Dusty But Trusty: MechWarrior 2

To qualify for a Dusty But Trusty article, a game must be old enough to vote in Nicaragua, buy tobacco in Djibouti, and make the beast with two backs in Nepal. More importantly, it must be demonstrably super, smashing, great, ace, wizard, bonzer, the knees of the bee, the testicles of the dog, and the whiskers and pyjamas of the cat. You don’t need rose-tinted pince-nez or a cutting-edge pixel pump to enjoy 24 karat golden oldies like… MechWarrior 2.

While I’m not qualified to answer any of these mech-related questions:

  • Why aren’t mechs covered head to foot in tiny cooling fins?
  • Why can’t all humanoid mechs rotate their torsos 360 degrees?
  • Why don’t mechs sport smoke mortars or generators?
  • How do mech pilots deal with minefields and swamps?
  • Why do Welsh mechs have to wait, on average, five months longer than English ones for a hip replacement?
  • Is MechWarrior 2 the best PC mech sim?

…I reckon I’m fairly well positioned to answer this one:

  • Does the thirty-year-old MW2 still have the ability to keep a discerning simmer royally entertained for a week or two?

Yes. Yes, it does.

Although the long-overdue reunion that inspired this article reminded me of shortcomings as well as strengths, when you’re stomping around dusty moons, with missiles and autocannon shells whistling past your head, and a mellifluous Nagging Nora dripping dire warnings into your ears, chances are those shortcomings won’t be uppermost in your mind.

Voiced by the prolific and perfectly cast Carole Ruggier, MW2’s cockpit Alexa delivers lines that ended up seared into the memories of countless gamers. Hearing “All systems nominal” and “Enemy power-up detected” again was like bumping into a pal I hadn’t seen in decades. And “Shutdown sequence initiated” closely followed by “Shutdown sequence overridden” produced a Pavlovian pleasure hit of Timber Wolf proportions.

Carole’s calm utterances, starkly contrasting as they often do with burgeoning player panic, are one of the reasons Activision’s 1995 hit doesn’t feel like a traditional armour sim in drag.

Another important distinguisher is an unhealthy preoccupation with temperature. If I’d been braver, this whole article would have been a paean to the game’s ‘O’ key. I can’t think of any more emotionally charged – emotionally complicated – actions available to a simmer than reaching for the shutdown override key in MW2. Your caring on-board computer is attempting to save you from yourself – to prevent you from pushing your heat level into spontaneous explosion territory through extravagant energy weapon use – but you know, or think you know, better. Confident you can keep that temp bar from going completely crimson, and convinced that another fusillade or two is the only way out of your current predicament, you pull rank and punch the big, dangerous override button. Anxiety, excitement, rebelliousness, empowerment… one key press, so many sensations.

Strict Panzer sim loyalists also never get to experience the thrill of jump-jetting over hills and buildings…

…the novelty of viewing the world in damage-revealing wireframe form…

…or the surge of relief that comes when you arrive at a dust-off navpoint in a war machine that’s missing much of its armour and significant parts of its anatomy…

Unlike Shermans and their siblings, unscathed mechs are never slain with single shots. Instead, hits steadily whittle away armour, leaving limbs vulnerable to traumatic amputation, and vitals such as engines, cockpits and ammo bins ripe for destruction.

Because MW2’s ambling AFVs often wear their weaponry on their sleeves, losing an arm has serious offensive consequences. Even more calamitous is losing a leg. As mechs have, for reasons known only to FASA Corp, limited torso traverse, the second you destroy one of their stomp stilts, they transform into easily-flanked pillboxes. One of the sim’s most satisfying experiences is ‘legging’ a particularly intimidating foe then leisurely delivering the coup de grâce from a position of complete safety.

Legging isn’t just satisfying, it’s a vital tactic in some of MW2’s fun but fiendishly difficult campaign missions. Arranged in two linear, win-to-progress sequences, and sometimes involving tricky escort details, a number of the 32 campaign sorties teeter on the edge of ‘maddening’ at times.

Thankfully, multiple failures generally indicate a poor choice of personal mech and ‘starmate’ (often you get to take a taskable wingman into battle), rather than an unbridgeable skill gulf. Go back to the lab and pick a machine with, say, more pace or better long-range fire capability, and suddenly that exasperating section in the valley where you have to protect the convoy, becomes noticeably easier.

All of the game’s myriad mech types come in different variants and are amenable to customisation. Even if you opt for an off-the-shelf spec you’ll probably want to tweak your steed’s fire logic at the start of an outing. By default, weapons discharge in turn which isn’t always ideal. Old hands like to group weapons by range, heat cost, or situation severity, then activate those groups when appropriate.

Would MW2 have benefited from more sim-like subtleties? Radar modes? Engine management? Countermeasures? Possibly, but in the same way the sim doesn’t need detailed 3D cockpits or textured terrain to sell its central conceit effectively, I’d argue it doesn’t require additional complexity. That rhythmically bouncing canopy frame surrounded by toggleable HUD elements, that heartbeat-like STOMP-STOMP-STOMP punctuated by weapon reports and Carole’s contributions… working in concert they achieve remarkable things.

Gregory Alper and Jeehun Hwang’s rousing score also does sterling work. If I ever get around to organising a THC Top Ten Game Soundtracks vote, I’d be surprised if MW2’s didn’t end up jockeying with Outlaws’ near the top of the chart.

Two areas where Activision arguably could and should have aimed higher are AI and H2H combat. While the Mercenaries add-on (which I’ve yet to revisit) silenced most campaign complainers by introducing a richer, branchier, and more malleable long-game, I think I’m right in saying, it didn’t completely eradicate occasional pathfinding problems or introduce foes that properly understood weapon advantages. Sadly, it also didn’t let mechs pummel or kick the living daylights out of each other. Dropping on an enemy from a great height or running into them at speed does cause damage in MW2, but fist fights and mecha kung fu are impossible.

Thanks to the thoughtful, tech-savvy fan behind MechWarrior 2 Portable you don’t need to dig out old discs or grapple with DosBox settings to play this Dusty But Trusty today. All that stands between you and a corking intro cinematic…

…and a spine-tingling “All systems nominal” is a quick search followed by a 470MB download.


  1. This has been on my list to play since… well, about 1995! This will bump it up on my lost, if only I can tear myself away from the DCS F-4 for a brief moment.

  2. A Mechwarrior 2 CD came bundled with a sound card or graphics card I purchased in the late 90s, and it wasn’t until at least a couple years later that I learned I probably should have installed it.

    Based on this, it sounds like exactly the type of game I used to love. I know dynamic campaigns are some sort of holy grail, but a good scripted one made to take full advantage of the game it was designed for was usually very immersive.

  3. Ouch! Ow! Right into the nostalgia glands. I had almost forgotten how much I miss that title.

    I can full-hartedly recommend to Tim and all of you considering playing this to go straight to the Mercenaries expansion. I could not even tell you how often I restarted it. And while fully dynamic campaigns are always preferable, saving your credits for THAT specific Mech you were ogling at during the last playthrough just kept calling me back again and again. The difficulty just sat right with my younger self and unlike later iterations of the franchise, the mission design was relatively rich in variety. And you get these cherished underdog vibes and being your own man, which the Clan campaign of the main game lacked.

  4. Thanks Tim, what a fantastic article, what a nice surprise! The second I started listening to THAT soundtrack.. BOOM! OMG I had completely forgotten how much I loved it and this game!! The memories came flooding back; my younger self used to take the game CD along with me so many times years ago in my newly purchased CD Walkman haha! Now listening to the ‘MechWarrior 2 Definitive Soundtrack’ in FLAC format (courtesy of the Video Game Music site) https://downloads.khinsider.com/game-soundtracks/album/mechwarrior-2-definitive-soundtrack

    Of particular interest on that page is the nice CD booklet (including an interview with composer Jeehun Hwang). Well, that’s a must-have for me. Thanks again for reminding me of it!

    Interestingly, I find it plays surprisingly well in the background in WW2 desert warfare scenarios, e.g. Graviteam’s Tank Warfare: Tunisia 1943 and Theatre of War 2: Africa 1943. Now, if only the Battlefront boys would allow us to buy an updated Combat Mission: Afrika Korps. Why on earth didn’t they revisit WW2 North Africa in CMx2? They came close in CMFI, but not close enough to El Alamein, Torbruk and Kasserine Pass for a proper Desert Fox fix. I’m sure enough of us old history grogs would buy it right now. I mean, wouldn’t it be a bigger seller than their latest CMCW? Isn’t CMCW all about “what if’s” with fantasy scenarios rather than historical campaigns and battles that actually happened (which are arguably more interesting to recreate and play out)?

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