Go ahead...mech my day.
What draws a man to giant robots? Why, it's the Xbox! Games like the ambitious Steel Battalion and the interesting Phantom Crash are irresistible bait to us mech-starved Xbox owners. This week the bait comes from Microsoft in the form of MechAssault, and I'm here to tell ya, it tastes better than chicken.
This third-person action shooter skillfully focuses on hardcore action and destruction on a citywide scale. It pretty much does away with the tedious customization and finance management found in the excellent Armored Core games on the PS2 and the MechWarrior PC games from which MechAssault is derived. What you wind up with is a solid action game both on and offline.
The story isn't brilliant, but it does move the gameplay along nicely. You're one of the last MechWarriors up against an extremist group calling itself the "Word of Blake." I'm guessing that the word was "yo-momma," because your organization, WOLFNET, is none too happy! It might also be due to the Word of Blake's killing of innocent civilians, stealing of technology and general misbehavior. In any case, you must shoot and shoot some more.
The single-player campaign is filled with classic, straightforward gameplay. You'll have to complete objectives like destroying specific buildings, escorting vehicles, extraction, and total "clearance" (i.e. destroy everything) while fending off a maelstrom of tank shells, helicopter fire, turrets, infantry and of course other mechs.
You are given an inexhaustible supply of ammunition for three different weapons - rapid fire small arms, ballistic missile types and heavy artillery. They seem few, but the various mechs have various different ordinances. You can also upgrade your weapons by picking up power-ups from felled buildings and destroyed vehicles. This is actually done well, as the items are specific to certain building and vehicles. For instance, a hospital will yield energy or health, and a downed mech will leave whatever upgrades it was using before it bit the dust. This gives the player great incentive to engage in some stress-relieving property damage.
You haven't seen destruction like this in a game, ever. Every building you see can be leveled to the ground. Not just leveled - totaled. Windows shatter into clouds of falling glass and debris. Small fires break out in the specific places where your missiles or gunfire have struck. You can even see a building's skeletal framework after a piece of the exterior surface has been destroyed.
Great particle effects and creative use of lights and shadows cap-off the impressive visuals. Explosions are spectacular and, at times, quite massive. These blasts also can cause you and other mechs severe harm. Add insult to injury by taking out a structure that an enemy was using for cover. If they are standing too close, the falling building will cause them damage. In fact, after you down a mech, make sure you steer clear of the resulting blast, or you too could visit that giant training simulator in the sky.
Most will be happy to know that Mech Assault is much easier to control than other mech games. Using the now-familiar first-person shooter style control, the analog sticks govern most of your movement. The Left-stick controls forward, back, and strafing left and right. The Right-stick is your crosshair control, so you can look in any direction while moving in another. The Right-trigger is the fire button, while the Left-trigger cycles through the three weapons. Finally, pressing the Left-stick in will activate your Jump Jets if available.
They're easy to control, but the mechs are slow in general and get slower as you gain access to more powerful types. Plus, they aren't very attractive. The designs are from the ever-popular Battletech series of video and board games. As a kid I used to refer to these things as walking-tanks, and they haven't changed much.
But in general, MechAssault offers a single player experience much more compelling and action-packed than any of the Armored Core single sessions. The carnage is terrific.
The many multiplayer options offer an extremely welcome break from shooting the mindless NPC rabble, though it's all rather slow. Players are left circling strafing, then running for cover to let their weapon systems cool down, and then repeating. Moreover, the game doesn't offer customization, suppressing a gamer's need for self-expression and individuality (fascists!) But there's plenty of variety, including split screen and system link play.
The real prize is exchanging particle beams and verbal taunts with up to 8 human opponents via the now available Xbox Live! service. Provided you have already created an account and established your tag name, the rest is simply a matter of choosing a game type.
Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are old and rather dry favorites. You can also play a type of Last-Man Standing match (free-for all or teamed) and Not It, which consists of the "it" player having to kill the others for points. The other mechs are trying to score a kill on the "it" player for the right to be "it" and hence have the chance to earn points. The pilot with the most point wins.
All of the modes are entertaining and virtually lag-free. I had hoped for an objective-based game option with some of the game's NPCs and/or a cooperative single player campaign. Instead, it often just boils down to hardcore shooting.
Still, when the dust settles, MechAssault stands tall as one of the best of its kind. It can get a bit repetitive, but the game never purports to be anything other than a fun shooter. What it lacks in depth and customization it pays back in spades with intense action sequences and a breathtaking level of destruction and interactivity. Tack on a strong multiplayer/online component with the future option to download additional content (mechs, maps etc.) and you the have one of the most exciting bots to ever grace a console.