‘Hawken’ Beta Impressions

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Mech games have had their ups and downs over the years, with interest rising and waning depending on the fickle minds of the gaming community. A few years have passed since the last title broke out of its niche audience, but Hawken just might be the game to do so again. Hawken is essentially a first-person shooter in which you control gigantic robots in online arenas. Set to be multiplayer only, the developers at Adhesive Games have decided to try applying the free-to-play model to the game in hopes of attracting a wider audience, but we’ll get to that later.

At first glance, Hawken might seem overly complex, but there is a simplicity to the gameplay that I could pick up easily over a few matches. Constant deaths filled my first few games, but I quickly found ways to contribute. Game modes include the usual examples you’d expect, with deathmatch and the like, but Hawken also includes modes with specific goals. Resources sometimes need gathered, areas defended, and best of all, each will provide experience. As someone who usually plays more defensively, I found myself occasionally near the top of the scoreboard with minimal kills, simply because I contributed in other ways.

Elements of the HUD appear complicated, but there are only a few things you must pay attention to at one time. This is the genius of the game’s aesthetic. There’s enough on screen to give the sensation of piloting a mech, but I never needed to memorize countless commands as is the case with some of Hawken’s contemporaries. There’s health, fuel, and heat, and that’s pretty much it. Visual and audio cues will, for the most part, handle everything else. And did I mention the game is gorgeous? The environments each have their own style, most mechs have a recognizable shape, and everything just shines with the quality of a modern title. The only thing missing is the smell of smoke and gasoline.

And this visual style melds with the movement to really differentiate Hawken from other shooters. There’s a weight to the movement that forces actions to be deliberate, but it rarely gets in the way of doing what you want to do. Dashes allow quick movement up and across the various maps, and a quick 180 degree turn allows complete awareness of your surroundings. Guns also have no ammo, but do overheat, restricting you from simply spraying bullets constantly. These two factors create a great back-and-forth between hectic gun-play and the continual search for cover. All the while, cars are being knocked around like toys, and chunks of buildings are crumbling from surrounding fire. Hawken feels satisfying, plain and simple.

Upgrades come in the form of new mech models, guns, items, and passive bonuses. Each model receives it’s own XP bar and upgrades, providing a wealth of goals to shoot for. But, the only worry there is the inclusion of the free-to-play model mentioned before. Specifics on how this model will work for Hawken are sparse, but from what I saw during my few hours with the game, there were two types of currency. One will seemingly be a form of XP, received from actually playing the game, and the other from paying real money. While this is a good sign, as everything that affects stats should be available to anyone who simply plays the game, it still gives those who pay access to more options. Being able to use both methods to buy upgrades is how free-to-play works, and I understand Adhesive still needs to make money somehow. But, from what I saw, it still looks like money can give you more opportunities.

What might solve this problem is the balance Adhesive has built into many of the items. EMP’s knock out enemy electronics, but they’ll do the same to your allies. And, the number of upgrades a mech can have equipped is very limited, so you can’t simply spend a lot of money and become a god in game. Using real money to unlock upgrades probably won’t break the game, but it’s a pet peeve many have with this business model, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.

The limited time I spent with Hawken left me craving more. Core mechanics are easy to pick up, but there appears to be plenty of depth for those who dedicate the time needed. Even if you’re not the most skilled player, you should be able to find ways to contribute and rejoice in the chaotic joy of rampaging through abandoned cities. I can’t wait to see the final product this December.

Chris is an odd sort of thing from the wilds of central Pennsylvania. You can hit him up on Twitter under @chrishauge, PSN under faceless_page, or Xbox Live under teh sledge.