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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

AirMech Arena

By on 3:10 PM

One player might rock up to a base as a flying saucer, spitting laser bolts at the cyborg defenders. So Player 2 flies in a heavy tank and a mobile repair facility to help out. Then, Player 1 transforms into a robot quadruped equipped with a War of the Worldsian death ray. And then Player 3 arrives at the head of a billion armoured cars, having spent the past five minutes building absolutely nothing else.

Finally, once Players 1-3 are a heap of smoking LEGO bricks, Player 4 rolls into town and casually claims the base. In most strategy games, this sort of escalation can take maybe half-an-hour, as construction queues gradually diminish and armies ponderously amass. In this one, it's generally over in seconds. At times, AirMech's pace puts even old school competitive shooters like Quake to shame.
The more obvious parallel is Herzog Zwei, Technosoft's 1989 mech blaster for the MegaDrive. As in the former, your mech can transform into a flying vehicle in order to ferry AI-controlled troops around the battlefield, reverting to ground-based form in order to access more powerful combat abilities like missiles and blade attacks. You'll also set build orders for units, turrets, resource generators and power-ups using the D-pad - the construction bar is a bit confusing, thanks mainly to the size of the icons, but workable with practice.
New units can be collected from any base in your territory and either given their marching orders (attack, patrol, stay put, etc) or transported to a hotspot, where they'll be only too happy to expire immediately in a puff of shrapnel. In a nod to multiplayer online battle arenas like DOTA, bases also churn out free, underpowered "Creeps" who trickle across the map towards the enemy's HQ, raising a flag over any undefended bases they encounter on the way.
It's both thoughtful and frantic, and supported by a small but healthy mode selection: team-based head-to-head for up to six players, co-op missions for up to four, and offline wave survival or vanilla skirmish battles for solo players. There's also an extremely addictive albeit laggy Spectate mode, but not much in the way of a single player story beyond the tutorial. Still, the tech tree is large and straggly enough to create longevity: there are new mechs to buy and customise, different Pilots (i.e. parcels of stat buffs) to unlock and level up, and cosmetic bolt-ons such as novelty mech sunglasses and Club Penguin-style pets.

If you can't be bothered to level up, you can always buy diamonds with real money to unlock new items, including those that bequeath tactical advantages. This could ultimately prejudice multiplayer in favour of those with cash to blow, but at the time of writing, AirMech Arena is so savagely receptive to improvisation that statistical advantages are generally swamped. A boost to your mech's XP generation isn't going to help much if your opponent airlifts a bunch of missile turrets into a nearby chokepoint. Approach with caution, though, if you've been burned by microtransactions in the past.
Like an overlooked outpost lurking in the corner of the map, Xbox Live Arcade continues to be a surprising source of quality contenders - games like Abyss Odyssey, Blood of the Werewolf and Telltale's Walking Dead titles. AirMech Arena isn't the best the platform has to offer, but it's an engrossing, intelligent sim that should help alleviate the summer drought. Disagree? A million stealth bombers says you're wrong.


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