Hawken hands-on delivers perfectly balanced mech warfare

Mech shooter Hawken ambles along a fine line, trying to strike a precarious balance between the fast-paced, shooter action that appeals to some fans of the genre and the trudging simulation realism that appeals to others.

Mech shooter Hawken ambles along a fine line, trying to strike a precarious balance between the fast-paced, shooter action that appeals to some fans of the genre and the trudging simulation realism that appeals to others.

The end result is a game that can be played with stripped down controls and offers a satisfying, almost first-person shooter-like experience blended with a surprising amount of depth. While blasting at enemies with twin mounted weapons and using gadgets to disable opponent mechs, players also have to keep an eye on damage, energy use, fuel, and heat.

The pre-alpha version of Hawken being shown off during an afterhours E3 party this week in Los Angeles only had one mode: deathmatch. But four-player free-for-alls were a perfect way to introduce players to the upcoming free-to-play computer game.

We tried two versions of the game. Our first experience in the seat of a mech was played on a computer running the game through servers maintained by Gaikai, a cloud-based gaming service. Three of the players were on PC, one was on an Android tablet, which offered that player a stripped down version of the game. While the Gaikai-based experience ran a little slower, and stripped away some of the visual details of the game, it was still a satisfying experience.

Later, we had a chance to check out Hawken on servers hosted by developer Adhesive Games. This version was a much more solid experience, free of some of the visual jitters that marred gaming on Gaikai.

The maps in both versions of the game were minutely detailed maze-like warrens of factories, floating debris and corrugated steel. But the version played on Adhesive Games servers filled the air with a yellow fog, blowing sand and debris.


The style of the game, in particular the settings, leans heavily on something the developers call virtual kitbashing. The idea is that the settings are made up of tons of model pieces placed together to form arenas that look as if they were crafted of spare parts.

Both versions of the game were surprisingly fast affairs, walking-tank battles that involved salvos of heavy gunfire interrupted by mechs boosting away from each other, around corners, sliding sideways and hopping into the air.

Tapping the left mouse button fires one of the mech's weapons, tapping the right mouse button fires the other. The mouse wheel scrolls through the mech's available items, like shields, grenades, emp wave. Tapping the R button uses the item. The shift button allows you to dash forward, backward or to the side and the space button gives your mech a short hovering boost.

Using the boost or dash abilities quickly depletes your fuel, forcing the mech to power down for a few seconds to recover.

Finally, holding in the C button, detaches a bot from the body of the mech which hovers around the parked vehicle repairing it as long as the button is held in. Once the mech is fully repaired, or you release the C button, the bot reattaches itself and the mech stands, a process that takes a few precious seconds.

The game's perspective includes a cockpit packed with functioning read-outs and a heads-up display that shows a variety of targeting information.

The match starts out in the garage of the game, giving players a chance to scroll through a number of frames built around specific sorts of abilities. There were snipers, for instance, and brawlers. The descriptions and looks of the mechs matched the weapon load-outs. So the sniper, for instance, had a powerful, single-shot rifle that could zoom in the cockpit view.

Once a mech is selected, you can choose between one of two weapons for each side of the vehicle, further customizing your ride.

While the version we played had six preset mechs to choose from, Hawken producer Jason Hughes said the plan is to gradually increase that number once the game releases.

"We're spending a lot of time polishing on this build," he said.

The game currently has three modes: deathmatch, team deathmatch and siege mode. In that final mode, players have to complete a series of objectives to take out the other side's base. Hughes said they were worried that the complexities of the mode wouldn't fit well with a short demo, so they didn't bring it to E3.

While Hawken incorporates the cat-and-mouse strategy of classic mech games, ultimately it feels more like a game of, say, Halo, then it does MechWarrior 2. The pacing and size of areas, pushes players into direct confrontations almost immediately. The ability to pound away at a mech with machine guns and rockets and then stomp away to a massive cubby hole in the map to try and repair your vehicle makes the game feel more immediate than most mech titles. And the ability to power slide out of danger and into enemies gives the game an almost slow-motion Tribes feel at times.

The visuals, the pacing, the weapon load-outs and abilities combine to make this one of the most satisfying mech game's I've played in years.

Last year, Adhesive Games made a name for itself with an impressively detailed, uniquely stylized video showing off the aesthetic and intent of Hawken. This week, the developers blew away gathered players with gameplay that matches that video.

The Hawken beta begins on December 12, 2012.

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