Based on the popular universe from the recently demised role-playing company FASA, the Mechwarrior series of games on the PC has been running for what seems like an eternity, and throughout this time the formula has remained largely the same.
Mechs, Gears And Other Toys
For those of you unfamiliar with the basic concept, mechs are huge bipedal robots (normally roughly human-shaped) which can carry a bewildering array of offensive weaponry and can traverse virtually any terrain. In the Mechwarrior universe these walking tanks form the core of a world's army, and virtually every other battlefield weapon has been reduced to a support role.
The previous Mechwarrior games were largely based around conflicts between the warlike Clans who left the immediate vicinity of the Solar System, and the people of the "Inner Sphere" who remained behind. However, Mechwarrior 4 is concerned with a much smaller civil war within the Inner Sphere, and one man's quest for revenge against those who killed most of his family. By reducing the scope of the game in this way, the developers have made the game much more accessible to those who haven't played the previous installments or read the books.
Machines Of War
While the nicely-produced intro movie manages admirably to introduce the player to the mech concept and the basis of the storyline, nobody seems to have pointed out this new newbie-friendly strategy to whoever wrote the installer - the preface given during installation is loaded down with unnecessary details and Mechwarrior terminology.
However, this is not much of a problem as (in common with the previous games) the storyline is largely irrelevant anyway - apart from the occasional bit of plot during missions, the story is relayed almost entirely through postage-stamp size video messages from your crewmembers. These would be fine, except that they are overly lengthy and it is often hard to tell which are actually relevant to your mission and which are simply filler. To add insult to injury, the clever feature of letting you prepare for your mission whilst watching these is ruined as the single most time-consuming task (altering your mech configuration) causes the video to stop!
The missions themselves are pretty standard fare, generally involving either destroying or defending something. While they are quite well scripted, it can occasionally be annoying that you are not given precise information about what is necessary to complete the tasks. It is often necessary to play a mission several times to discover what will happen and how to deal with it. To make things more interesting you get new mech components as salvage from enemy units destroyed in each mission, and most missions also give you a choice of Lancemates (the Mechwarrior equivalent of wingmen), who can be given simple orders.
Once into a mission the game plays like a cross between a tank simulator and a first person shooter. Unlike more action-orientated mecha titles such as "Shogo" or "Virtual On", Mechwarrior's mechs are cumbersome beasts. The torso can be rotated independently of the legs, allowing you to walk in one direction and fire in another, but there are virtually no opportunities for particularly sudden maneuvers such as dodging incoming fire. As a result combat is largely decided by your choice of weapons and basic tactics, rather than reactions or clever piloting.
The control system has been simplified slightly since the previous games, but there are still a large number of controls and it is highly recommended that you use either a mouse or a joystick in addition to the keyboard - preferably one with as many buttons as possible. The complexity of the controls can get annoying at times, as you struggle to remember what the light-amplification key is, or how to flush your coolant supply.
At first the control system actually seems worse than that in the previous games, as the most useful operation (firing) is now split across a number of buttons - there is one for each weapon group, and fire modes can be set to cycle through weapon groups. This does become more intuitive and useful after a while, but stops just short of being configurable enough to cope with some of the setups that "expert" pilots will want, and initially it is extremely annoying as you end up using completely the wrong weapon for no apparent reason!
No More Legless Mechs (Or Pilots)
The in-game graphics are pretty good - the animation on the mechs is simply superb, and there are lots of neat touches like the dust and snow kicked up by their feet. In comparison, however, most of the other models look rather bland, and there are frequent "level of detail" artifacts as objects come into view.
The detail in the environments is somewhat variable as well - great care has been taken on some locations, whilst others are little more than collections of stock objects. But a special mention must be given to the zoom function, which is really nicely implemented. When activated a rectangular area in the center of the screen is magnified, allowing you to snipe at enemy units whilst still keeping an eye on what is going on around you. There is also the somewhat useful ability to quickly look left, right and behind you, although annoyingly there is a delay when looking left and right that makes this feature less useful than it should be.
Also making a welcome appearance is a health indicator for the currently targeted unit, alongside the traditional Mechwarrior damage location indicator. This makes it much easier to judge when an enemy unit is going to die, allowing you to avoid wasting precious ammo on it. And as with all the Mechwarrior games, individual mech components can be damaged, meaning that it is possible to blow limbs or weapons off enemy craft, correspondingly reducing their effectiveness. In comparison with the other games though Mechs seem to be substantially more sturdy this time round - in particular it is no longer easier to simply remove both legs from an enemy mech and leave them stranded than to actually kill them "properly".
The music and sound effects fit the game very well; the sweeping soundtrack fits the pace of the game's battles perfectly, and while the effects do not break any new ground they do add immeasurably to the atmosphere. The only downside is the acting in the cutscenes, which ranges from being acceptable to simply downright poor. However, this is only a minor concern as there is relatively little FMV (and even less of actual importance or interest).
Overall then Mechwarrior 4 is the best Mechwarrior game to date, although it still has some small flaws which keep it from being a must-purchase. Those who prefer first person shooter style action would be better off looking at games like "Shogo" or the "Heavy Gear" series, but for anyone who wants a mech "simulator" this is by far the best offering out there and has much to recommend it over its predecessors.