Heavy metal thunder
MechWarrior 2 was a nifty cross between pure action and simulation, with a level of polish that lifted it above a host of competing giant robot fighting games. It resembled Lucasarts' X-Wing games in that respect, with its combination of accessible depth and slick audio and visual production. In terms of plot I have no idea how strictly it adheres to the Mechwarrior "universe", but basically the game puts you in charge of a series of fighting robots, and you have to blow up other robots and protect friendly installations and so forth. In this respect it was again very much like X-Wing or TIE Fighter, but set on the ground, and far in the future rather than a long time ago.
The impression of moving about in a giant robot was extremely well conveyed. Your robot strode around the landscape exactly as if it was a hundred feet tall and made of iron. The sound design was effective as well, with a good range of clanks and robot noises that added greatly to the experience. The voice acting of your robot computer and mission briefings etc was professional. The gouraud shaded 3D polygons were fast and detailed, and they moved well, with mass and heft. Later instalments in the series - the add-on pack Ghost Bear's Legacy, and the sequel Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries - pushed the engine beyond its limits, including underwater and indoors sequences, but plain old Mechwarrior 2 had a fine set of large, expansive alien landscapes. There were a couple of cities, and although most of the buildings were just shaded blocks, they seemed large and real. From what I remember the game supported the extravagant resolution of 1024x768, which was jerky unless you had a 486DX50 or something similar.
The game system had been well thought out, and benefited from its RPG roots. One of the best features was the way that you could customise your robot, indeed you could choose several different robot bodies. Each could store a certain weight of weapons and equipment in a certain set of locations, and if you overloaded your robot it moved slower, heated up quicker, and couldn't jump as far. The process of modifying your robot was uncomplicated, with enough depth to be fascinating, but not so much that it became tedious (MechWarrior 2 was superior to its sequels in this respect). The robot builder gave you an incentive to replay the entire game with a different robot design philosophy each time - you could have a large, slow-moving battleship, or a small, fast frigate that could dodge incoming missiles, or something in between. I remember completing most of the game in a fairly small and simple Nova, with six medium lasers set to salvo fire, blasting off the legs of opposition robots.
The missions were standard for this kind of thing - destroy the opposition nuclear reactor, defend the base, escort the train, that kind of thing. Most of the missions had hidden objectives that rewarded exploration. Some of the setpieces were impressive; after destroying the aforementioned reactor you had to dash out of range before your Mech was vaporised in an atomic white-out. The robots could be damaged in the arms and legs, knocking out functionality and weapons systems, which added to the tense atmosphere. Often you would enter the final phase of a mission with a missing arm and a wary eye.
Special mention must be made of the soundtrack. I have been playing computer games since the early 1980s and I have heard many of the great computer game soundtracks. I believe that the soundtrack for Mechwarrior 2 is one of the giants. The music was recorded with synthesisers and streamed from the CD, and I still listen to it occasionally. Despite some cheap-sounding synthesiser patches the composition nonetheless had depth and power, pulsing along purposefully at moderate tempo, exactly as the soundtrack to a game about giant robots should. It complimented the game perfectly. The music mixed a wide range of influences - bits of techno, Middle Eastern scales, Latin rhythms, stately Wagnerian chords, martial bass drums - to sublime effect. Whatever Activision paid for the soundtrack, they invested wisely, because it made the game seem twice as expensive as it was. The console versions of the game had dull metal soundtracks, and although they included most of the gameplay, they felt flat and dull compared to the PC version, because they didn't have the soundtrack.
The only real problem was the control scheme. Your robot's torso rotated independently of the legs, and it was often tricky to co-ordinate the two frames of reference. To be effective in combat you had to master the art of navigating around with your legs, side-slipping and jumping with your jump-jets, and targeting the enemy with your arms, which meant that you have to be deft with the keyboard and mouse. No doubt MechWarrior 2 sold lots of those multi-button joystick/rudder pedal combinations that were all the rage at the time.
I recall that there was a bug in the original release of the game, whereby your robot's left arm took much more damage than your right arm, and was consistently shot off early on in a mission. As a consequence it was advisable to put your weapons in the other arm. This was patched, but I have no idea if the patch is still available (or if later, budget re-releases of the game were patched).
Mechwarrior 2 is problematic with modern Windows XP PCs. From what I have read the DOS version of the game can be made to run with a bit of work, but the Windows 95 version is a dead loss, and in both cases it's tricky to get the game to recognise the CD, which means that you can't hear the soundtrack. I had a heck of a time getting my old DOS version working with Windows 98, because of some nonsense with VESA drivers.
The game predated the widespread adoption of 3D cards by about a year. Nonetheless it became a popular bundled title with the early PowerVR, 3DFX, Rendition Verite, and S3 Virge cards. The game didn't really benefit from 3D acceleration, however; the graphics were sharper, but the overall effect was poor, because the ground and sky textures remained small and obviously tiled. Unlike Tomb Raider, Carmageddon et al, each 3D accelerated version was specially coded for the specific card. I have to assume that the game does not have OpenGL support. Perhaps you have an old Voodoo2 hanging around somewhere. I preferred playing the game in software mode (a useful vector graphic "infra red" vision mode is absent in the 3D accelerated versions).
The Bottom Line
Mechwarrior 2 was a superlative game in its day, and it is my favourite of the modern-day 3D Mechwarrior games. I was disappointed with the sequels. I have no idea if the Mechwarrior series is still popular today.