We Dig Giant Robots! – Hawken Is A Mecha Must Have

In my mind there are two kinds of mechs.  The first are Gundams: fast, mobile samurais, usually armed with huge beam swords that totally aren’t light-sabers.  The second are “tanks”: gigantic, heavy walking weapons platforms, which have enough firepower to single-handedly destroy a small nation.  These two mechs can be seen in videogames too.  The first, Gundams are featured in Armored Core, while “tanks” star in Mechwarrior.

Now there is a new free-to-play first-person shooter within the genre.  Hawken, by Adhesive Games, allows you to pit your skills against other pilots in free-for-all or team-based combat.  This game follows paths other mech games have trodden, but does it come together, or will it suffer mechanical breakdown?

Before you can even begin combat, you need to have a robotic death machine to pilot.  Unlike other games in the genre, Hawken doesn’t allow full customization of a robot.  Instead, it offers a number of different classes that fulfill certain roles on the battlefield.  There are A-Class (light), B-Class (medium) and C-Class (heavy) mechs, and much iteration within these areas.  For example, within the C-Class there is the Rocketeer that focuses on long-range missile attacks, while the Grenadier prefers to be at midrange dishing out explosions like crazy.

While you can’t create a mech from scratch, there are numerous options to make personalize your choice of walking death machine.  Each mech needs to have a primary and secondary weapon installed.  Secondary weapons are fixed to one choice, but there are alternate primary weapons to select.  For instance, the B-Class Assault must have a TOW Rocket launcher equipped as its secondary weapon, but has the selection between an assault rifle and submachine gun as its primary.

Also selectable are two usable items per robot, such as grenades or radar dishes, which can be deployed on the battlefield.  Finally, there is space for up to three stat changing Internals that can alter the stats of your robot, to further help you blow up enemies.  These Internals, however, are always trade-off items that allow specialization but don’t make you overpowered. For example, some Internals will allow your bullets to hit harder, yet you will take more damage as a result.

Once you have a mech set up, let’s jump into a game.  Hawken, at first, feels very familiar and I initially wrote it off as a Call of Duty clone, albeit with robots.  Players may get that “I’ve seen this before” feeling with Deathmatches and Team Deathmatches, thanks to the design of the maps and a minimap that shows you if an enemy or friendly is nearby.

Movement felt slow and clunky initially.  Then an A-Class Scout flashed by, turned like lightning, and before I knew it my mech was a smouldering pile of burning rubble.  All I could think was, “I wanna do that!”  Not only was I completely wrong about the gameplay, I had also missed the point: this is a game where you pilot robots.  You’re not on foot, and you are not the character.  You are a pilot.

There are essentially two things that separate Hawken from similar games: movement and healing.  As I mentioned, movement feels slow, as though you were driving a tank.  Once you get used to it, movement has satisfying weight behind every step. Then you hit the Boost button.

By holding Boost, you can quickly zip across the map, but your weapons will be disabled.  This means you’re defenceless, so use this skill only to get into position.  However, tapping Boost will allow you to dodge in whatever direction you choose.  If used effectively, you can nullify the effectiveness of harder-hitting weapons like the TOW Rocket Launcher by sidestepping out of the way.  The addition of this mechanic is the equivalent of attaching rocket-engines onto a tank; you end up with something that, for a time, can be highly mobile and difficult to hit.

So I’m now a more effective pilot, finally able to get a kill or two.  Of course, not all bullets and rockets can be dodged, and I’ve taken quite a lot of damage.  Normally in FPSs, you wait for a few seconds and health will regenerate.  Once again, no such luck. After waiting for those few seconds, the only thing I accomplished was getting blown up once again.

Mechs don’t heal; they need to be repaired and to do this all players are able to deploy a small robotic-mechanic to repair damage accrued during combat.  Much like the Boost ability taking away your weapons, there is a significant trade-off.  While repairing, you are utterly defenceless and will remain so for around a second before and after pushing the Repair button.

While these two things are, to me, the most significant changes Hawken has made as a first-person shooter, there are many others.  Weapons overheat instead of needing to be reloaded (though you can still run out of ammo), so if you’re not accurate you’ll find your weapons just stop firing in the middle of combat.  Jumping is done with jetpacks, so watching roofs above you, or ambushing mechs below you, can become an effective way to destroy or be destroyed.  All of these idiosyncrasies make Hawken feel distinct from other shooters.

In addition, these elements together force you to think strategically.  Do you have enough health to take down a mech?  Are you safe enough to repair here?  If you rush across the map to a target location, will you be ambushed?  Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch require some strategic thinking, but the other two game-modes, Siege and Missile Assault, force players to think deeper and harder.

Siege plays similarly to capture the flag.  Mechs need to collect energy from stations on the map, and bring them back to a home base.  Energy is used to power battleships with an eventual goal of destroying your enemy’s base. On the other hand, Missile Assault is, in some ways, the reverse of Siege.  Instead of constantly moving to and from energy stations, missile silos need to be captured and controlled in order to destroy your enemy’s base. These modes certainly change the dynamic of the game as team-play becomes far more important.  In these game-types, attacking and defending are integral for success.

All of these elements are wrapped up in a beautiful package, because Hawken has some impressive design powering it.  Weapons sound heavy, as though you were truly firing guns larger than your house.  The graphics as well are very impressive, and the maps, while limited in number, all have their own characteristics and design.

However, from an aesthetic point of view, playing the game from a cockpit view is what makes Hawken immersive.  Damage causes cracks and dirt to appear on the window, HUDs indicate weapon-heat and remaining ammo and reticules for weapons focus on enemy units when appropriate.  When you play Hawken, you really feel as if you’re in control of a gigantic death machine.

Adhesive Games has done a spectacular job of balancing two very different kinds of robot philosophies.  The mechs feel like heavy tanks, yet are able to move quickly when needed.  Throw in a hefty dose of customization and game modes and you have a product that’s a gigantic and deadly package.  Hawken is in open beta and I recommend any lover of this genre to pick it up.  And even if you, for whatever reason, are not a fan of gigantic, bullet spewing death machines, give it a go because Hawken has certainly stomped onto the PC free-to-play scene.

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December 26, 2012 - 8:00 am