Mechs are once again in vogue: Armored Core V was unleashed earlier this year, Steel Battalion's Kinect experiment went up in flames, and Mechwarrior Online's beta has just recently been confirmed--as a result, Hawken's mechanical aesthetic is no longer such a lonely direction. The game may be joined by other returning giants of the genre, but it carries with it a very unique burden of chasing a much different dream. Hawken's post-apocalyptic, Unreal Engine 3-fueled world isn't home to a stringent recreation of realistic mech combat.
If anything, Hawken lightly chases after the looming shadow of Call of Duty and other twitch-based shooters, with an emphasis placed on movement and deft footwork inside a hulking, yet, surprisingly swift robotic exoskeleton. In my time with the recent closed beta of Hawken, I was introduced to the three vital essentials of surviving in Hawken's war-torn world: speed, speed, and more speed. (Editor's note: All of the screenshots here were taken using my customized visual settings and my own experiences. The game can look smoother or worse and is currently equipped with the standard graphics options. Also, all of my experiences in the game were during its beta, and as such any of what I'm about to tell you is subject to change before its final release on 12/12/12.)
The first and most important piece of information to know about Hawken is that your accomplishments and skills that have been achieved in past mech games probably will not apply here. While Hawken's user-interface is decked out in the hyper-intensive sort of detail you might expect from a big robot game, the realistic wrapping paper isn't indicative of the difficulty of the game inside. Anyone that has played a class-based multiplayer shooter will feel at home in Hawken's clunky metal shoes, as players can choose a variety of mech types, all ranging from big behemoths of steel to swift metal pods-on-legs. In the beta I was given enough in-game currency to fully upgrade to around two mech suits and purchase one more to experiment around with. As a F2P game, there's always the embedded worry of the game being "pay-to-win;" those fears are largely unfounded, as while Hawken does have Meter Points, a form of currency that can be used for HP and XP boosts (the HP stands for Hawken Points, the standard reward players receive in matches), the game feels balanced from the get-go.
The differences in classes will largely affect how players move and experience Hawken, so I'll go into detail about the standard "Assault class," the mech all players begin the game with. I equipped mine with two grenades (not much splash damage, but effective if thrown accurately), a shield that can hilariously be hurled at the opponent and equipped to their mech if not used carefully, and an EMP blast that temporarily disables the cockpit UI and weapons. It was the standard approach that seemed to be the most effective considering how unskilled I am in multiplayer shooters, and the far heavier classes I chose to experiment with failed in comparison to the Assault's average speed and firepower.
I can't speak for how the lighter, more athletic mechs feel in combat, but I can say with confidence that walking into battle and equipping yourself with the biggest, most burdening mech of them all is a folly for those of us who can't keep up with the typical deft competitors of FPS games. Raw firepower rarely seemed to matter more than raw speed, and though the heavier mechs do possess an ability to hunker down and become a barrage of rockets and shielded armor, I was often flanked and viciously destroyed from the rear that I couldn't protect. Choosing a steel Goliath over a speedier mech seems risky, but I can say with confidence that using the lock-on rocket weapon and deliriously delivering my enemies a tempest of explosions was thoroughly enjoying for someone who has enjoyed a good bombastic mech fight every now and then. Your results may vary, but I'll leave the larger mechs in the hands of more competent pilots.
Though players are noticeably slower when compared to on-foot FPS games, Hawken's realistic mech tropes are limited to a few key components: a mech's flight and dash movements are limited by fuel, guns overheat easily if you're not careful about limiting your fire, and a large fall from one of the many industrial complexes littered across the game's maps will severely damage your mech. Thankfully, this mech game reaches a more accessible target in terms of gameplay systems, and allows ammo to be limitless, a heal function that disables your mech while it runs, and regenerative fuel and health capsules that fall from destroyed suits. It's far easier to jump into a suit in Hawken and immediately feel comfortable with your surroundings.
Its accessibility comes a hefty price, however, and most mech-loyalists who have long been treated to far more stressful experiences may not care for the grab-and-play business model and gameplay of Hawken. Whereas the clunky, rusty bolts aesthetic of Hawken may feel familiar to those players in a spiritual sense, the realities of Hawken lie in the field of intensity-ridden, bullet hole-riddled multiplayer shooters. I can say with firsthand experience that when galloping full speed into the midst of battle, being heralded with rockets from all angles and barely managed to take out a mech or two is an exhilarating experience. Hawken's sharpened appeal makes it a stronger contender in the sordid world of mech games, and what it presents is an easy link between what makes driving a mech thrilling and shooting a gun enjoyable and rewarding. Hawken's gritty, industrial world makes for an excellent battleground for such accessible systems, and if development continues in this path then players should find Hawken to be one of the more spectacular free to play games in recent memory.
As mentioned above, Hawken launches December 12 of this year. Players can "enlist" now to reserve their pilot name and receive updates as the game nears completion.