Mech some noise
If there were ever a franchise that has become popular in the mainstream by stealth, it’s BattleTech. The now thirty-year-old tabletop war game is rarely remembered these days, but it has endured in geek hearts thanks to a multitude of spinoffs, be it through its almost seventy published novels, pen-and-paper RPG, insanely cool networked LAN cabinets or the hugely popular MechWarrior sim series on PC. Developer Harebrained Schemes already has experience in resurrecting old properties on the PC through its well-received Shadowrun reboot, so it seems perfectly fitting that it’s given BattleTech the same treatment, bringing it back to its squad-based tactical roots.
You’ll have heard a lot of people describe this game as ‘Game of Thrones with robots’. Putting aside the fact that this property predates A Song of Ice and Fire by about a decade, the comparison is fairly apt. In the distant future, mankind has somehow managed to colonise the stars while regressing to a feudal social state. Sectors of space are governed by various aristocratic Houses that have spent centuries waging war with giant piloted robots known as Battlemechs (or the lore-sanctioned abbreviation, ‘‘Mechs’). Due to the intensity of the conflict and the incredible distances between colonies, mankind is rapidly losing the knowledge to create this tech, making the few remaining operational ‘Mechs highly valuable, and almost irreplaceable.
The game takes place in the Aurigan Reach, a peripheral corner of the BattleTech universe, and casts you as a mercenary commander aligned with a deposed aristocrat striving to free her rightful fiefdom from the oppressive yoke of her traitorous uncle. It’s a smartly-chosen premise, allowing the player the chance to partake in the universe’s political struggles, while getting to poke around other regions as well (with copious tooltips on hand to explain the vast number of names and references thrown your way).
The meat of the game is the turn-based combat, adapted from the original tabletop game. You take control of a squad (or ‘lance’ in the game’s lexicon) of ‘Mechs to carry out a range of mission types. Although many have compared the gameplay to modern squad-based games like the new XCOM series, BattleTech has a far more methodical pace to it. You’re playing with robots the size of small buildings, so movement is slower yet far more crucial to survival simply because anything that makes these monstrous hunks of metal and wire harder to hit, is a potentially fight-winning advantage.
Moves have a value in Evasion points, represented by a row of chevrons on the movement cursor. The more Evasion points you can accumulate, the higher your chances of survival, so it follows that constant mobility is essential. However, the kicker is that getting fired upon uses up your stored Evasion, and both your and the enemy’s ‘Mechs are allowed to move at different points in the round based on their weight rating.
In practical terms, this makes the combat as much about anticipation as reaction. Case in point: your ‘Mech is being moved upon by one of the enemy’s light tanks. You can move and thus have a good chance of dodging its fire, but that comes with the risk of opening yourself up to a heavy ‘Mech, with more powerful weapons, later in the round. You could stand your ground in the knowledge that the tank’s fire probably won’t make much of a dent, or you can fall back to a safer position that will give you the evasion to dodge the tank’s shot, while staying well out of the heavy ‘Mech’s way. Unlike most tactical games, which strive to keep propelling the player forward at all times, in BattleTech sometimes a step or two’s retreat is the wisest play.
This must also be juggled with things like ammo count, and heat level when using some of the heavier-duty weapons. Nothing’s more nerve-wracking than having to set your heaviest-armed ‘Mech to Brace — effectively snoozing it for an entire turn — because it’s glowing orange and sustaining damage while it cooks itself from the inside. Equippable heat sinks can ameliorate this risk to an extent, but overheating is a constant worry when bringing significant firepower to the table.
The game’s damage system brings with it a whole new set of concerns, and leads into the strategic, management-focused layer of BattleTech. Your ‘Mechs can have their armour stripped, and have limbs and weapons shot off; in fact, they often do. That stuff takes money (or ‘c-bills’ in the game’s currency) to repair, with downtimes sometime stretching to weeks. The same applies to your roster of pilots, who can be out injured for just as long and still require monthly wages.
At this point, the game essentially becomes Mech Manager 3025, as you balance the needs of a steadily growing and squad of MechWarriors, upgrading their abilities using XP gained from missions, while maintaining an extremely high-maintenance armoury of ‘Mechs and earning enough cash from contracts to keep the lights on. Even inter-system travel, via specialised JumpShips, has its own cost in travel time and c-bills. It’s a viciously tricky prospect, especially in the early game where, as an understaffed, under-resourced and unknown merc start-up operation, you’re just barely covering costs month-to-month, and progress is measured by how far you can keep ahead of bankruptcy.
Where the management systems intersect with the combat is where BattleTech starts to work its true magic. ‘Mech combat is a fundamentally messy business, as you’d expect from giant robots shooting and punching the shit out of each other. It’s about attrition and the acceptance that damage, and the attendant repair costs, is simply all part of the exercise. True to the original tabletop game, damage dealt and received is handled by modifier-influenced number generation (or, as us old tabletop farts call them, ‘dice rolls’) meaning that the result of a hit can never be fully predicted. A direct hit may just whittle away some of the ‘Mech’s armour, or shear a limb clean off its chassis, permanently junking any attached weaponry. If you’re really unlucky, the enemy might get a kill-shot straight to your ‘Mech’s torso, instantly killing the pilot.
This can be devastating, since the game does an excellent job of making your pilots different enough to have real personality, and easily lovable. Some, like the perpetually chirpy Glitch, are just fun to have around, while others have skill-based characteristics. The game has never felt more brutal yet more absorbing than when Medusa, my ace marksman, was taken out by a lucky shot while giving cover to his comrades, or when dependable melee specialist Root was juiced by an enemy ‘Mech’s fist. Other pilots work their way into your heart for less productive reasons, such as the chronically accident-prone Dekker (whose spectacular uselessness has now garnered him a degree of Internet fame).
It’s not all bad news, however. Good performance in combat generates Morale, which can be spent on perks for your Mechwarriors. Sensor Lock lets you ‘reveal’ distant enemies to your entire lance, often letting you get the drop on them at range, while Multi-Shot allows a pilot to direct different weapons at two targets. The most fun ability, however, is Precision Shot, which allows a guaranteed targeted hit on any available section of an enemy. You build new, bigger ‘Mechs from salvaged parts, and sometimes you may want to destroy an enemy’s legs to keep its core components intact.
One of BattleTech’s biggest strengths is that it realises that giant robots slowly tearing each other apart chunk by chunk never gets old, even when it’s being done to yours. This is aided by some fantastically chunky sound design, ballistic weapons like the AC-10 cannon sounding satisfyingly brutal. The relative advantages of blind-fire versus aimed shots versus melee, with a degree of control as to how quickly or methodically you want to take the enemy apart, provides a wealth of tactical options. Harebrained Schemes has done a fine job of translating to the screen what makes tabletop gaming so fun, making BattleTech a joy to play.
That’s not to say it doesn’t make you suffer for that enjoyment, though. As is likely becoming evident, BattleTech is an extremely complicated game. Sadly, one with a rather anaemic tutorial system that just loves to throw up crucial tooltips at moments when there’s already a lot going on, then never mentioning these things again (apart from the odd vaguely-written loading screen splash).
Take the movement mechanic, for example: I’m pretty sure I saw a tip come up at some early point explaining what the Evasion pips meant, but was too busy figuring out the movement system to absorb the concept fully until much later in the game. Similarly, while contract missions are made available early on, it doesn’t make clear the absolute necessity of doing as many as you can before attempting the next part of the campaign. Some of the story missions are an absolute bitch to get through without levelled-up pilots and better ‘Mechs, which is precisely what the contracts get you in the long term. This kind of thing can be infuriating over long-term play, when you suddenly realise that you haven’t been playing the game properly and end up short on resources as the late game nears, and could have easily been helped with clearer instruction.
Thankfully, there exists a wealth of tips videos on YouTube to explain these concepts a bit better; my recommendation is the highly entertaining playthrough series by Waypoint’s Austin Walker and Rob Zacny. As long-time BattleTech fans, they provide a wealth of information on the franchise’s lore and mechanics, while clarifying key systems far better than the game itself manages to.
Also, it has to be said that the game launched in a rather poorly-optimised state. My own experience has been fairly good, apart from long loading times and one or two crashes, but according to Steam user reviews some have found the game practically unplayable on their rigs. Post-launch patches have improved performance to a notable extent, but it remains a bit of a memory hog; anyone with less than 8GB onboard may want to proceed with caution.
This situation probably isn’t helped by the game insisting on long, drawn-out animations every time an enemy unit performs an action, which becomes extremely tedious at best and performance-murdering at worst. One hopes that at the very least, someone will cook up an equivalent of the brilliant XCOM 2 ‘Don’t Waste My Time’ mod to speed things up if the developers don’t address it.
Flawed but consistently thrilling, BattleTech remains an excellent game that provides one of the better adaptations of a miniature-based wargame on the market. Not only that, thanks to smart writing it also acts as a superb introduction to the world of BattleTech itself, accessible to lore junkies and dystopian sci-fi fans as well as giant punching robot enthusiasts (and really, who in their right mind isn’t one of those?). On this showing, it seems likely that as 2018 closes this one will go down in the books as one of the year’s unlikeliest yet most rewarding surprise packages.