Version tested: PC
A To The D
To a large extent, the difference between the BattleTech board game and the MechCommander 2 computer game is in attention to detail. BattleTech is a game where tension springs from elaborately decorated playing cards, and entire games can be won or lost on the thermal properties of a certain piece of equipment. While MechCommander 2 is based on the technology and background of the board game, it shares relatively few of the carefully scrutinised details that have drawn players to the former, and those present seem to have been dumbed down noticeably. This will no doubt prove slightly discomforting for fans approaching FASA Interactive's latest release with a board game background. Never fear though - even if MechCommander 2 is slightly less meticulous in its attention to painstaking detail, it is still a most enjoyable game in its own right. The story is fairly light-hearted - you are a mercenary mech commander, paid to deal forcefully with a recent surge in attacks on a couple of noble houses; Davion and Steiner. They are hardly allies, but the two do recognize the mutual benefit of your employ and allot a certain amount of funds between them to support your dirty work. Things progress in a predictably startling manner, proving for the umpteenth time that things are never precisely as they seem. I've seen a lot better, and I did at times feel that the storyline served as an interruption to clarify the slaughter rather than a realistic chain of events. As such the story was not willing me on, merely occupying the quiet moments here and there before the carnage went off on its natural course again.
The carnage is, of course, where the real appeal of the game stems from. You have a smattering of mechs at your disposal, and the point of the game is to direct them into battle. Many of them have certain special skills, such as the ability to scale cliffs by thrusting briefly upward with jetpacks, and your main duties in the campaign area of the game involve moving your troops between waypoints and the planning and carrying out of attacks and ambushes. Mechs are fairly large and unwieldy beasts, so you have to be quite calculated, but neither heat effects nor area-specific targeting systems have as much effect as the developers once claimed, so you are less interested in the bodily functions of your mechs and more on the damage they can do. You don't have to do much thinking for your mechs either, as they have managed to evolve somewhat since the first MechCommander game, growing brains larger than garden peas, meaning that less childminding of your units is now neccessary. Your enemies also appear to be more aggressive than before. Although many will claim that the game's true strength is on the battlefield, I'd argue that there is a lot of fun to be had off it too. Between battles you are responsible for managing your mechs by training and equipping them with new tools, picking through the aftermath of fallen comrades for salvageable material, and generally customizing your mechs. If the storyline failed to embrace me, the importance I placed on keeping my prime mechs in good health and condition certainly did.
MechCommander 2's minimum system requirements are, by modern standards, fairly acceptable. Given that many games of late have seemingly required several Cray supercomputers used in tandem to render their training missions, let alone actual battles, the recommendation of a Pentium III 450 with a GeForce card to render the game properly seems almost fair. Of course, that's nothing like what FASA require as an absolute minimum, but it's a fairly good bet that if you have that much oomph the game will be fine. You will certainly want a machine that can do the job properly, because MechCommander 2, while not stunningly attractive, does a good job as far as strategy titles go. The mech models, which you can zoom in on and swirl around to your heart's content, are finely detailed (unlike the play mechanics at times) and lose little of their appeal as you pan out. In a battle of ten or more mechs barely a single frame is lost, and flecks of laser fire and suitably rousing explosions litter the battlefield. It's not all sunken canyons and barren wastelands either; you also duke it out amidst industrial areas and in areas as varied as beaches and forests, towns and farms. The land textures are quite dull and ugly, but they do the job and help to keep the framerate up. Moving on to the audio side of things, effects are splendid. Gunfire, lasers, explosions, the clinking and clanking of mechs as they manoeuvre into position and all the rest of the noises blend menacingly into something like a scene from anime spectacular Evangelion. The daunting silences that punctuate the fighting are fairly similar too. The visuals are amiss as far as that comparison is concerned, but you can't have everything.
The only thing I feel marred my experience of MechCommander 2 was the multiplayer functions. I'm probably most upset (although hardly surprised) by the enforced use of Microsoft's ominous Zone. The real trouble with it is that you often waste several minutes getting on to the Zone only to discover that nobody else is doing likewise. Most disheartening, although as long as you are capable of hooking yourself up to a LAN every once in a while you will still derive some pleasure from the game's head-to-head options. Other quirks include the slightly puzzling lack of a skirmish mode. Ever since Command & Conquer I've almost relied upon strategy games including one of those, and the absence of such an option here is irritating from two angles: you can't dip into it at random for a quick knockabout, and you can't test out your customized mechs in advance of battle. Leading them into the campaign missions is the only real option. Of course, you could try multiplayer, but that's often impossible due to the lack of online opposition. Apart from Original War, which I thoroughly enjoyed, MechCommander 2 is probably the only strategy title I've played this year which has had a profound effect on me. It's not without problems, but it's entertaining enough for me to cast a blind eye.
7 / 10