MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries brings the classic series back to video games after nearly two decades. In the time between games, Mechs have become an increasingly popular form of delivering different combat experiences in story-driven games, including Titanfall 2 and Borderlands 3. Now, developer Piranha Games has finally returned to the iconic tabletop RPG-inspired franchise with a new instalment.
The game begins with a tutorial scene that allows players to enter a scavenged Centurion Mech. Once the player is inside the Mech, instructions come from Nikolai Mason, the main character’s father. The basic locomotive controls are simple and do not take long to become familiar, mainly involving increasing and decreasing the throttle to accelerate and reverse. The only exception is a weird control setting that rotates the upper torso independently from the Mech’s legs which can take a little time to get used to. Once players have completed basic movement instructions, they can proceed into a combat simulator requiring the player to target drones using an array of weapons, including a heavy cannon and energy lasers.
When basic combat training has ended, the narrative kicks in as the mercenary base is attacked by a rogue group of fierce-looking Mechs. At this point, Nikolai commands the player to retreat whilst he distracts the enemy mercenaries.
After a cutscene, the player and the surviving band of mercenaries find themselves aboard a small freighter in space but trapped in the sector without crucial supplies. The protagonist, Commander Mason, rises to the occasion to lead the group to salvation with the help of a powerful friend who is working on an escape plan.
In this set-up, the first problem with this game emerges. Within the first hour, every character besides Nikolai feels two-dimensional. Few characters show any emotion at all, including Commander Mason, and this lack of enthusiasm robs all resonance from scenes that should invest the player in what they are seeing and experiencing. The promising opening is squandered by a sense of irrelevance to the events that transpire.
Additionally, the crew’s engineer, Fahad, makes numerous jokes about making sure Mason does not dent the Mech’s body on the next excursion, showing zero sensibility toward the harrowing events just past. On occasion, NPCs will praise Mason’s actions, but those words feel hollow and misplaced. Furthermore, Mason himself jumps into each mission and appears thrilled to stomp on uninhabited buildings, but his journey feels completely disconnected from the opening scenes, leaving this feeling of being separated from the narrative.
Apart from the narrative, missions offer an enjoyable destruction derby-like experience. Each mission, or, as they are referred to in-game, ‘contract,’ generally tasks the player with completing a handful of objectives, from finding supply caches or destroying energy generators to defending civilian outposts under attack from other mercenary groups. For the first set of missions, players can generally choose between two different types of Mechs: the heavily armoured Centurion, which boasts heavy weapons, or the Javelin, which is lighter, faster, and uses energy weapons. Both Mechs offer interesting gameplay choices. For example, one mission requires the player to move through a Hoth-like icy moon to gather supply caches and destroy a weapons depot. However, the player does not need to defeat every enemy. Therefore, choosing to operate the lighter Mech allows the player to complete the task faster whilst reducing the likelihood of becoming a target.
The weapons systems are easy to engage with too. Players can fire different types of ammunition by left and right clicking whilst using the mouse to manually aim at enemy tanks, helicopters, and Mechs. Furthermore, kills with heavy cannons or energy lasers increases the player’s skill with that weapon type, increasing damage and efficiency with preferred weapons.
Mech-to-Mech combat is thrilling because Piranha Games offers a variety of enemy Mechs to fight against. Players are encouraged to fight tactically, targeting specific parts of enemy Mechs. For smaller, faster adversaries, players can aim at the body or legs, which serves to immobilise them to then finish off at closer range. Larger, more armoured Mechs require more damage to take down. However, because they are slower, the player can aim for headshots; killing the pilot disables the Mech entirely. Enemies can deal a lot of damage too, meaning players will have to consider how they approach mission objectives. Spending too long on one objective or becoming overwhelmed by enemies will damage the Mech’s weaponry beyond repair. Without weapons, the player will not last long on the battlefield. Meanwhile, a heavy metal backing soundtrack further supplements the thrill of combat as every kill feels epic.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries on PC can be incredibly demanding at times. During several intense combat sequences, the game froze and eventually crashed. Reducing the visual quality enables smoother fights, but this compromise affects enjoyment and engagement and, in turn, makes Titanfall 2 a far more attractive option for smooth Mech-combat.
Upon completing a contract, players return to the freighter, where salvage and money gathered from excursions can be used to repair the damaged Mech(s). Accessing one of the numerous consoles enables players to enter the repair and customisation screen. The customisation options offer a wide array of paint jobs and emblems, as well as a colour wheel, allowing players to personalise each Mech. Repairing Mechs, however, is frustrating. At first, the repair system feels intelligent, as players can only commit to repairs if they have enough money and materials to fund them. This makes sense, but Mechs take quite a beating during operations, meaning a full body repair after every mission drains resources faster than they can be earned.
Additionally, Piranha Games provides cues to help players figure out what parts of a Mech need urgent repairs. When a Mech is severely damaged, a red crosshatch pattern appears over the tile image. However, whilst the game helps players to figure out the problem, it does not offer solutions. Therefore, spending vast amounts of time can be spent trying to figure out how to make specific repairs such as removing damaged weapons and installing new ones. This is another reason why repairing Mechs becomes a frustrating experience.
However, one saving grace is that each repair takes a set amount of days, which the player can speed up by clicking ‘wait’ from the ‘home’ screen rather than sitting out the days. This option becomes more attractive because most contracts do not have a time limit, so the player can choose when to start a new contract. In other words, players do not have to complete contracts with half-repaired Mechs, ensuring likely destruction.
Partway through the campaign, players can start to recruit pilots in Industrial Hubs. The main benefit of doing this is that players can have up to three additional allies to fight with when completing contracts. Therefore, with more targets for enemies to shoot at, the player can take advantage of distractions created by allies to destroy foes. However, as the head of a mercenary gang, the player also has to manage the intricacies of running an expanding company. Mason is responsible for maintenance and acquisition of BattleMechs, which translates into considering resource management. As all Mechs require repairs when damaged, the costs add up. For example, using all four Mechs in a simple mission can result in every one taking damage, with repairs costing more than the salvage and money gained from completing the contract.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries delivers a fun, combat-adventure game and a worthy sequel within the franchise. The movement controls, backing action music, and combat mechanics offer a thrilling, Mech-based action game. However, the inconsistent narrative design, demanding PC specifications, and frustrating repair mechanic detract from the game’s potential. In its current state, players may find Titanfall 2 the more appealing mech-centric choice.
Reviewed on PC.