When you’re designing a long-awaited follow-up to a beloved series that hasn’t had a new entry in over a decade, there can be a lot of external pressure to live up to fan expectations. With MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, Vancouver-based Piranha Games aims to bring the industrial stompy-robot fantasy of the ‘90s MechWarrior games into the post-HD era.
But as senior environmental artists like Viona Halim well know, there’s a lot more to nailing the look of a giant, gleaming war machine than just cleaning up some muddy textures. Mercenaries is an action game that demands pinpoint aiming and with precise movement. And as Halim puts it, that means its sprawling environments must come off as visually striking without dragging down performance.
In previous entries, such as Piranha’s MechWarrior Online, blocky buildings served as absolute obstacles for the player. Walking into them merely resulted in a loss of momentum. In MechWarrior 5, you can finally get that satisfying crunch of a 70-ton robot reducing a concrete wall to rubble with a single step. Thanks in part to Piranha’s move to the Unreal engine, the buildings in Mercenaries fall apart with ease when you walk into them with a full-head of steam. Your rockets and machine guns chip away at them, too.
Big Bots, Little Restraint
“You’re a big robot,” Halim said with a laugh. “If you’re scraping against a building, you’ll imagine it’ll fall apart. So we tried to emulate how strong you are as a big robot, just smashing into buildings. We have some that you can just plow through and feel super strong, but we also have others where you just knock away some of the facade, leaving a core in the middle. It gives you a good sense of scale.”
I got to play a 25-minute demo of Mercenaries at Piranha’s aptly named “Mech_Con 2018.” And while it’s certainly fun to hammer your way through smaller structures with ease, it’s the bigger buildings that play into the game’s signature tactical flair. Once you figure out that your opponents can’t smash their way through a particularly stout structure, you can take cover behind it, or order your allies to box in an enemy ‘mech once it blunders towards the rubble.
Each component of a given ‘mech has its own damage pool, too. So a smart player will target specific limbs and weaponry. The idea isn’t just to bring down an opponent as quickly as possible. It’s to disable them so they can’t fight back in the first place. But while blasting the enemy’s biggest guns might paralyze their offensive capabilities faster, they’re less likely to drop the all-important salvage you need to harness and sell to keep your in-game mercenary crew afloat.
Clarity of Purpose
As senior 3D artist Arman Abounourinejad puts it, the design has to balance on a very thin fulcrum. On one hand, the ‘mechs have to look good. On the other, they have to communicate their strengths and weaknesses — even in hectic, drama-filled moments. They also need to correspond to over 20 years of dusty BattleTech (the ur-franchise that spawned MechWarrior) designs. If Piranha runs afoul of the lore, the devs will hear about it from the dedicated fans who kept the franchise alive in years since BattleTech went into hibernation.
Abounourinejad specifically cited the expertise of his colleague Alex Iglesias. Iglesias designs all the ‘mechs in the game based on previous models from the BattleTech franchise. His designs are so faithful that fans can recognize their strong and weak points from the older games.
“If you look at all the ‘mechs in the game, they all have slightly different silhouettes, so that it’s pretty clear what their different capabilities are,” Abounourinejad said. “I’ve noticed that BattleTech fans already know the design of all the ‘mechs — where the hardpoints are. If they see a Marauder rolling up on them, they already know how to take it out, because they know what kind of weapons they’re going to have without even really looking.”
Pressure to Succeed
This sense of outside pressure seems very palpable to the artists I interviewed. Although they ultimately view it as a source of strength for the series. Abounourinejad points to Iglesias and studio head Russ Bullock as self-professed “mega-fans” of BattleTech: the kinds of enthusiasts who know how the community will react to every decision Piranha makes.
“When I started here, I didn’t know anything about BattleTech,” Abounourinejad elaborated. “I’d only played MechAssault. I didn’t have that frame of reference, so I was always messing up. Now that I’ve worked here for five years, I have realized that fans have so much love for these things, so we have to make sure we get every little thing right. We even have an internal review process for that.”
Press relations representative Stephanie Tinsley had an amusing anecdote to demonstrate fans’ devotion to BattleTech. The studio once worked with the art director of a well-known gaming magazine to put together a ‘mech that would grace the cover. The director eventually suggested they move one of the ‘mech’s guns to the other side of its body for a better shot.
“When Russ looked at the Photoshopped image, he was borderline upset,” Tinsley laughed. “To a BattleTech fan, something as simple as that comes off like an arm coming out of my head.”
While the ‘mechs look great posed on a magazine cover, they have to look just as good while being blown apart. Abounourinejad explained that the studio has vastly overhauled the damage model from MechWarrior Online. It now visually indicates when a player hits a specific limb. Metallic bits fall away in a barrage of debris. Since the game relies so heavily on this modular destruction, the artist views it as a form of gameplay feedback vital to MechWarrior’s core conceit.
BattleMech Balancing Act
“We ended up designing a system where there’s two damage states for each ‘mech component, and they look great,” Abounourinejad said. “The jump from CryEngine 3 to Unreal Engine 4 was huge, and it allowed us to iterate on that system so much faster, and the lighting system makes the ‘mechs look so much better. It was a godsend, basically.”
From the visuals on down, the demo for MechWarrior 5 delivered on the game’s core promise of smashing and shooting. Still, in this pre-alpha stage, it’s tough to know exactly how the game will shake out. That’s doubly true since Mercenaries is specifically catering to those hard-to-please fans.
No matter what, though, it’s clear Piranha is trying its damnedest to live up to the legacy of its forebears. That’s certainly a point in its favor, especially in a series as storied as BattleTech.
Update: A previous version of this article referred to a BattleMech as a “10-ton robot.” They’re more like 40-100 tons. We apologize for this unforgivable error.