Today's BattleMech advice column

Someone I actually know in real life writes:

I've been following your blog, and decided to install MechWarrior Online to have a go at it (having played the board game version back in '88, the PC CGA version in 91, the new VGA version in 95.... these mechs are all the new ones... bring back the Marauder I say!). Anyhoo... I've played 50 or 60 matches now, and my kill/death ratio is about 0.15 and I have no idea what to be spending my credits on, I'm trying to get a Hunchback build that is reasonable... any tips?


Dapper 'Mech

Yeah, that's right: I've got a pinstriped Hunchback, baby. Most important part of the build.

But given the current structure of the game, I think (relative) beginners are best off in a 'Mech that can fit electronic countermeasures, which no Hunchback can. An ECM module largely prevents you from being the focus of enemy attention, and lets you sneak around capturing things in Conquest mode, and you can help teammates just by standing around near them.

Only four 'Mechs so far can accept ECM, though; this Commando, this Raven, this Cicada and this Atlas. Of those, I'd recommend the Raven, because it's pretty fast and flexible, and a 35-tonner, the heaviest possible "light" 'Mech.

This matters, because the current game matchmaker matches any 'Mech on one team with any other 'Mech in the same weight class. So if you launch in a 25-ton Commando, you are likely to attract a Raven or Jenner on the other team. Likewise, Cicada pilots attract Centurions and Hunchbacks.

The new "cadet bonus" feature means new players can actually quite easily afford even an Atlas after not terribly many games (everyone else just got a lump-sum payment of almost eight million C-Bills, which was nice). But if you've already blown that money, the alarming purchase price of the Raven 3L (because it comes with ECM already installed, and an XL engine...) will force you to play quite a few games to buy one. (Or spend eight to ten bucks of real-world money on "Mech Credits" to buy one directly.)

The Commando 2D, on the other hand, costs less than 1.8 million C-bills (or only 715 Mech Credits, about $US2.50 worth). If you can afford the 'Mech but not yet ECM to put in it, you can just run it ECM-less and grind up some experience points while you save money. One solid hit from a big 'Mech can rip off a limb or kill you outright, but as long as you keep moving (which means not running into dead ends and rubbing on walls...) it's surprising how seldom that happens.

The 2D was the Commando everyone feared before ECM, because it's got three missile hardpoints so you can put three Streak SRM launchers in it and hit very surprisingly hard. ECM makes Streak-monsters much less dangerous... unless the Streak-monster has ECM too, in which case he just hits J to switch ECM from disrupt to counter mode, blows away the ECM-packing enemy, then returns to disrupt and keeps on fighting. My 2D has three Streaks, one small laser, and a pretty good kill-to-death ratio.

To answer your actual question, though, I think the secret of a non-annoying Hunchback is to put a big enough engine in it that you can do about eighty kilometres an hour. Then a couple of LRM 5s, some medium lasers or twice as many small lasers (the nine-small-laser Hunchback-4P is a sight to behold), and away you go. Put the lasers in chain-fire mode (backspace, by default, while the appropriate weapon group is highlighted in the bottom right of the HUD), for the best chance of hitting. Chained weapons will fire in slow sequence while you hold the fire button down, but if you want to fire them all quickly you can just click rapidly and get one shot per click.

Beyond that, the difference between frustration and misery and numerous kills and happiness is all in the piloting. Especially if you, like J and I, live in Australia and so routinely get 200-to-300-millisecond pings. When shooting at enemies with lasers with a high ping, ignore the glowing armour your game client shows you, and look at your target's status display at the top right of the HUD. If there are bits of it flashing, you're hitting it (well, someone is, at any rate...). If nothing's flashing, you need to lead the target more.

I'm sure that even you, J, will eventually be able to master this, despite the miserable reflexes and poor concentration that no doubt got you into your cushy government job driving a steamroller or a tram or whatever that thing is you actually drive at work.

Oh, and with regard to the abovementioned various versions of this game... It's come quite a way, hasn't it?

UPDATE - J's reply!

Sweet... I've spent most of tonight running around in a Raven 3L :) Still have to work out the best way to use the TAG and NARC... maybe I'll upgrade the engine to get more than 97kph out of it.

NARC launchers are not much use in the game as it stands. The last patch boosted the duration of a NARC beacon from 15 to 20 seconds, at least, but 20 seconds still isn't very long, and ECM neutralises NARC completely.

And the darn launcher weighs three tons, requires ammo, and that ammo only gives you six lousy missiles per ton. (This makes NARC missiles the heaviest ammo in the game; even AC/20 ammo gives you seven shots per ton!)

TAG, on the other hand, is only one ton (a NARC launcher is three tons), needs no ammo and makes no heat. So it's not much of a commitment to install it, and wave it around gaily like an overstimulated raver at almost all times. The last patch also increased TAG range from 450 to 750 metres.

You need to keep TAG-lasering a target to be of any use to your team, though. The TAG effect lasts for three seconds after you cease illuminating the target, so you can keep flicking the beam over targets and at least don't have to hold it on them constantly. But brief drive-by TAG-ing is worse than no TAG-ing at all. You'll just have the missile-boats on your team lining up a shot on your briefly-illuminated target and then, usually, launching precious missiles a millionth of a second after the target lock disappears again.

If you're running among the enemy being an ECM nuisance, you're going to have trouble consistently illuminating them; if you're TAG-ing them from a distance you're announcing your location, which can be helpful if you're devoted to Team Annoying Bastard tactics, but will usually just get you killed.

For newbies, this video shows how to use TAG - it's the barely-visible red beam coming in from the right side of the cockpit view.

With regard to the engine, the biggest motor you can jam into a Raven 2X or 4X is a 245, giving 113.4km/h. The Raven 3L can take engines up to 295, though, giving a speed of 136.5 km/h. That's the fastest any 'Mech can go in the game thus far - apparently speeds above 150 km/h currently cause the game engine to do weird things, and the "Speed Tweak" elite upgrade adds 10% to your base speed, which takes a 136.5-km/h 'Mech neatly up to 150.

Even an XL 295 engine weighs 15 tons, though, making it difficult to cram much in the way of weapons into a XL-295 35-ton 'Mech like the Raven. Personally, I'm quite happy with the stock XL 210. If you want lightning speed with some room for weapons, the abovementioned Commando 2D will give it to you; my ECM Streak Commando has an XL 195 in it, giving a base speed of 126.3 km/h.

You can also use your Raven to explore different play styles and get the hang of big 'Mechs without having to buy one. Install a small engine, giving you the speed of a heavy or assault 'Mech, and some appropriate fraction of that 'Mech's weapon loadout, and then hang around with the heavies and do what they do.

I had a lot of fun in the pre-ECM world with my slow Raven missile boat, which was essentially half of a Catapult.

Just don't install a big missile rack in a location which, from the factory, had a NARC launcher; those locations usually have only one missile tube, and so wee out the missiles one at a time. This is a neat way of sucking all of the AMS ammo out of an enemy, and it's funny to watch, but that's as complimentary as I can be about it.

Free ammo!

I was writing something about ammunition expenses in Mechwarrior Online (each individual Artemis Long Range Missile costs 334 C-Bills; each Gauss round is 2000!), but then Piranha Games had to go and ruin everything with this news.

As of the eighteenth of December (which it already is here ion Australia as I write this, but isn't quite yet in Vancouver, where Piranha are), repair and re-arm costs are going away, completely.

So install XL engines and expensive-ammo-ed weapons to your heart's content! You'll still have to pay for ammo when you first install the weapon, I think, but no longer will you be installing extra ammo bins so that the free 75% reload after a game will give you enough to get along, without paying a fortune for that last 25%.

Newbies will get a lot more money - a "Cadet bonus" - for playing their first 25 games, so they can afford a reasonable 'Mech quickly. And trial 'Mechs will now earn as large a C-Bill and experience point reward as owned 'Mechs. So when you buy your first 'Mech you may already be able to afford an efficiency upgrade or two. You still can't upgrade or modify trial 'Mechs, but now they'll just be normal 'Mechs with I presume the traditional lousy setup, rather than complete second class citizens.

Oh, and non-newbies will be getting about eight million C-Bills, the total Cadet bonus, just as a present.

Rewards for starting a game and just standing around doing nothing are now very small. Rewards for killing enemies are much higher. The money and XP reward for assisting in a kill was until now the same as the reward for kill; now you will actually get quite a lot more of a reward for assisting than for being the person who fires the killing shot!

Also, rewards for capturing the enemy base in Assault games are now zero. So nobody will be shouting at the rest of their team to leave the last AFK baddie standing there and capture instead. Capturing is now just a way to end a game when you can't find, or don't have time to get to, the last enemy.

(You will of course get rewards for capturing things in the upcoming Conquest mode, since that's the whole point of that game mode.)

Further 'Mechitude

Penny Arcade produced a mildly amusing thing for MechWarrior Online. It's OK, but it ain't no Vault 77.

(To which there does not seem to be any good way to link. Click that link, and lie about your age, and then click the link again, and then click from the final page it helpfully shows first back to the first page...)

More importantly, if you click a button on the MWO Penny Arcade page, you can get a free day of "Premium Time".

(If your browser pops up a malware warning when you go to, by the way, it's probably a false positive not a false positive, but the problem has now been dealt with. The whole concept of the hyperlink seems to be disintegrating today.)

Premium Time gives you a 50% boost to all money and experience points earned over the premium period, but once you "activate" it in the game client, you can't de-activate it again. The timer ticks down to zero over the allotted time, whether you play the game or not.

The most sensible way to use the free 24 hours is therefore, clearly, to kit yourself out with intravenous feeding and a bucket to sit on and play non-stop for a straight day over the weekend. Or, indeed, during time when you're meant to be working, studying, sleeping, collecting your children from school, governing a nation, or what-have-you.

I haven't written about MWO for a couple of weeks. There've been some changes, the most important of which is the introduction of Electronic Countermeasures - ECM.

The 1.5-ton Guardian ECM unit can be installed on exactly four 'Mech variants, so far; one model each of Commando, Raven, Cicada and Atlas. In essence, it creates a 180-metre-radius bubble around the 'Mech it's on, in which no enemy can get a target lock, unless an enemy ECM-equipped 'Mech in the same range has switched their own ECM from the standard "disrupt" mode to "counter".

There's a bit more to it than that; here's a lengthy screed on the subject. (Here's the same thing on the official forums, which as mentioned above currently pop a malware warning for me, in Chrome.)

When ECM was new almost everybody used it, which is what happens whenever they introduce a new feature. This made it pretty much pointless to launch in a 'Mech that relied on long-range or Streak short-range missiles, because you'd almost never get a lock, even if you had your own ECM with which to counter one of the horde of enemy ones.

Now ECM is no longer new and exciting, and it's become normal for pick-up teams to contain only a couple of ECM 'Mechs out of eight players, or even none at all. LRM boats are now quite useful again, though no longer the relaxing play experience they used to be. And the Scourge of the StreakCat...

...has been ended, along with the massive dominance of the Jenner and to a lesser extent the three-Streak Commando in the light category.

It's still wise to run an ECM 'Mech in pick-up games, and it's not difficult to get into those, at the low end. A Commando-2D will only cost you 1.8 million C-Bills, and a Guardian unit is only 400,000 on top of that.

(You can also buy 'Mechs, but not equipment for them, with real money via the "Mech Credits" system. A Commando-2D costs 715 Mech Credits, which is not much. PGI are continuing their merciless war of attrition against their customers' wallets by currently offering a 20% bonus on all of their Mech Credit packages; the smallest $US6.95 one therefore now gives you 1500 MC. That's enough to buy a Commando-2D and a whole other different Commando variant too, to get you started on the efficiency unlock process which requires levelling three variants of a given 'Mech to get to the tasty Elite upgrades. Unlocking Elite also doubles the effectiveness of all of the Basic upgrades, though contrary to popular belief unlocking the final Master upgrade that gives you another module slot does not double the Elite upgrades. Mech Credits are also how you normally buy Premium Time; one day of Premium costs 250 MC, and there are other packages ranging from three to a whopping 360 days. The one-day price is no more than $US1.39 even if you buy the worst-value MC package that exists; 180 days is 13,500 MC, which you could just afford with the current 20%-boosted $US49.95 MC package. 360 days is 24,000 MC, eighty US dollars if you buy the best-value $US99.95 20%-boosted MC package.)

Man, that was a big parenthesis. Here's a palate-cleanser.

Behold, fellow MechWarriors, the Noisy Cricket!

"You might want to have something to do while you wait for your mech to cool down. I watch a stream and enjoy my coffee. Or wash the dishes."

It's kind of like the last sword-fight in Rob Roy: He's only got to hit you once, fancy boy.

The tradeoffs for this thing are terrible, of course. Not only do you overheat and shut down after every shot (you could avoid this by chain-firing (this player has the same four ER-PPCs in two groups, the first of which is chained), but then heat would limit you to the same rate of fire you'd get from only two, or at most three, ER-PPCs. THe massive weight of the guns in this titchy 40-ton 'Mech also means you can only fit a tiny engine, which gives this oversized-scout-'Mech a top speed of fifty. And it doesn't have much armour, or, plainly, nearly enough heat sinks.

But, pew pew!

And the Public Relations Award goes to...

Given the recent plague of idiots who start a game of MechWarrior Online and immediately overheat themselves to death in return (I think) for the basic reward you get, win or lose, I have as previously mentioned been e-mailing the names of those players to

When the same dude showed up again, I sent another report, the text often just:

"NameOfDickhead", again.

I was pretty sure they wanted players to do this. They certainly haven't told us not to, to my knowledge.

Except for me, just now.

> Dan
> Nov 30 01:17 (PST)
> "CHIEOKURE NO KO", again, AND "skSniper", YET again. Both on my team
> in one game.
> You have told me, TWICE, that my suicide reports for "skSniper" have
> been "solved" - ticket numbers #56050 and #56059.
> This is apparently some strange definition of the word "solved" that
> I have not previously encountered.

Hello Dan,

This is Game Master Destined. I am one of the Game Masters addressing the Reported Players tickets, and all of the processed tickets go through me personally for filing and logging. I would like to clarify some information for you:

It is not our policy to disclose disciplinary actions taken against another user. This is the reason your tickets are marked as "solved" - because the report has been logged, investigated (fully) and we have moved on to the next tickets. I've noticed that you have an exorbitant amount of tickets (36, at this point in time), many of which are player reports and duplicate player reports - we are at the point now that I have to ask you to stop submitting tickets. We are aware of the situation, we have addressed it on the forums, and are taking actions against players as we speak. It takes time to investigate each report as we must go through logs and make a proper audit trail, contact the players, etc... and the more tickets we have to process, the longer it takes to build a report about each user.

Understand that, by submitting a ticket about a player, you are in no way guaranteeing that the actions you wish to be taken will be taken. We decide as a group of game masters and community representatives what should be done, and do not proceed without proof of grievances. Let me give you again the text we have been responding to you with:

"We will follow-up on this privately, thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Please note that, by receiving this notification, we are acknowledging your report and have started an investigation into the situation. Unless we have any further questions regarding your report, we require no other correspondence with you on this matter."

This is pretty clear to me. Every time you send us another ticket, you are slowing us down. I will be solving all of your tickets after logging them in our system. If you continue to contact us on this matter, I will consider it harassment and be forced to suspend your account.

This issue is now considered to be closed, and no further correspondence will be necessary on your part. Thank you for your understanding.

MechWarrior® Online™

So... yeah.

I have thus far given the MechWarrior Online people quite a lot more money, for this less-than-perfect beta, than I would have paid for a AAA retail game. I firmly intend to give them even more, if I run out of my current "Mech Credits".

I suggested to "Destined" that they might like to make more clear, via perhaps an official news post, what they want players to do and what they do not want them to do. And to be perhaps a little less ready to threaten to ban players who are only trying to help.

I shan't say much more here, because I fear I may say something intemperate, and get myself banned. Then I would be $US95.85 in the hole, not to mention all that time spent levelling up 'Mechs, and time spent promoting the game via near-obsessive blog posts to my not-insubstantial readership, and time spent reporting the abovementioned bad players.

In that case I would certainly never come back to the game, and I'd strongly advise anybody else to go with Hawken or Living Legends or even World of Tanks instead. Should you try MWO anyway, I would, if banned, certainly not advise you to buy any Mech Credits, lest this happen to you too.

And now, I'm going to get drunk and play some more MWO.

For as long as they let me.

Kind of like Indiana Jones with that Walther

I have three Commandos.

One is the standard lame Streak Commando with three SSRM-2s and no other weapons. It gets kills.

One is slighly less cheesy, with two Streak-2s and two Small Lasers. It gets kills too, and doesn't become harmless when the missiles run out.

The third, by far the fastest, has an Anti-Missile System and two Small Pulse Lasers. It never kills anyone. It floats like a butterfly and stings like one too.

So no shit, there I was, in Frozen City, doing figure-8s around a Catapult and a Cataphract. I was poking them gently with my two tiny guns and preventing them from getting anything more useful done.

One of them blew my leg off.

What that does in MechWarrior Online at the moment is not actually cause your 'Mech's leg to fly off, and not even cause you to fall down, because knockdown was taken out of the game when they launched the open beta, having caused too many problems with 'Mechs getting back up in places strangely distant from where they fell over.

Rather, losing a leg just drops your speed to zero, and restricts your top speed - I think very severely if all of the leg's internal structure is gone, and by less if some of it remains.

My Commando was suffering the lowest level of speed-reduction, which only halves your speed - meaning I could actually still do 67 kilometres per hour once I accelerated again.

That's not what happens when a light 'Mech gets "legged", though. What happens is, other 'Mechs take advantage of its sudden immobility to hit it with everything they've got, blowing off the other leg and thereby killing it, or just killing by demolishing some other important component, like the engine or cockpit.

Not going to go down without a fight, I whipped the crosshair around to the exact middle of the Catapult's body, and fired one Small Pulse Laser shot.

The Catapult is sort of Marauder-shaped; its cockpit is at the front of its vaguely egg-ish body.

Critical hit to cockpit. Shower of sparks, Catapult dead.

Not believing my luck, I whipped around the other way and shot the Cataphract right in the middle of his body.

The Cataphract has more of a standard biped layout; its cockpit is not in the middle of its body.

The middle of its body is the centre-torso location, behind which is the engine.

This guy's centre-torso armour was already gone.

Critical hit to engine. Shower of sparks, Cataphract dead.

Other people took a while to finish off the last enemy Atlas, everybody being slightly distracted by quite a lot of chat conversation about WTF just happened, and whether or not this qualified me to be King of Israel.

When I came out of the game and my 'Mech was repaired, my bank balance started with "1337"

[Explanation of the title.]

"Please continue to run in a straight line."

Here's some more of the No Guts No Galaxy MechWarrior Online team, including the inimitable BB Wolfe... who sometimes phones it in just a little bit.

I have played a lot of MechWarrior Online. I'm currently getting to Master in both Commandos and Atlases, which may be a diagnosable disorder.

My USB hamburger pedal no longer macro-types "Please stick together, or we will die." Even pick-up game groups are pretty good at sticking together now. Instead, it says "Report this to", because of all the fun I and other players have had with "skSniper" or "Duke Nukem" or "Titanstahl", to name just a few of the more famous heat-suiciders.

When you start a game with one or if you're especially lucky two of those guys, they will commit suicide by overheating in the first 30 seconds of the game. Apparently you still get a participation reward or something, at the end of the match, for doing this. Or they've just left their bots running to do this automatically and haven't noticed that they're not making any money any more.

Either way, all you can do about it at this point, besides harsh language in chat, is report the offender to, with a screenshot if you're especially diligent. The developers' banhammer appears to be rather inflatable and squeaky, but this game is still a beta, so I'm not especially cross about it.

There are also "AFK farmers", who don't commit suicide, but don't do anything else, either. Again, there are some players who are famous for this, but random people do it as well. Since they may be away for a perfectly kosher reason like changing a nappy or answering the phone, you shouldn't report them unless you see them do it over and over.

(In my 2-ER PPC Atlas, which is something of a challenge to operate with Australian ping times, I once deliberately shot a guy on my own team in the back. I did this because he would not stop shooting at the last away-from-keyboard baddie, while we were trying to capture the enemy base, for larger rewards. It worked; he turned around and shot at me instead, and a few seconds later we got a cap win. And, with any luck, he was Enlightened.)

As far as other normal beta problems go - crashes and other weirdness that make the game unplayable - MechWarrior Online is pretty darn good. Crash-to-desktops happen, but not very often; in each 16-player match it's not unusual to see one person disconnect randomly, but it doesn't happen all the time.

Other show-stopping bugs are really rare. The dreaded 4-frame-per-second problem does still come up, but I think I've gone at least fifty games between incidents of it. (What exactly the problem is, I'm not sure. If you look away from the middle of the map and other 'Mechs, you get full frame rate; turn back and everything goes to hell. Restarting the game always fixes it, for me at least.)

There was also one start where my screen was stuck in the pale yellow-orange startup-effect colour with no heads-up displays working. I've heard others complain about that too, but it's only happened to me once. And one other time I started and got normal colours, but no map or other displays, and my torso was stuck in the maximum-left position.

But generally speaking, the game works. And the farming/griefing dickheads haven't ruined it, though they really are trying.

If you've not given MechWarrior Online a go, and you have a Windows PC [EDIT: Per comment below, a Windows 7 or later PC], try it out. You really can play, and play well, without paying a penny.

Peace breaks out in Caustic Valley

Yep, 'Mechs again.

Me: Three-Streak-SRM-2 Commando, which is a surprisingly dangerous build now that the most recent patch has made Streaks both more accurate and more damaging. My 6-Streak Commando now consistently gets more kills per match than my 40-LRM Awesome.

Him: A Catapult with a lot of LRMs.

The scene: My side's base in Caustic Valley, where after finding myself the last alive on my team and facing an enemy medium and two heavies capturing our base, I have been running in frantic circles, managing heat, shooting big 'Mechs in the back, and being highly successful. Two enemy big boys dead, and my total kill count is four. (From, I remind you, the smallest 'Mech in the game. With, because I'm in Australia, also easily the worst ping.)

But the Catapult remains, 65 tons to my 25, and has 95% health.

I have about 12 missiles left.

I fire them all, bringing him down to 87% or something, and then park myself in front of him and await the inevitable.

Nothing happens.

It turns out he's a Catapult with a lot of Long-Range Missiles and... nothing else.

No close-range armament at all.

You can shoot LRMs at targets closer than 180 metres in MechWarrior Online, but they don't arm before they hit the target, and bounce off harmlessly.

He could try to move a couple of hundred metres away from me so his missiles would work, but I'm more than twice as fast as him; he'd never manage to escape my affectionate, cat-like rubbing on his legs.

I could bolt for the enemy base and try to capture it, probably without dying to his missiles on the way, but there's no way I'd get there before he captured our base by just staying where he was.

So we just stood there and stared at each other, while the match's 15-minute timer ran out.

I was pretty sure that when the timer ran out the other team would win (either because they'd partially captured our base, or because they had more tonnage still alive), but they wouldn't get a capture win, worth more to them than an ordinary military one.

There was some conversation in the chat, mostly about the effectiveness of the Streak-Commando, the foolishness of not fitting even one Small Laser or SRM of some sort to supplement your long-range armament, and other amusing situations people had encountered in this game.

At one point someone called me gay, but this did not impress the other spectators. Who, as I pointed out to the you're-so-gay guy, could just quit the match and not miss out on any money or XP.

As the last several seconds ticked away, we bowed to each other, and said our farewells.

My side did lose, but this was still the most fun I've had so far in this game.

"Bug-zapper engaged."

All the serious MechWarrior Online players use voice chat to coordinate their team. The game has some kind of voice-chat thing built in, but I don't think anybody uses it, because the obvious feature of just making an ad-hoc chat group out of everybody on the team that has a microphone does not exist.

There is a much better reason to use voice chat, though.

It allows you to have a Bitching Betty voice actor actually playing on your team.

(She's in the red Gaussapult. She's also not the one who'll actually be doing the onboard-computer voice, when it returns to the game; they've apparently retained the services of Carole Ruggier again.)