I finally got my Saitek X-55 Rhino working with MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries this week. But even just after a handful of missions, it’s clear to me this game was meant to be played with the absurd, overpriced joystick I’ve had collecting dust for half a decade. It absolutely blows the mouse and keyboard setup I was using before out of the water — not because it’s easier or more comfortable, but because it’s harder.
That’s a shame, too. The average player simply isn’t going to own a HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) like the X-55 to play all of three games. I shouldn’t, either, but I made a lot of poor purchasing decisions when I was younger. Hence why I had to dig the joystick/throttle combo out of a closet. Besides that, I also had to hunt down custom files off Reddit to inject into my save game, and reach out to PR for assistance (my fellow X-55 users: make sure the SLD slider is pushed to the left on your throttle, otherwise it borks the whole thing). MechWarrior 5 joystick support is far from flawless for every controller.
The piece of plastic has at least paid off in one way, though. It’s made my time with what is, just after launch, only a so-so MechWarrior game slightly more enjoyable.
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That’s because, among other issues, MechWarrior 5 is often painfully easy. The mech suit series always straddled a line between “arcade” first-person shooters (e.g. Quake, Unreal Tournament) and “simulations” (e.g. Flight Simulator). That distinction became increasingly irrelevant as genre lines blurred and public tastes shifted. But at its heart, the series is meant to be a little bit fiddly — to force you to manage heat, ammunition, repair costs, and positioning in ways you might not expect. Precisely clicking on foes to delete them with an AC/20, at least in MechWarrior 5, erases some of that tension.
By contrast, playing with a stick makes you sing for your mercenaries’ supper. The Rhino in particular has an incredible weight and resistance to it that makes landing shots physically straining. But while it takes some getting used to, it’s completely doable.
The extra sense of being physically “present” in the cockpit of a mech also helps compensate for the inconvenience. One of my chief issues with the latest MechWarrior is how its mission design undercuts that sense of presence. Enemies defy the laws of space and time to spawn out of thin air (often behind the player). Playing with more physical controls doesn’t solve that issue. However, it does layer on one more vector for the game to immerse me in its walking tank battles.
I feel it every time I remove my hand from the throttle to flip a metal switch. There is a cost to the motion — in time and physical effort — just to bring my map up that way. I have to genuinely weigh the price of losing split-second control of my machine against gaining information from my enhanced radar circle. And every time I do, I’m reminded that these virtual death dealers have momentum. The metal doesn’t stop just because I let my hand off the throttle. It continues walking, like the propulsive artillery that it is. By disconnecting, even for brief moments, I remember the gravity of my 100-ton armor in this virtual world.
A flight stick shouldn’t feel like a necessity in this case, but it is a nice band-aid. I’m holding out hope that this skeleton of a good game will turn into something more lively. In the meantime, using some very expensive equipment is at least one way to flesh it out.