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Review by: Emil Pagliarulo
Published: December 7, 1997
When Mechwarrior 2 was finally released after countless delays, Activision instantly established itself as the undisputed king of the giant robot genre, essentially leaving Sierra and their Earthsiege series in the dust. All of that came crashing down, however, when FASA (in a move that surprised just about everyone) stripped Activision of control of the franchise and announced that Mechwarrior 3 would be developed in-house. They may have been shocked, and maybe even a little offended, but the developers at Activision weren’t about to take the news lying down. On the contrary, they responded in a way that was no less surprising than FASA’s bombshell — they vowed to make their own giant robot game, one that would be bigger and better than anything the Mechwarrior universe could ever produce. They would give the world Heavy Gear.
Based on the Dream Pod 9 paper and pencil role-playing game of the same name, Heavy Gear is set in a universe not too dissimilar to that of the Mechwarrior series. 4000 years in the future, the people of Terra Nova struggle to survive. The planet, originally settled by refugees from Earth, is separated between the lands of the Confederated Northern City States (CNCS) and the Allied Southern Territories (AST). Each hemisphere has its own way of life, and political and religious ideology. Unfortunately, the beliefs of the CNCS and AST are completely contradictory, and relations have been strained from the start. For four years, an uneasy peace existed between the two factions when they combined their forces to fend off an invasion from the Earth Expeditionary Forces, who wished to reclaim Terra Nova as a colony. With this common foe defeated, hostilities between North and South have arisen once more, thrusting the entire planet into a state of civil war. So begins our story.
Upon starting Heavy Gear, the player is given four main gameplay options: Training, Story, Tour of Duty, and Multiplayer. The Training missions guide the aspiring Gear pilot through the basics of control and combat, and are very similar in nature to the those in Mechwarrior 2. Instead of a hard-nosed clan drill instructor, you are placed in the care of the condescending Sergeant Sanz. Even this early on in the game, Heavy Gear exudes its own personality. Every mission pits you against the by-the-book, “Sir, yes sir!” shouting Corporal Timmons, a military poster child if there ever was one. Sanz is obviously completely enamored of your competitor, and her endless praising of Timmons is matched only by her harsh criticism of your performance. In true boot camp fashion, there’s really no way to please the sergeant, as every victory over Timmons is indication that you must have cheated to defeat such a superior opponent. The Training campaign is a great introduction to the various Gear functions and abilities, and perfectly sets the stage for the game’s militaristic storyline.
The real heart of Heavy Gear is the game’s Story option, which is actually a single campaign of 32 interconnected missions. The player assumes the role of Senior Ranger Edward Scott, a warrior in the service of the CNCS. You are the best Gear pilot the Northern military has ever seen…so good, in fact, you have earned the title of Duelist — an honor bestowed only upon the best of the best, that person who must represent his or her unit in any ritual battles or ceremonies. Scott is the antithesis of the military hero — brave, bold, cunning, and never willing to leave a fallen comrade behind. Stationed aboard the landship Vigilance (which is sort of like a huge, hovering aircraft carrier), you and your shipmates prepare to meet the enemy head-on in the equatorial no-man’s land known as the Badlands. This arid neutral zone separates the Confederated Northern City States from the Allied Southern Territories, and is the natural starting point for the conflict at hand.
Although Heavy Gear has heavy Anime influences, as evidenced by the manual’s great artwork and character profiles, this style is quickly shattered by the Story’s cheeseball full-motion video. Ranger Scott and company are completely unconvincing as they constantly salute (badly) and mutter such obscure pseudo-religious phrases as “The Prophet wept” and “May the Prophet watch over us.” Still, as bad as the FMV can be, it does do a good job of advancing the very linear campaign. Right from the get-go, Scott’s life takes a turn for the worse. On your first few missions out, you are accompanied by Private Reeves Ethan and Corporal Henry Janus, son of Colonel Arthur Janus. Well, things don’t go exactly as planned, and you and Janus are captured by the Grels, forced to surrender because Janus is too scared to fight. As the game’s stalwart hero, you of course pick your handcuffs and get ready to make a break for it. You free Janus from his bindings, too, but the rookie warrior will have no part of your escape attempt; out of pure fear, he shackles himself to a pipe to avoid what he is sure will be a failed breakout on your part. He decides to appeal to the enemy’s mercy, and you are forced to leave the young fool behind. The gunshots you hear on the way out — for this part of the video is mysteriously blackened out — are not very promising…. Back at the Vigilance, the colonel is less than pleased with the story you recount. He finds you guilty of desertion, and considers you personally responsible for the death of his son. As a result, you are stripped of your Duelist title, and end up in the colonel’s doghouse in the worst way possible.
As the missions progress, Colonel Janus becomes more and more unstable. He delights in sending Ranger Scott on suicide missions in the hope that he’ll be killed in action; that, of course, doesn’t happen, and you continue to prove yourself as the best Gear pilot in the Northern military, much to the colonel’s rage. In fact, this deep sense of honor proves to be your undoing. When a group of CNCS paratroopers is lost behind enemy lines, it’s up to you to get them out alive. You put the entire crew of the Vigilance at jeopardy to save these few souls, and even though you succeed, this is just what Colonel Janus needs to completely ruin your reputation. Young Private Ethan, now the company duelist, has become Janus’ little toadie, and never misses an opportunity to get in your face and tell you how much you screwed up. The only person that really seems to be on your side is Lieutenant Jennifer Brockton, a gruff, unappealing woman who “knows a good man when she sees one.” There is absolutely no “on-screen” chemistry between the actors who play Scott and Brockton, so this part of the story sort of falls by the wayside. We just want to see what’s going to happen to our hero. Will he redeem himself? Is Henry Janus still alive? Will the colonel ever forgive you? Revealing any more would ruin the surprise, and that’s half the fun in playing through Heavy Gear’s Story. Suffice it to say that the plot is exciting enough to draw you in and keep you playing through all of the missions, even if the full-motion video isn’t particularly appealing.
For those who could care less about Ranger Scott and his predicament, there is the game’s Tour of Duty option. Much more than just a simple “Instant Action” mission, the Tour of Duty really is the ultimate way to play Heavy Gear. The player chooses a game name and then picks a side, either the Confederated Northern City States or the Allied Southern Territories, and a combat unit. Units increase in notoriety, and some even have special “perks,” or special advantages unique to those particular companies.
The Tour of Duty is hardcore Heavy Gear; there’s no love story here, no quest for personal honor or redemption — just down and dirty combat. Before each mission, the player has access to a situational map of Terra Nova. And here’s the real kicker — the map is updated every time you win or lose a battle, so that the “front” moves closer and closer toward the losing side. As in the Story, the fighting starts in the Badlands, but where it goes from there is completely dependent upon the player’s skill. Make no mistake: this is as real as it gets, and every victory or loss you achieve directly effects the outcome of the war. There is no save game feature in Heavy Gear, and while this would normally be a big negative in terms of gameplay, here it works perfectly. If you lose a mission, you lose a mission…and your side suffers accordingly. This is an incredibly realistic touch; Activision has taken an oft-hated feature and implemented it perfectly so that it actually greatly enhances the gameplay.
There are several types of missions available in the Tour of Duty, and their availability is determined by the unit you belong to and your successes or failures in the field. The successful completion of a reconnaissance mission may open up the possibility of a deep strike mission, where you must destroy the base you discovered. Likewise, failure to complete a mission will drastically lessen your future mission options. As the war progresses, your unit’s “Combat Priority” rating will increase or decrease, depending on how successful you’ve been. Basically, the lower the rating, the more important your unit, and the more Gears and weapons you’ll have at you disposal. In addition to the overhead strategic map, the current state of the war is also kept track of through the use of points in four specific areas: Intelligence Level, Supply Level, Reinforcement Level, and Victory Points. Intelligence Level dictates how much you know about the enemy, and determines how many different missions are available at any one time; the Supply Level shows how equipped your army is, and what types of weapons and Gears are available; Reinforcement Level is basically an indication of how many “wingmen” you have available in the pilot pool. If you keep losing Gears, you’ll keep losing pilots who can accompany you on missions (with two being the maximum number of wingmen available each mission); your Victory Points are just as you’d expect — a numerical rating on how you are faring against the enemy. Any way you look at it, Heavy Gear’s Tour of Duty option is great fun, and provides truly unlimited gameplay.
The game’s Multiplayer option adds all of the expected types of multiplayer games — TCP/IP, network, modem — and one added surprise. If connected to the Internet, the player can take part in an online “virtual war” between the forces of the CNCS
and the AST. The overhead map is updated after every battle, and the course of the war is determined solely by which sides the players choose and the successes or failures of their combat runs, which can consist of up to eight players total. It would seem the South is the hands-down favorite, and the war (at least on the New Jersey server) is going very much in their favor — at this rate, the AST will push the CNCS forces into the polar region in just a few days! Activision could have just offered Heavy Gear players the chance to battle it out head-to-head, but the opportunity to participate in this kind of persistent online war (something revolutionized in Kaon Interactive’s superlative Terra: Battle for the Outland) is a really great extra.
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