It could be said that MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is the just the type of game for which Xbox Game Pass exists. I wish that was meant in good way, because MechWarrior fans and mech game lovers in general deserve better.
The MechWarrior franchise has been around since 1989 in tabletop and video game form and represents just one aspect of the much larger BattleTech universe of games, toys and collectibles (even Microsoft’s beloved MechAssault series of games that were exclusive to the original Xbox are yet another BattleTech joint). It goes without saying then that MechWarrior lore runs deep in Mercenaries, which takes place during that universe’s Third “Succession War”.
Right from the jump, players are thrown into the deep end as their Mercenary outfit is decimated out of nowhere by a rival group called Black Inferno while on a basic “smash and grab” mission. As the survivors go into hiding and begin to pick up the pieces, players quickly discover that their devastating, ill-fated encounter is just a symptom of a much larger and evolving conflict that has been raging on for generations between the Five Successor States (a.k.a. The Great Houses). It’s all very futuristic Game of Thrones-ish and seems exciting at first, especially after players manage to get through the first few missions, eventually gain access to the Star Map and fully grasp just how large the universe of the Inner Sphere actually is, with dozens of planets that players can chart star jumps to in order to take on lucrative contracts or trade valuable resources and salvage on the black market.
For mech-heads who enjoy tinkering, Mercenaries might also have your number as well. Mech and pilot customization is extremely in-depth and is governed by several inter-connected rules, such as individual mech and total squad tonnage, mech build, weapon capacity, cooling systems, armour allocation and more. That’s not even considering how performance and weapon systems are affected when a mech’s limbs or torso take on heavy damage or are destroyed. Both mechs and pilots that take damage in battle require time to repair or heal, and doing so in a system that’s considered a conflict zone as opposed to an industrial hub system will adversely affect how much repairs cost and how long those repairs will take. In addition to all this, your pilots all have monthly salaries that need to be doled out, and any mechs that aren’t being kept in cold storage come with regular maintenance fees that have to be paid. So there’s quite a bit of resource management to Mercenaries, though players generally won’t have any trouble keeping their finances in the black provided that they keep going out on missions and bringing back successful hauls of salvage and C-Bills (cash) for completing mission objectives.
Finally, it can’t be denied that one of the biggest positives that Mercenaries has going for it is nostalgia. As a middle-aged gamer I remember the 90s well and Mercenaries’ gameplay boldly harkens back to a time when “sim-style” games like Wing Commander and X-Wing vs Tie Fighter ruled the roost on PC with 3D graphics capabilities far beyond what game consoles were capable of at the time. Challenging, expansive missions in large sandbox arena-like levels were the norm in games like these, and the concept of mid-level checkpoints were all but non-existent.
“…we have a new entry in a long-running, iconic mech-franchise with extensive lore, deep gameplay and brings with it plenty of 90s feels.”
Keeping true to this tradition, failure to complete a mission in Mercenaries either means starting the whole operation over again or aborting the mission altogether (which will deal a significant blow to your rep and earning potential, although missions that have been aborted can be revisited). This means that players must plan ahead and tailor the strengths of their squad to the mission at hand before launch, as they won’t get a chance to re-spec once they are out in the field. By the way, the game soundtrack is a perfect fit, with a number of 90’s-era, electric-guitar driven orchestral pieces that suit the genre, and a few of the tunes even channel a bit of Steve Vai’s work on the original Halo theme.
Okay, so we have a new entry in a long-running, iconic mech-franchise with extensive lore, deep gameplay and brings with it plenty of 90s feels. So what’s the issue? Well, the problem is that unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool MechWarrior fan who is accustomed to how these games work, or an extremely curious gamer who values systems above all else and doesn’t mind investing a lot of extra time and work to understand them, you are likely to break more than a few teeth by trying to rush your way to the soft, bubble-gum centre (i.e., the fun) of this sour jawbreaker of a game.
Let’s start with the terrible tank controls. The one thing that all the mechs in Mercenaries share is that they control like tanks, in that their torso can be rotated independently of their legs, enabling them to point and fire their weapons in one direction while they move in another. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but just about every element of the HUD, whether it’s in first-person or third-person view, fails to effectively communicate to players the position of their legs in a quick and intuitive way.
The mini-map (called the Tac Screen) in the upper left-hand corner always displays your leg orientation versus torso orientation, representing leg position by a dotted line and torso position with a vision cone, which is simple enough to understand but rather impractical to have to keep glancing up at, especially in the midst of battle. Alternatively, a small indicator just below the crosshair uses a line that expands and contracts left or right of centre and appears to indicate leg position (or since the line grows or shrinks in direct opposition to the orientation of the legs, perhaps it’s meant to represent which direction one’s back is exposed towards…who knows, it’s never properly explained in the tutorial). I’d much prefer if the line instead represented the actual degree and direction of my mech’s legs, thus also telling me the direction that my torso needs to move in order to realign, but this setting cannot be flipped in the game’s control options.
Even putting such semantics aside, leg orientation in Mercenaries is so confounding that the developer needed to assign an “Auto Orient” feature to the Y button just so that players have a fool-proof way to ensure their legs are pointing forward, and depending on how big your mech is, such alignment can take several seconds to occur. Further compounding the issue is that visual representation of leg position on screen is poor. In third-person (a.k.a. Drone Camera Mode), the legs are often barely visible at the bottom left of the screen and actual aiming and shooting is less than optimal.
Meanwhile, in first-person Cockpit Mode you can see the actual cockpit and aiming is more accurate, but then you are totally dependent on the Tac Screen, line indicator and muscle-memory to keep track of your leg position. A cool way that Piranha Games could have gotten around this problem might have been to combine the pair of two-dimensional damage indicators in the bottom left corner of HUD into an actual hologram of the mech that moves in real-time, which would not only inform the player of where the mech is damaged but also always display the position of the legs. You would think an Xbox Series X, heck, even a base Xbox One from 2013 should be able to handle such a feat.
“Speaking of crashing, Mercenaries is a buggy game that is poorly optimized.”
Reversing your mech is also a big problem, as neither the HUD or camera perspectives provide a solution for avoiding collisions with objects that are behind you or just off camera, such as rock formations, buildings and friendly mechs. Given that just about all collisions damage you and that it’s easy to get stuck on just about any structure in the environment, backing up to give yourself some space can often result in a disastrous outcome, like stumbling backward though the volatile fuel tanks of a power plant. Debris from structures that are taller than your mech will also block the camera as it crashes on top of you, further damaging your mech and making you even more vulnerable.
Speaking of crashing, Mercenaries is a buggy game that is poorly optimized. In the early stages of the game, you’re asked to rename your mercenary outfit to a title of your choosing and select a logo for it (you can even customize the colours of it), using the computer in your private quarters. Once doing so and leaving your office however, I was stunned to find that other than seeing the new logo emblazoned on my transport ship during cutscenes, my company still had the old name and logo, and they were even displayed on my save files. Given that this change was related to a major story element, it’s a pretty bad look. The game also hard-crashed multiple times during online sessions with my brother, a truly unfortunate development since multiplayer, while very limited, is one of this game’s few saving graces.
Presentation-wise, Mercenaries doesn’t do itself many favors either. On Xbox Series X the frame rate struggles to hold 60fps but frequently falls below it. In combat, movements of enemy mechs are decent and when things explode, they tend blow up real good with some nice fire and alpha effects, but aside from that there’s not a lot going on, whether it’s the sparse, planetside environments you visit, the basic weather effects you’ll encounter on mission or the almost negligible amount of animation used for its plain-Jane NPCs.
A walk around your ship’s hangar reveals a space populated with crew members that may as well be mannequins; they just stand around doing nothing unless they are a key quest-giver that actually has something to say to you. Beyond that the hangar is only good for saving and loading games or confirming that a player you’ve invited to your game is actually in the session, since there’s seemingly no proper menu interface for campaign co-op. It should also be noted that currently the game does not support the Xbox Series X|S Quick Resume feature, so making frequent, manual saves via the hangar are a must, and apparently the game for some reason still hogs system resources when resting in the background, so quitting out of the game fully when not playing it is highly recommended.
“MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries fails to impart important information to you when it matters most. “
The next issue is that MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries fails to impart important information to you when it matters most. For example, the game will hit you with a wall of text and tutorial images when you first visit your mech bay for the first time, but later on when you first gain a new pilot and mech (bringing your total number of mechs to three) it doesn’t tell you that you can actually leave the star system you are in immediately, visit an industrial hub and hire on a third pilot for the unused mech (or even hire on a fourth pilot and purchase another mech), and then return to the system you were previously in with a much stronger team that has far better chances of surviving the next mission with. Neither does it explain the importance of tweaking your armour based on the kind of conflict you expect to encounter, and that you can reallocate the balance of your armour from the rear to the front of your torso so that it can endure more frontal damage and better survive multiple encounters.
It also doesn’t tell you (until several missions in) that it’s often best to take down the mission target or objective and then flee to the extraction point, because enemies just keep respawning indefinitely (because who needs realism in a sim game, right)? All of the above I had to learn either from reading online FAQs about this game (which previously launched exclusively on the Epic Game Store nearly 6 months ago) and from my brother, who started playing Mercenaries around the same time as I did via Xbox Game Pass. Simply put, it shouldn’t have fallen to the internet and my sibling to do the developer’s job, which is to not only teach players how to progress beyond the basics but also prod them in the right direction and suggest smart strategies at appropriate times, especially when players are stuck on a mission after several attempts and are clearly having trouble.
Artificial intelligence? It’s abysmal. Practically all of it. Mobile enemies either prance about in circles and swarm the player, or run off behind cover only arbitrarily re-emerge, firing with no real sense of strategy or self-preservation, which can either prove extremely lethal or a fortunate boon for players, depending on their squad makeup and how prepared and/or lucky they are. Balancing it all out of course is the collective incompetence of your friendly AI. Players can only issue basic, individual commands to the other three members of their squad via the D-pad, like “Attack My Target” or “Navigate to” or “Regroup on Me”, and these commands have to be re-issued constantly because your fellow pilots are horrible at following orders.
Once they engage with an enemy, they abandon their positions and start running around like chickens with their heads cut off, repeatedly forcing the player to reign them back in before they get themselves killed. Even worse is that it takes three separate presses on the D-pad to issue a command to one pilot, so imagine how cumbersome it is to have to babysit three pilots in the heat of battle when your own mech is also under fire. On top of that, mobile and even stationary enemies in the distance that appear on radar and on screen will often disappear at random and stay hidden until you turn your back and head in the opposite direction thinking you’ve killed them, exposing your rear to annoying cheap shots.
Finally, there’s Mercenaries’ online co-op mode, which is one of the game’s few bright spots for uninitiated players, but it comes with some big caveats. First off, it can’t be accessed until a certain amount of progression has been made in the campaign, so until that point you are on your own. Once unlocked, up to 4-players can be supported in Campaign Co-Op or Instant Action mode, so if you’re fed up with having to micromanage your insipid AI squad members, they can all be replaced with living, breathing players that you can actually communicate and strategize with, making just about any mission more enjoyable.
Unfortunately, all aspects of the multiplayer session are based on the progression of the host alone. Aside from assuming the role of one of the available pilots/mechs in the host player’s campaign while on the battlefield, invited players have no control over anything else, including the loadout or the mech they are assigned to. This all falls to the host to set up. Likewise, invited players gain no experience, money, salvage or any rewards whatsoever that can be taken back to their own campaign. Effectively, they just act as “helpers” in assisting the host’s campaign progression. I suppose it’s better than nothing, as at the very least friends who choose to play this game together can more easily acquaint themselves with the combat system and take turns assisting each other to progress through the campaign. But to not provide any tangible incentive for guest players feels like a completely wasted opportunity, because it does extraordinarily little to help grow the community for a game like this.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries has an impressive amount of heart, intriguing lore and deep gameplay that come together and make it stand out as a unique mech experience that you won’t find elsewhere outside of the BattleTech universe, which in turn makes it an ideal game to offer on Xbox Game Pass where subscribers can try it out “for free”. In its current state however, which is buggy, difficult to control and intimidating to newcomers who aren’t prepared to spend hours online researching how to play it, players who aren’t already fans likely to bounce right off Mercenaries within a day, much less pay money to own the game outright. With its bare-bones, online co-op mode lacking any incentives to bring new players together, that outcome is almost a certainty.