Unfortunately, the arena for games featuring mech combat is shrinking, with the genre-defining bastions such as the Mechwarrior franchise nowhere to be seen in recent years. Games such as Mech Assault and Armored Core have tried to scratch that heavy metal itch, but they don't really have the same level of momentum and substance that normally defines the genre. Hawken is an interesting marriage of easy-to-approach game mechanics backed by more in-depth tactical choices, allowing you to easily pilot your mech but still requiring you to put some thought into how you use it. We got some hands-on time with the game during E3 2012, and from what we played, it hits many of the right buttons.
Upon its release as an open beta on Dec. 12 this year, Hawken will be the latest game to follow the free-to-play model, allowing anyone to grab the game client and get into the action. While specific details were scarce since they're still being worked out, the developers voiced strong opposition to any "pay to win" type of microtransactions. They want pretty much everything in the game to be unlocked via gameplay, with money simply allowing for the option of a shortcut. With the system still under wraps, it is hard to speculate how the free-to-play model will be set up, the underlying gameplay was immediately apparent during our play session.
Built on the Unreal 3 engine, Hawken allows players to duke it out in their towering metal machines in areas with a futuristic, grounded flavor. We participated in the Siege and standard team deathmatch modes. Siege is touted as one of the big modes for the game, consisting of two teams of mechs fighting for control over an energy supply that must be acquired and brought back to the base. Whatever the game mode, Hawken lives or dies based on how well the mechs handle.
Taking cues more from games like Phantom Crash, combat is a fast-paced affair that also respects the momentum of the massive death machines. While you are certainly able to dash around the landscape or use jump jets to gain an elevated position (and thus expending your rechargeable energy), you never lose the feeling of controlling a massive object. Even as you look around the game world, the cockpit moves in response; it helps to sell the thought of being in the actual pilot seat. The cockpits differ from mech to mech but have the same elements, such as health, items to be used, etc.
The game still handles like a first-person shooter in terms of aiming and firing, so it was very easy to begin dominating the battlefield. My mech was armed with a vulcan cannon on the left and a rocket launcher on the right, and it fired a swarm of small rockets that were either dumb fire or as a weapon that could be locked on and then homed in. Controlling the mech is a simple affair of WASD usage, albeit with modifiers, such as sprint allowing you to quickly run forward (without the use of your weapons), dodge to the side, and perform quick 180-degree turns.
We spoke with the developers to learn more about the progression system for your pilot. As you play through matches, you gain skill points that can be spent in the game's three skill trees. These skills have many potential benefits, such as increasing your damage output or decreasing the amount of time it takes to repair yourself. This allows you to tailor your pilot to a particular style of play, so even two players piloting identical mechs would potentially have different combat characteristics.
There were also scant details in regards to mech customization. Swapping out parts, such as legs and arms, was mentioned as a possibility, but you will also be able to swap out weapons as specific modules; it can help you tool up your mech's performance. Different paint patterns were also mentioned as a possibility for some personalization.
One of the most interesting things during our time with Hawken is that the gameplay has a great contrast between the heaviness of the mechs and their momentum against the overall agility and fast-paced barrages of weapons systems. It has all the weight of a proper mech game without any of the bulk, and goes toward the feel of the game as well as its overall presentation. Look for more information on Hawken as it nears its open beta on Dec. 12.
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