MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries brings first-person BattleTech shenanigans back to single-player for the first time in nearly two decades. But while it’s set in the BattleTech universe it is, crucially, not actually BattleTech: the absolutely astounding 2018 tactics game of the same name. Although you wouldn’t know it if someone just described the two games to you. They are structurally almost identical. Like the man once said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Though you do quite a lot of “fixing” in MechWarrior 5. You are the leader of a mercenary company. You drive big robots onto missions for several factions, negotiating for extra pay and salvage, as well as earning reputation between several big pants factions. Salaries must be paid to A.I. pilots you bring along into combat, while repairing and refitting your machines costs significant cash. Again: anyone that played BattleTech and its subsequent expansions will recognize the layout. Even the star map, mission types, and some of the menus appear pulled straight out of that game. But they are set in the same world, with most of the same robots, so it makes some sense.
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The problem is that BattleTech is good. It’s very, very, very good. More specifically, it’s good in ways that MechWarrior 5 most assuredly is not. The story, characters, world-building, and sense of being the ragtag overseer of a bunch of goofball mercs just trying to get by: BattleTech excels at all these things. It writes in backstory for your XO, whose father broke his back working the docks to secure a better life for his son. It lays out how Muslim spacefarers can perform the Hajj, when faster-than-light travel is extraordinarily expensive and time consuming.
MechWarrior 5 falls extremely flat by comparison. Your lead character, who I’ve just been reminded is named Mason (I couldn’t remember on my own), sounds like Duke Nukem without an ounce of even that character’s limited satire. “These MechWarrior bastards are gonna pay for bustin’ up my dad,” he might as well say. Maybe he did? I can’t remember. Mason is a rough and tumble mercenary out to shoot stuff for revenge reasons. The whole plot washes off my brain like a misfired ER Large Laser. Whereas BattleTech hits like a PPC from the very start of its all-time great intro video.
BattleTech has another mechanical leg up on its sister game: expansions. MechWarrior 5 comes just days after Heavy Metal, the last of three announced expansions for BattleTech. Besides more of that tight writing — in the form of bespoke, multi-mission “Flashpoints” — Heavy Metal brought new maps, weapons, mechs, and a bevy of simulation balance changes. I can’t tell you how nice it is to actually care about what the shops are selling in that game. Meanwhile, the previous expansions — Flashpoint and Urban Warfare — added the titular story missions and extra tactical considerations like city zones.
That kind of variety is exactly what MechWarrior 5 lacks most. Every procedurally generated mission in the game boils down to breaking stuff, defending stuff, or shooting people. That could be fine, if the combat around those encounters was perfectly polished, but it’s not.
Defense missions are sabotaged by A.I. allies that don’t know not to step on friendly buildings — costing you bonus pay for keeping the bases above a certain damage level. Destroying buildings is impressive at first. MechWarrior 5 is gorgeous to look at. That comes through best in its destructible environments and mechs that shear apart into twisted, soot-caked metal. But the novelty wears thin when it’s a third of what you’re doing.
A Mess of Mechs
Mech-on-mech battles fare better… to a point. MechWarrior 5 captures the inertia and improbably high speed of these walking tanks nicely. They move and feel as dangerous and colossal as I remember them being in MechWarrior 4 all those years ago. But developer Piranha Games couldn’t quite capture the handcrafted feel of those missions in procedurally generated form. The game appears to “cheat” by spawning in enemies at impossible locations: behind you, over hills you just checked, or directly above without needing to fly in first.
BattleTech, by comparison, is perfectly grounded. Enemy reinforcements never appear without warning. Maybe it’s an on-screen marker that shows where a dropship is about to land, allowing you one turn to set up better tactical positions. Or maybe one of your crew mates says trouble is brewing beyond the fog of war. Because you know and care about those characters, their warnings feel more earnest — more dramatic. In MechWarrior 5, it’s just a nuisance — more meat for the endlessly turning grinder.
The sameness rears its ugly head before you even hit the battlefield, too. You can’t customize your ride nearly as much as I would like. Instead of getting limited tonnage and vague weapon slots to play with, you’re locked into preset choices. This Locust needs Machine Guns here. That Centurion must put a Medium Laser there. There is no room to create wacky custom builds. And that’s half the fun I ever have with these games.
There are other, smaller issues I could go on about forever, but I won’t. I know it’s unfair to compare a brand-new game to one with a year of solid support. But MechWarrior 5 invites these contrasts by so rigidly following in its predecessor’s footsteps. As a result, the little details it gets wrong are so much more apparent.
That cuts both ways, too. Piranha Games is the longtime steward of MechWarrior Online: a live service game with a history of updates and new content. The open-ended star map system is as conducive to DLC here as it was in BattleTech. Even if I enjoyed base BattleTech better than I enjoy base MechWarrior 5, nothing here is fundamentally broken. It doesn’t need to be fixed. It needs to be refined, expanded, and perhaps to continue cribbing notes from the likes of Heavy Metal.
It’s going to take a lot of work. And I’ll be very curious to see how much I’m willing to pay — one month, six months, or even a year from now — for add-ons that make MechWarrior 5 into the game I think it can be. With more care and attention, though, I think MechWarrior 5 and BattleTech can stomp side-by-side as two pillars of this beloved robot playground in the modern era.