A sequel to Hawken was certainly not on my 2023 bingo card. Five years after the multiplayer mech FPS shut down on PC, now requiring a fan-made fix even just to play offline against bots, I didn’t expect to ever again dash around its cool sci-fi cityscapes as a charmingly scrappy little stomper. So I was excited when publishers 505 Games announced a singleplayer follow-up Hawken Reborn on Monday then launched it into early access two days later. Having now played it, oh dear. You know, it’s okay for the dead to stay dead.
So, your spaceship crash-lands on a planet quarantined due to a nanite infestation and a friendly faction pulls you from the wreckage. Then something something PMCs blah blah revered old tech whatever whatever ooh how mysterious who are you doing things and you get to stomp around in a mech doing fights. It’s an uninteresting blast of sci-fi words and emptiness, and wrapped in dull banter between NPCs. But the important part is: mechs.
You start with a cute scrappy little mech about the size of a two-up two-down terraced house, an agile lad more Titanfall than MechWarrior. You have two arms with guns stuck on the ends. Left-click to fire left arm, right-click to fire right arm. Hit shift for a quick directional dash with your jetpack, hit space to jump, and hold space to soar into the air. Now go shoot things.
In its initial early access state, Hawken is singleplayer-only, although it is still built upon an online framework. 505 Games plan to add cooperative multiplayer by the time it leaves early access, a period they predict will last 18 months. It currently has a chain of six story missions, plus a free-roaming Patrol mode which shares the same space and fills it with random enemies and random busywork quests (think how Destiny 2 uses parts of its patrol zones for story missions too).
Here’s how missions tend to go. Start by following waypoint markers or an allied mech. After a bit of boring jargon-filled exposition and crap banter over the radio, enemies arrive. Mechs and drones will teleport in, while soldiers will either teleport or spill out of doors conspicuously marked by orange lights. Kill them and another wave will spawn. Kill them too, run around to hoover up all the glowing drops of ammo and crafting materials, then resume following the checkpoints or mech to your objective. Once you reach the computer/crate/wreckage/device, hold F for four seconds to hack the computer/pick up the crate/scan the wreckage/disable the device. Fight two waves of enemies while NPCs blether away. At this point, you might need to hold F for four seconds on several more objects, or perhaps escort an automated cargo vehicle which moves slower than your walking speed and so will likely get left behind and stop moving while you’re busy holding W and thinking about what to make for lunch. Either way, you’ll end up following the waypoints/friendly mech again and fighting an odd wave or two as you go. When you finally reach the mission’s climax, fight three tougher waves, maybe hold F for four seconds on some objects, then wrap up with bad banter as you walk back to base.
This rehearsal would be fine if Hawken Reborn’s violence was fun. It is not. Strangely for a mech FPS, enemy mechs feel much less of a threat than foot soldiers or hovering drones. Drones can zoom up to ruthlessly murder you while soldiers will steadily chip at your shields from afar and stop them regenerating, so the first step of any battle is to click on these little dots on the horizon. Then you’re free to casually stroll up to the big metal boys and gun them down by holding both mouse buttons for three seconds. Dashing does feel cool when you sidestep an incoming missile, but enemies usually wield hitscan guns and lasers so it’s mostly useful for dashing into cover to let shields regenerate. And very strangely for a mech FPS, you can’t even squish soldiers underfoot. No stompy squishing in a mech FPS! Outrageous.
Even this boring combat might be tolerable if Hawken Reborn were pretty enough for a good bit of gawking. The original Hawken turned heads with its striking sci-fi cities and installations, built in impractical and interesting shapes and covered in so many greebles and wires and signs. It was cool, confident, extravagant. That 2011 prototype video still looks great! Hawken Reborn, in contrast, is set in snotty green-brown valleys and woodlands that are dotted with wreckage and bland prefab buildings. It’s not interesting to look at, and it’s so strange that 505 Games have ditched an aesthetic that was probably the most memorable aspect of the original Hawken (which, I should note, was created by Adhesive Games before passing hands twice to end up with 505 in 2016).
What pushes Hawken Reborn from forgettable to unpleasant is its entire setup as a free-to-play game. It feels built to prey on your pocket money by making a misery out of a part which should be great fun: building and customizing mechs.
Hawken Reborn lets you build whole new mechs as well as upgrade mech parts and weapons. Maybe you want to swap your machine gun out for a laser and wham on a shotgun, then boost your shields and charge your engines. Crafting uses the many materials and schematics you scavenge from corpses and junk. The game freely offers a few wee upgrades in crafting tutorials, and from then on it’s all grindy and uninteresting.
After I had completed the current campaign and pootled a bit around Patrol, gathering every glowing resource drop I saw and smashing every scrap pile, I had not collected enough materials to craft even one new gun. Abandoning my dreams of stompy new toys, I spent what I had on upgrading my current gear. One upgrade reduced a gun’s reload time from 2 seconds to 1.98 seconds. What a dizzying thrill.
Oh, but if you don’t have enough resources to complete something, the game will helpfully point out that you can buy just enough parts, calculating a bespoke price to finish the job. This costs ‘Scrip’, a microtransaction currency bought in bundles for real money. You can also buy new mechs and equipment outright with Scrip from a store. Right now, for example, one mech is on sale for 1161 Scrip. Anyone who’s played a hostile free-to-play game before will not be surprised to learn that this is just a little more than you can buy in a single bundle, with the closest being 1100 Scrip (£3.99) and 2400 Scrip (£7.99) ).
You could grind Patrols to earn resources to get the fanciest mechs and guns without spending a penny of real money, but I cannot begin to calculate how long that would take. The game clearly doesn’t expect you to do this. Everything feels weighted to be punishing and tedious in the hope that you will be tempted to pay to skip the grind. And then you have to overspend on Scrip, so then you have leftovers, so then… ah, you know this sort of unpleasant free-to-play economy all too well by now. And yes, it does hand you a little Scrip to start, just enough to see how convenient it is.
It’s hard to tell the final shape of Hawken Reborn this early in early access. It feels like a big part of the endgame will be playing Patrols, which have a Tarkov-ish element of risking losing everything you’ve gathered on a run if you die. Some Patrol areas have tougher enemies, and all enemies get tougher over time, so you’ll need a decent mech to last long and get the goodies. But that’s only a reason to grind, not motivation. Why bother when Hawken Reborn is so uninteresting and values your time so little?
In a world already too full of live service games which ache to monopolize your time and wear you down with ungenerous grind until microtransactions become tempting, Hawken Reborn so far seems another also-ran. Borrowing the name of a game which people remember fondly only makes it more disappointing. And it doesn’t even have that cool Hawken city.