MechAssault may very well be the sleeper hit of the year. No, it likely will win no Game of the Year awards, nor will it get nearly the acclaim it deserves, but this is one good game. Itís certainly Xbox Live's shining star, yet it will likely be overlooked by the masses. Read on to find out why . . .
Let's start with the story, which frankly, is just here to move along the action. Don't expect any furthering of the Battle Tech legacy, despite the game taking place in its universe. The game's premise puts you in the role of a Mech Warrior of a mercenary group called the Wolf's Dragoons. Contracted by the planet Helios, you've been assigned to liberate the planet of radicalists called The Word of Blake, who have mysteriously taken over for unknown reasons. The game unfolds as your command center is entering Helios' orbit. Suddenly your ship is attacked and has to make an emergency crash landing. This is where everything starts, as the only pilot with a functional mech after the crash, you're thrust out to do the dirty work of the Wolf's Dragoons all by yourself, destroying, crushing, and utterly obliterating your way through the game's twenty missions.
That's when the real fun starts - the action. That's what this game is all about, thumb blistering, edge-of-your-seat action, and MechAssault packs it in spades. Before each mission, you're given some basic goals and objectives (which basically correlate to "destroy point A, obliterate Mech B, stomp on some dudes at point C"), and then you're let loose to bring all of your perverse giant robot dreams to life.
Thanks to some completely insane attention to detail (or attention to destruction, your choice), the limits of havoc you can wreak in this game are almost boundless. One of the game's most impressive features lies squarely in it's environments, which can be destroyed almost in their entirety. Each laser or missile you fire punctures a hole individual to the area you shot on a building, fires break out of the windows and entire columns of windows shatter instantly, and after some good beating, the grand structure dives into the ground in an extremely impressive display.
It's not all eye candy, however, as the environment actually forces some strategy into things. A tall building often makes perfect fodder to put between yourself and those incoming missiles on your back, and if you time it correctly, you can actually use a building as the ultimate offensive. Destroy it with an enemy mech next to it or on top of it, and it'll almost always take the mech out instantly, as the huge pillar crashes down under (or above) it.
Now, given that MechAssault's the perfect playground for the walking behemoth mechs, what fun would things be without variety (as it is the spice of life, of course)? None, that's what. Luckily, the game packs a roster of over twenty mechs, ranging all kinds of sizes, shapes, speeds, and firepower, from the mammoth Atlas, to the tiny Elemental. Each mech is pre-equipped with one to three (depending on size) standard weapons, and despite the wide variety of weaponry and the range of mechs at your disposal, it's a miracle that MechAssault keeps everything very balanced - which it does wonderfully.
Whether it's the large Summoner's slow speed, the small Owens' lack of powerful weapons, or the medium-sized Mad Cat's tendency to overheat quickly, every mech has it's share of advantages and disadvantages, making for equal turf whether you play the aggressor or the vulture on the battle field. Also adding to the strategy, are defensive abilities that most mechs are given, which range from jump jets that let you hover above enemies to radar-jamming to pulling a disappearing act, turning transparent. The heat of your mech also comes into play, as most weapons give off certain amounts of heat per shot, and if you overheat, your weapons become useless for a limited time. This forces you to think ahead and decide which weapons to use when, and to look at the situation before heading into it.
Obviously, with MechAssault being one of the premiere titles available at Xbox Live launch, a lot of attention is drawn to the online aspect, and appropriately so, considering just how much fun it is! Now let's get things straight: first and foremost, MechAssault is probably the worst Xbox Live title so far in terms of functionality, as far as dealing with lobbies, finding friends online, and generally navigating yourself through the system. Player drop-offs before a match are not uncommon at all, and you can't tell exactly who's talking when. Most annoying, you're booted out to the main Xbox Live menu after each battle.
On the other hand, the technical side is where this title is leaps and bounds above every other Xbox Live game this year. Despite all of the frenzy of the action taking place all around you, buildings crashing down, mechs imploding in all of their glory, and up to eight mechs running around on screen at once, the game has never lagged on me. Not once. That alone is absolutely phenomenal in itself, though the game does slow down, if ever so slightly, when mass hysteria is taking place on the screen.
The online gameplay really shines as well, with five modes currently available, from your standard death match and team death match, to last-man-standing and a proverbial game of tag (with giant mechs, that is). Each mode easily offers dozens upon dozens of hours of entertainment, and just the chaotic nature of this game, along with the surprising level of balance throughout, make for an ideal online experience, perfect for starting out your Xbox Live enjoyment.
I must make mention of what will definitely become integral parts of the online play later on. Microsoft is promising downloadable content for MechAssault starting early January 2003, which will purportedly not only alleviate many of the problems I mentioned about the functionality, but also add a lot to the experience, including many new mechs and maps, and even new gameplay modes. So while I hold some small gripes about the experience now, this may very well remedy those gripes, and make it even better than it currently is as a whole!
The initial reaction of many will likely be not to the impressive gameplay, but just how amazing the graphics are, because frankly they are just that. From the huge, extremely well-animated and detailed mechs that lumber through the environments like the towering monsters that they are, to the little soldiers being crushed beneath their feet, everything just looks really impressive. There are plenty of more subtle touches as well, such as huge mech footprints left in the ground as you move about, and water or dirt being kicked up from your legs depending on where you're walking.
Then there's the environment itself, which looks just as good. Well-textured landscapes and lively towns and cities, and of course the incredible buildings - or more specifically, the incredible way they fall. Practically everything in the game is completely destructible as well, with many different textures for varying levels of destruction on any given area of a building or structure, and entire pieces of buildings crumbling off of their rest. Everything works well together to paint a very impressive picture, making for one of the best showcases of the hardware yet.
The sound department, sadly, doesn't fare quite as well. Though the weapon sounds are generally very well done, the music in the game is more often than not your average, bland, almost glam-rock-styled music. Yes, the cheese is in full effect here. The game does feature a sizable amount of voice work, though, which for the most part is pretty exceptional, and even worth a laugh once or twice.
In the end, MechAssault may not have been on your radar, but it has certainly turned out to be one hell of a game, and deserves some quick re-evaluation if you're looking for the Xbox Live title to get. It uses old-school, pure arcade-style action to the fullest effect, yet keeps strategy intact, and combines it all with a very solid graphical package, MechAssault proves to be a real winner. This is truly the stand-out title of Xbox Live for this year. You'll be hooked.
· · · Andy