MechWarrior. You’ve got to love it. The very concept of stomping around in your own personal giant robot, crushing things underfoot and blowing things up really is the sort of thing we gamers live for. Go on, admit it: every one of you has at some point had ‘the MechWarrior fantasy’.
Up until 2002 however, the MechWarrior fantasy could only be lived through the PC, arguably the home of the ultimate MechWarrior experience. You really could spend days fine-tuning your mechs with all manner of customisable weapon load-outs, armour types and colour-schemes. Some people tune cars; others tune mechs.
Then came the year 2002 and with it the release of the first MechAssault game for Xbox. The MechAssault games saw a noticeable shift away from the ‘geeky’ MechWarrior games favoured by PC gamers across the land, in favour of fast-paced arcade-style gameplay, putting an end to the customisation and bringing about the advent of in-game power-ups. For the purists obviously the MechAssault games were a major step back from the whole ethos of the Battletech universe, but for the casual gamers out there the MechAssault games offered up an easy-access method of enacting that much-longed-for MechWarrior fantasy.
While it may have disillusioned some of its hardcore fan-base, things were going fairly well for the MechAssault games, until one fateful day in 2006, MechAssault came to the Nintendo DS.
It’s fair to say that the reception of MechAssault: Phantom War has been mixed to say the very least. On the one hand, the achievement of actually getting a mech game onto the portable format is something to be applauded, but on the other hand, many of you out there will be wondering why the developers bothered at all…
You play the game as Vallen Brice, a genius and Tech Warrant-turned-MechWarrior tasked with attempting the conversion of a Hyperpulse Generator for military engagement. For those of you unfamiliar with the workings of Hyperpulse Generators, they’re renowned as the pinnacle of interstellar communication and can therefore obviously be converted into some form of weapon.
The graphics – for any of you out there who haven’t had the chance to see MechAssault: Phantom War in action – are pretty bad. While the mechs themselves are rendered fairly reasonably for a portable platform, the landscape textures are so bland and simplistic that after about five minutes you'll get bored just looking at the game. It gets worse with the fact that the levels are so linear as to essentially force you to walk through a tunnel of surrounding mountains that carefully guide you wherever you need to go. You're left wondering why the developers didn’t realise that staring at badly-rendered mountains really doesn’t inspire you to even try and engage with the game.
For all its problems, Phantom War isn’t necessarily a bad game per se, it’s just dull. The controls – which would normally be a major gripe with a game such as this – aren’t too bad once you get used to them, but for some the difficulty curve prevents you even trying and enjoying the game. You don’t even get to pick a difficulty setting: you just start the campaign and take everything that the game can throw at you.
The difficulty level could be described as a great deal of one-sided battles weighted severely against you. Light mechs vs heavy mechs is never really a fair match-up at the best of times, but to throw this sort of match-up against a new player repeatedly in the early levels really doesn’t do too much to inspire the player to keep on playing.
Much has been made of the quality of the voice acting in Phantom War, but to be honest, it’s nothing special. At the end of the day all the voices tell you is to continue down set path A to set point B and blow things up on the way. You don’t even need to listen to the audio instructions to know where you have to go or what you have to do – the not-so-cleverly designed mountains funnel you to where you need to go anyway! Even if you do happen to love the voice acting and the storyline, the boring landscapes and monotonous linear pathing will just make you want to switch off. It really is hard to justify this game even to the most die-hard of MechWarrior fans when it's just so dreary and uninspiring.
MechAssault: Phantom War really should be a much better game than it is. Though there is some small amount of fun to be had in indulging your mech-control dreams and engaging in a reasonable FPS on the DS, the game itself is intrinsically dull and uninspired. The story is confused, there is absolutely no reason to engage with any of the characters and at the end of the day it’s obvious the whole thing was bodged together to give an excuse to go around blowing things up. The MechWarrior franchise can, and has been, so much more than ‘just blowing things up’. Unfortunately in this instance, MechAssault: Phantom War really does fail to live up to its illustrious roots.