Giant robots are one of the holy grails of geek culture, and nations around the world have given us our take on them. One of the most interesting American variations came from humble origins in the Chicago suburbs in the 1980s and grew to nearly define the genre, with the help of gifted computer programmers, devoted fans and more. We’re talking about MechWarrior, and the story behind these games is a bumpy ride indeed.
To truly understand the MechWarrior universe, we need to take a journey back in time to the 1980s, when tabletop wargaming ruled the Earth. Computer technology in 1984 was just beginning to get to the point where it could simulate skirmishes between warring forces with any level of accuracy, but real heads built maps on tables in their basements or garages, tricking them out with buildings, foliage, and other scenery that various tabletop systems could work with.
Chicago-based FASA was one of the leaders in the tabletop world. Originally founded by two students at the United States Merchant Marine Academy to create modules for the popular Traveller role-playing series, they diversified into more robust games in the mid-1980s. The first edition of BattleTech, released in 1984, was originally called BattleDroids until Lucasfilm allegedly made some noise about the title.
Played on a grid of hexagonal tiles, BattleTech was an immediate hit in the wargaming community. The unique scale of the giant war machines made play a more tactical, intimate experience closer in feeling to human-scale RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. FASA’s ruleset was tight, with simple ground rules that could be used to cover a wide variety of skirmishes and interactions. In 1986, they expanded the universe even further with a role-playing supplement that let scenario makers add narrative to their battles.
Even as the BattleTech franchise was gaining momentum, FASA’s founders were starting to look beyond the tabletop and into the booming world of computer gaming. What came next would define a genre.
In The Cockpit
A few developers licensed FASA’s universe in the 1980s. Legendary text adventure company Infocom released BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception in 1988, which cast the player as a trainee mech pilot in a pretty standard top-down RPG that let you travel both on foot and inside your giant robot. The sequel leaned more in the direction of turn-based tactical combat, but it was 1989’s MechWarrior, developed by Oregon-based studio Dynamix, that would set the bar moving forward.
Dynamix had dabbled in numerous genres up to that point, but some of their greatest successes had come with flight simulators. During the 1980s, these complex titles were one of the most compelling arguments for computer games, as hardware was able to handle the complex physics calculations of a plane in flight as well as the myriad switches and control devices in the cockpit. For their BattleTech game, titled MechWarrior, they used that experience by putting players into first-person perspective inside their massive machine.
Combat was complex and deep starting with that first game. You could move in three dimensions, target individual parts of an opponent’s mech, and even issue commands to your fellow squadmates in your lance to advance, retreat, flank and more. It took the nascent first-person shooter genre, combined it with flight sim presentation and tactical strategy and delivered an experience that was unlike anything else on PCs at the time.
Unfortunately, Dynamix wasn’t able to capitalize on their success with the first MechWarrior game. It would be six years before the sequel, developed in-house at Activision, would hit store shelves, and in that time the world of PC gaming would change dramatically. Shooters like Doom and Heretic would make players accustomed to moving and shooting in first-person perspective, and the team took inspiration to make combat fluid and fast while still maintaining the complexity inherent in controlling a massive robot.
Activision’s development team wanted to push modern hardware as hard as possible, especially considering the advent of the first generation of dedicated 3D graphics cards. The project was on the cutting edge, with a programmer brought in from the aerospace industry to make the cockpit simulation as realistic as they could. The console versions – a first for the series – were further simplified for the PlayStation and Saturn releases. Gameplay was tuned more towards twitch shooting, with larger numbers of weaker enemies and shortened mission lengths.
The increased focus on combat came at the expense of the game’s storyline. While the first MechWarrior tasked players with making their own way through the universe and its feuding houses, the sequel streamlined the game down to a linear series of missions, determined at the beginning of the game when the player chose one of two loyalties. In 1996, the Mercenaries expansion pack would bring that back, adding a mode where your character had free choice of missions from four factions.
You would think after this success Activision would be the team of choice for MechWarrior 3, but lured by a hot new technology FASA would have other ideas.
In the early 1990s, the arcade market was booming from the success of competitive games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. FASA wanted a slice of that pie, so the company’s co-founders launched Virtual World Entertainment Group. This new company would funnel BattleTech money into a custom arcade hardware system called “Tesla Pods,” interlinked sit-down cabinets that ran the upcoming MechWarrior 3 in a deathmatch combat scenario for maximum immersion.
Instead of pairing with an experienced developer, the company would create a division called FASA Interactive Technologies to build a new engine from scratch for these games. Anybody who has read a game postmortem knows how well that usually works out, and FASA quickly found themselves in over their head on MechWarrior 3. Trying to make a game that was built for custom arcade hardware perform on less powerful home systems was too much for them, and after a few years of development FASA contracted with Redmond-based Zipper Interactive to save the game.
They managed to cobble together a workable game that pushed the series into some interesting areas, including destructible environments and most importantly multiplayer. The mech customization was also deepened, giving players a wider field of choice as to what kind of fighting machine they would pilot.
MechWarrior 3 finally released in 1999, but that would turn out to be a turbulent year for FASA. Microsoft would purchase Virtual World, which had absorbed FASA Interactive a few years prior, giving them ownership of MechWarrior and related intellectual property. This would come as a shock to Hasbro, which published MechWarrior 3 and had hoped it would be a successful franchise for them.
Even as Zipper was preparing MechWarrior 3 for release, the internal team at FASA was still massaging the MUNGA engine used for the arcade game for home use. A year later, they’d finally get MechWarrior 4: Vengeance out the door, this one published by their new owners at Microsoft. As befit its origins, MW4 featured a simplified, slightly more arcadey experience and spawned a few expansions. After that, though, the MechWarrior franchise would lay dormant for over 15 years, with Microsoft shuttering Virtual World and pushing in-house focus to the Xbox.
MechWarrior‘s former developers didn’t stand idly by while Activision capitalized on their hard work. Instead, without the FASA license to work from they set out to create their own giant robot franchise to leverage their tech into something Dynamix could own. That would turn out to be Metaltech: Earthsiege, which was a BattleTech game in everything but the name. The game maintained the complex control scheme of the original, but also allowed players to use their mouse to click individual buttons and switches in the on-screen cockpit.
Earthsiege would beget a direct sequel in 1996, as well as a number of spin-off games in different genres. Most notably, Dynamix would release Starsiege in 1999, their final mechanized combat game. Another title that the studio released in the same universe the year before, though, might be more familiar to modern FPS players. Starsiege: Tribes dispensed with mechs to deliver squad-based multiplayer shooting between armored, jetpack-toting units. It was a huge hit, the mech game was a dismal failure, and moving forward Tribes became Dynamix’s priority until Sierra bought and shuttered the studio in 2001.
After FASA took the franchise back from Activision, that company did the same thing, using the work they did on the previous game to make a MechWarrior killer of their own. That game was Heavy Gear, based on a Canadian tabletop RPG that had been introduced a few years after BattleTech. Activision scrambled to pick up the rights and used the MechWarrior 2 engine that they’d sunk money into, but by the time it was released Heavy Gear already felt dated. The 1999 sequel used a new engine and shifted the focus to smaller, more agile mechs, but an extremely aggressive development schedule trying to get the game done in 16 months just wasn’t possible. Although critical response was positive, sales were very disappointing and it marked the end of Heavy Gear.
It’s indisputable that the MechWarrior series laid the foundation for robot combat in video games. The fusion of flight sim complexity with FPS immediacy was a winning recipe for both Activision and their imitators. But in the decade and a half where there was no new MechWarrior, other first-person mecha action games rose to fill the gap.
One of the most notorious was Capcom’s 2002 Steel Battalion for the original Xbox. Mecha games on consoles always seemed dumbed down because they couldn’t capture the input complexity of a keyboard and mouse, so developers Capcom pushed the envelope in the most outrageous way possible. The game shipped with a massive bespoke controller that boasted 44 inputs, including dual joysticks, a throttle lever, dials, switches and even an eject button. It was a huge investment for gamers, but it delivered a level of immersion that no other mecha game has touched since.
Respawn’s 2014 Titanfall brought mech combat into the modern era, for the first time making playing as a pilot outside of the cockpit just as fun as moving your massive bipedal engine of destruction. That game had solid multiplayer but a thin campaign, so the 2016 sequel added an incredible single-player mode that delivered some of the best level designs we’ve seen in the last decade. Unfortunately, it shipped in a crowded release window against numerous AAA shooters and underperformed financially, laying doubt as to whether we’ll see a sequel.
And, of course, the original franchise is still thundering along. This month’s MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries has been on the burner for a long time – it was originally slated for 2016 release – but that extra time looks to have been very worth investing. The game hearkens back to the open campaign of the first MechWarrior, with players able to set their own course as they travel from planet to planet with their mercenary outfit, choosing which houses to work for as they go. It’s dropping as an Epic Game Store exclusive for one year, instantly making that platform more viable to us.