Version tested: Xbox
Although hardly anyone bothered to go and buy it (like most games, in truth), the original MechAssault was fondly remembered by those who did for being probably the first decent Xbox Live title. Not many people got all that hot under the collar about the basic third-person shooter that constituted the single-player campaign, but for longer than Microsoft would have liked, this was among the best multiplayer experiences around. But given the relatively small numbers of Live subscribers in Europe in the early days (even now the US take-up dwarfs our puny numbers by about ten to one) it's hardly surprising there weren't too many people willing to shell out the equivalent of two full priced games to get the most out of the game.
The arrival of Halo 2 last November has finally given the service the kind of kick it needed all along, but at the same time its benchmark-setting progress in the console online arena puts releases such as MechAssault 2 into a greater deal of perspective. Once you're used to what Halo 2 and the likes of Ghost Recon 2 have to offer, anything less feels like a bit of a compromise, but that's the price of success.
Single and happy
But yet no matter how the self-appointed experts bang on about online gaming being the future of entertainment, the vast majority of us still play single-player games whether we have the option or not. The statistics continually reflect that for all the alleged advantages of online gaming, we're still a world full of gamers that would opt for a cracking single-player campaign over a multiplayer session any day. And sadly the single-player campaign isn't MechAssault 2's strong point.
With the same sort of pleasantly irrelevant sci-fi atmosphere of Brute Force underpinning it, the general gist of the battles ahead concerns a fairly generic personality-free MechWarrior holed up in a dropship, accompanied by a female commanding officer and a geekboy who spouts technical gumph for fun. As is the way of things in such 31st Century games, your mission is to ensure that a potentially devastating weapon of awesome power doesn't fall into the hands of the evil Word Of Blake; which in short involves busting up lots of big stompy robots in a rather predictable, but nevertheless pleasantly enjoyable fashion.
This probably won't come as either a major shock or a disappointment to those who enjoyed the original, and it's certainly true that things have been fleshed out this time around with a few new abilities, vehicles and delivered with the sort of immense destruction that's beyond any other current console platform.
Hack and smash
The campaign pretty much kicks off as it means to go on. Set to a backdrop of fist-punching rock tracks (Korn and Papa Roach to name but two recognisable growlers), each level generally presents a series of pesky giant enemies to dispatch with an assortment of weapons (cycle though with left trigger, fire with right) that pack varying degrees of punch, including the basic cannons, pulse weapons and naturally the sort of heat-seeking missiles that you'd expect every Mech of the 31st century to be equipped with. And of course they do, not to mention jet propulsion, the default battle armour's ability to Neurohack into bigger, more powerful Mechs (a la C64/Amiga classic Paradroid) and even get out of whichever Mech you're piloting and scurry around hacking into various door security systems and the like.
Neurohacking is by far the best new addition, allowing you to avoid tedious against-the-odds fire fights with Mechs twice the size of you by basically giving you the opportunity to force them to eject. While hovering close to them hitting the X button initiates a fast and furious button pressing sequence, after which you can hop out of your Mech (with the Y button) and jump aboard theirs. Fail and you simply carry on as you were, and either try again or blast them to pieces. The downside is that this all-too-easy ability for the battle armour to Neurohack all the giant enemies reduces the challenge somewhat, as does the constant supply of health and ammo, not to mention the overly generous but frustration-eliminating autosave system. In less than a couple of hours you'll have ripped through most levels in no time, so we suspect it's not a game that's going to keep many players busy for long.
Unlike our last Mech outing in the excellent Transformers the emphasis is on fairly straightforward and mindless clearing levels, going from A to B and moving on, with no need to revisit old areas, pick up interesting new power-ups and so on, or even memorable boss encounters. Thanks to the amount of pick ups available it's all a bit of a procession to victory, and although the visuals can be inspiring at times it takes some time to even reach the stage where it's possible to be particularly impressed with what's on show.
An inauspicious intro
Oddly the least impressive sections kick off the game, and for the first few levels at least the urban cityscape environment is bland, uninspired and unconvincing, with claims of massive destruction looking more than a little hollow as you discover that only minor predetermined portions of certain buildings can be wrecked, and the general level of artistry concerning the basic level designs evidently way below what we were expecting. Fast-forward half a dozen missions in, though, and it almost looks like a different game; especially the more organic sections that sport excellent vegetation, smoke and particle effects that really push the machine. But, yet again, if you're a widescreen TV owner you won't be able to take advantage of it as users of these TVs (and let's face it, they're not uncommon these days among gamers) are forced to compromise to a 4:3 image which makes little sense at this late stage of the console cycle. On the other hand, a lot of effort has gone into the construction of the Mechs, and their regular destruction is the kind of wince-inducing firework display you'd hope it would be. Just steer clear of the blast or you'll be seeing one of your own too, with an annoying trawl back through the last five minutes of action for your troubles.
Switching between Mech missions and Tank sorties adds a welcome amount of variety to the proceedings, but in truth the whole thing is simply too easy to plough your way through, with overly powerful weapons that let you take out distant turrets with ease, a considerate and some might say downright polite attack pattern that presents no real sense of danger to even the most abject novice. Some might say it's good to come across a game that anyone can complete, but in truth the lack of intensity and challenge makes it feel somewhat boring as a consequence. You're left longing for the soul and eye-bulging sense of achievement of Transformers, not to mention that game's far superior weapons/armour upgrade system that gave a real sense of purpose to exploring every map as well as mixing and matching to take into account the needs of particular levels, whereas MechAssault 2 is for a large part point and shoot. But then for all Transformers' overlooked charms, it had no multiplayer, which is evidently where much of the effort for Lone Wolf has apparently gone.
We're quite sure you didn't see this coming but... undoubtedly MechAssault 2's biggest draw is its multiplayer. And as is the norm with every first party Xbox Live-enabled title, there's a wealth of options to cater for practically everything you could wish for via the ubiquitous Optimatch system that leaves nothing to chance. Up to 12 players are supported for the various obligatory solo and team modes including (deep breath) Destruction (a.k.a. deathmatch), Last Man Standing, Not It (kill or try to make your fellow players 'it'), Base War (team-based Assault-style mode on your enemy's base), Snatch It (grab enemy items), Capture The Flag (nope, no idea what this could be about), and Check It (seize/defend checkpoints). Even offline there's plenty to do with a Grinder co-op mode included giving an opportunity to duke it out against respawning foes. Unlike some titles of note, every possible offline multiplayer option available is there, including System Link and split screen, but it's undoubtedly Live where the real action is.
Jack your body
The most significant change in multiplayer over the original is unquestionably the ability to hijack another Mech, meaning you're no longer stuck with the same machine for the whole session; meaning in practice you could be shooting from afar with the tank's zoom facility, romping around in a vast Mech the next, and better still, the map itself assigns which vehicles are available to choose from. Although some players used to the original MechAssault might be unsatisfied at the meddling and wish for the choice of being able to revert back to the old system, we'd argue that it makes for a somewhat unique multiplayer experience that's a lot less predictable than many other titles out there, requiring a lot more experimenting into the bargain.
Intriguingly, the presence of an all-encompassing online mode called Conquest ties up all the various strands of multiplayer game into a coherent whole. Choosing from three different 'houses' the idea is to basically conquer as much of the planet as you possibly can by working your way through all the various team modes on offer. If a particular set of planets are under attack, you can head straight to one of your choice, for example, and basically just utilise this mode as a more meaningful basis for your online excursions, and this is certainly an idea we'd like to see other online games use, giving a better structure for merely logging on and kicking arse.
But, as ever, much of this won't be of huge interest to those resistant to the allure of online gaming, and it's somewhat disappointing that the majority of the game's audience will probably miss out on the main event. All told, MechAssault 2 is an entertaining package that's nothing to write home about without the benefit of an Xbox Live subscription. With much better single-player offerings out there in the genre (that themselves lack any multiplayer to speak of) there's every chance many people will be tempted by its multiplayer allure alone. If they do, they won't necessarily be getting the best online console multiplayer game on the market by a long way, but certainly it's the best this sub-genre has come up with to date, and on that basis deserves checking out for those that admired the original or are looking for something new to play online in these traditionally quiet early months of the year. Approach with caution; or as much caution as you can stomping around in a 40-foot tall Mech.
6 / 10