Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mech Blues: A Retrospective (Part 1)

An iconic image burned into my childhood memory
I'm a big fan of mech combat video games and there's a lot to choose from.  The vast majority of them fall into the "simulation" category.  I really like controlling a big stomping robot around the battlefield, but I also like games which embrace tactical elements beyond what a single pilot can do.  On top of that there's the gearhead aspect to these types of games, where players get to be armchair engineers and construct their own custom designs. Sadly, I've never found the perfect mix of these three cornerstones to mech game design.  There are some titles that have come close over the years though, so I'd like to take a look at a few of them.  Before continuing, I should say this is not a exhaustive exploration of the subgenre, but rather a look at what I feel are titles worth mentioning.  Because of its length, I'm going to brake this retrospective into two parts.

The appearance of the "Warhammer" battlemech was nearly
a carbon copy of the "Tomahawk" Macross Destriod and
and as a result many classic designs eventually became
'unseen' due to copyright issues 
Mechwarrior was probably the first noteworthy to come out on the PC. It featured EGA graphics and the first real 3D model engine for a mech based game. Sound effects were crude, but the A.I. was surprisingly advanced for the time. Enemies would withdraw if they suffered too much damage. Allies were also competent and assuming the player's merc outfit had the funds, up to three friendly mechs could help out on the battlefield. Eight different types of battlemechs were available and players had the option to choose their missions (They could even haggle over the amount and types of payment they would receive per contract). Damage modeling was detailed and, with a few understandable concessions, the game hewed very close to its tabletop gaming roots. Overheating, detailed damage modeling, knockdowns and the possibility of instant death from a hit to the cockpit are all coded into the game. There was also a story though I must confess, I never followed it to the conclusion. Six years later Mechwarrior 2: 31st Century Combat came out. This version had greatly improved graphics, sound and music.  It also allowed for custom mech designs, but the changes made to the setting never sat well with me. I much preferred being an Inner Sphere gun-for-hire, rather than part of the eugenics obsessed Clans. I've never been a fan of the later robotic designs either. Clan mechs, in particular, have always looked impractical because of the huge amount of space dedicated to their weapon arrays. Nitpicking aside the series did make a return to its roots...twice. Overall the Battletech universe feels a lot like Frank Herbert's Dune novels, taking place in a distant future, where humanity has expanded out to the stars, only to fall back into a second dark age. Feudalism has returned on a planetary scale and mech owners are the new nobility. It's hard to criticize Mechwarrior because it was a bizarre mixture of pioneering and pilfering. Needless to say, I think the setting started off strong and slowly eroded in quality, until finally hitting rock bottom with mindless online frag-fests like Mechassault. A revival may very well be underway with the upcoming Mechwarrior: Online, but that's the future and, for now, we're talking about the past.

HERCULAN (Humaniform-Emulation Roboticized Combat Unit
with Leg-Articulated Navigation) or HERC for short, is 
probably the most forced acronym in video game history
Metaltech: Earthseige was a Sierra/Dynamix title set in a not so distant post-apocalyptic future, where machines have rebelled against their human creators in an attempt to seize control over the Earth.  Sounds a lot like the Terminator movies, doesn't it?  Well, that's pretty much right except rather than using things like infiltrator units and time travel devices, the "Cybrids" (as they are called) prowl around in giant robots called "HERCs."  Humanity's counter for this is human operated HERCs of their own made out of scrap, salvaged off wreckage.  There were some cool ideas in this game.  You could make a variety of HERC chassis and customize the weapon load-outs. Additional pilots could be added to your roster allowing you to form a squad.  The passive/active radar detection system added to the feeling of playing cat and mouse with your numerically superior advisory.  Salvage also brought the concept that you wanted to cripple (rather than outright destroy) enemies so as to harvest the most machinery possible.  Unfortunately, the concept was never fully realized because the game simply used generic salvage points, rather than specific pieces of equipment or technology.   Also, the setting presentation was kind of generic and suffered from a bland atmosphere.  Plus, the obvious advantages of air superiority seemed strangely ignored in-game.  Odd, given the fact that HERC carryalls and deadly Cybrid VTOL aircraft, both  make appearances in the opening cut-scene.  Earthsiege got a sequel and a spin-off series (Starsiege, which later became the online Tribes FPS).  A turn based strategy series entitled Mission Force: Cyberstorm also came out, but the POV was a constant overhead hex-grid which failed to convey the feeling of giant robot battles.

"The next day, the dawn was a brilliant, fiery red"
Ultrabots, or Xenobots as it was also called, had a lot in common with Earthsiege, just swap out Cybrids with War of the Worlds style aliens and your 90 percent of the way there. Granted the mech designs were totally different than the walkers that appear in the original H.G. Wells novel. What makes the game worth mentioning is that fact that it nailed the post-apocalyptic atmosphere a lot better, as well as a unique power relay mechanic. The concept being, these mechs don't generate power internally, and instead must draw it from the main base via energy transmitting towers. Hence, destroying your opponents grid could be a logistical deathblow since bots can't last long on battery power alone. Three basic designs made use of this mechanic. First, a fast, yellow chicken-walker scout equipped with some unique tools at the player's disposal such as decoys, mines, EMC, and a cloaking device. Next, a blue humanoid design which packed a lot of close up punch and served as the main battle line unit. Last, a slow, red scorpion looking machine that could lay more power relays and had camera guided missiles to boot. You could also swap control from one unit to another on the fly while the rest
What you see is what you get
would follow simple instructions set by the player. Sounds like fun, right? Well, first off, the A.I. was not good. Second, the objective of every mission was to destroy the enemy base. However, the worst offender was the fact that the three bot designs I mentioned above are all there were. Even the enemy used the exact same designs, with each model the exact same color for both sides of the conflict! From a story perspective, I guess it made sense, but from a gameplay standpoint the lack of adjustable weapons and only three mech designs sent this particular title to the bargain bin quickly in most software stores.

To be continued in part 2...

No comments:

Post a Comment