You are sitting in the cockpit of a gigantic robot called a mech. Everything around you is quiet, save the the rhythmic crunch of massive, mechanical legs. You look around. Nothing moves but your cockpit and guns, bobbing as the mech walks. A red dot on your radar tells you that an enemy mech is not far away. You circle around, guns ready.
That’s when you see them.
Your mouse hand freezes and your mind races: left or right click? You press the right button, firing a rocket, which proves to be the wrong choice: The enemy effortlessly dodges it. Instinctively, you switch to the rapid-fire assault gun mapped to your left button.
A few stray bullets hit your opponent, but they’re strafing side-to-side, jets spouting from their legs, so they’re hard to hit. Your gun is overheating and the enemy knows it – they fire a tangle of rockets right at you. You hit the spacebar, sending you straight up into the air. The rockets sail beneath you. Higher now, you see the enemy mech look up. It opens fire, but too late.
They forgot to keep moving. Your finger presses the right button: rocket. It hits the opposing mech and you watch the health bar go down to just a small nub. Left button, now. A few bullets later, and you’ve won.
Hawken is a quiet, slow, simple game about blowing the hell out of giant robots.
Being an online-only competitive shooter, the story doesn’t matter much. At the beginning, you’re given a free starter mech, a brief but effective set of tutorials, and left to see what happens when you enter a real match. Playing matches earns experience points, which increase your mech’s level and can be used to buy upgrades, new equipment and entirely new mechs. At the moment, there are four game types: free-for-all, team skirmish, and two objective based modes, missile assault and siege.
The game takes place in a variety of washed-out, sullen environments—cities, mostly—that you see from a first-person perspective from inside your mech’s cockpit. They’re lonely places, drenched in a film-grain filter. Your mech traipses through them slowly, and while the settings are compact to encourage firefights, they’re not cramped. Each is designed to give you the ability to surprise people—jumping down from ledges, leaping out of trenches, or busting around corners. These considerations keep the game fresh, with interesting and unexpected situations arising frequently.
Piloting your mech is easy enough to understand: you have two different guns to shoot, you can jump and hover, and you can sprint. There are also a few abilities that you can equip: things like transitioning to a slower defensive mode, temporarily increasing damage, or periodic active camouflage. From those basic actions and abilities spring some of the most memorable videogame firefights in recent memory. The depth and kinetic joy of stringing each of them together into a longer, fluid battle maneuver is what will keep you coming back to Hawken. But keep in mind that the mechs, compared to many other things you control in games, are not agile. It takes time to swivel around and target an opponent, to round a corner or move at full speed, or just to go from place to place. It’s all purposefully imprecise.
What you’ll like most about this slow pace is that it gives you glorious time to think. In the crevices between the actions, you find time to process and make choices. You don’t get caught up in the fervor. For example, most of the weapons come in two flavors: slow-firing projectiles or rapid-fire automatic weapons. You have to learn the best applications for each. If you’re going to shoot a projectile, you better be sure it’ll hit—they take time to recharge, and wasting one will leave you outgunned for some time. But when they do make contact, you irreversibly change the battle. With the automatic weapons, you run the risk of your gun overheating if you fire too long. You have to gauge when to fire aggressively, when to shoot conservatively, or when to take evasive action.
This amplifies the importance of every action a player takes. You’ll see your options laid out in front of you in the key junctures of every fight, and the thrill of these split-second, kill-or-be-killed decisions doesn’t get old. Success becomes more rewarding and mistakes become more apparent, all because the slow pace lets you see what got you in that mess. This makes Hawken a satisfying and compulsively playable game. You always think you can get them next time.
It would have been easy for the developers at Adhesive Games to over-complicate things, to add in too many abilities, too many guns or even too many actions-per-second. But they play it smart, making the game stand on polished, simple mechanics. Even the HUD is minimal, with a lot of information being communicated through the grimy inside of your mech’s cockpit. It’s an elegant solution that gives players all the information they need without being distracting.
Unfortunately, the ugliness that is the cash store takes away from the experience. At the beginning, you’re limited to the basic starter mech. More mechs, as well as equipment upgrades, are available for purchase. You can earn the in-game funds to buy these by simply playing the game, but accruing the funds to buy a new machine will take a long time. Too long, probably, but you can always expedite the process by shelling out cash. Fortunately, Hawken is not a play-to-win game: Any upgrades or additional mechs can be earned without paying a cent, if you’re patient.
There is a certain level of customization available for each mech, and it helps make them feel like your own. You can name them, specify a color scheme and also choose from a host of guns, upgrades and items. This allows you to tailor your mech to fit the style you want to play, and also gives you a feeling of progression—some customization slots don’t open up until you reach a certain level. Many upgrades and items require in-game currency to unlock, but again, it’s not restricted to only paying customers —you can accrue enough funds to buy them by simply playing a lot.
Hawken is as finely-tuned and enjoyable as any other shooter out there, and it’s worth mentioning that the game is free to play. It’s a shooter about strategy and decision-making that boasts a surprising amount of depth without being overly complex. It’s the kind of game that makes you pump your fist when you’re doing good and recoil in horror when you see the mistake that’s about to cost you your life. It’s a game about the little choices that mean success or failure. Hawken is currently in open beta, but it feels complete—it’s free, but it doesn’t feel cheap.
Adam Harshberger is a freelance writer and the founder of games blog Pixels or Death. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHarshberger.