Hawken First Impressions: robological


Hawken’s open beta has been going for several days now. We sent three of our finest pilots into battle to see what they thought of the free-to-play mech game so far. Does it stand tall, or is it likely to stumble under its own weight? Julian, Paul and Tim share their impressions.

So you’ve all been playing Hawken, and you seem to be quite enthused. So, obvious first question: what piqued your interest?

Julian: I’ve had a soft spot for mech games since I was a wee one, though in recent years there’s been a drop off in the number that come out; well, ever since the Mechwarrior games stopped being released. So when Hawken’s trailer appeared last year, I was onboard pretty sharpish.

Though, that’s not to say Hawken’s one redeeming feature is that it ticks the “Has mechs” box. It’s gone for the multi-level inner city setting. Earlier mech games usually set missions out in more open fields giving you a good few hundred meters to line up your shots. Hawken’s brought that distance down to the tens of meters. It promised from those early videos to try something new.

Paul: For me, it was two things. One was the fact that I’d not properly engaged with a mech game since the Mechwarrior games of the late 90s and I was seriously wondering if we’d ever see their like again. The other was the look of the thing. When I first saw videos of mech combat in a futuristic, uber-industrial city, I thought this looked very novel indeed. My interest was piqued.

Tim: Robots, great. But for me, the art and videos they’ve shown made the game look absolutely stunning. It’s a gorgeous piece of work. I remember clearly the first video the team released; and it looked finished. I’m thrilled it got made.

How much have you played of it since you got in?

Julian: I played a few hours during one of the closed beta events and since it’s release last week I’ve sunk a few more in. Probably six or so in total.

Paul: I’d say it’s less than half that time for me. Perhaps three hours? My excuse is that I set aside time to play when the beta was supposed to go live, only to find the servers down.

Tim: I’ve put in about eight hours or so since the game went live.

And the verdict? Do you like it?

Julian: Ish. Hawken is initially a lot of fun. I really enjoy the level layouts; often I’ll find myself in a fight where I’m outnumbered and I can just dive over the side of the building we’re fighting on. It really encourages you to be aware of your surroundings: you can survive long drops or use your jetpack to make low buildings into a staircase, letting you enter battles from odd angles and surprise the other team.

The things that made the fun wear off are the repair tool and the grind.

Pressing ‘C’ will have your mech shutdown and a repair drone begin restoring your health. I’ve not found any restrictions on where or how often you can use it. Granted shutting down your mech in the centre of a firefight isn’t sensible but I’ve managed to duck behind a low wall and heal myself a number of times. It’s a camper’s dream. I’ve found games where whole teams are hiding out and repairing themselves, just waiting for the enemy to come to them.

Paul: I’m quite ambivalent about it. Fundamentally, it doesn’t feel very exciting. The three dimensional firefights are a good thing, as are all the special dodging moves and the sense of weight you have as you’re sat there in your mech, but there’s a restricted map selection right now. There’s also not a great deal of communication between players, or any incentive to do so, so you don’t get very much teamwork or sense of team cohesion. Even in something like Team Fortress 2, where everyone’s too busy shooting each other to type, you still see frequently see players performing a few basic acts of cooperation, with everyone understanding what the team needs to do.

True, some of this will be coming from the fact that Hawken is new and we’re all adjusting, but that means there’s no better time to encourage us to work together. Right now, it’s just a game where, unless you play deathmatch, half the people on the server don’t shoot at you.

Well, I say half, but actually I wouldn’t have minded some more diligent auto-balancing of the teams. All of a sudden I found I’d been thrown back about fourteen years in time when my team suffered spawn camping and a significant disadvantage in numbers. It took several minutes for the teams to even out, during which time I failed to see the outside of my base. Spawn camping, really? In this day and age?

The various game modes, teamplay, resource collection or sieges, are welcome variety, but it could do with not only more maps, but larger ones too. Similarly, you don’t get to play with much at all for quite some time, getting stuck with the fixed, basic TV set-on-legs setup until you’ve earned thousands of Hawken Credits. Don’t expect to customise yourself any time soon.

Tim: Yeah, I’m really enjoying it, but I’m only playing the team deathmatch mode after having pretty rough experiences in the others. In most matches, I agree with Paul, there isn’t much communication. But, on the other hand, Team-DM doesn’t actually need it. Instead, team-work tends to flow quickly from the situation. I’ve found the matches occasionally thrilling: particularly when a crowd of friends fire off loads of rockets at far away Mechs, and they all explode at once.

Most of all, I think I’ve completely adapted to the controls and how my Mech responds to my movements. It took quite a while to adapt, but once I was there, I started pulling off some quite lovely kills. So much of success in Hawken is anticipation and adaptation; understanding the situation you’re in and taking advantage of it. That means preserving your fuel for when you need it. It means getting the first shot in, and dodging any missiles. It means not just wildly hitting the jetpack when you engage hoping for an aerial kill.

I can see the problems. I would have cut Deathmatch entirely from the game – it doesn’t show Hawken off at its best; you don’t ever get to feel part of a pack. And I think having two more complicated modes – Siege and the King of Hill like Missile Assault – is probably a misstep.

One of Hawken’s things is how dense it is: the maps are ridiculously tight. It’s actually quite hard to get your bearings for the first few hours. I do wonder if Adhesive should take some of the choice of what they play out of player’s hands – lock the Siege and Missile Assault modes off until you’ve put in more hours.

But: I love the pace of it, I love the sense of weight, and I love the Mech art-style. It’s a real pleasure to play within.

Most of all though, I feel like I’m starting to get quite good at it. That feels nice.

Julian, you’ve been playing Mechwarrior Online as well. What are the key differences?

Julian: Hawken is to Call of Duty, as Mechwarrior is to ArmA. It’s not an ideal comparison but it gets something of the different play styles across. The damage model in Mechwarrior is much more detailed. You can disable individual limbs of other mechs, which will disable all the weapons that are attached to that limb. And, like in Counter-Strike, if you die in Mechwarrior you have to sit out for the rest of the round, so those two things, together, promote a much more cautious way of playing. Hawken has a health bar that, when it reaches zero, has you explode and then you just respawn and run back into the fight.

There’s also different roles for the mechs in Mechwarrior, which makes games more complex. The light mechs act as spotters, rushing forward to get line-of-sight on the enemy assault mechs, that lets the heavier mechs on their team fire their ordinance accurately. In Hawken you tend to be playing more as an individual on a team than a part within one.

If you had to pick one game to marry and have robot babies with, which would you choose?

Julian: Mechwarrior 4. It nailed the balance between arcade action and sim-level control; the blend injected a complexity to the combat that led to some heart-stopping moments: there’s nothing quite so terrifying as sitting in a mech that’s just overheated, leaving you sitting helpless in a cockpit with warning lights and klaxons going off praying for your onboard computer to reboot, while an enemy Atlas assault mech bears down on you.

Hawken’s in beta right now, and the release date has been pushed back a bit. Is there any obvious reason why?

Julian: The game’s stable and works fine but I think there are some real problems with balancing. There are mechs in the game that I keep coming across that I can’t take down single-handed, I can fire all manner of rockets and bullets into them and only take half their health. They’ll then turn and destroy me in moments. It’s fine to have tougher mechs, but considering I might be looking at 20 hours of play before I can get the same mech it doesn’t encourage me to buy the game. It just makes me want to play Mechwarrior instead.

I’m hoping it’s making them reconsider the self-repair drone. Even if they changed it so you can repair allies but not yourself that would improve things: you’d second-guess using the thing to help an ally if it left you both vulnerable.

Paul: I think there’s a few. Julian’s right that some weapons feel about as effective as flinging wet spaghetti at your opponents. While making some mechs or weapons tougher or weaker is just fine by me, making some of them practically ineffective is something else. There are times when you find yourself in a fight with someone who’s just too tough and you immediately realise you’re just screwed.

For me, something more frustrating than that was finding the environment very sticky. I’d get caught on corners or find I couldn’t move because a small obstacle was sticking out the environment and blocking my way. This happened to me an awful lot and it really ruined the sense of momentum and movement. Although Hawken is about big robots, it’s not necessarily about big environments and the levels are pretty tight, claustrophobic affairs, so you’re bumping into things a lot. This doesn’t make you feel big or powerful.

I also had a few frame rate problems at times. I’ve not got the best graphics card in the world, but it’s a decent GeForce with a gigabyte of video RAM and occasionally the frame rate would plummet, not necessarily when things got busy either. Hawken looks good, but it shouldn’t be bringing our graphics cards to their knees. Although, saying that, if a bit too pastel-coloured for my liking, and thank god enemies are highlighted, else I’d never see them in a world of grey-on-grey.

It’s going to be free-to-play. How do the free-to-play mechanics work in game? And, would you spend actual money on it?

Julian: There are two currencies at work in Hawken: Hawken Credits and Meteor Credits. At the end of every round you receive a few Hawken points, the Meteor Credits you need to pay real money for.

Earlier I gave you a bit of a breakdown of how quickly you accrue the free points (15 minutes = 120 Hawken Credits). Conversely, you can buy 1152 Meteor Credits for £5. Now, one of the basic mechs that you might be looking to buy is the Beserker. It’s on sale for either 6,410 Hawken Credits or 720 Meteor Credits. So you can see how much of a time saver it would be to drop the £5 and buy the mech, using the leftover to buy a few guns.

£5 isn’t that much for a mech that you may well spend hours playing with, going up a few levels and unlocking upgrades but, personally, I can’t see myself spending money on Hawken. The game doesn’t grab me. It’s too simple a mech game to hold my attention; I like that it’s an accessible mech game but it feels pretty insubstantial in comparison to Mechwarrior.

Paul: At the moment it feels a lot like a very sluggish first-person shooter. That might be okay by you and a slower pace might suit your taste. I’ve not got a problem with that myself, per se, but I want more to go with that concept. I really want the locational damage that Julian mentions, for example, to emphasise the fact that, yes, these are giant robots, huge chunks of machinery.

I’d also like a lot more to play with earlier on. The rate at which I was earning Hawken Credits, even when doing very well in matches, told me I’d really have to commit to this game if I wanted to progress without getting my wallet out. Through my first five levels, my mech development options were limited to adding a few minor buffs, the sort of thing that League of Legends players will be very familiar with. These did things such as make me repair myself 0.1 seconds faster, or caused me dodge a fraction of a second faster. I’ve never understood why League of Legends bothers with these miniscule buffs and I really don’t think a first-person shooter about giant machines of death should be concerning itself with having its players ponder over the most incremental of stat increases. That doesn’t feel very epic-and-giant-roboty.

Most importantly, at present, Hawken looks like it’s going to be one heck of a grind. Unless it makes its battles exciting in themselves and not feel like a means to an end, a task that leads to more credits and better equipment, then I’m just not interested.

Tim: I wish I was a student again so I could play it all day and earn all the Mechs…