Hawken Hands-On (E3 Preview)

There are only a few games from E3 that I can say without a doubt I’m dying to play, for the first time or again and again. Hawken was my second appointment at E3, and after a full day on the show floor, it’s the one game I’ve played that I can guarantee that I would play every day…forever.

Remember Mechassault? It was the last great mech game, and it worked on a console. What made Mechassault so good was the level of simplicity of controlling a high-powered battlemech, the weapons customization, and completely destructible environments. Hawken provides that same simplicity in design and gameplay, except in first person, at a faster pace, and more akin to the original Mechwarrior games. It’s incredible.

Right now Hawken is limited to PCs, but that’s likely for the time being. The controls are easy enough to port to a gamepad, but there’s a real reminiscence to playing with a mouse and keyboard. Back to a time when mech games were all the craze, and not just because it was a robot demolition derby. The level of control with a mouse really matches what you’d expect a 24th century war machine to move and aim like. And even if it isn’t slated for consoles ever, it will launch on Gaikai, the streaming game service, so any computer, tablet, or phone will run Hawken.

Running on Unreal Engine 3, Hawken looks stunning and likewise won’t stress your machine too much to play it at full spec. I spoke with the developers about this, and they assured me that they want everyone to be able to play, which is why the team is working constantly to improve performance without diminishing the very stylistic graphics and design.

And that design is truly astonishing. It’s one thing to watch videos with massive levels, giant buildings and plenty of spaces to run, hide, shoot and wreak havoc. It’s another story entirely to play in it. After I got a hang of the controls (which are almost identical to a traditional FPS shooter; WASD to move, mouse to aim and fire both weapons, space for jump jets and shift for a jump jet boost), it was almost like Mechwarrior 2 came back to life. All those long hours across many months instantly came back to me, and I was flying around the maps like was once only possible over a decade ago.

The two levels I played were very different. The first was small, with plenty of corridors to run through and buildings and structures all over the place, providing cover and acting as a nuisance. The second was a large open area with fewer buildings, but ones that players could jump on to get the high ground. Play style is determined both by player preference and by how you arm yourself, more specifically the type of weapons used and the class of mech selected. Two classes were available in the preview, light and heavy, and each class has its own sub-classes, such as scout, sniper, etc. Sub-classes determine weapon type while weight class determines speed, jump jet fuel expenditure, and armor rating.

Because of these differentiators speed and armor level play a vital role in how the game is played. Unlike Mechassault it’s not about who has the best aim, and unlike Mechwarrior 2 or any of the followup titles, it’s not about who has the biggest gun. Hawken is all about player speed and intelligence, because everything else can be quashed with those two.

A perfect example of this in play is with the use of the boost. It’s essentially a sideways jump jet, to quickly propel a mech in any direction. Stay near a building and it’ll literally save your life. Time it right and nothing, save for a perfectly placed autocannon round, will hit. Yet everyone has boost. At the same time, boost is useless if you don’t know which direction to avoid, and the motion scanner/radar makes that a reality. Unless a mech is firing, using jump jets or blowing up, it won’t appear on the motion tracker, so there’s a definite element of stealth, even for these lumbering behemoths. And the final element is the use of terrain. Smart players will jump atop buildings, hide in crevices in walls, or flee from combat only to lead the enemy into a well-placed trap. With timing, precision and thought, all of these are so very easily possible, and yet they are infinitely more satisfying than a traditional FPS or shooter.

And there’s an excellent reason for that: because in mech combat, no victory is certain. A trap can backfire if the foe is too strong; hiding is a game lost half the time; and the terrain is everyone’s advantage. From the gameplay I’ve entertained Hawken proves to be remarkably balanced without nerfing weapons or limiting movement. Even dying doesn’t feel so terrible, because every time it’s obnoxiously clear what went wrong. I jumped right into that missile, I walked right into that trap, or my teammates are a bunch of morons. Whatever the reason, it never was the game’s fault, a rare trait in multiplayer gaming today.

A few additional nuggets: all mechs deploy with three secondary weapons, which include an EMP, grenade, hologram, and deployable turret. All mechs feature two primary weapons, with armaments ranging from simple machine guns to dumbfire missiles to lock-on ballistics. Players can repair themselves, at least to some extent, during combat by holding down the C button and releasing a drone to operate on the hull. Downed enemy combatants also drop energy, which also repairs mechs. Primary weapons ammo is infinite, but not secondary weapons. Limbs also cannot be blown off, not can players eject from the mech.

The way Hawken looks now, it’s not just a game to patiently wait for. Pray for it. E3 has gotten me excited for a handful of games, but Hawken takes the cake. Not only is it a beautiful mix of traditional FPS gameplay and mech combat, it does do with style, with pizazz, and with that feeling millions of people who love mech games can truly appreciate.

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James Pikover

Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.

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