When Xbox Live launched there were basically two “killer apps,” MotoGP and MechAssault. Between the need for speed and the urge to purge enemies, these two games were able to scratch most gamers’ online itch. Add Unreal Championship to the mix, and the Xbox’s initial online offerings seemed just about complete.
In the two years since, Xbox owners’ eyes have been opened to the possibilities of online gaming. Phantasy Star Online Episodes I & II, a deluge of sports titles, a handful of real-time strategy games and, of course, Halo 2 have clearly raised the bar. As such, Day 1 Studios and Fasa needed to do something different with MechAssault 2, something they’ve certainly done with the game’s online aspects but generally failed to do with its offline components.
The biggest change to the game, whether playing online or off, is the ability to leave the ‘Mech and hijack virtually any other vehicle in the game, from ‘Mech to tank to VTOL (an airborne supply ship). In several levels, this ability to ‘jack another ‘Mech is crucial to success, and even in those levels where stealing someone else’s 20-ton ride isn’t imperative, the ability add a much-needed dose of strategy to the game.
For example, the outfit that allows jacking, called BattleArmor, is relatively powerful on its own, so players can choose to defeat a level by jacking ‘Mech after ‘Mech and taking down the competition that way. Or, they can hijack the first ‘Mech they see and blast away at the opposition until the cows come home or they breach their core. Alternatively, and even more strategically, players can jack a light ‘Mech to make some quick strikes, then jack a more-powerful ‘Mech as the need for more firepower arises. Really, the gameplay is much more open than the first, and the ways in which players can defeat a level are much more varied.
In earlier builds of the game, the BattleArmor was a bit too powerful, both in terms of its armaments and its firepower, and jacking ‘Mechs was a bit too easy. Thankfully, Day 1 has toned down the power of the BattleArmor, making it much more vulnerable to attacks and much less of a cakewalk when it comes to commandeering another vehicle.
That’s not to say the game has gotten any longer. One of the biggest complaints about the first MechAssault was the game’s brevity. An eight-hour campaign at best, the first MechAssault was clearly designed for online play. With the promise of a meatier single-player component, Day 1 made every indication that MechAssault 2 would change all that. It hasn’t. In spite of the newfound strategic elements and the increased difficulty of the final version, MechAssault 2 is unforgivingly brief. The missions are definitely more varied than the first game, and they play into the new out-of-‘Mech experience, but they’re still relatively linear and short. What’s more, what little there is of a story hardly compels players to take their time as the tale unfolds. MechAssault 2, no matter what Microsoft and Day 1 would have you believe, is still focused on the online play.
Fortunately, that’s where MechAssault 2 excels. Where MechAssault was Xbox Live’s first killer app, MechAssault 2 is the online service’s knockout punch for 2004. The main strategic element in MechAssault (choosing your ‘Mech wisely) is still present in MechAssault 2, but this time clan support makes strategic planning all the more important. And it’s available on the fly.
The fiercest of online battles pit two teams in BattleArmor faced with a choice of vehicles. Will it be a light, medium or heavy ‘Mech? Or will you choose instead to hop in a tank or stationary turret? Or will you take the role of scout and supplier, opting instead to stay in your BattleArmor or pilot a VTOL? Where MechAssault required players to think about their gameplay preferences and choose a ‘Mech accordingly, MechAssault 2 requires players to talk with their clan, decide who’s playing which role and then choose the vehicle best-suited for that strategy. Getting out of the ‘Mech allows players to get into the game, and its thought-provoking nature should bring some disgruntled MechAssault veterans back into the fold.
MechAssault 2 also includes a Conquest mode, the game’s attempt at a persistent online world with one clan to rule them all. Like an ongoing game of land grab, Conquest has as its sole purpose controlling as many planets in the galaxy as possible. Clans fight for control of a planet and, when they control two planets on a single trade route, can then begin attacking other planets along that route for ultimate control. The point is to dominate the universe and fend off all attackers. Since the XDK network has limited users, we were unable to sufficiently test this mode, but its premise alone is enough to warrant significant play in the months ahead.
Offline, MechAssault 2 makes steps forward and back, while online, the game moves nowhere but forward. Yet when it comes to the graphics, MechAssault 2 leaps, bounds and blasts straight ahead. The ability to exit the ‘Mech, once again, is a large reason for this. For starters, the sense of scale in MechAssault 2 is astonishing. When players are in a heavy ‘Mech, it’s easy to think the hunk of junk moves slower than molasses in January. Once those players see that same ‘Mech from the pilot’s or BattleArmor’s point of view, though, the illusion of slowness dissolves completely. The world of MechAssault 2 is put into much better context, a fact that’s greatly complemented by the game’s graphical tricks.
Those “tricks” extend to the details, further adding to the believability of the MechAssault 2 universe. There’s definitely a fog of war in the environments, and the disappearing rubble may be disappointing, but the blinking lights, shattering windows and exploding trees make up for the few environmental shortcomings. So, too, does the great animation of each ‘Mech. Where the original ‘Mechs moved like mechanical humans, the machines in MechAssault 2 moves like, well, ‘Mechs, with disjointed steps and swiveling hips. Take on some damage and the detail is even better, with sparks flying in the wind as he machine limps along.
‘Mechs are basically big machines with guns, and those guns are meant to blow stuff up. Therefore, the exploding buildings, ‘Mechs and vehicles in MechAssault 2 all sound quite satisfying. The game also makes good use of Dolby Digital surround sound, although if you hear a ‘Mech firing from behind it’s probably too late to save your 20-ton bacon. If only it weren’t too late to get a new soundtrack. Some gamers like the sound of an electric mixer running over a Stratocaster, and those players will be ecstatic when they enter their first battle. Other gamers, though, appreciate the subtleties of music as it gracefully sets the stage for another big explosion. MechAssault 2 definitely caters to the former.
In spite of the music, though, MechAssault 2 is still a much better game than the first, with a key gameplay change that makes all the difference in the world. Getting out of the ‘Mech injects a level of strategy that was missing from the original game, and it also helps immerse gamers in the scale of the world Day 1 Studios and Fasa have created. The online play, which kept the first game from being an immediate return, will probably do the same for this sequel, particularly for players who set up a universe-conquering clan. Those without online aspirations or functionality, though, will best be served renting this one first.
- Gameplay: 8.8
- Getting out of the ‘Mech is ingenious, but the gameplay balance of the BattleArmor still isn’t quite right.
- Graphics: 8.9
- The details are fantastic, with only a few environmental aspects looking a bit clunky.
- Sound: 8
- Nice explosions and surround sound, but why the butt rock? Honestly now….
- Replay: 8.9
- Conquest could be a blast, but it’s not yet undergone the true Live test. The single-player is once again insanely short.
- Overall: 8.6
- Much better than the original and much more well-rounded, but those without Xbox Live should rent it first.