 4: Vengeance requires no less than a Pentium II 300 system with at least 64MB RAM, about 800MB hard disk space and a 3D accelerator. 

Large-scale warfare
The MechWarrior series focuses on combat between Mechs, which are giant robots with human pilots. You control one of these Mechs from a first-person (or third-person, depending on your preferences) perspective. Mechs come in different sizes and are armed with a variety of weapons, but the objective remains the same: to blow things up. 

Now, MechWarrior games are more complicated to play than your usual shooters because of the skill required in piloting the Mechs, but they aren't as technically involved as some pure military simulations are. In this respect, MechWarrior 4 does a good job of emphasising action without compromising the basic military simulation feel. It's a difficult balance, but MechWarrior 4 pulls it off. 

Gorgeous graphics
The graphics in the game are absolutely superb. A configuration utility lets you choose the exact options that will maximise the frame rate on a given PC, and those with a decent processor and a fast video card can enjoy beautiful terrain, detailed Mechs, and spectacular explosions and weapon effects. The pictures on these pages don't do the game justice. Because of the beefed-up graphics, players get to "feel" just how big the Mechs are. We have mobile rocket launchers and tanks (read: insignificant ground forces) which are pretty small compared to the Mechs. Yes, you can stomp on them (Oops, excuse me for crushing you to bits!). 

Great sound effects
MechWarrior 4's audio effects support the game's stunning visuals with appropriate sounds of missiles launching, lasers, and a range of other effects. Also, there are different sounds to show the kind of terrain your Mech is walking on ... walking on snow sounds different from walking on sand, no? 

Huge game
MechWarrior 4 comes in two CDs. The story campaign spans 30 missions in a variety of environments. The opening sequence shows the invasion of Kentares IV, with the royal family (House Dresari) forced to flee. Pay attention to the amount of detail that went into the movie. One day (soon, in fact) movies will be made this way. You play as the sole heir of House Dresari, and you are tasked with restoring Davion rule in your homeworld. 

The campaign starts you off at a base on a moon orbiting Kentares IV. As you complete the individual missions you will get to stomp through arctic, alpine, desert, and swamp environments before ending in a series of titanic clashes in an urban jungle. The cutscenes between missions are acted out well and move the story along nicely, while the various lancemates (like the wingmates in aerial simulations) available to choose from have well-developed personalities and notable strengths and weaknesses in combat. 

A key to the campaign is salvaging destroyed enemy hardware as you go along, so that little by little you get to design new Mechs for use in subsequent missions. The pace of salvage ensures that you won't have the really big Mechs available to you until you need them. There is a good mix of offensive, defensive, and recon missions during the campaign, all with varied objectives. 

Designing your own Mech
One of the biggest attractions of MechWarrior and the BattleTech universe is being able to design your own Mech and to test it against those designed by others in the proving ground of multiplayer combat. I remember having spent hours designing the "ultimate" Mech during the BattleTech board game days. 

When designing Mechs, players need to pay attention to matters like heat dissipation. If the Mech gets too hot, it shuts down, leaving it vulnerable. Weapons like laser cannons and the like produce a lot of heat (but there is no need for ammo) while autocannons, machineguns and rockets/missiles produce minimal heat (but require ammo). You just have to strike a balance. Unlike its predecessors or the board game, you can no longer assign weapons to any part of the Mech with impunity. Some weapons (like the Gauss gun) are so big that they only fit on an arm. Energy weapons (lasers, PPCs) can only go on the torso. Perfect for control freaks. In MechWarrior 4, Mech design can be an involving process, but the fun begins when you pilot the Mech to victory! 

Gameplay
MechWarrior 4's Mechs are somewhat easier to pilot than those in the previous MechWarrior games. Granted, moving these war machines around can be challenging (what do you expect?), but with a bit of practice you can have your Mech running sideways and dealing destruction. Combat in MechWarrior 4 is anything but a mindless shootout - it strikes a good balance between pure action and simulation. Combat is fast, furious, and intense, but shrewd tactics and skillful piloting will greatly increase your longevity on the battlefield. 

In Multiplayer games, even inexperienced players can enjoy themselves since having support from friendly Mechs makes it easier to avoid getting picked on - and even the greenest Mech pilot can score the occasional kill by hunting down someone who's already been crippled by the opposing team. 

The verdict
The MechWarrior games have evolved far beyond their roots in the BattleTech board game. With MechWarrior 4, it is easier for new players to get involved but veterans won't miss out on the fun either. Personally, I found myself standing around a lot because I had to use a keyboard to move, aim and fire my Mech's impressive array of energy cannons. But once I got the hang of it, I could walk (not run) and shoot at the same time. I think I'll stick to strategy games. Even so, as a first-person simulation, MechWarrior 4: Vengeance is excellent in terms of graphics, sound effects and overall gameplay. A worthy addition to any gamer's library, indeed. 

MechWarrior 4: Vengeance
Developer: Microsoft
Publisher: Microsoft