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MechWarrior 5: Clans is bringing an RTS-style tactical camera, love for gamepad players, and a new focus on storytelling to the long-running mech sim series

 Mech standing in front of drop pod.
Mech standing in front of drop pod.

I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect going into a closed door, hands-off demo for MechWarrior 5: Clans at GDC, but then Piranha Games CEO Russ Bullock pulled out from a standard, third-person view of his mech to an RTS-style overview of the map, queueing up commands for his squad or "star" of five Smoke Jaguar pilots.

In keeping with a series tradition of paired, numbered releases, Clans falls under the same "MechWarrior 5" aegis as 2019's Mercenaries, but make no mistake: It's a brand new, full entry in the long-running series, complete with an upgraded engine and new story. Clans moves the action to BattleTech's defining Clan Invasion arc (covered in the foundational MechWarrior 2 and a series of novels by ex-Star Wars Expanded Universe scribe Michael A. Stackpole). It also opts for a new gameplay focus, with a story-driven, cinematic campaign and hand-designed levels as opposed to Mercenaries' proc-gen private military management sandbox.

I got to see both the new storytelling focus and more structured mission design at play in the GDC demo, which began with a cutscene of the rookie star at the center of the story getting chewed out by a grizzled Smoke Jaguar veteran⁠—he had a kind of "we have Edward James Olmos at home" vibe to him, so I liked him. As for the kids, there wasn't enough time to tell for sure, but there was a definite Starship Troopers stiffness to the proceedings that I dug: the clans are weird and not exactly "good guys" by any stretch of the imagination, so I'm interested to see that play out in the story.

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The mission itself saw the star investigating a desert world, slowly ramping up from quiet exploration and scanning duty to a series of combat encounters. The centerpiece of the demo was an in-game setpiece like something out of Half-Life or Call of Duty: another star in the area gets ambushed and annihilated in a massive explosion, and the demo ended with the player star rushing to respond. It was a cool moment, and I think that kind of real-time setpiece has a lot of potential with the sheer scale of a mech game.

The level itself was cool enough, but definitely felt like an early game mission⁠—I just feel like I have to see more of what Clans has in store to pass judgement. I remain enticed by some of the level ideas for the game I heard on a recent studio visit to Piranha, with my favorite being a "border control" scenario where you have to scan ships and shoot down the ones with contraband like some kind of mecha Papers, Please.

Still, I can already speak to the continued quality of MechWarrior's action from some hands-on time with Clans last year, and the game's new emphasis on squad tactics has me intrigued. The transition to its RTS-like "Battle Grid" view is seamless and in-engine, while you can queue up squad commands and set priority targets from any camera mode. Studio boss Bullock and narrative director Chris Lowrey characterize this change as one to expand your options rather than as a replacement for the series' signature mech pilot gameplay. "It gives you more options, especially if you're setting up support mechs with long range weapons. If you want them to hold a ridge, keep that vantage point," Lowrey explained.

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Mech approaches giant drop pod
Mech approaches giant drop pod

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BattleGrid view MechWarrior 5 Clans
BattleGrid view MechWarrior 5 Clans

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BattleGrid view MechWarrior 5 Clans
BattleGrid view MechWarrior 5 Clans

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Third person view base combat MechWarrior 5
Third person view base combat MechWarrior 5

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third person view attacking base in MechWarrior 5
third person view attacking base in MechWarrior 5

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cockpit view of combat in MechWarrior 5
cockpit view of combat in MechWarrior 5

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Mech dwarfed by towering cliff walls
Mech dwarfed by towering cliff walls

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Overview of preview level with base nestled in desert cliffs
Overview of preview level with base nestled in desert cliffs

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first person view lasers hitting enemy
first person view lasers hitting enemy

"We had a sort of dream of being able to do certain things from the Battle Grid," Bullock said, citing airstrike call-downs and other forms of combined arms attacks as this expanded Battle Grid's original impetus. "It just ballooned from there. In fact, it got to the point where I had to tell the team, 'OK, we're not making just a bad RTS, let's limit this thing down.'"

You can only control your squad within a certain range of your player character, and while the tactical options are robust, Bullock and Lowrey agreed that your individual skill as a pilot will still be the deciding factor in mission success, even at higher difficulties.

For another gameplay change, Clans is getting a particular focus on gamepad support. According to Bullock: "Maybe for the first time ever, you can truly play this game just as well with a controller as you can with mouse and keyboard." He cited a system of radial menus for squad commands, as well as an optional, simplified, more FPS-like control scheme (as opposed to the series' traditional driving-style controls) as the big sources of this new controller-friendliness.

Overall, Clans has already made a ton of progress since my first look at it back in August, and it's looking like a strong continuation of the mecha mini-renaissance we seem to be enjoying in games at the moment. MechWarrior 5: Clans is set to release later this year, and you can wishlist it on Steam.