Like the first MechCommander game, this new title from Microsoft plays heavily on the MechWarrior franchise. If you don’t know about MechWarrior (and we’d be very surprised if not, since it’s been around for donkeys’ years in at least four incarnations), the idea is based on what could loosely be called a strategy board game, although for some people it’s more of a way of life.
Basically, the premise is that there are various ‘noble houses’ whose aristocratic members wage all kinds of war on each other and anyone else in the vicinity. Usually this is done using BattleMechs: robots of various size, each one piloted by a MechWarrior. So they’re a bit like walking tanks. But while the MechWarrior games were first-person shooters, with you sitting inside one of the BattleMechs, MechCommander 2 is a third-person game, played in real-time strategy mode.
This means that you control your chosen Mechs from outside, directing them to their targets, ordering them to stand still or go in a particular direction. It’s all done from a pleasingly simple user interface that even a novice can get used to without resorting to the manual. Different menus for objectives, Mech control, backup (including repair trucks, salvage teams and long-range weaponry) and so on mean that you can jump into the game straight away. There are keyboard short-cuts, but you don’t have to learn them; most of what you’ll want to do can be done with the mouse.
Visually, the game’s an instant hit. The movement of the Mechs is fast and fluid, the explosions are beautifully – and processor-sappingly – rendered and the background scenery is… as good as can be expected in a game like this. There’s sensible use of video footage too, both in between missions and as part of the tutorial.
You have 16 different types of Mech to choose from, including tiny Ravens that nip about the place like Kylie on speed and huge Atlases which move slowly but are exceptionally hard to destroy. One subtlety of the game is matching your MechWarrior team to the best BattleMech, based on their particular skills.
Once in the field, your team has a habit of doing its own thing if you’re not careful. They especially like running off to attack enemy units, not necessarily with much stealth. Still, that’s all part of your job as the commander. And you do have plenty of flexibility; upgrading your Mechs as your bank balance improves, jumping onto higher ground, destroying almost any element of the landscape that takes your fancy, taking over enemy control towers, salvaging enemy Mechs for your own purposes and so on. And if all that gets dull, there’s a multi-player option that’ll add several more weeks to the game’s life.