Money makes the world go around, and such is still the case in the year 3063. MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries picks up with the Inner Sphere embroiled in a civil war between the Federated Commonwealth and the Lyran Alliance. Hired muscle is in great demand. As the leader of newly authorized mercenary company your role is quite simply to satisfy the sudden demand for your "expertise," as well as to satiate your thirst for the almighty C-Bill. After gaining a sponsor from the likes of Wolf's Dragoons, Gray Death Legion, Kell Hounds, or Northwind Highlanders you're free to manage your own destiny, deciding what missions you accept, the supplies and resources you purchase, the pilots you hire, and more. Each sponsor brings specific benefits, such as higher levels of technology, better pay rates, and earlier access to certain weapons.
Spanning ten planets and more than 50 missions, players will have to carefully manage all available resources while still trying to turn a profit. Participating in and successfully completing missions brings rewards of money, salvage, and prestige, all of which become very useful during your campaign. Between missions, players need to perform basic management duties, not the least of which is weighing the costs and benefits of embarking on particular missions. Prestige is also important, as partially determines what future missions will be available. Away from the battlefield players are free to journey to Solaris VII, a world in which Mech combat is a gladiatorial sport, where skilled warriors can make a lot of money very quickly. Contests are organized by weight class (such as light, heavy and assault) and each battle takes place in one of three arenas: The Factory, Jungle, or Coliseum.
Over time, players can recruit and outfit a secondary lance and venture into battle with eight Mech units under their control. The multiplayer component allows up to sixteen players to compete on nineteen different maps, in solo or team play. New multiplayer game options include the ability to restrict teams according to the amount of money they've earned. Players can also track the success of different Clans, even to join forces with their favorites through the Zone.
The MechWarrior games haven't changed much in their several forays through computer game history. The graphics keep getting better, but the battles between giant robots are the same, challenging players to build huge walking tanks with the right balance of maneuverability, firepower, and heat tolerance necessary to defeat their opponents. And, most MechWarrior fans probably love it this way. Microsoft's MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries does exactly what it wanted to do, does it competently, and in satisfying (albeit unspectacular) fashion.
MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries' mission-based play veers little from the path of its ancestors. Like MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries, it uses money as the motivation to fight. Players open the game with a small squad of teammates and mechs and travel to worlds where there are available contracts to work. They receive some semblance of open-ended, or at least branching, gameplay by getting to choose their destinations.
Work in the Mercenaries galaxy means being the hired gun for one of the warring factions in a civil war (Steiner or Davion) or a smattering of neutral parties. It can also involve being a professional athlete in the mech gladiator circuit. There's a bit of a background story if players are inclined to read the news text between missions, and it leads to a choice players will have to make to ultimately choose sides for some of their assignments. Players can ignore the story too, just picking whatever mission suits them.
Sprinkling in a few gladiator missions adds some variety, but except for a few recon and escort missions, Mercenaries is still about beating up the other guy's mechs in circle-strafing slugfests. It's the same formula that worked for previous MechWarrior games -- and it still works. It's like managing a fight between two boxers -- it's exciting to go toe-to-toe with heavy mechs, trading blows, using maneuverability and terrain to make the opponent miss, and surviving tough odds with your team intact. It's also rewarding for the player to learn from experience, reconfiguring his team's mechs to win a mission he previously failed.
Successful outings yield cash for the player's squad, and he can use this to acquire new pilots and mechs on the free market. It's interesting as a mercenary to be able to buy whatever is available, where a clan member's weapon selection might be limited. The payoff grows as the mission difficulty increases and opponents use heavier mechs. Combat itself is still alive with battlefield sounds, decent special effects, and communication with squad mates. The graphics do a fine job, though they no longer have the leading edge they may have had back when MechWarrior 4: Vengeance released.
Missions are the typical waypoint traversals that you see in most simulation-type games. Each planet can feature terrain differences, which helps reduce the monotony of play, making every battle unique. The presence of water improves mech cooling efficiency and mountainous terrain provides more places to duck when missiles come calling. Most of the missions are moderately challenging, with a few brutal ones. Players can modify the difficulty scale to their preference, and this does seem to make a difference.
There are some oddities in the scripted events, however. Players can sometimes explore a map and exploit the discovery of reserve enemy units, destroying them before they can make later appearances. This isn't too common, fortunately, and the few scenarios where we encountered this were already tough enough that "short circuiting" the scripted events helped, but did not guarantee victory.
The single-player campaign is a bit on the short side, and dedicated players can probably hustle through it in a week, but the gladiator fights add some optional missions, and there's plenty of play in the single-mission replays. There are also four separate factions of mercenary companies a player can align with, though this doesn't affect the campaign play. Multiplayer support is also present for both team and deathmatch play. There's a multiplayer lobby built into the game, so it's easy to find a list of games or to set one up, and the performance is good even without broadband. The popularity of the MechWarrior license is evident and there are always plenty of players waiting to rock and roll.
Squad mate artificial intelligence has shown some improvement over the life of the MechWarrior series. Wingmen still sometimes get in the player's way, but as they gain experience and improve their skills, they do become more accurate shooters and will follow orders well. The opponents aren't slouches either, and will bring all their weapons to bear when given an opportunity. Players can catch some of them napping if they uncover some of the aforementioned campaign bugs, but there is challenge enough for the average player.
We'd like to see improvements in the squad and mech management screens, which work well enough, but don't give players a broad reference of their team and existing mech configurations when trying to build a new mech to complement them. And, except for buying new parts, the money in the game doesn't really have meaning; a poorly-managed squad might find themselves short of the cash needed for that new auto-cannon, but what about using the money to forge political inroads or subcontract other mercenary teams?
In the end, MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries is exactly what it looks like: a solid addition to the MechWarrior series. Players get a set of new missions and lots of mechs. There's not much to the background plot, but it does seem to uphold the usual Battletech pastiche, and in a few cases, players get to make some interesting choices. There's not much new in MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries, but what's here works reasonably well. For fans of the series, it should provide some good fun.
People who downloaded Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries have also downloaded:
MechWarrior 4: Vengeance, MechWarrior 2 (Limited Edition), MechWarrior 3, MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries, MechCommander 2, Mechwarrior, MechCommander Gold, Freelancer
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