The BattleTech franchise has been riveting nerds since the mid-80s with its vision of a gritty, sci-fi future where humanity has taken to the stars, yet remains locked in warfare. The battlefields are dominated by massive, bipedal combat vehicles called BattleMechs, each equipped with some combination of lasers, auto-cannons, missiles…and even melee weapons like swords and axes. These ‘Mechs are piloted by grizzled veterans and grim mercenaries known as MechWarriors.
It is, in fact, via the MechWarrior video games that gamers may be most familiar with BattleTech. A series of first- and third-person action games, players take the role of a single MechWarrior in a single ‘Mech. However, BattleTech has its origins in turn-based tabletop wargaming. Players control a “lance” of ‘Mechs (basically a platoon in BattleTech-speak). The game is tactical, and players must utilize their lance intelligently. Data such as position, range, armor, ammunition, and heat dissipation must be managed. Thus, an action/shooter video game like MechWarrior cannot really scratch the strategic itch of the original wargame. Enter developer Harebrained Schemes to fill the void with BattleTech, a turn-based PC strategy game that nails the feel of commanding a lance.
Depending on one’s attitude, “commanding a lance” in BattleTech can either mean geeking out in the details or despairing in the tedium. Players have a lot of concerns to manage between battles. Damaged ‘Mechs must be repaired and refitted. MechWarriors must be trained to increase their abilities. New MechWarriors can also be recruited from the local system. ‘Mech parts can be bought and sold. Mission contracts must be negotiated. And all of these concerns revolve around time and money. Money flows in by completing contracts…and then flows out again on monthly expenses such as MechWarrior salaries and ‘Mech maintenance. However, players cannot simply take on every available mission to maximize profits (that would not be realistic). While a damaged ‘Mech is in the shop, it cannot be used in battles. The maintenance crew can only work so fast. Injured MechWarriors must heal before returning to duty. It takes time to travel from planet to planet. All the while, bills are still coming due. The finance widget is ever-present in the upper-left so that the player knows exactly how many months remain before bankruptcy.
While the skirmish mode allows players to simply jump into a random battle, guiding a mercenary lance to honor and glory is how players truly escape into the world of BattleTech. The tabletop origins bleed through here. In old-school RPG fashion, it is a combination of game systems and player imagination that define the experience–in that sense, a player’s lance can be chivalrous or barbarous or anything in between. And indeed, outside of battle, the management system is the focus as BattleTech consists of a series of menus. The menu backdrops–various parts of the ship and semi-static 3D models of the officers–do set the mood, but they are still utilitarian. Ultimately, BattleTech does not boast AAA production values, but there is depth and fun to be had for players that approach the game with the right mindset.
That is not to say the game is cheaply made. It falls solidly in the AA category, and Harebrained Schemes chose to invest the most resources into the heart of a turn-based wargaming experience–the battles. The battlefields are fully 3D and come in a variety of environments: forests, rivers, mountains, ice, deserts, and settlements. And, of course, there are the highly detailed ‘Mechs thundering across the terrain. The metal armor and chipped paint reflect years of service, and ‘Mechs feel appropriately massive. During combat, lasers flash, auto-cannons recoil, wispy missile trails twist through the sky, and ‘Mech parts explode. The accompanying sounds are quite potent, as well. The game will periodically move the camera and dramatically depict a turn: trail a running ‘Mech from a low angle or tracing a shot to the target, for example. There are a few shortcuts and hiccups, however. Terrain features like trees and street lamps are not as detailed as the ‘Mechs and will simply disappear when knocked down. ‘Mechs sometimes simply walk through one another on the way to the next waypoint. The camera may choose a “dramatic shot” from directly behind a hill. But these are small things that do not detract much from the experience. All in all, the graphical and artistic details are solid, and they have been implemented where they would have the most impact.
There is enough tactical depth that players feel rewarded for intelligent decisions on the battlefield. All four ‘Mechs are under the player’s control. Proper movement, weaponry, and the environment all contribute to a successful mission. In the BattleTech games, the different parts of the ‘Mech have independent armor, health, and weapons. What that means is that a ‘Mech can lose, for example, it’s right arm. It no longer has any weapons mounted there, but it stays in the battle and continues to fight until the pilot is incapacitated. Furthermore, losing that right arm means that the more vulnerable right torso is exposed, too. Players can exploit this against the enemy. Likewise, a player can reorient its own ‘Mech so that vulnerable areas are no longer in the enemy’s line of fire.
Players cannot lazily fire all weapons on every turn. Ballistic weapons have limited ammo. Energy weapons like lasers and PPCs have infinite ammo, but generate a lot of heat. Some heat dissipates each turn, but the ‘Mech loses a turn if it cannot dissipate the heat quickly enough (players can even equip flamethrowers to overheat enemy ‘Mechs). The environment has an effect, too. Positioning a ‘Mech in the forest increases its defense a bit. A ‘Mech in water or in an icy biome dissipates heat more efficiently. In deserts, ‘Mechs dissipate heat less efficiently. There are opportunities to target specific parts of a ‘Mech, meaning that players can choose to gamble on a low-likelihood headshot to rapidly disable it. MechWarrior skills like Sensor Lock and Ace Pilot give commanders more tactical options. There are many more examples, but suffice it to say that deploying the proper ‘Mechs for the job and wielding them intelligently is quite satisfying. It doesn’t get much better than seeing the enemy ‘Mech blasted to pieces after unleashing a well-timed full salvo from a tactically superior position.
Not all missions are simply about destroying the enemy lance. There is a little variety that will be familiar to gamers…escort missions, destroying facilities, etc. Some missions have a countdown to increase the urgency. Despite the different objectives, many missions still feel the same. If there is one other complaint, it is that objective waypoints can be spaced out too far. In a turn-based game, it gets a little tiresome waiting for the lance to progress across the map before reaching the action.
BattleTech also has a campaign mode that is basically the same as the regular game, but mixes in story-focused required missions. One does not need to know anything of the sprawling BattleTech lore to enjoy the plot, as the tale stands on its own. The story is told through text dialogue a la RPGs, and is rendered like the menus in the management portions of the game (along with some stylized artwork every now and then). It isn’t exactly Lord of the Rings, but it is enjoyable. The heroine, High Lady Kamea Arano, is an honorable leader that cares for her people.
While BattleTech will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is a lot to love for gamers that enjoy strategy games or mecha. For fans of BattleTech wargaming, Harebrained Schemes’ PC release is awesome. Highly recommended.
Language: There is some foul language (on the order of a typical PG-13 movie).
Sex/nudity: None present.
Violence: BattleTech is a wargaming franchise and so the focus is combat. All the fighting is done in ‘Mechs, but the setting is realistic and grim.
Other: In one of the post-launch patches, the developers added the option to customize each MechWarrior’s pronouns.