My friends have often told me that there’s something wrong with me. I seem to be missing the nostalgia gene that has so many MechWarrior fans replaying the older games instead of the new hotness. I speak of course of MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, the greatest MechWarrior game yet made.
I made that statement when I gave my initial impressions of MechWarrior 5, and I still stick by it. And yet, so often do I read people pining for MechWarrior 2 or 3 or 4, explaining in flowery posts how these games are somehow superior despite their age.
I don’t get it. I’ve played every MechWarrior game, I’ve loved every MechWarrior game, and yet I don’t get fooled into thinking the Timber Wolf in MechWarrior 2 looks better than a Marauder in MechWarrior 5.
But let it never be said that I’m not capable of growing, or getting to understand other people’s points of view–even if I think they’re wrong. So in a quest to change hearts and minds (possibly even my own), I ventured into the BattleTech community to better understand why people seem to think that the older MechWarrior titles surpass MechWarrior 5. And in that journey, I may have discovered the perfect way to blend the old and new schools to make a truly phenomenal MechWarrior 6.
Nostalgia Is A Helluva Drug
Before I set out, however, I decided to first check in with an expert on why some fans love the old over the new. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, as they say, and I really wanted to know the high that I was missing.
“A positive memory can be triggered by a sound, a smell, a certain image, or a thought,” explained psychiatrist Michael Feldmeier in an interview with Wired. “This in turn triggers a person’s reward center in their brain to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and salience. People can gravitate towards retro gaming as they are seeking a known trigger for a positive emotional response.”
“We have the rose-colored glasses. It’s literally serotonin, endorphins–the brain fries with nostalgia, overriding objectivity.”
So, nostalgia is a drug, and it might be driving people to older games. That’s not to say that you can’t get a similar or even greater hit of dopamine from playing a new game, but older games can do it reliably–at least, in certain people. Throw me back to MechWarrior 2 and I’ll certainly remember things with a sense of fondness, but I won’t get the same dopamine kick I’d get out of playing a newer game.
Certainly, nostalgia is keeping older MechWarrior titles on a bit of a pedestal. “I really wanted it to, but I’d rather play the old games–especially the MechWarrior 2 trilogy–than the new one whenever I want first person ‘Mech action,” Pastor Recoil told me, summarizing an opinion shared by many of the people I spoke with. When I asked why, he told me that MechWarrior 5 felt too “slick,” and that MechWarrior 2 just “had that vibe.”
Given his profession, I chalked up Pastor Recoil’s vague explanation to his attunement with the ineffable. I preferred the more scientific explanation, and it was heartwarming to find out I wasn’t alone in that respect.
“It really is a nostalgia thing with MW2,” Bishop Steiner reiterated. “We have the rose-colored glasses. Why? Same reason old farts say there are no good movies, music, etc. It’s a simple fact, the things of our teens and early 20s create those strong bonds, and very little that comes later ‘settle’ in the same.
“It’s literally serotonin, endorphins–the brain fries with nostalgia, overriding objectivity.”
It would be all too easy to just end things right here and conclude that everyone who loves MechWarrior 2 is simply blinded by nostalgia, unable to see the numerous improvements MechWarrior 5 has made. But again, this is about personal growth. Rather than take the easy way out, I reached out to Emil of The Art of BattleTech, someone who’s made the MechWarrior series their academic vocation with a Ph.D. in game studies, to better understand that “vibe” Pastor Recoil was talking about.
“MechWarrior 2 really excels at [tone and atmosphere], where it is not afraid to have quiet moments in between the intense ‘Mech combat moments.”
And oh boy, did he have a lot to say.
“There are some things that previous MechWarrior games do better than what MW5 does,” Emil began in an explanation that spanned several pages. “One thing that’s very subjective to really discuss is the tone and atmosphere. For me, MW2 really excels at this, where it is not afraid to have quiet moments in between the intense ‘Mech combat moments. In each mission, there is this lull and quiet on your way to a nav point or a mission objective until you’re greeted with the foreboding ‘enemy power-up detected.’ This quiet but increasingly intense feeling as you head towards facing some very dangerous ‘Mech combat really makes [each moment] more distinct and different from each other to really underscore the intensity of ‘Mech combat.
“Instead, much of MW5 suffers from this modern game design trope where there has to be something to shoot all the time otherwise it’s boring for the average player. Vehicles and VTOLs and turrets constantly spawn in the ‘quiet’ moments to make sure the player isn’t looking at their phone. And this takes away from combat being important or distinct enough.”
Emil admits that these quiet moments might no longer be viable in the modern gaming market, where letting up the action even for a second might lose your younger audience. But for older players, the constant influx of targets in MechWarrior 5 was definitely a turn-off.
“It feels soulless to me. Dilluted by turrets and vehicles,” author Russel Zimmerman said. “I modded the snot out of it to make the turrets and vehicles go away so my stompy bois could shine.”
Emil went so far as to create a mod specifically designed to change MechWarrior 5’s pace to be closer to MechWarrior 2’s. This customizability–largely due to MechWarrior 5’s active mod community–is a point we’ll return to later.
Memorable Moments, Features, And Feelings
What Emil kept coming back to, and what I heard again and again from the BattleTech community, is that MechWarrior 2 just had more memorable moments. Fighting the crusader Wolves for stolen genetic legacies on an orbital platform in Ghost Bear’s Legacy, or defending a convoy from Rifleman IICs and Summoners that jump down from towering mesas in MechWarrior 2‘s Umber Wall mission are both standouts. It’s the same with escaping the invading Clans in a stolen Kodiak in MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries, or fighting Galaxy Commander Brendon Corbett in the middle of a volcano in MechWarrior 3.
I admit, it’s hard to think of those same sorts of setpiece moments through MechWarrior 5’s campaign. Perhaps finding the Nightstar, or defending the Kestrel Lancers on Tikonov, but neither really reaches the same level as MechWarrior 4’s Solaris games. A problem when most missions–even the high-value sidequests–make liberal use of procedural generation.
“Much of MechWarrior 5 suffers from this modern game design trope where there has to be something to shoot all the time otherwise it’s boring for the average player.”
“MW5‘s procedurally generated stuff means you are basically replaying the same five missions over and over again, with slightly different window dressing,” Bishop Steiner added. “MW4 even with the ‘wrong’ ‘Mechlab, had unique missions, and was easily the best for replayability.”
The thing that each of these missions all had was something unique–either a unique setting, or unique actions from enemy units, or a unique objective for the player. Despite always being different, procedurally-generated maps and missions all feel like they have a certain sameness.
“But does this mean that I would have wanted MW5 to try to emulate or achieve the same as what MW2 did for me back in 1995?” Emil asked. “No, actually not, because clamoring for something that was unique to that historical moment to be replicated again is simply not possible.
“But more importantly,” he added, “MW5 excels in other areas that I think we as old nostalgia-blinded Mechwarrior and Battletech fans tend to forget.”
Here’s where Emil and I get onto the same page. That procedural generation, for example, is actually quite powerful. There’s way more overall variety in MechWarrior 5 than anything ever seen in MechWarrior 2, 3, or 4–so much so that it all kinda blends together. They might not stand out compared to the setpiece moments of earlier titles, but that’s partially the point. MechWarrior 5 wants you to tune out and get lost in the wanton destruction.
“MechWarrior 4 even with the ‘wrong’ ‘Mechlab, had unique missions, and was easily the best for replayability.”
And it’s that destruction where MechWarrior 5 truly shines. In no other MechWarrior do you truly get the sense of being in a multi-ton walking death machine. In no other MechWarrior can you literally walk through buildings and watch concrete tumble off your ‘Mech’s shoulders. There’s a weightiness to your movements, shock as you’re struck by missiles and PPCs, and satisfaction as a well-timed alpha strike cores a Locust and sets off a massive explosion.
I wouldn’t want MechWarrior 6 to ditch procedurally-generated missions. I’m the sort of player that likes to enter that flow state and grind out contracts to build up a stable of ‘Mechs before I embark on a longer campaign. Whether you like them or not, having those missions available is strictly a bonus.
There are other features too. Melee combat, airstrikes and artillery bombardment, a reputation system, nearly 60 ‘Mechs with three to five (or more) variants each, customizable paint schemes, and four-player co-op are all features that no MechWarrior has ever accomplished. For the first time, you can paint your Hatchetman whatever color you want and then wield it against foes while your friend launches waves of LRMs in support. That’s incredible, and something that easily matches those more cinematic moments from older MechWarriors.
I will admit there are technical issues in MechWarrior 5 that were better solved in earlier games. MechWarrior 4’s animation, for example, was top-notch, with every ‘Mech receiving both a walking and running animation that switched seamlessly once the pilot reached sufficient velocity.
“MechWarrior 5 excels in other areas that I think we as old nostalgia-blinded Mechwarrior and Battletech fans tend to forget.”
But even here, not everyone agrees. “I feel like walk cycles were one of those top five things for people to complain about in the MechWarrior Online/MW5 games whenever people want to whine about how good they’ve convinced themselves the old games are,” Ultra-Laser told me over Discord. “Hell, I counted it as a win when I got someone to admit that the Grasshopper‘s bouncy walk cycle was cute. Name one MW4 ‘Mech with that kind of Hop!”
Our conversation eventually descended into what I’ll generously describe as the BattleTech equivalent of a foot fetish, but that’s a topic for another article.
People have told me that they preferred the sounds, visual effects, voice acting, and cockpits of older MechWarrior games–all of which have been vastly improved since MechWarrior 5‘s launch through mods. Some mods even restore aspects of older MechWarrior titles, like the Bitching Betty mod which brings back the “all systems nominal” gal of MechWarrior 2.
PGI could do a better job of fostering its mod-maker ecosystem by perhaps integrating popular mods or giving mod-makers previews of coming DLC so that each update doesn’t break everything, but there’s no denying how MechWarrior 5 is the most flexible and customizable MechWarrior to date.
What We Could Learn For MechWarrior 6
What everyone kept coming back to is feelings. The feeling you get from MechWarrior 5 is mostly one of mindless destruction, or being in a shooting gallery where you and your merry band of mercenaries blow through entire battalions of ‘Mechs and armor. That’s certainly a potent feeling, but for some, it’s not enough to surpass the entirely different feelings offered in older MechWarrior titles.
So, I get it. What it boils down to is that I’m just more of an action junkie than the MechWarrior fans I spoke to. For them, the allure of MechWarrior 5’s “slick” combat just can’t compare to the cinematic, set-piece moments found in MechWarrior 2, 3, or 4. I can disagree, but I can acknowledge the appeal of more scripted moments.
The good news is that MechWarrior 6 is most likely on the way. We haven’t received an official announcement or anything, but PGI has hinted rather strongly that one is coming soon. And since it’s still coming from the same developer, we can safely assume that much of the same technology that went into MW5 will be there as a strong foundation for MW6. That means MW6 will already have the great combat feeling of MW5–we just need to throw in some of the lessons of older MechWarriors.
It’s going to be a tricky thing. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the two camps of players. If you tone down the combat, you lose the adrenaline junkies. If you keep it where it is now in MechWarrior 5, you lose the players that pine for the pacing and gravitas of MechWarrior 2 through 4.
What I think it’ll boil down to is a slight refinement. To use an appropriate BattleTech metaphor, MechWarrior 5’s procedural generation and ‘Mech combat are the myomer muscles of a good game, but they’re not really going anywhere without a chassis to ride on. That chassis will be a compelling story set in the BattleTech universe and interwoven with memorable moments in unique environments.
And even more good news, that’s where PGI is already headed. Legend of the Kestrel Lancers and Rise of Rasalhague both featured far more intricate missions and more non-procedural maps than anything found in MechWarrior 5’s main campaign. PGI is already refining these more memorable moments in MechWarrior 5’s DLC, which makes me very hopeful for MechWarrior 6.
Thanks to everyone I spoke with for this piece: Russel Zimmerman, Bishop Steiner, Steven, Pastor Recoil, Ultra-Laser (I’m here for the Grasshopper bounce), Detocroix, and Birthday_Truck, who made an excellent video critiquing MechWarrior 5, especially when it comes to its technical aspects. I encourage everyone to give it a look.
And a special thanks to The Art of BattleTech, who literally wrote me a treatise when I asked for his opinion on MechWarrior 5 compared to older MechWarrior titles. I’m sorry I couldn’t put even a fraction of what he wrote into this piece, but I’m lookin’ to post it separately just so I can point to someone who truly knows his MechWarrior.