"Save Me, Giant Robot!"
A few years back, when Activision first lost its license to the FASA BattleTech gaming system (and with it the extremely classy and lucrative Mechwarrior games), most of us really didn't know what to make of it. We were then pleasantly surprised to discover that BattleTech was not the only quality robot-combat game in town and we waited eagerly for Activision's Heavy Gear, based on the Dream Pod 9 role playing system. However, Heavy Gear turned out to be a fairly rough game that could have used another 6 months in development to work out some gameplay, graphical, and glitch issues. Activision immediately went to work on Heavy Gear II, intended to lift gamers into the magical la-la land of gaming euphoria.
So now we are at a unique moment in computer gaming. The long awaited Starsiege, Mechwarrior 3, and the comparatively quickly produced Heavy Gear 2 have all arrived at retail shelves everywhere, and for the first time, there is real competition in the ranks of oversized robot combat simulations. To Activision's credit, Heavy Gear 2 manages to come out in the lead position thanks to a slick combination of excellent production values and refreshing, high-energy, intense gameplay.
HG2 is set in the 62nd century, roughly 100 years after the events of the original Heavy Gear (the box takes a noticeable swipe at Mechwarrior by proclaiming HG2 to be '62nd Century Combat' which is double that of Mechwarrior 2's '31st Century Combat'). Blissfully, this means that you are no longer playing Senior Ranger Edward Scott who must prove his innocence, slay the dragon, and run off with the... yeah, better he's gone. Instead you are the nameless commander of a crack team of special ops commandos, dubbed 'Black Talon.'
Your squad is sent to investigate the recent anti-matter destruction of Peace River, a large city on Terra Nova. The destruction of Peace River was caused by those old enemies, the New Earth Concordance (NEC). Because of the new outside threat from the NEC, the Northern and Southern powers have decided to put aside their differences and fight the common foe. Your investigations into the destruction of Peace River will end up taking you to Caprice, a gateway world for interstellar traffic and the staging area for an imminent attack on planet Earth.
Although the vehicles in Heavy Gear 2, the Heavy Gears, may resemble their BattleTech brethren, it is important to note the differences in the design and focus, because they make the gameplay an entirely different animal from that of Mechwarrior or Starsiege. The most notable dissimilarity is that Gears are only 12-15 feet tall, as opposed to 30-50 for Mechs. The small size grants much greater maneuverability in the form of being able to sidestep, jump, and extend wheels from the bottom of a gear's feet to double velocity but halve maneuverability. In a salute to Anime, Gears are also extremely anthropomorphic. Their arms are actually able to punch, hold guns, utilize cutting weapons such as swords or axes (a little like in Shogo), and pick up new hand held weapons. A Gear's armor is much thinner than that of a Mech and so it takes a lot less to either kill or be killed, making Gear combat much more fast paced and tense than the BattleMech variety.
The plot, far more compelling than the corny tale of betrayal found in Heavy Gear, provides a plausible and dramatic send up for HG2's absolutely incredible campaign.
Missions range from prison breaks, to sorties through swamps, to stealing spaceships, to driving around the skyscrapers of an Uber-Metropolis, to spinning and diving through the void of outer space. Although the objectives, length, and situation of the missions vary widely, they are easily some of the very best missions designed for any game. They call for a great deal of stealth and keen use of your intelligent and effective squad mates. All of this makes Heavy Gear 2 the most strategic 'bot game out there.
When stealth inevitably fails, or when you choose to enter combat on your terms, Heavy Gear 2 really comes into its own as the preeminent robot combat game. You'll find beefy weapon sounds, terrific graphics and special effects, extremely destructive guns and tense action. Simply put, Heavy Gear 2 is an incredible blast to play. Side stepping out of the way of a rocket strike, jumping over an enemy Gear, turning in mid air, and vaporizing it with a single rail-gun strike to the chest is delirious fun.
Heavy Gear 2 is based on an entirely new graphics engine. Dubbed "Dark Side," this new engine does wonderful things. The textures, highly developed landscapes, Gears, special effects, kick-ass explosions, believable 3D trees, near perfect shadows, wispy dust and smoke trails, and everything else under the sun is rendered beautifully. It is simply far more pretty than the cartoon-ish Starsiege or the inconsistent Mech 3.
Sadly, there are a few small issues with Heavy Gear 2 that stop it from being a better game. The Campaign, juicy though it is, is only about 25 missions long. Without the dynamic campaign option like in the original HG, the game is far too short, even with the extra Historical Missions and the 'botmach' Instant Action. Another gripe, which many may not consider a flaw, is that you are allowed only one specific Gear for the entire Campaign. Although the Gears are incredibly customizable (down to assigning very thoughtful 'perks' or 'flaws'), limiting the Gear choice makes variation only possible if you replay the campaign from the beginning with a new pilot. And while there are over 70 gears available for use in the Historical and Instant Action modes, only 5 are available in the Campaign.
Mild complaints aside, Heavy Gear 2 is a fantastic game. The engaging story, taut action, meaty sound, epic music, great voice acting, squad mates who actually kick ass, excellent AI, and eye-watering graphics make it the best of the three 'Mech' contenders. Multiplayer even gets a good rub down in Heavy Gear 2, because it's functional and exciting right out of the box. If you have a fast enough computer to handle the heavy load (Pentium 300 recommended by me, 3D accelerator required by them), you'll find that Heavy Gear 2 is just about as good as it gets for the genre.
There are simply too many things to gush over to cover them all into this review fairly. It's a pity. But, suffice to distill it as this: get your ass out there and buy the game... now, if you please. I'll be waiting online.