Reports of MWO's death have been somewhat exaggerated

A reader writes:

I enjoyed reading your MWO posts, even though I never tried it myself. I came across this article regarding its current state and the ongoing community ragefest: Mechwarrior Online Forum Ragesplosion/

I'd love to hear your take on the situation.


I haven't written about MWO for ages, but I've still been playing it a lot. Well, at least until I got Saints Row IV the other day and started spending my time killing aliens with dubstep while listening to Paula Abdul. (Or possibly the other way around.)

There has indeed been a sudden spike in stories about MechWarrior Online Community Rage, and those stories do indeed reflect a rageful portion of the game's community. But this is of very little importance to casual players. If you like big stompy robot violence, give it a try; you can have a lot of fun with it without paying a penny.

Here some things that can actually ruin an Allegedly Free Game like MWO.

1: Developer goes broke/crazy/off to the Bahamas with all of the money.

2: Technical problems - frequent crashes, things not dying when you shoot them, awful performance on sub-$10,000 computers, et cetera.

3: Zillions of cheaters ruining the game for everyone else.

4: Zillions of griefers ruining the game for everyone else.

5: Zillions of foul-mouthed children attempting to ruin the game for everyone else.

6: Forests of bizarre incomprehensible rules and mechanics that turn off new players, and which even experienced players often can't figure out.

7: Not fun to play for more than ten minutes unless you pay real money.

8: Outrageous "grind" - having to play for an awfully long time to buy new toys with the in-game money you've earned. (Unless, of course, you pay real money!)

9: Boringness. Every match is much like the previous. Caused by insufficient difference in stuff you can do, too few levels, too few game modes.

In MechWarrior Online's case:

1: Not a problem. So far as anybody can determine, the developers are getting a reasonable money-flow, and aren't blowing it all on ale and whores. The people complaining about the game are, of course, really complaining about the developers, non-delivery of promised features, delivery of unwanted features, and so on.

Given that development of the game started in late 2011, I think it's in pretty good shape. Which is good, because its non-beta Actual Launch is happening on September the 17th.

(All of the stuff current open-beta players have will carry over into the "Launched" game. There may or may not be any major new features launching along with the game.)

2: There are only minor technical problems. A few players suffer frequent crashes, which may of course just be their computer. Once in a while it crashes for me, too; there is, for instance, a bug that currently crashes the game if too many people have been shooting too many machine guns for too long. But it's basically fine. The game also does not have huge system requirements.

It is currently strangely difficult to hit small, fast 'Mechs - the Spider is currently disproportionately difficult to destroy. There are no major hassles beyond that, though.

3: The only "cheat" that currently exists is Third-Person View (3PV), which is the pole holding up the middle of the Big Top at the Circus of Forum Complaints.

By default the game now starts in 3PV, with your camera above and behind your 'Mech; you can turn of 3PV-on-startup in the options.

The idea of the new view mode, besides letting you see at least the back of your cool paint job, is to help newbies by letting them see their 'Mech from the outside. You're meant to be able to see what direction your walking tank's legs (which are like the tracks of a tank) and your torso (the tank turret) are pointing. This reduces the amount of time newbies spend rubbing on buildings and wondering why they're not going anywhere.

3PV is moderately useful for this, but the view is close enough to your 'Mech that you actually can't see the legs of many larger models. Which is a bit silly. 3PV also makes aiming a bit more confusing, because your targeting reticle is still "projected" from the 'Mech's cockpit; this makes it seem to jump around the landscape from the higher point of view of the 3PV drone.

F4 toggles 3PV mode, and you can see who's using it because the 3PV "camera" is actually visible in the game - it's a little floating drone with a red flashing light on it that you, and your enemies, can see clear across the map. (The drone is indestructible, but highly visible.)

In certain situations... can use 3PV to see the enemy without them being able to see anything but your drone. This can be very bad news in "pro" games, and it's fairly bad news in normal games, because there are a lot of snipers in the game at the moment. This gives rise to a lot of matches that involve people hiding behind hills or buildings, trying to spot the enemy, then popping out for one shot and hiding again.

I, however, do not often find myself in a snipe-fest game, mainly because I play the "Conquest" game-mode (stand on various spots to "capture" them and add their points accumulation to the team total), rather than the simpler team-deathmatch "Assault" mode (which still has capturable bases at each team's start point, but you're only meant to capture those as a last resort, or to conclude a game where you can't find the last surviving baddie).

Organised snipers can still pretty much lock up a Conquest win, but it really doesn't seem to happen much, and I don't see much 3PV peeking either. If I played nothing but Assault, and if my Elo score were good enough that the game kept throwing me into games with "pro" players, I'd probably be much more annoyed about this.

The sniping problem has been exacerbated by the fact that the last big patch for MWO introduced the "12v12" game mode, putting 24 players on the field (provided the matchmaker can find that many before its timer runs out...) rather than the previous 16. Even in 8v8 there were often situations where one schmuck wandering out into view of the enemy team was killed before he could get a single shot off; that's now 1.5 times as likely.

Again, though, I haven't found this to be a major problem - it just encourages more tactical play and situational awareness. And being aware of where your guys are and where the enemy probably are is actually harder in 3PV mode, because in 3PV you don't have a minimap. It also takes two seconds to deploy or recover the 3PV drone, so you can't just keep quickly flicking between modes to keep an eye on everything at once.

6: Confusing rules? Ghost heat. Oh, lawdy, ghost heat.

Just go to the Smurfy stats page and scroll down to "Heat Penalties per weapon"; the orange numbers (with details when you hover the mouse pointer over them) tell you how much extra heat you get if you fire more than X of weapon-type Y within one second of each other. Penalties for SRMs and Streak SRMs are small, for other stuff are larger, for AC/2s are kind of buggy last I looked, it's all a complete schemozzle.

Just don't install more than the green-number quantity of a given weapon class and you don't have to worry about this crap at all. It's a silly mechanic, and I hope they scrap it.

Besides that, the only really confusing thing in the game at the moment is ECM, which when it was introduced was pretty close to all-powerful. Now, ECM can not only be countered by an enemy ECM in the correct mode or inactivated by a TAG laser fired from outside its range but inside the TAG's range but now the Beagle Active Probe also neutralises a single ECM within 150 metres and your ECM will also be neutralised for four seconds if you're hit with a PPC or ERPPC.

Got that?

Fortunately, this is not actually very annoying in play. If you're a newbie and don't have ECM of your own, then you still can sometimes target enemies and sometimes not, depending on the state of the ECM chessboard. If you're a newbie in one of the 'Mechs that does have ECM, just resign yourself to the ECM sometimes not working.

Oh, and there's some weird stuff involving missile tubes at the moment, too. Not only can it be difficult to get your LRM 15 shooting out of the missile mount on your 'Mech that has 15 tubes, and your LRM 5 shooting out of the mount with six tubes, but in certain situations some 'Mechs shoot more missiles than the launchers should have, apparently with completely corresponding damage done and ammunition consumed.

Again, though: Not a game-breaker.

7: No, you don't have to pay real money to have a good time. You don't even have to pay real money to get "General XP" to unlock fancy modules and such; you make GXP (very slowly) in normal play. The "Hero" 'Mechs that can only be bought with real money vary from "lousy" to "OK".

8: MWO is fairly grindy at the moment. They reduced money rewards in the big 12v12 patch, and it does indeed now take rather a while for a non-real-money player to earn enough to buy and kit out a big 'Mech. You still get a fountain of money in your first 25 games, though, so newbies can get into anything they like quite quickly.

By the standards of really grindy free-to-play games, MechWarrior Online is quite mild. This is not much of a compliment, though; Koreans be crazy.

9: On the boringness front, MWO currently has only two game modes, not very many maps, and no overarching galaxy-conquest metagame. But there's a lot of 'Mech customisation possibilities, so anybody who likes stompy-robot games is likely to find MWO diverting for quite a long time just as it is.

If you play high-level Assault games then the infestation of snipers may indeed make your game more boring; it's not very exciting to be a sniper, either. Conquest in the middle of the Pick-Up-Game pack, though, is quite varied, especially if you've got a few very different 'Mechs to pilot.

The only really serious missing feature in MWO, if you ask me, is a good way for PUG gamers to communicate with each other. At the moment there's text chat... and that's it. No quick text-chat macros, no voice chat. (There's some voice-chat thing that's partially integrated with the game, but you have to install it separately and nobody uses it.)

There's a half-decent command mode, though, with a full suite of move-to-here, attack-this, defend-this sorts of waypoint commands. Few PUGs feature anybody using this mode, but there's nothing stopping you grabbing command for yourself and trying to herd the cats.

Overall, MechWarrior Online is not fatally flawed, or a pain to play. And you really can play without spending a penny, though realistically you're likely to end up dropping at least ten to twenty bucks if you really enjoy the game.

I'm still going to be jumping over buildings and blowing up tanks with missiles from my power-armour in Saints Row IV for another day or three. But I have played a lot of MWO, and needed the holiday. Do feel free to check it out in my absence.

UPDATE: There's been another patch, on September the third.

Changes relevant to this post:

* There's a little tutorial now, which takes you through elementary movement, but not weapons. Better than nothing.

(To get to the tutorial, click the "Game Modes" button, which is next to the big "Launch" button. Game Modes also lets you go to the Training Grounds, where you can plod around an empty map and shoot stationary enemies.)

* PPCs, ERPPCs and Gauss Rifles have been nerfed in various ways as a further anti-sniper effort. Gauss projectiles are now much faster, but all other news for these weapons is bad.

* The third-person camera now gives a better view of your 'Mech's legs.

* Changes to hit-detection and ping-compensation code which may make it possible to shoot a bleeding Spider once in a while.

Also relevant to new players: The new patch has changed the "trial" 'Mechs (which anybody can play without buying them) again, too. Now they're a stock Raven, Quickdraw and Stalker, and a "Champion" Centurion-A.

The stock tabletop builds used to be all you ever got as a trial 'Mech, which was bad, because it meant newbies' first experience of the game was always in something that doesn't work right in MWO. Almost all stock builds run way too hot, have far too little armour, or both.

The addition of "Champion" builds to the trials has helped a lot, because Champ 'Mechs are community builds with quite good loadouts. But this time the stock 'Mechs aren't too dreadful either. The Quickdraw-4G runs too hot and is missing some armour, but the trial Raven-3L is not too dreadful and has ECM, allowing newbies to play with that a bit. The trial Stalker-5M is only missing a little armour and actually has a decent number of double heat sinks; it still runs hot because of all those lasers, but having more guns than it can safely fire at once is the whole idea of the Stalker.

Death By Pinkness

The MechWarrior Online people have done something new with the latest "Hero" 'Mech, the "Heavy Metal".

Heavy Metal hero 'Mech

It's a ninety-ton Highlander, the heaviest jump-capable 'Mech in the game, and it's also the only model of Highlander in the game thus far. Every previous Hero 'Mech has been a variant of some other chassis already in the game, but regular Highlanders won't arrive until the 16th of this month. So if you want a Highlander early, you have to buy the Heavy Metal. Numerous people have; last night I saw at least one in almost every game that, you know, started, after the patch gave the servers some personality defects.

(I recommend you minimise your exposure to the comments in that thread, because the MechWarrior Online forums are trying very hard to win the MOBA Trophy for people complaining about problems with a game which they plainly hate but for some reason continue to play. If you absolutely must stare at a MWO forum car-crash, I recommend this one, where a guy complains about the game forcing him to play against people of similar skill so he can't just keep easily murdering newbies. According to him, this is is SOCIALIST, capitals his.)

And yes, the Heavy Metal is PIIIIIIINK, because it's a copy of the signature 'Mech of one Rhonda Snord from the fluff. You won't have to suffer through the pink forever if you buy it, though, because repainting hero 'Mechs is promised to be possible Real Soon Now. (I think they'll keep their paint patterns, but you'll be able to change the colours.)

True to Rhonda's version, the Heavy Metal has speakers on the outside, but all they do is play a snippet of guitar music...

...whenever you kill someone.

(There are only two snippets, one rockabilly-ish and one more on the Wyld-Stallyns-ish side.)

The chief problem with the Heavy Metal is its price. Hero 'Mechs can only be bought for "Mech Credits", and you can only get Mech Credits by paying real money. The Heavy Metal costs 6750 MC, more than any other 'Mech in the game. That adds up to about $US25, depending on how good a deal you got whn you bought your MC.

The only Hero 'Mech I've ever bought was a Yen-Lo-WAAAAAAANG when they were half-price. The Wang's not really very useful; Hero 'Mechs usually aren't the best version of a given chassis, to at least slightly reduce the clamour of forum complaints about pay-to-win. But the Heavy Metal gives you quite a powerful platform for the money.

Here, for instance, is a Heavy Metal with lots of close-to-medium-range punch, retaining four of its maximum five jump jets and with lots of heat sinks for its three Large Lasers. It becomes almost harmless if the laser arm is shot off, but apart from that it has no major weaknesses.

Here's a gauss build, with a bigger engine but no jump jets. Here's a sniper that isn't too horrifyingly slow. And here's an Artemis LRM monster, with three medium lasers as backup. All of these should let you listen to that guitar music more often than you probably really want to.

I won't be buying a Heavy Metal unless a bunch of donaters order me to. But its alarming price does give you an interesting imaginary Internet robot to play with.


There is nothing that players of online games will not complain about.

In MechWarrior Online, I've started a game and heard people complaining about how the new matchmaking system has given the other team a huge tonnage advantage, so their little 'Mechs are getting murdered by mobs of heavies and assaults.

And then, the very next game, someone's complaining that the matchmaker has given their side no light 'Mechs at all while the enemy has five of them, so this time their poor giant stompy monsters are getting pecked to death by a flock of lights.

Green Atlas
This picture isn't really relevant to anything in the post. I just thought you might like to see a high-visibility Atlas.

(Somebody's probably also going to find a way to complain about the MWO change that makes it more likely that seeing yourself shooting someone actually means you're shooting them.)

Many complaints about games, especially games that're still in beta like MechWarrior Online, are valid. But someone will also venture forth upon a discussion board and proclaim a game ruined if there's a slight change to the kerning of the menu font.

(In the MechWarrior Online font, capital I looks exactly the same as lower-case L! WORST. GAME. EVER.)

Which brings me to the latest source of rustled jimmies in my favourite imaginary giant Internet robot game:


MechWarrior Online is going to have special things you can stick on your 'Mech that you can use in a fight, a limited number of times. Then you'll then have to buy the special consumable thing again, if you want to use them again.

The first consumable they've announced in any detail is "Coolant Flush", a thing from the tabletop game which they're implementing as a widget you can put in a module slot on a 'Mech.

If you pay in-game "C-Bill" currency for Coolant Flush, you'll be able to buy a Small and a Medium version of it, each of which will take up one module slot.

If you pay real money for "Mech Credits", though, you'll be able to buy a one-module-slot Large Coolant Flush that has the effect of both of the C-Bill ones, but only takes up one slot.

Cue the outrage and misery. This is a free-to-play game, so like all the rest of them it's constantly trying to dodge the shadow of the "Pay To Win" monster. Special improved versions of things that you can only buy with real money invariably piss off the player base.

Whether this is actually a big deal or not in this particular case comes down to the numbers.

The first important number is what Coolant Flush, and other consumables like artillery strikes, will cost.

If these things are really expensive, so pay-to-win players with deep pockets can have them every match but nobody else can, and if they give you a real large advantage, then the complaint is valid.

If they cost very little, so the only real choice is between the advantage of the consumable or the advantage of a conventional module, then even if the consumable is very powerful, it shouldn't be a big deal.

So, is Coolant Flush likely to be very powerful?

Heat management is a central mechanic of all of the "proper" BattleTech games, from tabletop to computer. Most guns make heat when you shoot them. Energy weapons that don't need ammo make more heat than guns that shoot bullets (which are another kind of consumable, but which get reloaded for free every match). If your 'Mech gets too hot, it has to shut down or run the risk of stuff exploding. So, for almost all 'Mechs, anything that can dump heat quickly is highly desirable.

Piranha haven't completely explained what Coolant Flush will do, and it is of course subject to change. They say that the effectiveness of Coolant Flush depends on the number of heat sinks in your 'Mech, and that a 'Mech with ten heat sinks (which is what you get built into every engine) will get a total cooling of 35% - 15% plus 20% for using Small and Medium Coolant Flush in succession, or hitting the key twice for the real-money Large version.

If Coolant Flush operates like normal heat-sink function, then a 'Mech with 20 heat sinks (the ten in the engine plus ten more separate ones) will thus get a maximum of 70% cooling, and you'd need a somewhat crazy 18 extra sinks to get almost-100% cooling.

The pretty-much-essential Double Heat Sinks upgrade makes your ten engine heat sinks the equivalent of 20 single heat sinks, and somewhat confusingly gives you number-of-other-heat-sinks-times-1.4 on top of that. So with no extra heat sinks a 'Mech with the double upgrade will get 70% cooling from using both tiers of Coolant Flush, and it'd need only six extra heat sinks to get to about 100%, to take heat from 99% to close-to-zero.

It's actually more complex than that, because, I think, adding more heat sinks also adds to the total heat capacity of your 'Mech as well as how fast heat drains away, and I don't know how that'll interact with Coolant Flush. It does seem that normal 'Mechs with realistic numbers of heat sinks will be able to get about a total heat dump from the two C-Bill Flush thingies or the single real-money one.

That definitely would give many 'Mechs a big advantage. Even if you're just one player in a random pick-up game, dumping all of your heat so you can shoot all of your guns again right away is a duel-winning advantage. A whole team of laser monsters who can drop to zero heat whenever they want, even if they can only do that once, would have a big advantage in a brawl.

But you already have to pay money to put anything into a module slot on a 'Mech. Modules are bought with C-Bills, but to unlock a module type so you can buy it you have to spend "General XP", which is created from normal "Mech XP" by spending a small number of Mech Credits. Unlocking a fancy module like the Capture Accelerator or second-tier Sensor Range will cost you $US2.50 to $US3.00, depending on which of the Mech Credit packs you bought and whether there was a sale on.

People don't complain about that, though, because once you've unlocked a module it's unlocked for good, and three bucks is not a lot of money. Modules are also not Automatic Win Machines - they just give 10%-to-25% advantages in specialised areas like how fast you can capture something by standing on it, or how long it takes before an enemy you've lost sight of drops out of your targeting system.

If there are consumable three-dollar module-things that give a big advantage, and that cost as much in C-Bills as you can possibly make in ten consecutive games, then great and valid will be the outcry.

If these things cost 20 cents each or as much many C-Bills as you can make in one game, though, the inevitable whinging won't be as persuasive.

And if they cost little in C-Bills but a lot in real money - which would, I think, be a pretty clever way to do it - complaining would be the act of a crazy person.

That still wouldn't stop 'em, of course.

UPDATE: A rethink, and clearer explanation, of how consumables may work.

Competitively-priced small disabilities

Herewith, a combination of two of my favourite things: Imaginary giant Internet robots, and perceptual and cognitive dysfunction.

Today's patch for MechWarrior Online, you see, didn't just add a mildly interesting new 'Mech...

Trebuchet BattleMech

...and a large new map.

Alpine Peaks screenshot

Besides that, it also fixed a few bugs which most players, me included, should have noticed. But didn't.

The second-most-coveted "Elite" efficiency upgrade for your 'Mechs is "Fast Fire", which makes your weapons recycle to fire again 5% faster. Everybody with a 'Mech that, you know, has guns, buys Fast Fire as soon as they can.

Except, until now, it didn't work.

Worse, it worked backwards. It made your weapons recycle 5% slower.

They've fixed that, now.

But I never noticed. I've bought Fast Fire for, what, two dozen 'Mechs so far? If you'd asked me, I would have said it worked.

(The most desirable elite upgrade is "Speed Tweak", which raises your top speed by ten per cent. That always worked, though it used to only boost you 7.5% before they bugfixed that too, a few patches ago. Well, I think it always did something. Maybe it just changes the speedometer to tell you 100 kilometres per hour is now 110...)

And it was actually even worse than that, because there were several other screw-ups in the upgrade system.

People noticed some of them, like how you still have to buy the Basic upgrade "Arm Reflex" if you want to get to the Elite upgrades, even if your 'Mech is a Catapult or something that does not actually have articulated arms.

But Arm Reflex and "Twist Speed" were backwards, until now. Each actually gave the other's upgrade.

And the reason the Fast Fire problem was even worse is that when you bought Fast Fire it didn't do anything to your fire rate at all. Because, like Arm Reflex and Twist Speed, Fast Fire and "Pin Point" were reversed too!

If you bought Fast Fire you got Pin Point, and if you bought Pin Point you got Fast Fire. Which was, once again, actually Slow Fire. But when you bought it you didn't get it. Which was actually helpful, since it didn't work. Stay with me, here.

And the doubled Basic efficiencies you got from getting to Elite weren't doubled properly! And there's more!

MechWarrior Online is still in beta, so you should expect stuff like this. If there weren't bugs, even quite egregious bugs, then it wouldn't be a beta.

But you'd think errors like this would be the talk of the town. I mean, it'd be the work of a moment to do a little science to detect such things. Time some gun-shooting, or screenshot how far your 'Mech's torso can twist, or whatever. Then buy a new upgrade that's meant to change whatever you did, and test again.

But, clearly, almost nobody did that. I certainly didn't. So almost nobody noticed the bugs. This may have something to do with how long it's taken these bugs to be fixed - we're almost four months into the open beta now.

The moral of the story is, once again, that if you want to see if something is true or not, you have to do science. And science is not restricted to incomprehensible white-coated boffins who look at brightly-coloured liquids in the background of wrinkle-cream advertisements and who also dogmatically pursue the formula for the perfect biscuit dunk. Science is just careful experimentation, observation and thinking, which anybody can do, any time they like.

Some differences are blatantly obvious enough that you don't need to set up a formal experiment. You don't have to do science to determine whether it is safe to cross the road when something that looks very much like a car, but could be a hologram or hallucination, is coming. And if there were some upgrade in MechWarrior Online that was meant to make your 'Mech twice as tall or twice as fast, you'd be able to tell if it was working pretty easily with informal observation. (Though you wouldn't be able to easily determine if it were only making you 1.95 times as tall or fast...)

When something is subtle or elusive, though, as many concepts in the real world are, there is no substitute for science. And it's surprising how often it's needed.

Brief imaginary Internet robot update

As I write this, MechWarrior Online has a slightly belated Valentine's Day sale on, with cheaper experience-point conversion, a discount on the rather ordinary Yen-Lo-Wang "hero 'Mech", and, more importantly, another free day of "premium time", giving you a 50% money and experience-point boost for 24 hours.

(The observation that Wang is cheap on Valentine's day is... widespread.)

For new players: The current trial 'Mechs are pretty decent by the very low standards of those 'Mechs. (Trial 'Mechs are the ones you can jump straight into whether you've bought any 'Mechs of your own or not. Play trials for a little while and you'll very soon have money to buy your own.) But the current trials include the iconic, gigantic, terrifying, Atlas AS7-D.

A new player should NOT jump straight into that hundred-ton monster. It's too slow, and it has too many weapon systems for a newbie to manage.

As is usual for big slow trial 'Mechs, trial Atlases are generally assumed to be piloted by a small gurgling baby. They are treated, with good reason, as slightly dangerous experience-point farms.

If you're new, drive something faster, and you'll learn more and have more fun.

Points! Imaginary points! Twice as many of them!

This blog post exists primarily to alert appreciators of giant imaginary Internet robots to the fact that MechWarrior Online is, as I write this, about to start a double-XP weekend, thus making it easier to earn shiny customisations for your 'Mechs.

There's also a recently-introduced new 'Mech, the Spider. It's been given an Alien-ish tubes-on-the-back look that's way, way better than the godawful design of the tabletop-game version.

The twelve-jump-jet Spider-5V is also a barrel of laughs, and marginally useful in the base-capturing "Conquest" game mode. But it's almost completely unarmed (would you like two little lasers or one big one?), and the game currently has a 150 km/h speed limit that makes the Jumping Spider easy meat for more sensible light 'Mechs. The king of which is still the extremely practical ECM Raven 3L.

The Spider 5D can fit ECM and so is the most useful variant, but it'll be hideously mauled by a cheaper three-Streak ECM Commando 2D. The Spider is rather tall, too, making it an easier target.

But Spiders are still all over the place at the moment, on account of being new. And they're cheap. So if you can't afford anything better to level on this double-XP weekend, go ahead and tear around in a Spider, and see if you can beat this:

The rest of the team was dead. Five or six enemies remained. We were royally boned.

I was in my ECM Spider with three Medium Lasers.

I decided to go out by running around an Atlas and shooting him in the knees.

The various deceased spectators were highly uncertain that this novel strategy would achieve anything of note.

But I was not being completely quixotic.

Big 'Mechs, you see, often economise on leg armour, precisely because enemies usually try to blow off arms full of scary guns, or just drill through the torso into the engine, rather than plinking at legs.

Round and round I went. Pew pew. Pew pew pew. Pew.

And it was working. His leg armour in my target display went yellow, then orange, then red.

Someone blew my arm off. One torso-mounted laser left.

Round and round. Pew. Pew. Pew.

His leg armour went away.

As, in time, did one of his legs.

Spectators very impressed.

I had time to type "ha!" into chat before someone blew me to bits.

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.)