MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries honors the 30-year MechWarrior legacy very closely: in mechanics, in controls, and even in soundtrack. Bombastic guitar riffs thunder over every combat encounter, lasers sizzle, PPCs crackle, and Gauss Rifles make that weird pew noise. Mechs stomp and break and explode spectacularly, leveling buildings around them. In short: MechWarrior is extremely back.
Not everything about the MW5 is a throwback. The overall aesthetic fits into the contemporary look of the BattleTech universe. The UI is clean, inspired by and of a piece with Harebrained Schemes’ interface for 2018’s BattleTech. Piranha’s modern ‘Mech designs are memorable updates to the dated ’80s designs. They stomp menacingly at each other across a pretty diverse set of battlefields that sits starkly opposed to the near-featureless plains of the MechWarrior past. It also brings in your friends in a co-op mode, both for campaign and one-off skirmishes, that is both stable and tactically rich. It runs pretty well—a first for me in the MechWarrior series—aside from one glitchy randomly-generated mission and some occasional chug on mission starts.
The game is an interstellar sandbox about running a company of mercenary mech pilots and pursuing some casual revenge. It’s a campaign mode that really plays into the themes of the setting, ones of scarcity and technological regression, the so-called LosTech. It often forces you to make hard choices about how to re-arm a mech when you can’t find a replacement part—or simply sell the whole thing when it’ll be too time-consuming and expensive to repair.
Budgeting decisions can leave you strapped for cash, choosing between new mechs or top-tier guns for the mechs you have. The big space campaign map is really just a vehicle for a simple, tight, and effective loop: travel to a new conflict zone, pick a mission and ruin your mechs in combat, find a sidequest to accept, head to some industrial worlds to rearm and repair, then head back out to your new mission.
The feeling of dropping into those missions is superb. Your lance of mechs—yourself and up to three others, controlled by friends online or AI pilots—rotates into position, red lights strobing in the cavernous maintenance bay of your mercenary company’s Leopard DropShip. Your pilot’s hands move across the console to punch a boot-up sequence and grip controls. The doors in front of you crack open as the startup sequence completes and the iconic lines sound: REACTORS, ONLINE. SENSORS, ONLINE. WEAPONS, ONLINE. ALL SYSTEMS… NOMINAL.
Your mech strides onto the battlefield—sometimes to a calm forest morning, others into raging streams of laser fire. The missions are chosen from only a few types, but they’re always different because each battlefield is procedurally generated and then sprinkled with objectives. Navigating cramped canyons on a Mars-like world is a very different feel from being utterly exposed on a rolling plain of wheat. There are also bespoke campaign missions of varying quality, from clumsy and linear to interestingly open-ended.
The mechs are a pleasure to handle, and the core experience of combat really takes advantage of the map as a centerpiece. Mechs stomp around, faster or slower as you throttle up and down—throttle and orientation control are a key part of the simulator-style play here. Twisting your torso to strafe targets and show strong armor to the enemy is key, as is knowing the layout of weapons on your mech—lasers situated high might shoot over a wall, while those slung on low arms will just explode the cover you were using.
Your mech strides onto the battlefield—sometimes to a calm forest morning, others into raging streams of laser fire.
Fights in MechWarrior 5 feel intensely physical as your mech slows to scale inclines or ploughs through a row of parked cars. Lasers rake across woods to follow a target and leave a trail of falling, burning trees in their wake. (A pleasure I spent a good five minutes repeating over and over when I discovered it.) Watching mechs smash into destructible terrain is great, for instance when a dodging mech shoulder checks a building and obliterates the facade.
Of course, the smashing isn’t always on purpose. The AI of both your enemies and teammates is relatively functional but often comically inept at understanding the terrain. Allies will casually smash whatever you’re supposed to defend or launch missiles into cliffsides. Or, my personal favorite, be reduced to only long-range weapons and stubbornly continue circle-strafing an opponent inside their minimum range. Enemies can and will get stuck on terrain features, requiring you to pick through a whole city for one last, tiny tank before a mission can progress.
Raids quickly became my favorite missions. They’re lightning-fast battles that require you to destroy a handful of specific targets scattered across a map. Things like radar stations or warehouses, usually. The catch is that you’re only there to destroy those, then get out, and you’re there to do it against a huge number of defenders. Standing for a straight-up fight is likely to get you blown up, so I took delight in crafting specialty formations of fast, tough mechs geared to weave through cover and smash objectives before disappearing to other parts of the map. The strategy worked especially well in night fights where enemies’ long-range shots were hampered by night vision mode, or during weather events when banks of swirling dust storm could shield my movement. Customizing mechs is superbly fun, and a variety of weird techs and mech variants show up, with more being added as the in-universe timeline advances. Hunting down Rare Mech or Weapon icons on the campaign map is more fun than pursuing the main storyline.
The end of a mission is significantly less climactic. You don’t desperately return to your DropShip under the cover of its guns, you just fade to black at the exfiltration point. Actually, DropShips don’t shoot at all, aside from once during a cinematic in the tutorial. That’s a weird thing to miss since MechWarrior 4 so prominently and memorably featured the weapons on landed DropShips and Piranha’s own MechWarrior Online had them as well. There’s also just the one kind of DropShip—the Leopard—and the iconic spherical DropShips don’t make an appearance.