The dependable rust bucket of MechWarrior Online
When it comes to competitive multiplayer games, we all have our favorite characters and classes. In this series, I’m putting some of mine under the microscope to see what makes them tick, how they fit into their games, and ultimately why I like them! Check out the previous entries – Kotal Kahn, Reaper, Lex Luthor.
From the outside looking in, MechWarrior probably doesn’t seem like a game with a lot of character. There are no stoic karate men to cheer Air Force pilots with improbable hair cuts. There are just a bunch of machines. Giant mechs the size of small buildings. These aren’t even unique mechs.
Unlike Gypsy Danger of Pacific Rim or the Tallgeese of Gundam Wing, the machines you pilot in MWO aren’t one-of-a-kind custom machines or obscure prototypes. They’re cannon fodder, stamped out en masse in factories across the galaxy to trample through the mud of some distant planet and, inevitably, be reduced to scrap. Giant metal contraptions with parts lists and model numbers. Choosing a mech is more like browsing through a used car lot than anything else.
Take a closer look though, and you’ll see it. The mechs in MWO might not have individual backstories, but they do have character. Maybe more than any other game I’ve played, a player’s individual choice of battlemech expresses how they see the game. Or maybe more accurately, how they want the game to be. For me, the perfect vision of MechWarrior will always be represented by the pugnacious, stubby, and completely over-gunned Hunchback.
Scrappy lil’ bruiser
If you want to win at MWO, the formula for success is very easy to follow. Pick a top-tier mech that combines a large amount of tonnage for equipment, high mounted weapon racks so you can peek and fire over ridges, and load them up with long-range, sniper weapons. Forget about all the rocket packs, missiles, and flamethrowers cluttering up the mech lab, and stick to the heavy long-range artillery like the railgun-esque Gauss cannon, lighting bolt chucking PPC, or an array of extended-range large lasers.
People will jump into the comments to argue this point with me, but I’ve played MWO for more than five years now and I can tell you this has always been the case. Yes, every once and awhile a patch will nudge some particular mech into prominence while knocking another one down a peg, or a certain weapon will overly-buffed and end up as a flavor of the month until it is re-nerfed. Inevitably though, the most consistently successful mechs are the high-mounted snipers (preferably with jump jets). Everyone knows this.
But not everyone plays them.
This is where it gets interesting to me. If winning was the only goal for every pilot, we’d see nothing but the top-tier mechs outfitted in the exact same way. And yeah, you do see some mechs and builds again and again out there on the field. But, you also see a lot of other mechs. You see builds that seem inversely designed to the status quo. In all opposition to the law of natural selection, you see mechs out there openly flouting the dominant meta.
You see featherweight scout mechs loaded with target beacons and heat-seeking rockets. You see missile boats loaded up with ton after ton of warheads to (inefficiently) lob across the field. And you see the most magnificent bastards of all, the brawlers.
Brawlers are mechs built around intense, intimate, short-range engagements. They load up batteries of unguided rocket packs and fire them, shotgun-like, into the fray. They bring banks of medium-range lasers designed to cut through mechs like a scalpel. They strap on ridiculously huge cannons and slather on the armor to slug it out like the flabby bare-knuckle boxers of yesteryear.
These are players who want to play the game as they think it should be played. How they want it to be played. How the wars of the Inner Sphere are depicted in the novels and lore of the BattleTech franchise. They want to recreate the searing heat of the board game box art that show mechs fighting it out over a city reduced to rubble, like Godzilla and Gamera with high-tech weaponry. And the Hunchback is the patron saint of the brawler.
Even by MechWarrior standards, the Hunchback is a goofy-looking bucket of bolts. A squat, slightly dumpy, lopsided jalopy. It feels like the robot equivalent of an El Camino – a monstrosity designed by committee that you’re slightly embarrassed to be seen in. But like all true clunkers, it’s not without its charm.
The defining feature of the Hunchback is, unsurprisingly, its hunch. A gigantic shoulder-mounted cannon that is so large it cuts off the pilot’s peripheral vision. Slung on the shoulder like a deadly boombox, it’s not hard to figure out what the Hunchback is all about. You know that old saying “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail?” Well, all the Hunchback has is a colossal high-caliber autocannon.
It’s worth pointing out just how oversized the Hunchie’s firepower is for its frame. The Hunchback is classed as a 50-ton medium mech. That means all of its collected parts – every ton of armor it wears, its engine, every heatsink, every pound of ammo, every leaky hydraulic line – must equal 50 tons or less.
The default weapon of the Hunchback, the AC20, weighs 14 tons – before adding ammo. For comparison, similar weapons in its weight group like medium lasers and short-range missile packs weigh in the 1-4 ton range. The thing is a beast. In its stock configuration, the Hunchback’s gun outweighs its engine.
The only comparison I can think to draw is taking Sylvester Stallone’s bulging, powerful biceps from the armwrestling cult classic Over the Top and surgically grafting them onto the ten year old boy who plays his estranged son in Over the Top. This might be because I just watched Over the Top the other night and I think it did something wrong to my brain.
A fun quirk about the Hunchback is that its most effective loadouts come straight from the lore. One of the weird things about MWO is that for as many classic, well-loved mechs as there are to choose from, almost nobody takes them out of the garage with anything close to resembling their stock loadouts. The first thing most people do when buying a new mech is to rip everything that came with it out and replace every piece with equipment that never made it into any Technical Read Out manual ever released.
But, no matter which Hunchback you choose, the basekit generally resembles what you end up with. Sure, you upgrade to double heatsinks, a lighter frame, and a bigger engine, but the weapons go untouched. It does what it was designed to do, and there is something refreshingly honest about that.
Typically outfitted, the Hunchback saunters onto the battlefield with its defining BFG, a mere 21 shots or so for it, and a piddly array of backup lasers. The Hunchback carries everything on that shoulder.
It’s a mech for pilots who don’t care about making it home. In the Hunchback, you need to get close. Not just to be in your effective range, but to make sure you’re placing your shots where they count. It has to cross a battlefield awash in deadly fire using only its modest medium mech speed, wearing only its modest medium mech armor, all so it can get close enough to put a single shell exactly where it needs to go. In a world of snipers, it’s the old fashioned gunslinger that wants to stare right into the white of a man’s eyes before pulling the trigger.
Counter-intuitively, this quality also makes it an excellent mech to learn the game with.
The school of hard knocks
In MechWarrior, there are no bars of HP or regenerating shields. You don’t explode after reaching an arbitrary amount of damage. Instead, mechs battle until they are physically incapable of fighting any longer. You have to either kill the pilot by blowing out the cockpit, destroy the engine, or take out both legs before a mech will finally give up the ghost.
Watching a bunch of half-destroyed robots limp across a ruined landscape, missing arms and belching smoke from fires burning deep inside their chassis is 100% my aesthetic. That image is exactly what I want from a mech game and a big reason why I keep coming back to MWO (despite having plenty of problems with it). What this means mechanically though is that mechs can be surgically disassembled if you know where and how to aim. The Hunchback lives on both sides of this coin, both having a critically easy-to-spot weak point, and a weapon that encourages calculated, precision shots.
In 90% of cases in MWO, the sad truth is that it is easiest to just go for the kill. Yeah, you can be fancy and try to cripple a mech’s legs, or pick the wings off a fly by blowing off its arms, but usually your ammo would be better spent just drilling through the torso. The Hunchback is the rare exception. Because it carries almost all of its offensive punch in one place, it can actually be a good idea to try and take out that single cannon so you’re not having to trade nasty shots with it.
Hunchback pilots need to learn how to protect their cannon like it was a newborn baby. It must be swaddled, cuddled, and held with tender care at all times. The rest of the mech by comparison is essentially expendable. So why not take advantage of that? Even novice pilots quickly come to the conclusion that it is better to lose the left arm, the left torso, and most of the central core than to suffer a hit to the hunch. They learn to take the back routes of the map, to pick along the flank of the enemy instead of charging right in.
At the same time, they also learn how to make the most of their limited ammunition. How to quickly size up an enemy mech and place a shell where it will do the most harm. How to gauge a firefight and know when to hold them and when to fold them. When they can trade shots, and when they need to run.
It’s all uphill. It’s all a struggle. The nasty thing about those sniper mechs is that their weapons are just about as effective up close as they are from far away, and by the time you make it to them, you’re probably half dead while they’re still factory-fresh. But that just makes turning them into scrap all the more satisfying, right?
Playing for the dream
The Hunchback is MechWarrior. It boils down the best elements of the game and enshrines them as a way of life. It’s why whenever I play MWO, no matter how salty I get, no matter how the metagame has shifted, I inevitably end up in the cockpit of my faithful, doofy-looking rustbucket. Results be damned
Sometimes the joy we receive from a game isn’t strictly based on our win/loss ratio or effectiveness. Ideas can occasionally mean more than the scoreboard. For some, it’s better to lose on your own terms than win playing the game in a way that doesn’t excite you.
When I play MWO, I want to live in the world of cheesy robot pin-up art. Of two mechs duking it out between skyscrapers. Of giant robotic knights fighting close enough to spit on each other. I’d rather chase that dream than achieve a better K/D sitting on a hill, plinking away with a railgun.
The fact that I’m not alone playing the game in a such a stubbornly unoptimized way says a lot about what we value in competitive multiplayer games. A sentiment that I think goes underrated and underexplored too often in conversations about them, about how we engage in multiplayer games, what we invest in the game, and what we get out of them. Playing from the heart is as valid as playing for the win, and nobody has more heart than the Hunchback pilots of the Inner Sphere.