Xbox Live launches in less than a week, with Test Drive kits set to go on sale from November 30th. That, and the extremely interesting four-game-bundle keeping today's headline-writers busy, should see Xbox in a significantly more influential position after Christmas, and if MechAssault is an example of the quality of Xbox Live game we can expect, then perhaps it's no surprise.
It's A Live!
All the best games are built on simple foundations, and MechAssault developer Day 1 Studios knows better than to complicate matters. Anybody with more than a few minutes of stick-time in any number of dual-analogue action games will be a MechAssault master by midnight. Lefty moves the mech, righty aims the mech, left trigger cycles weapons, right trigger fires guns. If you're in a multiplayer game, you can survey the leaderboard by holding the white button, and anything else you might want to do/know is conveniently available from the pause menu. It should be noted for online multiplayer virgins, however, that the pause menu only pauses the action in the single player campaign.
Speaking of the lone gunman's prospects, we had expected a very short, curt one player mode along the lines of that found in Digital Extreme's Unreal Championship, but we were actually pleasantly surprised to find a quite lengthy (and devilishly hard, if you opt for the upper echelons of the detailed, Halo-esque difficulty selection) undertaking with plenty of story hidden behind the ominous Campaign button. Like Unreal, the basic gameplay doesn't deviate too much from what you'll be doing online, apart from the overlay of reasonably well-spoken sci-fi dialogue, but it's very compelling.
What you do is pick a mech (beginning with small, scout-classes and moving up to hulking juggernauts before long, even unlocking some stupendously powerful monstrosities if you complete the campaign) and, quite simply, destroy everything - every enemy unit, every enemy installation, every shack full of the planet's fanatical Hitler-esque regime's followers, every shred of evidence that anything existed. You do this using a variety of weapons and tools, ranging from basic laser guns and miniguns to lightning-spouting, railgun-esque blasters and heat-seeking projectiles. You can also use a jetpack to reach elevated positions, which is quite useful because the terrain in MechAssault is anything but level.
The landscape isn't so much dotted with buildings in amongst the hordes of enemies as a little brother's vulnerable playset laid out in the path of your stompy new shoes. Huge, rolling hills, ridges and the planet's road and tunnel systems make for nice scenery, but anything with four walls and a roof is game for destruction. Pop a bullet into the average building and a little window will smash, complete with shattering sound effect and crumbling visuals. Fire a laser blast and half the wall is ripped away, exposing the dark interior. Light it up with a heat-seeking missile and a great gaping, smouldering hole will appear, and after a number of blasts the building will lose its tensile strength and fall to the ground in a pillar of smoke. The effect is one of the most satisfyingly destructive in any game on any platform. And you often have to beckon it out by ruining perfectly good masonry as many as 50 times per level.
However, although your orders are to purge the area, it's often advantageous to keep the buildings around until you're done polishing off the locals. Although foot soldiers won't cause much trouble (you can actually squish them simply by walking over them), mobile tanks can be an arse, and those stationary cannons on the outside of installations are murder on a mech's paintwork. As the campaign draws on though, the enemy wheels out mechs both great and small, individually and in great numbers, and they take an insane amount of damage before they go off like a nuclear explosion (complete with mushroom cloud if you're lucky).
Combat is very engaging, with lots of strafing and strategic use of weaponry. If you're fighting in amongst buildings, you can often get one to fall down damagingly on your prey, or better yet, you can sneak inside one of them, Godzilla-like, and wait pensively for the oblivious soon-to-be-scrap mech to round the corner.
The 20 missions of the single player campaign basically rotate around mech combat and city-clearing, with lots of armour and ammo pick-ups strewn around and unearthed from the rubble of past-buildings. It only takes about five or six hours to complete, give or take a few hours of retrying levels, but it's very enjoyable. If anything, the only criticisms to be levelled at MechAssault's single player are the understandably repetitive nature of the beast and the lack of mid-level save points, but neither is terminal, and my guess is that 90 per cent of you are more interested in the multiplayer aspect anyway.
A good thing, because multiplayer is the best way to play MechAssault.
Getting online with MechAssault is a breeze (based on testing with the Xbox Live beta service, at any rate). Simply choose whether to join a game already in progress or host your own, and play. Games consist of up to eight players dashing around in deathmatch and last man standing modes, either in free-for-all (FFA) or team modes. Completely lag free over a cable modem, the game seems to be doing very well online with several thousand players dotted around. The comm. chatter over Communicator is quite fun (particularly with robotic voice masking) and nobody's worked out any way to exploit it yet, something which will come as a great relief to anybody who's dabbled with console games online in the past.
However, those of you without Microsoft's great online games dream firmly on your shopping list may want to reconsider. Fun though MechAssault's single player campaign most certainly is, it isn't going to last you more than a couple of evenings. The split-screen two player mode is a nice addition, and you'll be able to have lots of fun with that, but it doesn't look as spectacular with the reduced viewing area, and in the absence of more than two players regularly breaks down into mechs circling one another firing heat-seekers. Shame.
Planning to pick up an Xbox Live Test Drive kit? Then you should make sure you get this too. Online play is definitely the way to go with MechAssault, and coupled with an enjoyable single player campaign (and incentives to actually play it, too), this is an absolute must for Live players, and by all accounts behaves better than the reportedly lag-ridden Unreal Championship. The prospect of downloadable content (option on the menu) seals the deal - MechAssault is a beautiful, addictive, mechanised feast of destruction, ideally suited to online gamers both new and old.
9 / 10