Popular wisdom of the seventies was that “sh*t happens.” In the wake of Mechassault 2: Lone Wolf’s release, that statement should be revised. Sh*t doesn’t happen. Sh*t blows up.
And how. Day 1 Studios has delivered us an action title for the holiday season that delivers more onscreen pyrotechnics than a Kiss concert. The sequel to their November 2002 release, Mechassault, the new game follows the tried-and-true ‘if it ain’t broke’ formula and simply takes the streamlined gameplay and gun-heavy action of the first game and adds new layers of visual polish and gameplay elements. Mechassault became the Xbox Live favorite of the year immediately after release for its control scheme simplicity, its accessibility, and its fast gameplay which fused the robot-sim genre with the speed and visceral action of a first-person shooter.
Mechassault 2 is a third-person combat game in which players take control of monumental walking combat machines – bipedal tanks – called Battlemechs, which range in weight from 20 to 100 tons and which are mobile enough to traverse any terrain. ‘Mechs in the game are typically equipped with arrays of weapons which fall into three categories – ballistic (machine guns, autocannons), energy (particle beams, lasers) and missiles. The weapon types (and their corresponding power-ups which can be found in the field) are easily color-coded for recognition and are color-coded to match the buttons on the controller as well, making weapon selection simple – as well, a quick pull of the trigger will easily cycle you through the various tools of destruction at your disposal. Your walking engine of demolition is a cinch to drive, using the same dual-analog control system as any other first- or third-person action game you’ve ever played – drive around with one stick, look around with the other.
Mechassault 2, like Halo, is almost two very different games that live together on the same disc with the same basic elements. The single-player campaign is a linear succession of missions which takes the player across several planets, a ton of different terrain types, and eventually puts the player in the seat of every type of driveable ‘mech within the game. A new element is that the player is able to dismount their vehicle and run about on foot – though this leaves the player extremely vulnerable on the battlefield, and players will only exit their vehicles or battlearmor in order to steal a better ride or to perform a battlefield function such as operating a gate/door panel. Players will often begin missions in experimental battlearmor – think of the ’ armor suit from the first Mechassault, but with some new gameplay goodies. These suits will likely be a multiplayer favorite in and of themselves – able to scale building faces and rock walls with a powerful claw, and also capable of latching onto enemy ‘mechs and dislodging their pilots, they are nimble, well armed, and a lot of fun to play with. VTOL aircraft are capable of ferrying players into a combat hotzone, who hang by their claw from underneath the aircraft and can drop in at any point like paratroopers. Players will also roll into the fight in large battle tanks, which are deadly snipers capable of zooming in for precision fire (with a nice depth-of-field optical effect), giving them an edge on the walking ‘mechs. The storyline of the single-player campaign resumes shortly after the first game, with you, the Mechwarrior, and your support team of Natalia and Foster quickly swept up into another round of the intrigues and battles between various factions and elements of the Inner Sphere. The game is challenging yet playable on a normal difficulty setting, but veterans of the first game will probably wish to play the game on a harder difficulty setting to extend the playing time, since except for a few new gameplay elements, the skills developed in playing the first Mechassault are equally applicable to the new game.
In addiction to the excellent campaign play, Mechassault 2 is a game which was obviously designed from the ground up for multiplayer – whether it be split-screen on a single console (which surprisingly, despite the serious graphical upgrade to the game engine, doesn’t chug on the frame-rate or suffer from drop-in’s in the rendering despite all the light blooms, particle effects, and improved textures), multiplayer over Live, or the crowning touch, the Conquest setting, in which players will fight in matches on Live which take place on a persistent battlefield in real-time, in which victories or losses will affect the battlefield as the war is carried out. For Live playes, ten game-types are presented, including the standard favorites of Capture the Flag, Team Demolition (think Deathmatch), Grinder, and others. Additional, new ‘mech types as well as returning favorites are present as well as weapon types and special abilities for the ‘mechs.
The most immediate difference returning players will see when firing up Mechassault 2 for the first time is the massive graphical upgrade over the first game. The new engine is a showpiece, mapping the striding ‘mechs with subtle reflections on their skins and crisper, far more detailed textures whose detail better serves to illustrate the size and scale of the ‘mechs. 2004 seemed to be the Year of Light Blooms for Xbox, and they’re present here - soft light blooms and particle effects are everywhere. A fight which breaks out in a swamp will simply floor the player with the amount of visual eye-candy coming at you at once, from the reflections and ripples in the water caused by the stomping ‘mech, to the smoke of the multiple missile trails, to the arcs of light from energy weapons cutting through smoke and fog, to the sparks, flames, and damage effects caused by the weapons. Mechassault 2’s combat will take the player through all sorts of terrain types, from the most bleak of natural settings to the heart of the city, and all of them are rendered with a level of detail and realism which is difficult to reconcile with the amount of action that will take place in them. It’s the layers of small touches, the new attention to detail, that makes the game world so immersive – glass windows shatter and explode convincingly, explosions distort the air around them with their heat and flame, and in a particularly nice visual touch, ballistic weapons spray a stream of ejecting brass and enormous shell casings.
Sound in the game is a treat, and a good subwoofer is essential – Mechassault 2 is meant to be brazen and loud, as a fifty-foot ‘mech should be. The music follows a hard-rock theme with some excellent dynamic scoring from internal musicians as well as supplementation from music by Papa Roach and Korn. Weapon sound effects are all savage, from the repeated booming of an autocannon to the loud tearing sound of a gauss cannon – when you hurt an enemy ‘mech, you can feel it right through the floor. Explosions, of course, abound.
Overall, it’s hard these days with games following such specialized themes to find a release that will have broad and general appeal – gamers will state that they’re into Japanese RPG’s based on specific anime, or realism-based sports-sims from specific studios, or what have you. But Microsoft and Day 1 have given us another hit that anyone even remotely into action games will be able to pick up and take something from the experience, whether you’re a competitive online gamer, just looking for the next &a’, or whether you are a giant robot connoisseur – Mechassault 2: Lone Wolf is your next, best fix.