I know I’ve said something akin to this before, both in reviews and our myriad Darkstation podcasts, but I’m a fan of big robots. Part of that love goes back to my first PC, and my brother coming home with Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries. A game within the incredibly detailed BattleTech universe, Mercenaries put you in charge of a Mercenary band of Mechwarriors, controlling everything from the type of missions you would go on to financing your group.
I don’t remember a whole ton of details but I do remember pouring over Mech specs for hours, trying to find new weapon configurations for my favorite BattleMech, the Warhammer. As great as it was, that was probably also the last time I thought about BattleTech in general. Well, until I heard BattleTech was coming out.
That statement is a little confusing, so let me clear it up a bit. Developed by Harebrained Schemes, who, on top of being founded by one of the creators of the BattleTech franchise, created the successful Shadowrun Returns with help from Kickstarter, BattleTech is a turn-based strategy game that captures the essence of the old school tabletop board game and combines it with a new school feel reminiscent of the most recent X-COM titles. It is everything a BattleTech game should be, and that’s as much of a double-edged sword as it sounds like.
BattleTech’s timeline reads like a mix of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robotech, where space is split between a huge swathe of ruling royal houses, each defending their own portion of space from the next with giant BattleMechs, while mercenary groups roam the Periphery, trying to eek out a living fighting for whatever side can provide the most C-Bills. The campaign takes place in the Aurigan Reach, one of the realms in the Periphery, and deals with Lady Kamea Arano, a high lady trying desperately to rebuild her home. Her uncle - as all evil uncles do - has other plans, and stages a coup. Your character was running protection for her, brought in because you knew her chief guard Raj, and owned your own Mech, and is instrumental in trying, unsuccessfully, to get her off the planet.
Waking up on a mercenary vessel off planet, you are introduced to Darius, current head of the small mercenary band that rescues you, and your eventual first officer when taking over as Commander three years later. As a quick side note, the campaign starts with a small character creator, letting you choose your name and call sign, the portrait you want to use for your character panel, and which pronoun you would like to be referred to as. It’s a really small thing, but it’s one that goes a long way towards equal representation.
Deep in debt to the banking guilds, the repossession of your ship lorded over you as you deal with the mounting costs of running a mercenary lance, the story takes off running when a mystery client offers to pay off your debt for help unearthing an old spaceship called the Argos.
While the story picks up and actually manages to go places, your primary duty is running your lance. As Commander, voted into the position by the other members who did not want the responsibility, you are in control of deciding which jobs to take, negotiating the payout, and eventually deciding on how to upgrade and expand your ship and veritable army of Mechs. Mech set up is run out of the Mech Bay, and as is the standard with BattleTech, customization is the name of the game.
For those new to the series, BattleMechs come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, and all of them are split between three main weight classes: light, medium, and heavy. Light mechs speed around the field of battle, carrying around small arms and keeping their larger brethren on their toes. Heavy mechs, loaded to their tonnage capacity with all the bells, whistles, and armaments their giant frames can hold, are the equivalent of a walking battleship, leaving their medium weight cousins to toe the line between maneuverability and power. Everything they're equipped with, from heat sinks to giant long-range missile batteries, is fully customizable. Now, that being said, you can’t just throw anything anywhere, but Mech Bay helpfully highlights which sections can hold each kind of equipment, making the process of setting up your mechs a whole lot easier than I remember it being.
Once you have set up your mech lance, or group of four mercenaries, and are ready to take on a job, BattleTech switches over to a ground map display. Moving across the map is handled via a simple point and click interface, with movable points marked out in a kind of augmented reality grid. I preferred to watch from a near bird's eye view, but the game does allow you to get very close to the action, with a special camera called out for specific shots and zoom-ins. Once a battle begins, participants are laid out across the top in turn order, with lighter mechs going generally first.
As opposed to something like an X-COM, where cover and not moving play as much a part as being able to fire a weapon, BattleTech is all about movement. Moving mechs build up evasion points, making them harder to hit, so staying in motion not only helps you survive, but it makes the battles feel more dynamic. Mech combat is also all about positioning, and Harebrained Scheme does a fantastic job in laying out all the information you need, from armor breakdowns while targeting, to easily readable stability and heat gauges on every combatant's ID bar. In fact, it’s almost too much, and outside of a very basic combat scenario/tutorial, you are thrown to the wolves to make it work.
And just like X-COM, BattleTech is entirely unforgiving. In fact, where the former only made you worry about their lives, not quite as trivial as I am making it sound, but stick with me here, playing BattleTech made me increasingly nervous about any point of damage my mechs took. You see, as a mercenary, everything, from the mechwarriors you hire to fight in your hulking robots, to the upkeep of various additions you make to your ship, costs C-Bills. Every time you mech takes a hit, outside of minor armor damage, costs C-Bills. Take on a job that pays you 400K, but walks out of it with three downed mechs and pilots, and suddenly that payday is spent not only on repairs, but your pilots could be down and out for as long as 90 days, and hiring new ones costs money as well.
In fact, if I have one major complaint about Battletech, it’s that every mistake feels like it costs way more than it should, in both money and time. While I know it wasn’t the case, I felt like every engagement my character entered was built around destroying the mech he was in and sending him back to the medbay for the max amount of time allowable. It was hilarious almost to the point of crying about four missions in, when, having just chosen a job that’s travel time ended just as he was healed from his last injury, he was nearly insta-killed during the first round. Did I accidentally position his mech on unstable ground? Yes. Did he take a lucky shot from the hot plasma of a PPC followed up by a bevy of missiles that knocked him prone? Yes, yes he did. And then, of course, the three other mechs on the field turned their attention to the downed big body and pelted him until his center torso exploded, but that was to be expected. Am I just complaining now? Yes, but even without the catastrophic damage I described, it feels almost X-COM levels of cheap to go in with a good plan, execute it well, and walk out the other end two mechs down and half of your squad put up in the med bay for three ticks of your monthly financial bills coming due.
Despite all the damage, though, I was able to stay afloat through careful management and some lucky breaks of my own. Which I think, really, is the point of it all. Taking advantage of the environment, whether by using the terrain or breaks in line of sight, or even just keeping a watchful eye on your heat gauge, and using it to determine whether or not you fire all of your lasers at the mech in front of you or just go with your missiles because your chassis couldn’t take the structural damage penalty from overheating, all of it, any of it, or hell, even something else completely different could mean the difference between winning and losing. Also, none of this would matter if the information was hard to come by, but thankfully, tooltips abound in BattleTech. Nearly every piece of text and stat can be hovered over to glean more information, from the history of a realm to the percentage of your LRM-20 to hit that turret over there on the hill.
As far as depicting the battles, my PC, as modest as it is compared to what seems like the army of bitcoin mining supercomputers out there, was able to hold a more than decent frame rate through a huge variety of encounters. In fact, the only times I ran into frame issues were during the initial load of a map, and that lasted for no more than a couple of seconds. Load times were much more of a problem, though, with the loads in and out of combat sometimes lasting more than a minute. Yes, there is a ton of stuff loading up, and I am more than willing to front-load rather than try to get it all done during the encounter itself, but it was still enough of an issue that I kept my phone handy.
The BattleMechs themselves look amazing and watching them stamp across the battlefield to blow each other up never stopped being entertaining. Lazers fire and cook with a delicious intensity, while rockets spin through the air on their way to their intended target, whether or not they actually hit it aside. Nothing tops BattleMechs in melee though, with big robotic fists, legs, or bodies, slamming into each other. The first time I hit another mech square in the torso and watched its center explode while it tumbled to the ground, I nearly let out a scream.
A well-made and managed tactical experience, BattleTech is perfect for newcomers and veterans to mech warfare. While getting over the initial information hump and the more than occasional mech lost to seemingly random chance can be a bit daunting, there’s more than enough action and meaty mercenary sim to make getting through the rough patches worth it. I mean, someone has to save the Reach.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!