Review by Dave Man

"Good Way to Kill A Weekend"

Chances are, you have seen so many mech games come and go in your career as a gamer that the subject fails to arouse even your most basic imaginary instincts. The whole idea of battling robots that are taller than your house has become quite ordinary and cliche. Put all those preconceived notions aside for a moment. Imagine, if you will, what kind of damage a machine that massive and powerful would actually do to a landscape in the course of a destructive mission. Imagine the sounds of crushing metal, thundering footsteps, screaming missile volleys, and other general carnage that would accompany a couple hundred tons of killing machine lumbering through your neighborhood. Got that image in your head? Good. That, my friends, is MechAssault.

This game is based on the MechWarrior series that has garnered popularity on the PC over the years. Unfortunately, this is a universe to which I have had limited exposure, so purists beware: I am ignorant. The game's story centers around a power struggle between a mech-piloting mercenary group (you) and a crazed military/religious sect (bad guys). Sadly, that's about as deep as it gets. It goes something like this: You attack sect's encampment/base/convoy while on contract, leader of sect runs, you chase leader through rounds of action-packed goodness. Repeat. Shallow as the story may seem, it provides an excellent setting and a viable excuse for destruction.

GAMEPLAY
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The game starts each mission with a small cinema that explains what you are trying to accomplish, the unique dangers of the mission, and also offers small hints to aid in your success. Following the cinema, you are given the opportunity to choose a mech for the upcoming level.

There are a couple of dozen mechs to choose from, but not all are available at the onset of the game. Some missions force you to use a specific mech, and some set you free to choose your favorite from the complete list. There are three basic kinds of mechs, all of which boil down basically into big, bigger, and biggest. There are a lot of ''sister'' mechs in the game that are just variants of other mechs with different weapons and defense capabilities.

MechAssault is played from a third-person perspective, with the view locked constantly behind your mech. The analog sticks are used to pilot and aim, triggers to fire, and face buttons to choose between weapons. If you have ever played Halo or Unreal the controls will be instantly intuitive. I had reservations at first about playing a game like this from the third-person, but a few minutes into it I appreciated the format. It plays exactly like a FPS, and the extra field of view is welcome since many enemies are tiny tanks and infantry that get underfoot and leach your life little by little.

Your mech can carry several different kinds of weapons, including lasers, machine guns, rail gun type weapons, energy weapons, and timed missiles. All can be powered up three times with pick ups found in buildings or dropped by fallen enemies. Almost all weapons use a lock-on ''fire and forget'' system that requires practically no skill to aim. While welcome in the single player game, this gets quite troublesome in multiplay arenas since you are unable to dodge most attacks. Ammunition is limitless on the lowest power level, with metered numbers of shots being imposed at the higher power levels. Defensive capabilities include missile-foiling chaff grenades, invisibility, target jamming, and short bursts of flight. Most mechs carry two or three different kinds of weapons and one defense, although some have no defenses. Defenses run off of a timer/recharge system. Once you trigger a defense, a gage depletes while it is functioning and you can't reuse it until the gage refills itself.

MechAssault's solo adventure can best be described as a progression of deathmatches, interspersed occasionally with search and destroy missions. Missions can carry objectives as varied as ''destroy the buildings'' to ''defend our mothership,'' but all harbor at least a couple of tense one-on-one (or one-on-seven, as the case may be) mech battles. The difficulty in the one player game progresses smoothly until later levels, when it becomes frustratingly difficult in a couple of missions. The game holds your hand in the beginning, popping up windows and dropping hints on how to use your mech. The last few levels are merciless action orgies that will test your patience, but ultimately leave you satisfied when you finally finish. Enemy AI runs the gamut of Einstein-like intelligence to sub-short bus silliness. I have had mechs assault me mercilessly, and I have seen some swim in pools of lava until they finally explode without having been shot.

The Multiplayer and online Live experience are somewhat disappointing in my personal opinion, especially considering that this was one of the games that was supposed to showcase the service. For starters, Multiplayer System Link games are limited to two people per system, with the screen split vertically. This works out to a maximum of sixteen possible players spanning eight televisions and eight XBoxes using networked ethernet hubs, which gets pretty expensive and difficult to pull together. That sounds great, until you realize that it takes the game FOREVER to find the other networked players and let them join your game. I haven't timed it, but I would say that the average wait is about 1-2 minutes after you create a game, during which the program appears to ''freeze.'' This bug baffles me, as others can join you in an online game almost instantaneously. The available game types for multiplay are limited, allowing only a handful of variations of deathmatching and ''tag'' type games, with no mods or mutators. Supposedly, downloadable content via the Live service will add new modes such as Capture the Flag, but the are as-of-yet unavailable. To be fair, two new mechs and two new maps have been released for download as of this writing, but they were VERY late and not that interesting. The interface for online play is pleasing, providing a lobby in which you can meet up with friends and reserve spots for private play.

Still, however, I think the crushing blow to the online aspect of this game lies in character balance. Because of the way the mechs are armed, only one or two out of the couple of dozen or so available are effective enough to use. Some of these mechs use the super-powerful and automatically guided PPC cannons and are equipped with target jamming defense. In plain English: They can hit you, but you can't hit them. More often than not you end up in an arena with seven other mechs just like yours engaged in a war of attrition that is ultimately decided by how fast you can pull the trigger. Larger melees quickly degenerate into monotonous dogpiles in the center of the arena in which you die repeatedly after being shot simultaneously by six other players. Smaller, less powerful mechs are easily slaughtered time after time, and their pilots are often ridiculed. Some people have gotten tired of this and tried to host ''MadCat free'' games, but somebody almost always sneaks one in at the last minute and wreaks havoc. This is one area of the game in which multiplayer mutators would have been very welcome. Truthfully, the only way to have fun with this game online is to play it with people that you know well, although you will find multitudes of people that disagree with me on this point.

Audio/Visual
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MechAssault's graphics are nothing short of amazing. The sense of scale imparted during your stints through populated areas is second to none. Your mech will leave footprints on the ground that are different depending on the turf, and landscape items such as trees and street lights can be knocked over and trampled. Humans are tiny little creatures that seem insignificant in comparison to almost everything else. They scream and explode in a disturbingly large cloud of blood when stepped on or shot. Almost everything in the game is destructible. The first time you accidentally shoulder up to a glass windowed skyskraper and watch its walls turn into a shimmering powder, you will be amazed. Missiles blow holes in structures that reveal girders and sizzling wires, and when they have been extensively punished they fall to the ground, leaving a smoldering pile of rubble in their wake.

The mechs themselves are real standouts. Their cockpits reflect light realistically, atmospheric events like snow show up on their chassis, and they appear extremely heavy in their movements while remaining nimble to control. Smoke trails from missiles and explosion clouds are photo-realistic. When your mech explodes it is an event, and anybody within 50 feet of it will know about it. Intense battles will allow the accumulation of billowing smoke and debris in the air, which actually makes it harder to fight sometimes since you can't see as well. Your mech shows different levels of damage by emitting smoke, showers of sparks, and small fires, finally glowing at its seams and limping heavily when at the door of death.

On the downside, there are only really four varieties of levels: Snow, lava, country, and urban. They tend to look pretty much the same throughout the entire game. Heavy, flowing fog and smoke in some levels (used as a design element, not a technological cover up) can be aggravating, since you sometimes are shot before you can see what is doing the shooting. The camera is rarely a problem unless you are backed up against a wall or confined in tight quarters. It only caused one or two untimely deaths during my trek through the game.

The sounds in the game are a mixed bag. Screaming guitar riffs accompany the appearance of the first mech in the game and help to get your blood pumping. However, these same guitar riffs hail the appearance of every other mech in the game, too, and soon degenerate from cool to lame. Other than the title music, the guitar serenade is the only music in the game. The bulk of the game is silent, other than the ''thud-thud-thud-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM'' of walking and combat. The conversation in the game is decently voiced and not too irritating, just don't expect Oscar-caliber performances. Everything else is standard fare like generic explosions and the ''ratatatat'' of machine guns. One notable exception is the PPC Cannon's charging sound. If you have a nice sound system, this throbbing electric sound will raise the hair on the back of your neck.

Replay Value
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Sadly, replay value is somewhat limited. After finishing the brief one-player campaign there is really no reason to play again, other than the pretty visuals. No secrets have been provided to unlock, except the ones that are unlocked automatically during the first game you play. Online and system-link play quickly grow tiresome and repetitive, since the deathmatch happy developers provided little room for strategy or variety in their multiplayer games.

My Two Cents
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MechAssault is an excellent game, despite its glaring flaws in the multiplayer arena. Its weakness in online play and limited replay value overshadow an otherwise well crafted experience. The gameplay is an acquired taste, and its brevity may be an issue, so rent before you buy. In any case, this visually pleasing and captivating game shouldn't slip by you.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/05/03, Updated 03/05/03


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