Batteries Not Included.
Giant robots have come a long way since old-school metalheads like Ultraman and the Shogun Warriors stomped around Tokyo. Nowadays, Gundams, Frames, and Cores wage seemingly endless wars in futuristic Japan, though I'd personally take Mazinga over some stupid Zone of the Enders airplane. Nothing beats shooting your fist at things.
Not all giant robots are born overseas, though. Some of the most famous robots to storm across North America were born in the minds of FASA, the originators of the storied Battletech universe. FASA's unique brand of bots bore little resemblance to their anthropomorphic Japanese kin, favoring giant guns, missile pods over flying fists and eye lasers. The series scored big as both a pen-and-paper game and in its multitude of digital forms, including the great MechWarrior series from which MechAssault is derived.
But unlike the highly technical MechWarrior games, MechAssault replaces complexity with carnage. The first game earned its cred as a defining example of Xbox Live play, and although Halo 2 has clearly usurped that crown, MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf manages to expand upon its firm online foundation with smart tweaks and enhancements. Unfortunately, the extra multiplayer bells and whistles come at the cost of an easy, underdeveloped single-player campaign, throwing a wrench into this otherwise solid machine.
The story picks up where the last game left off. You're a nameless Mech pilot, and your team, comprised of the sexy Major Natalia Kerensky and the annoying techno-kid Lieutenant Foster, is marooned on the planet Dante. Eventually you'll become embroiled in a plot to locate five powerful data cores that, when combined, will bring about the end of the world or something.
It all sounds fine, but it unravels thanks to unflattering FMV sequences and lots of bad voice-acting. MechAssault 2's plot is simply not told very well; you'll lose track of the details often. Not that it matters, since each mission has you marching from start to finish eradicating anything foolish enough to shoot at you, be it a tank, soldier, turret or enemy mech.
None of these are very hard; most simply require patience and practice as you become familiar with the various vehicles and realize that the A.I. is about as flexible as asphalt. Bad guys move around and shoot at you, rarely taking cover of any sort. The game functions on an auto-save checkpoint system, which occasionally becomes frustrating if you have to replay segments over again a few times. But so long as you shoot better and faster than the dumb enemies, you'll complete the entire campaign in less than 10 hours.
Luckily, the redundant mission design and bad storytelling are alleviated somewhat by the game's great sense of destruction. Regardless of the objectives or vague plot ramifications, each level is all about setting your crosshairs on things and letting 'er rip. There are plenty of ways to do this, as evinced by the large number of vehicles you'll get to operate.
Spanning four weight classes and over 30 models, the mechs make the most noise on the field. Some are nimble, other lumbering; some come with jumpjets for limited flight, others with shields or cloaking devices. Some are scouts, while others are absolute wrecking balls. Each comes equipped with two or three versions of ballistic, energy or missile weapons, and some even have snazzy defensive abilities like target jamming or anti-missile systems. The design variety keeps the game feeling fresh despite its repetitive combat.
However, the very thing that makes MechAssault a more inviting series than its complex MechWarrior forbear - namely, the lack of customization - keeps it from becoming a truly addictive experience. The ability to choose your weaponry, deck out your mech and tweak it even a smidgen would have been a great new addition. Instead, it's Armored Core Lite.
New to the series is the ability to roam around on foot as a wee pilot, although the game engine obviously wasn't made for this. This feature allows you to switch between mechs and the sweet new BattleArmor; essentially a lightweight mech outfit equipped with a pulse laser, a mortar gun and the best jumpjets in the game. As a tradeoff for its small size and lack of power or defense, the BattleArmor is far more agile than any of the mechs and allows the pilot to hijack enemy mechs by latching on and quickly pressing a sequence of buttons. Once jacked, the pilot is ejected and you can swipe his mech, pink slip and all.
This new dynamic is a good one and gives you an alternative to the generally slow pacing of mech combat. Zipping around the battlefield in the BattleArmor is good fun, and while it isn't explored much in the single-player game, it becomes tantamount to success if you take MechAssault 2 online.
Or rather, when you take it online, because unless you're satisfied killing the same retarded robots over and over again or relish system link and split-screen play, you'll want to explore the best part of MechAssault 2 by rocking through Xbox Live. The basic game supports up to 12 players at a time in ten game modes, with free-for-all and team versions of Deathmatch, Last Man Standing and Capture the Flag leading the way. A few other variations add some flair, particularly Base War, which functions like a reverse CTF match as teams try to destroy their enemy's base while protecting their own.
The inclusion of the BattleArmor really changes the gameplay as players can no longer just squat in their favorite mech and control the battle. Another new ability, the chance to pilot the VTOL dropship, has a huge affect on matches as it can carry BattleArmor pilots across the map quickly as well as drop bombs and essential power-ups and health. This support craft lends a new fundamental team dynamic to MechAssault and is a welcome addition.
There's also the curious new Conquest mode, which is sort of a half-assed attempt to wrap everything together. This mode lets you join a house as you fight for control of a small, 3D map made up of about 40 worlds. Each planet is a specific game type; you pick planets to defend or attack, and then enter a lobby waiting for enough players of each faction to join so that you can start. It works on paper, but it's hard to figure out which games to join and the whole thing isn't very user-friendly. More time is spent waiting in a game lobby for the correct proportion of people to join than actually playing.
For that matter, the matchmaking in MechAssault 2 isn't as smooth as we'd hoped. You can sort by game type, but there aren't very many servers and it's a little hard to organize friends lists. Compared to the effortless Optimatching and brilliant party system of Halo 2, this aspect of MechAssault 2 feels a little dated.
The graphics, however, do not, thanks to great explosions, sweet flame-blurring effects and a smooth framerate. Things blow up beautifully. On the other hand, it's not the most detailed game in the world and the FMV sequences in the single-player are pretty shoddy.
If you're a big fan of Korn and Papa Roach, you'll be stoked to know that these two bands comprise pretty much the entire MechAssault 2 soundtrack. In other words, I hate it. This is a futuristic mech game, and yet I feel like an angsty 15 year-old in 2001. The voice-acting is terrible, but at least the sound effects are good.
Fans of the first game will probably wash over the single-player in favor of the Xbox Live experience, and if that's indeed the case, then MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf isn't a bad choice. The sheer joy of destruction, variety of mechs and plethora of game types result in a fun if slower-paced online action game. This giant robot might not save the world, but it's still a pretty good pal .