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Big Stompy Robot Addiction

This bizarro weekend has been utterly consumed by MechWarrior Online.   I remember seeing PC Gamer raving about this late 2013-released game for quite some time, but this is the first time I played it.  I had been avoiding it because my Battletech roots are in the ancient MUSH I played back when I was a teenager, real time but completely textual versions of the game, which made me come to understand enough of the original board game rules to know that MechWarrior Online stomps all over it with big robot feet.

Battletech: where giant battle robots (mechs) can lose a few limbs!
My main hangup was that armor balance is ruined by giving pinpoint accuracy to players.  The board game rules split armor into eleven separate sections and all the armor of all the original mech designs were balanced in mind that weapons will impact them at random.  Most MechWarrior computer games allow players to pinpoint accuracy to shoot certain sections, eliminating the randomness, making the armor simulated by the original rules practically useless!  It is so bad that Mechwarrior 4 tried to resort to massively beefing up the armor count, but this just delays the inevitable while throwing weapon potency out of balance.

The balance issues with implementing pinpoint accuracy in a Battletech derivative gets even worse because the original weapon tables were balanced in such a way that longer ranged weapons are more accurate at longer ranges, and they pay for this with heat generation and size penalties.  Every MechWarrior game after the first one gave the players pinpoint accuracy, which means longer ranged weapons no longer have any accuracy bonus, but they kept the penalties in place, so large weapons end up a complete waste of mech design space!

Thus, I delivered an ultimatum to MechWarrior Online: implement cones of fire, or I have no reason to want to play this game.  Only by re-introducing an element of chance does the armor work, and having variable accuracy on weapons (longer ranged = more accurate) restores the balance to the way they were weighted.  I turned up my nose and snubbed the game for a good year and a half over this.
"Cones of fire" are disappointingly lacking from most computer games.  You can not shoot a gun with perfect accuracy in real life, but you can do it in a simulation using a mouse readily enough.  However, this is not really a realism complaint, cones of fire actually add an important element of chance to games which make them more interesting.
As it turns out, I was wrong to snub MechWarrior Online for this reason because Piranha Games has shown me there was another way.  Well, it is not that complicated: you just completely re-balance the weapons and change the way they work.

Of the various weapons offered by Battletech, lasers were the greatest potential game breaker without cones of fire, because a projectile that moves at the speed of light makes it rather easy to shoot exactly what you are pointing at.  Piranha's solution was to stop lasers from doing all their damage at once, instead spreading the damage over the period of a second (or less, depending on the weapon).  Indeed, this seems to have done the trick of introducing some random variation in damage distribution, as your target is unlikely to sit still while it's being bathed in hostile coherent light!  The rest of the weapons were less exploitable due to projectile travel time, but thankfully the missile barrages were given a cone of fire, as they were far too accurate in earlier MechWarrior games.

To solve the issue where longer ranged weapons are paying more in terms of size for less benefit due to cones of fire being removed, all the weapons have had their rate of fire made variable (whereas in the board game it was always 1 shot per turn per weapon), and other minor fixes, so huge weapons are now viable.  The days of running around with giant batteries of medium lasers are over, partly because the mech customization system has been balanced to prevent that many from being mounted on most variants of mechs, but mostly because the core heat generation and damage has been tweaked in such a way that this is no longer the path of least resistance.

Granted, I am not going to say this game is 100% balanced, as they committed the cardinal sin of implementing clan mechs.   These hostile invaders from outside the Inner Sphere possess far more powerful mechs than the main factions, and were originally intended by the Battletech board game to fight against three to one odds, but Piranha shoehorns them into matches simply by weight class (as far as I can tell).   To their credit, they are aware of the issue and have made some adjustments, but I think it is probably impossible for clan mechs to be truly balanced with Inner Sphere mechs while still remaining clan mechs.  I have been avoiding taking them out of principle, but I know I am just shooting myself in the foot when I could be abusing clan ER PPCs.

Free to Play, but not pay to win.

A sensitive topic of any "free to play" game is how much benefit spending real money gives you.  An unbalanced playing field dominated by Rockefellers is a real drag on any gamer's impetus to play.

However, I am happy to report that Piranha Games has found a nice balance because, in adhering reasonably well to Battletech mech design concessions, you can be sure that the "hero" and "champion" mechs you pay for are not genuinely that much better than the "free" versions you can purchase with in-game money.

Granted, there are a few "consumable modules" that come pretty close to granting an advantage for money, but in practice I found the advantage of the paid-only consumables to be limited.  With a nice level field, it all comes down to the skill in which you can deliver your weaponry to the foes while avoiding taking damage in return.  Speaking of which...

Thoughts on tactics.

Having spent the greater part of the last 72 hours in MechWarrior Online, I think I am prepared to level some observations about strategy in the game.   Yeah, okay, that normally would not be enough, but this is also coming at you from my experiences in previous games made from the franchise, now updated for this game.

Personal tactics:

Lesson number one is to never hold still, ideally not even approach the enemy head on, because this makes it too easy for them to target your center torso and gut your mech without touching the surrounding armor.  Rotating your torso is vital, because this spreads out incoming damage across the torso and helps prevent you from just being "cored" through the middle.

A rotated torso also allows you to fire at an enemy while moving perpendicular to their sight, which makes you a MUCH harder target, especially when you are close enough that it requires rotating their entire mech to keep up with you.  While moving, vary your speed, as it will make it much harder to compensate for your movement, possibly even leading to imperceptibly warping due to Internet latency.

Really good mechwarriors on this game will both force the enemy to damage their least damaged sections while aiming well enough to take out the enemy's most damaged sections.  Regardless of what you are piloting, you will find it ideal to be unpredictable.  Defeat comes quickly to those who sit still, approach head on, or walk right up into waiting crosshairs.

Unlock those arms!  By holding down the left shift (default binding) as you mouselook (which normally just rotates the torso), you get a secondary crosshair uncoupled from your central crosshair.  This represents the range of movement of the arms, which can fire further than the torso can rotate.  Of course, any torso-mounted weaponry will continue to fire straight forward at the main crosshair, but if you have an arm-mounted weapon that can reach what you are pointing at, then you should be able to hit it. This becomes vital when dealing with circle-strafing light mechs, but can be handy in any situation in which a little extra aim is all it takes to win.
Mechwarrior Online is a gorgeous CryEngine game, but if you find yourself facing multiple foes at once without at least as many allies firing back at them, then you are standing in the wrong place.  (This screenshot looks mildly familiar...)
Team strategy:

The general rule of thumb for many new players is to try to keep everybody together in one big formation so the maximum number of guns are being fired at enemies: fight together or die alone.  However, I have found that this does not always work, and the reason for this is because it is actually a bit more complicated than staying together or splitting up.  Victory is actually determined by whoever musters the most effective firing lines.   This entails having the maximum number of friendly mechs firing upon enemy mechs while having the least number of enemy mechs firing back.

Simply packing yourself together can backfire when you block eachother's shots, which means only your mechs in front will be able to fire, and if there are more enemies firing back then you lose.  Yet, if you simply spread out so everybody can fire, this is still no sure victory, because the enemy can come at you from an angle in such a way that more of them can see less of you, and pick you off one at a time.

The solution is not simply packing together nor spreading out, but rather constantly maneuvering to assure that your firing lines are better than the enemy's for the greatest amount of time.  (Of course, no matter how good your firing lines are, if your pilots can't aim worth beans and mitigate incoming damage appropriately, you are going to have a disadvantage.)  This is a perpetual team challenge that keeps the game interesting.

Knowing your role:

Your team will be set up with a light lance, a medium lance, and a heavy lance.  ("Lances" are a battletech term for four mechs.)  The light lance's job is usually to scout enemies and to screen heavy mechs from being swarmed by faster mechs.  The heavy lance brings the bigger amounts of damage, and protecting them is important, although many heavies are built to be unbeatable in a head on assault.  The medium lance falls in the middle, perhaps falling in with the heavies, perhaps angling for a nice flank strike.  It should be noted that there is a rough approximation of which means end up in which lances, depending on available players, so you may decide that your "light" mech really belongs in the medium or heavy lances, or vice versa, and that's fine (the slower you are, the heavier the lance you want to run with).

An important epiphany was found when I realized that light mechs are actually useful versus heavier mechs.  The funny thing about the way MechWarrior Online is balanced is that your core engine heat dissipation is relatively similar whether you are piloting a 20 ton mech or a 100 ton mech.  If you have a 250 rating engine (or greater) and double heat sinks, that is 20 effective heat sinks, and it is hard for even assault mechs to do much better (you could pull roughly 35 effective heat sinks at most) because critical slot limits severely hamper your ability to just plug in more and also placed double heat sinks only are 1.4x as effective as standard heat sinks (contrary to 2x of the engine inclusive double heat sinks).
So lighter mechs can make up for their lack of weapons by simply firing as often as they can, trying to fully leverage their roughly equivalent heat dissipation.  However, do not face heavier mechs head on!  They have more armor, so they will surely win in a protracted slugging match regardless of if they face the same heat restrictions!  Note that heavier mechs rotate slowly, and an excellent mechwarrior in a light mech can often make it very difficult to retaliate against them, but this is a risky gambit.  Do not think of your light mech as disposable, as you can pull some pretty good damage numbers with a good weapons loadout and if you survive long enough.

When building a heavier mech, remember that large ballistic weapon loadouts have a heat advantage, and only heavier mechs can really mount many of them.  This is how you can get around your heat sink limitation: mount a decent amount of energy weapons, but combine that with ballistic and/or missile weapons so you can better leverage your tonnage as raw damage per second output.  A well-built heavy mech can steamroll any unfortunate light mech that thinks better evasion and roughly equivalent heat dissipation is all they need for a toe-to-toe fight, whereas overly-specialized heavy mechs may find themselves a plaything for a good pilot in the lightest of mechs.

In conclusion:

Mechwarrior Online is damn addictive, and I want my last three days back.

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