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Last week at the Green Dragon Inn…

January 2, 2011

This is me doing some catching up. This was last week’s post

The comm-channel is buzzing with conflicting reports of an enemy advance that’s threatening the forward base where you’re stationed. Time is running short; you have to get out there and join the fray before all is lost. As soon as you’re able, you choose our vehicle and equipment. Somewhere beneath you, titanic machinery spools up. You head down there along the gantries, and as soon as you round the corner, you’re standing in the shadow of the ferro-steel beast you’ll ride into battle. It’s massive, with laser capacitors that glow with devastating potential embedded into its shoulder and one of its arms, while the barrel of cannon yawns at the other side, fit to devour a tank. The bay doors begin to open as you take a jet-assisted leap at the machine’s back, climbing on top of it to the seamless hatch on its cockpit while the bay doors begin to open.

As that multi-ton herald of death is uncaged, the computer, with subtle, nearly motherly pride, announces: “Assembly complete in hangar bay one.”

The heavy Battlemech rumbles to life as you open up the throttle, stepping deftly out of the bay and out of the base, quickening its stride from a walk to a long-striding run into the battlefield, headlong into nuclear doom.

This is Mechwarrior at its best.

Mechwarrior: Living Legends is a full-conversion Crysis mod that brings the BattleTech universe to life, following the tradition of the Mechwarrior franchise. In it you can pilot combat robots, known as Mechs, which can range from small scout units bristling with sensors, to behemoths that, by its mere presence, can turn the tide in battle. But, unlike other Mechwarrior games, you can also pilot tanks, fighter planes, VTOLs (helicopters, really), or you can hoof it on foot with your power armor, essentially a flea amongst giants. A flea, that is, armed with a Particle Projection Cannon, jump-jets, and shoulder-mounted missiles. The game itself plays like a balancing match between strategy and raw skill, between precision and unbridled power. There really isn’t anything like it.

Mechwarrior: Living Legends, is perhaps one of the most ambitious games I’ve ever seen that actually comes within striking distance to delivering its promises. It’s what BattleTech fans have wished for ever since the first Mechwarrior game was released. It’s also a non-commercial project, which, given Mechwarrior’s history, is perhaps the only way this game would get made.

Mechwarrior: Living Legends is a particularly illustrating example of why computer gaming has managed to survive the emergence of consoles, despite the doom and gloom predictions from so-called experts. The Mechwarrior franchise was something else plenty of people, and people of “consequence” at that, such as publishers, have declared dead. Someone out there, therefore, has been wrong twice.

Let me talk about why computer gaming is still very much alive first. There’s an aspect about computer gaming that stems from the fact that computers are essentially open systems. That is to say, once you’ve bought a computer and plugged it in, there are really no technical limitations regarding what you can do with it, or to it. You can change the software, you can change the hardware, and you can circumvent most protections someone might try to put in place to stop you from doing that. Now, that has several implications.

Some of those implications are negative like piracy, which is the #1 reason publishers thought computer gaming should’ve died years ago. Some are positive, such as access to Beta testing and Mods. Beta tests are, more or less, games that are still being made, but they’re far enough along for someone to release a rough draft to offer players a taste and put them to work hunting down bugs and providing feedback. So, both parties benefit from it; the developers get some free labor, while the players get a somewhat-finished free game.

Mods, on the other hand, can range from adding maps, weapons or modes to a game to being a full-fledged game of its own, usually made by fans rather than professionals. Some mods are so popular that they’ve launched careers and entire genres. Want some examples? Defense of the Ancients (you might know it as DotA) was a Warcraft 3 mod that began a genre, which professional developers are now trying to mimic. Team Fortress 2 is the descendant of the Team Fortress Quake mod, released in the 90s. Both Team Fortress games were made by the same team, which, after Team Fortress’ success, was hired by Valve, the developers of Half-Life and Portal (technically also a mod).

None of those games would’ve been made for consoles. Consoles, since they are ‘closed’ systems where you can’t mess with the hardware or the software easily, severely limit what its users can do to change a game. Meanwhile, computers, aside from being the platform where you play the games, are also the tools used to make them. That’s why computer gaming was never actually in any danger of disappearing, even when consoles came about, there’s just so much more you can do. Someone, somewhere, will always be making and playing games on computers. It’s up to publishers and developers to choose whether they want to make money, or not, off of that fact. It isn’t a coincidence that Valve and Blizzard are so supportive of the modding and computer gaming communities.

As far as the Mechwarrior franchise is concerned, it’s had a troubled past. It was hugely successful back in the 90s with Mechwarrior 2, when selling a few hundred thousand copies was considered a hit. After being bought by Hasbro, however, the franchise didn’t do so well. Mechwarrior 4, developed by FASA and published by Microsoft, managed to survive well enough to get a couple of expansion packs released, and then languished. Mechwarrior 5 was cancelled, and any attempts by the current owner Smith & Tinker to get funding for another project haven’t panned out.

Mechwarrior, common wisdom says, is just too “niche” to be marketable, as the previous Mechwarrior games proved. I believe that Mechwarrior, as a franchise, crippled itself in trying to compete with other “action” games rather than establishing itself as a radically different experience.

You could draw comparisons between what Mechwarrior: Living Legends is trying to do and other games, such as Battlefield 2142 (which had a Mech on some maps) and tribes, but the truth is that no game to date has gone this far. The Mechs are the protagonists here, not the infantry. They have a sense of scale, with the complexities of driving that kind of machine, both powerful and temperamental. The CryTek engine makes it all look spectacular, to boot.

What is truly remarkable about all of this is that Mechwarrior: Living Legends is the perfect example of what’s best about the computer gaming environment. The fans rescued the franchise from corporate-mandated abandonment, and they had the tools to carry their vision forward further than anyone who does this for a living would, or could, given the conditions they would’ve had to work in. Had computer gaming evolved in any other way than it did, we wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t have the opportunity to see projects such as this come to fruition. Then again, maybe gaming simply couldn’t have evolved any other way.

Whatever the case may be, the battlefield is out there, waiting for its warriors to test themselves against one another. The folks at Wandering Samurai’ll provide the instruments, and your opponents will provide the challenge. If you own Crysis, you ought to give it a try. If you don’t, you ought to consider buying it, if only to see how Mechwarrior out to be done, and what fans are capable of. Here’s their website.

Update: Mechwarrior Living Legends’ team recently released version 0.4.1 of their mod to the public. Now is the perfect time to check it out if you’re so inclined.

From → Videogames

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