When the Xbox Live Test Drive launches in little over a fortnight's time, the aptly named MechAssault will be spearheading its thrust into the world of online gaming. Eurogamer was lucky enough to get hold of a copy of the game earlier this week, and we've been putting it through its paces, discovering to our delight that a 20-mission single player campaign and a split-screen deathmatch mode are both available to those stuck offline. Compared to Infogrames laudable Unreal Championship's single player offering, this struck us as a fair bounty.
It's nice to be proven correct in your assumptions. MechAssault's single player mode is quite a polished product. Shot down and trapped on the surface of a planet, you have to begin by scouting the area, taking out light troops and attacking communications infrastructures to try and unsettle the region. Missions see you in a heavily armoured mech carving a path through the varied landscape and laying waste to enemy troops and installations. As a MechWarrior though, you're something of a humanitarian for all your destruction, so you'll be refraining from the slaughter of the planet's captive populace, and helping resistance groups attack fanatics.
That pretty much covers the plot. The story is laid out with the now customary grace of a B-movie, and thus the fairly decent cut sequences are likeable, the characters well designed and the mission briefings and radio chatter quite well acted. It's easy enough to become absorbed by it, particularly thanks to the stompy robot aspect.
Because heading out in search of some action is a real hoot. Even to start with, your scout and puma mechs are fearsome beasts, tooled up with rockets, miniguns, lasers and pulse weapons, and each is finely detailed and reasonably sized on-screen. Most of the viewing area is given over to the environment, which is pleasantly detailed - trees are strewn about the hilly landscape, and roads, bridges, docks and cities take care of the rest. After you've piloted your mech for a while it becomes clear that the bulk of the mission objectives concern dispatching enemy tanks, mechs and installations, so you get quite used to the sight of explosions, and it's a good thing that they're loudly coloured as well as aurally emphatic.
Clearing out installations is a case of shooting buildings a certain number of times (15 with the basic lasers, we counted) until they crumble and disintegrate. This is highly repetitive, and you'll generally wreak havoc only once you've killed off all the tanks and mechs, so it's often a case of just destroying buildings ad nauseum once the combat is over. Fortunately buildings take visible damage all over and you do get the sense that you're wearing them down until they crumble and come crashing down - quite a sight the first few times, and still enjoyable destructive even when you're doing it 30 or 40 buildings later.
Combat itself with the AI at least is basic but challenging. You have to stay on the move to avoid taking too much damage (although you can retool armour and ammunition by raiding supplies) whilst switching between your various armaments to dispense with particular enemies. You can trample on infantry most of the time, and the rest require patience or heat-seeking rockets. Mechs are the best equivalent to the Xbox Live and split-screen modes, and the AI is quite aggressive and can find its way around dense cityscapes when you're running away low on health (grr).
Mech it up as you go along
Fortunately, dealing with enemy forces is a cinch thanks to controls which are both simple and effective. Past mech titles have perhaps been guilty of overcomplicating control, and the thought of reviewing 40-button monstrosity Steel Battalion scares the pants off us, but MechAssault has four main things to keep in mind; left stick for movement, right stick for aim, left trigger for weapons cycle, right trigger for maim, sorry, fire. Elsewhere the black/white buttons bring up information (and scores in multiplayer) and from the Start menu you can restart your current mission or change options.
The single player campaign mode has kept us amused for several hours so far, but there are four skill levels and the default is quite challenging, so we're only about halfway through.
Get some friends round and MechAssault comes into its own, and to use what's bound to become a cliché, if you get Xbox Live, the experience will be many times improved. Battling with another player is a gruelling experience, because health doesn't just burn like kindling, and there's a great sense of satisfaction to winning a duel. We're also looking forward to massive battles and voice comms 'radio' chatter when we go online. The scale of the game and the amount of on-screen action we've witnessed suggests an all out multiplayer war isn't too much to ask - with plenty of fracas on-screen so far we've not really noticed any slowdown.
So, first impressions? It looks splendid, it's very intuitive, it's great fun on your own and with your friends, and it's challenging enough to keep you going until you have Xbox Live. And don't be put off like we were by the prospect of a hefty button configuration; MechAssault is a breeze to play. We'll bring your our verdict on the whole package when we've finished playing it, closer to the game's November 22nd release date. Shouldn't have to think too hard about this one though, it's a blast.