Hawken, Dance of the 2-ton Figure Skaters

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Sometime, many moons ago, a trailer for Hawken hit, unveiling a sleek mech game, and people were immediately wowed. Since then, things have sort of snowballed. Hawken has a graphic novel, an upcoming live-action webseries, and even talks of a movie. But despite all this fanfare, Hawken still isn’t technically out yet. But it has been in open beta for a few months now. So here are some thoughts.

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Hawken is an action game—with mechs. It’s about as far from the simulation genre as games like this can get. In fact, it’s reminiscent of another game I was quite fond of as a youngster: Heavy Gear. Hawken, much like that game, is a fast-paced fiesta. All around are mechs darting back and forth, floating around with jetpacks, and dashing away. Basically, they’re 2-ton figure skaters… with jetpacks. Gone is the sense that these mechs are lumbering machines of death. Even the heaviest ones are still fairly mobile, and the lightest ones are exceedingly quick and agile, but of course, they’re more prone to being blown to bits.

To avoid such a fate, you’ll probably want to master Hawken’s boosting mechanic. Even though the mechs are fairly hearty, an exposed one can drop in a heartbeat. The presence of boosting is integral to the design of the game. Master it and you’re in for a fun ride. Neglect it and you’re scrap metal. But taking damage and surviving is where the game’s ability to repair comes into play. Not only is boosting necessary for survival, but so is knowing when to take cover and repair. Doing so causes the camera to shift into a third person view while the mech huddles down in a standby mode. Then a small drone will perform repairs. During this period, you’re immobile and completely vulnerable to enemy fire. Being able to repair lends longevity to battles, but not to a ridiculous extent, as maps are still small and intense, and a flanked mech is probably a dead mech, more so if it’s in the middle of repairing.

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Of course, while you’re hunkered down letting the drone do fix you up, you’ll be able to marvel at just how fancy Hawken looks—assuming an enemy doesn’t drop in and throw a missile at your face. The game features so much eye candy that you’re liable to overdose on sugar. Cockpits are detailed and feel splendidly primitive, with lots of buttons and levers and cables. The urban landscapes abound with flickering neon lights and futuristic vehicles that get knocked about as you stomp on by.

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Other maps show off Hawken’s post-apocalyptic nature. A nano-virus has ravaged the world, leaving much of it covered in a metallic husk. Of course, unless you’ve dove into Hawken’s expanded universe, you probably wouldn’t know that. Very little in the way of story is telegraphed in the game itself, but since this is open beta, that’s liable to change. In way, Hawken, the game, feels like a snapshot of Hawken, the universe, and not a very large snapshot at that. But it is a multiplayer-focused free-to-play game.

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Hawken’s current free-to-play model is certainly not the worst transgressor out there, but it’s not the best, either. The mechs and upgrade components, as well as cosmetic items, are all reasonably priced, but unlocking them without putting money into the game can be reasonably laborious. And items and customization unlocks are for specific mechs, and don’t carry over to others. You’ll find yourself unlocking items multiple times across multiple mechs. It might be nice if there were a “hey you already bought this item five times, so here’s a discount” feature.

And chances are you’ll want to at least check out the various mechs, as each offers a slightly different playstyle. The Sharpshooter is an adept sniper, while the Infiltrator excels at getting in close and ripping enemies a new one. Each mech also has an ability that helps to define it. The Infiltrator is able to briefly cloak, and the Sharpshooter can empower its weapons for a couple seconds. Mech test drives, which rotate every couple weeks, can allow you to try out different options before you commit to anything.

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In terms of weapons, each mech has a predetermined selection to choose from: three primaries, and a secondary. Secondary weapons are mostly of an explosive variety, things that go boom, or sniper rifles. Primary weapons commonly implore some kind of bullet, and can be swapped out in the garage as they’re unlocked. All weapons, however, forgo an ammo system in favor of heat. Fire your weapons too much, and they overheat, rendering you unable to attack for a few seconds. Then come the items, an offensive one—such as a machine gun turret—and a support one—such as a radar scrambler. Each mech receives an offensive item by default, but you can buy a different one.

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All mechs earn experience through kills and objectives, and can level up through to 25. Each of these levels brings an optimization point, and every few levels offer some sort of upgrade, either for the mech’s ability or for a weapon. Optimization points are dumped into a skill tree not dissimilar to the ones found in RPGs. But the ramifications here are not nearly as extensive. None of the three optimization trees—offense, defense, movement—offer drastic changes, just minor upgrades. So while a level 25 mech might be objectively more powerful than a level 1 mech, it’s not by a long-shot, and low level mechs can still hold their own in combat. So while customization in Hawken isn’t nearly as deep as other mech games with extensive heat and weight management, it’s still there.

While the core behind Hawken shows great potential, for the moment, it’s fairly limited in stuff to do. Three of the four game modes are fairly stock: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and what is tantamount to battling over control points. Fortunately the fourth mode, Siege, offers something more original. Here, your team must collect energy that, when deposited, launches a battle ship that flies over and ravages your enemy’s base. This mode, while still in alpha, has a lot of potential. But if Hawken were to take more effort in modeling its game modes around the affairs of the expanded universe, well that would be pretty rad. Siege mode is definitely a step in the right direction, but in one of the comics, one corporation ambushes the other while they’re escorting a supply caravan, which sounds as though it would make for a fun game mode.

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Still Hawken’s in open beta, so all of this is subject to change. Right now, the game’s short on maps, especially for Siege Mode, which is definitely the main draw for me. But there are more maps coming, and more mechs, and weapons, and who knows what else—more objective-based game modes, hopefully. All in all, I’ve had a blast playing what there is of Hawken, and I’ll definitely be staying tuned to see what else is in store for the game.

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