eXcursions

Monday eXcursion: BATTLETECH

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Reactor: Online

All systems nominal in my gaming life, y’all. I’m not even going to pretend to be unbiased about BattleTech. I definitely have criticisms of this title and I’ll lay those out, but you’re reading a piece written by a guy who bought manuals and miniatures for the tabletop game when he was 15 and this game takes me back to those comparatively carefree and gaming-heavy days. It takes a lot to get my cynical and jaded self into what passes for my giddy schoolboy mode these days, but this game did it and is still doing it as I write this piece.

Even though I probably would have preferred tabletop in my teenage days, it wasn’t easy to get people together to play when nobody had a car. I spent many hours playing the early PC titles related to the franchise, including Crescent Hawks’ Revenge and MechWarrior 2. When I got grounded and my dad took my keyboard away, I would immerse myself in the lore of the Inner Sphere by reading BattleTech novels. In case anyone doubts my street cred, I once spent many hours at a friend’s house trying to copy the MW2 CD onto 3.5” floppies using the /span command in WinZip so I could play with a friend using dial-up. That’s right, screw you, Call of Duty! “MW2” will never mean anything but MechWarrior 2 to this gamer. I mean, in the ‘90s this franchise had physical cockpit pods at a few BattleTech centers scattered around the country (the pods still exist!). Virtual reality tech might be cool, but physical cockpit pods are cooler. I had plans to sneak away to go to one when on a school trip to Chicago, but I chickened out.

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Coolness limits exceeded. Shutdown imminent.

My excitement also comes from the profound sense of longing that can only be felt by a gamer that has been chronically deprived of his favorite series by a bunch of legal nonsense. If you already know about the BattleTech legal saga, feel free to skip ahead. If you’re not familiar, or if you’re a younger gamer, it’s time to gather ‘round the campfire and listen to an older dude tell you stuff. You don’t think it be like it is, but it do.

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Gather ‘round, children…

The story of the BattleTech IP is a tumultuous one. If someone were to write a book about the franchise, the plot would have about as many twists and characters as the BattleTech lore itself (which spans more than 100 novels and numerous technical manuals). The tabletop game debuted in 1984, but the PC gaming portion of the franchise didn’t sprout until later in the decade. The series was kicked off by the famously-liquidated-by-the-monster-Electronic-Arts Westwood Studios of Command & Conquer fame. The video games really got rolling in the mid-90s. Gamers between 1995 and 2002 were treated when Activision produced Mechwarrior 2, 3, and 4, accompanied by numerous expansions.  

Activision took advantage of a brand new hardware trend and embraced 3D accelerator cards. MechWarrior 2 was heavily marketed as a 3D accelerated title and the company secured deals to package the game along with the hardware. This put the game in a lot of gamers’ libraries whether they were familiar with BattleTech or not. It’s probably not controversial to think that particular marketing move contributed significantly to the success of the franchise in general. In addition to Activision’s offerings, a studio called FASA Interactive at Microsoft put out two real-time tactical games in a series called MechCommander. MechCommander was produced by Jordan Weisman – founder of FASA, the company that held the BattleTech IP – and Mitch Gitelman – who later produced the XBox launch title MechAssault. While all of these games were a blast, none of them really recreated the thought-provoking and tension filled dice rolling experience of the tabletop game. Lucky for us, the Weisman-Gitelman duo would later found Harebrained Schemes (HBS) and deliver BattleTech in 2018. If you want all the history straight from the (Gitleman) horse’s mouth, you might want to check out this long form interview here.

The fan-favorite of all these “golden age of MechWarrior” titles, was a standalone title called MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries. In this title, players commanded a mercenary company, and a metagame of strategic management of ‘Mech chassis, weapons, and C-Bills  (the currency of the Inner Sphere) challenged players to do more than just drop onto the battlefield and blow things up. Missions in Mercenaries even involved choices that would affect later missions, and there were multiple endings to enhance replayability. After the 2002 sequel MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries, it would be 11 years before players saw another official BattleTech game on the Windows platform. Licensing disputes with the company Harmony Gold over a subset of Mech designs that conflicted with Macross spanned something like 25 years.

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Hmm…

Devoted fans filled the void with mods and their own creations, but still there was no tabletop style tactical game on the PC. In 2013, it was finally revealed that a company was trying to straighten out the legal mess and start a KickStarter campaign for a new MechWarrior game. PGI promised players the moon with the F2P MechWarrior Online and for many fans the game completely failed to deliver what they’d been waiting for. With the lawsuits still unresolved and MechWarrior Online’s success questionable, it began to feel like maybe the IP was dying and fans would never get a turn-based tactical PC game that really replicated the tabletop experience.

Sensors: Online

Despite the lack of hope, in Fall 2015, gamers were treated to an announcement that a turn-based tactical game would finally be produced by HBS. This announcement gave fans hope as HBS had just had good success with Shadowrun Returns, another PC game based on an ‘80s tabletop franchise. Once again, a copyright infringement suit emerged from Harmony Gold because HBS intended to use art and assets from MechWarrior Online (also disputed). The collective BattleTech fanbase held their breath. But, in a rare piece of sweet gaming justice, Jordan Weisman and HBS recently won a final victory in court and ended the legal saga for this particular title.

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The Phoenix Hawk – one of the disputed designs.

Like a Phoenix Hawk rising from the ashes, the crew at Harebrained Schemes drew upon the nostalgic memory of that classic mercenary gameplay from the old MechWarrior series and spawned a new soul for this new BattleTech game we now have in 2018. They even got the most popular BattleTech novel author, Michael Stackpole, to write a series of companion novellas and help with the plot for the game. After a successful KickStarter it’s finally here.

Weapons: Online

I know not everyone is thrilled with lore and franchise history, so I want to keep this review focused on the gameplay and mechanics. There are others who could and have done a much better job than me at explaining all of this, however, it’s important to at least partially explain the lore. BattleTech’s gameplay and mechanics make a lot more sense once you understand the backstory for the game’s universe, so I must digress.

To make an incredibly long story short, this title’s particular BattleTech campaign takes place in the year 3025, when the area around Earth known as the “Inner Sphere” is well populated after a millennium of interstellar expansion using JumpShips that travel about 30 light years at a time. In a futuristic version of feudalism, hereditary title has returned to dominate human power structures, and monarchy has become the dominant government type. Similar to Game of Thrones, great houses led by certain families dominate the politics and the military conflicts of the day.

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Monuments to power and nobility.

In this part of BattleTech’s timeline, humanity is struggling through a futuristic version of a dark age after the fall of the Star League, the massive hegemonic bureaucracy that oversaw the Inner Sphere. By 3025, the glory and technological advancement of the Star League was significantly diminished through a series of conflicts that became known as the Succession Wars. Heirs squabbled over the title of First Lord of the Star League for decades. BattleMech factories were destroyed and overall infrastructure for Mechs became extremely limited. This infighting and ruination inspired the infamous General Aleksandr Kerensky to lead the bulk of the Star League army’s BattleMechs and loyal personnel in a massive exodus from the childish nonsense of the Inner Sphere. Meanwhile, smaller houses in the outlying systems called the Periphery tried to vie for scraps of power, doing their best not to anger the comparatively well-resourced houses as their rulers jockeyed to be the first to restore humanity’s destiny by reinstating the Star League. In this part of the timeline, trust is thin, betrayal abounds, and money greases the palms of mercenaries who are willing to do the dirty work of the lords and ladies of the Inner Sphere.

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A small chunk of the Periphery on the edge of the Inner Sphere.

What this all means for gameplay is that technology is precious. In addition to actual battle losses and attrition, much of the production capacity for BattleMechs and weaponry was destroyed in the Succession Wars, and formerly common technology is now rare or all but nonexistent. Legends of caches of lost Star League technology inspire wild goose chases and ruin fortunes of those who pursue them. Known as “LosTech”, the opportunity to use legendary superior technology of the past is but a dream to all but a few privileged (or wealthy) MechWarriors. Much like the suits of armor of medieval knights, BattleMechs are owned and maintained at great expense, and are only available to those with extraordinary means. Due to the loss of production during the Succession Wars, all armies and mercenary companies are legitimately obsessed with salvaging battlefields for usable equipment. Salvage is power.

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When you knock an enemy down in close quarters, think of that printer scene in Office Space.

In the campaign, you’ll find yourself starting as part of a small mercenary company in the Periphery, assigned to a minor faction. All you have is your inherited Blackjack model BJ1 BattleMech and a Leopard-class DropShip capable of transporting four mechs from space to planetary surface.

All Systems Nominal

All of the nostalgia in the series and the thematic power of the lore behind it sets up the gameplay. Combat units of BattleMechs are organized in lances – four mechs each. As this is a turn-based tactical game, you will never command more than a single lance of BattleMechs, but you will sometimes be accompanied by additional forces. Unless you dive into multiplayer you will almost always encounter enemies more numerous than your own forces. Some players will wish for larger battles, but the developers clearly made a choice between speed of turns, the UI, and the scale of battles. Perhaps an expansion will change things, but as a Kickstarted title, it is what it is for now.

BattleMechs are classified by weight and come in multiples of 5 tons. 20-35 ton mechs are considered “light”, 40-55 ton mechs are “medium”, 60-75 tons is considered “heavy” and 80-100 is “assault” class. Due to engine size limitations, larger mechs have much more room for weaponry and armor.

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The Battlemaster’s hardpoints are mostly for energy weapons.

Other than the giant robots, the most iconic thing about BattleTech compared to other strategy titles is in the customization of the machines. Depending on their size, Mechs have space available for components in certain locations. Individual components all take up space in the form of one to ten slots. Each component also has weight to consider, and weapons have varying ranges. Depending on the Mech, players can also add jump jets to increase maneuverability.

Weapons fall into three basic categories: Energy weapons, Autocannons, and Missiles. Firing a weapon or using jump jets also produces “heat.” Too much heat buildup can disable and/or damage a Mech, and each Mech has the capacity to dissipate heat which can be augmented by additional heat sinks. Even ammunition must be placed and accounted for. Energy weapons generally produce more heat than ammunition-based weapons, but ammunition-based weapons take up more space and also require ammunition.

The quantity and type of weapon is restricted by a hardpoint system, which types of hardpoints a Mech has varies and depends on the default design of the Mech. There are dozens of Mech chassis to choose from, and all but a few chassis have variants.

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I haven’t even mentioned melee combat. Robot Jox anyone? (LOL).

Mechs can be knocked out of combat in three basic ways. Incapacitate the pilot, destroy both legs, or destroy the center torso section (and therefore the fusion reactor powering the Mech). Each component is protected by the armor of its section, and once that section’s armor is destroyed, the component can be individually destroyed. In addition, sections have internal hitpoints, and when they reach zero the entire section is destroyed along with its components and any adjacent arm. For example, if you knock out the internal structure of the left torso the left arm falls off even if it was previously undamaged.

This variety leads to a complex web of advantages and disadvantages for players to consider. Should I place my particle pulse cannon (PPC) in the arm where it gets a bonus to accuracy or should I leave it in the more heavily armored left torso where it’s better protected? Should I equip long-range missiles (LRMs) or short-range missiles (SRMs)? Where should the ammo for my autocannon 5 (AC/5) go? If all of this seems overwhelming at first, you can simply use the default configurations, but if you like this game at all, you’ll find yourself tinkering with the mech bay customization options in no time.

Enemy Mech Detected

All of these considerations also extend beyond individual Mechs. Players must consider the overall performance of their lance. LRMs can fire over obstacles and from long range. A single high-speed spotter can provide targeting information to hidden Mechs carrying LRMs. The fact that a Mech can be knocked out by destroying only one section (head or center torso) is quite meaningful. If you could roll perfectly, you would of course simply damage the lightly-armored head/cockpit section and destroy the Mech immediately. But, since the location of the damage is randomized you don’t get that choice. You can only increase the probability through positioning.

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There are special abilities that allow a precision strike on a particular section.

Overall, the system means that doing light damage to multiple sections (shotgun style) might result in more overall points of damage being done, but won’t accomplish the goal of destroying the enemy. Actually penetrating the armor and taking out weapons or components is what will reduce the amount of damage the enemy can do to you. Once hits are going internal, even the smallest hit can be a critical one that damages a component.

Unlike other games critical hits don’t mean 1.5x or 2x damage. Critical hits in BattleTech mean a component has been hit and possibly damaged/destroyed. Even a single point of damage can score a critical hit, and some weapons are designed to do just that. For example, the machine gun (MG) does a tiny amount of damage many times at very close range. This is terrible for penetrating armor but great for destroying components within armorless sections. To get a feel for the MG, Imagine rolling fistfuls of dice in a tabletop game, but only 6’s count. Totally worth it if that one hit is all you need.

In addition to all that, circumstances can cause your pilots to simply miss shots, which means having weapons that do massive damage to a single section are a high risk/high reward endeavor. A compromise is bringing some Mechs with weapons that try to strip armor from single sections and others with shotgun-like weapons that exploit those stripped sections.

All these decisions go well beyond the design stage and lend themselves to targeting choices on the battlefield. Your sensors provide you with enemy weapon location information which allows you to position your Mechs to do damage to the most relevant sections of enemy Mechs. Staying true to the tabletop dice-rolling format of the original game, attacks are semi randomized. Depending on the facing and height difference between your Mech and a target, you are more likely to do damage to certain sections, so positioning is important. As detailed above, this allows you to maneuver to try and cripple enemies’ weapons to reduce their effectiveness without actually needing to destroy them completely. It also allows you to defensively turn a damaged section away from enemies, preventing the loss of components in sections that are no longer armored.

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Hovering over a weapon when targeting an enemy provides details on hit%.

Pilots are also modeled. In the lore, BattleMechs have gyroscopes inside them, and a Mech’s balance is driven by input taken from a pilot’s Neurohelmet. Taking head (cockpit) hits, getting knocked down, and losing torso sections will wound pilots. Too many wounds can incapacitate the pilot, in which case the Mech falls over and becomes disabled. More experienced pilots have different skills and stats, which can increase chance to hit, allow more wounds to be taken, or even provide special abilities during combat (more on these later).

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The tabletop original.

If that all wasn’t enough to consider, all of this is placed on top of another abiotic layer: the terrain. Importantly, a planet or moon’s climate affects how well your Mechs dissipate heat. Some battles take place on rocky or hilly terrain that makes jump jets useful. Forests and demolished buildings provide cover, and rocky terrain can increase your chance of falling down when hit by enemy fire. Watery areas don’t provide cover, but standing in water provides a massive boost to heat dissipation. This not only affects player choices during battle, but before the battle even starts, knowledge of the climate affects which Mechs a player might decide to bring to a battle. A desert battlefield favors Mechs with good heat management, but an arctic one can allow a less efficient mech to unleash its full complement of weapons every turn without penalty.

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Jump jets let me use this wall to gain temporary 2v1 odds.

Heat Level Critical

Fortunately, all of these decisions are presented in layers, so players aren’t overwhelmed with too much to worry about at any given time. You’re making design decisions in one layer, lance configuration in another, and targeting and positioning decisions once you’re actually on the battlefield. In each layer, information is curated quite well by the game’s user interface. Color, highlighting, blinking, and shading are all put to good use to communicate various levels of concern to players, and numbers and words are kept to a minimum. Targeting lines are colored red and sometimes the background foliage is green, so it’s possible colorblind players might have a complaint there, though i haven’t heard any. Overall, decisions can often be made quickly despite the overall glut of information, which means combat is relatively fast-paced for a turn-based game. The tutorial doesn’t do the greatest job with telling players about all of the UI information that’s available, but I’ll get to that later.

In any turn-based game, deciding who goes first is one of the most important aspects of balancing and fairness. In the tabletop game, players roll for initiative every turn. The winner chooses a mech to move first and players alternate moving a mech until all mechs have moved or passed. Then, the loser of the initiative roll gets to fire weapons first and the process repeats until all mechs have fired. To simplify this process, BattleTech’s designers at HBS decided to streamline the PC initiative system. Of course, HBS kept the aspect that alternates between players, but movement and firing have been unified into one phase. Also a new feature of the PC version, which mechs go first is dependent on their weight class instead of purely by player choice. What this means is that there are four phases per round, based on weight class. Within the round, control alternates between players moving their light mechs first, followed by medium, heavy, and finally assaults. There are pilot skills and other events that allow players to manipulate the system to their advantage. For example, knocking a mech down moves it one initiative phase later next round, so a medium that was knocked down would have its next move along with the heavy mechs, making it more vulnerable. This will no doubt be a bit strange to tabletop veterans, but the PC version works well. In fact, it works so well that some players have adopted it into the tabletop game and prefer it over the existing system. After all, as I said earlier, Jordan Weisman was involved in creating both the original game and these new rules, so hardcore fans should at least be willing to give it a shot.

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Headshots are rare but efficient. Take less damage. More salvage. Win-win.

All of this adds up to an absolutely thrilling and tension-filled combat experience. It’s hard to describe how much tension can be involved in a single targeting or movement choice, but I often found myself muttering “Oh f— that” or “Yesssss” to myself while playing. Long missions with victory at the end are highly rewarding in terms of pure gaming satisfaction, but also in salvage. The more efficient you are at destroying your enemies, the richer you become in terms of salvage.

The Campaign

Telling anyone much about the campaign is going to reveal spoilers, and it’s worth discovering the plot for yourself so I’ll be careful. In the campaign, you have much more to manage than just your Mech designs, lance configuration, and battlefield choices. There is another layer on top of that, the DropShip layer. The one thing that isn’t a big deal to spoil is the Argo, the DropShip you acquire after a few missions as a part of the story is where all of the non-battle parts of the game take place. The Argo houses your MechWarrior barracks, allows you access the market at each planet, it houses medical facilities to heal injured MechWarriors, and Mechbays to repair and refit Mechs. In a “lite” version of games like XCOM, you can spend resources to upgrade these systems and increase your barracks and Mechbay capacity, as well as provide morale-boosting facilities for your staff.

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The Argo: Home Sweet Home.

Sitting in the command center, you can access the available contracts for your company. When you accept a contract, you can negotiate to either be paid more C-Bills, increase your mercenary company’s reputation, or claim more salvage rights. If you choose C-Bills, you won’t get as much choice over the juicy components that are left in your wake of destruction on the battlefield. Running a mercenary company is expensive, however, and your MechWarriors only accept payment in the form of cold hard cash, and they get paid monthly. As a mercenary commander, you have to balance cash and salvage rights to keep your Mechs in good repair and your finances in the black. Fail to manage well and you’ll have to declare bankruptcy (aka, lose the game) or field mechs in disrepair (aka, lose the battles which are your lifeblood).

You’ll likely spend most of your non-battle time in the mechlab. There you’ll refit your mechs by replacing damaged parts and customizing to your heart’s desire. There’s a catch, however, in that removing, repairing, and replacing components takes time and money. Much like XCOM, the game has a timeline that you have to click to advance when you want the game to progress. In addition to repairing and refitting Mechs, it takes time to travel between systems, and for your MechWarriors to heal their battle wounds (assuming they survive at all).

When you’ve got repairs and refits going, you can prioritize so you have what you need by the time you reach the system where your contract mission takes place. While en route to a new planet or sitting in orbit, you will encounter random events that affect your ship or your finances. You might encounter pirates and be forced to pay them off, or MechWarriors might get into an argument on movie night and have low morale for the next mission. The outcomes of these decisions affect their abilities in battle, which is a fun idea. You can also pay to upgrade the Argo itself to combat these problems, increasing the speed of the drive systems, and adding a zero-G pool for your MechWarriors to relax in (there might even be an event where you have to decide what to do with footage of naked MechWarriors). The upgrade system forces yet another interesting layer of decisions on the player and really tries to immerse players in the role of juggling all the responsibilities of a mercenary commander.

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Where are you from, MechWarrior?

I pointed out earlier that salvage is an important part of the campaign game, and I wasn’t kidding. Weapons from undamaged sections of Mechs are available as salvage at the end of missions, and so are Mechs themselves. The twist is, Mechs are only available in pieces. That is, depending on how damaged a Mech is during the mission (and on your difficulty settings as of patch 1.1) it will be available as up to three to five parts. At normal difficulty, get a headshot or incapacitate the pilot and you get three out of three parts to choose from. Blow the Mech to smithereens during the battle and there won’t be anything left. Depending on your contract negotiation choices, you’ll get a number of salvage items that you can lock in and guarantee receipt. If you complete a set of three (either completing a partial set in your DropShip storage or from a single mission) you’ll have a brand new, fully functional Mech. You’ll also receive an additional set of randomly chosen pieces at the end of missions as well. Actually, I suspect the “random” additional salvage is actually based on faction reputation, but I haven’t looked into the details. Patch 1.1 adds the ability to tweak the difficulty by increasing the number of parts you need to complete a Mech, as well as.

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Hmm… What’s that in the distance?

The whole salvage system adds a lot of tension to the battles. Sometimes you’ll fight a brand new opponent Mech and you can’t help but try to figure out how to take it down without destroying it. You might even risk your MechWarriors’ lives doing this little dance, but hey, they chose to fight for money. It’s actually quite thrilling, and makes you feel even more like a mercenary commander.

As a mercenary, you get plenty of choice in how you do all of this, which is thematically cool as hell. You can abandon any contract even when you’re already on the battlefield. Smell an ambush? Simply withdraw your forces and live to fight another day. You’ll suffer a reputation penalty and you won’t get paid, but you’ll keep all your blood inside your body. If you don’t feel like you’re ready for the next story mission, you can keep flying around doing randomized missions trying to earn money and salvage Mechs to fill out your ranks. Don’t care about the single player campaign story? After the prologue, simply refuse to fight for Lady Arano and you’ll open up a sandbox version of the game where you can do as you please. Finishing the campaign took me about 30 hours, but I took my time. I’m sure with lucky salvage and straight story missions you could do it much faster. A quick check of the /r/battletechgame subreddit suggests some people spend far longer than I did. It’s really up to you. Note, the sandbox version is also available after you finish the campaign, and you’ll also get some goodies that only come from campaign missions.

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An army of DropShips descend towards planetfall in pursuit of revenge.

I’m not so sure about the replayability of the campaign yet. I think it would be fun to play again and try the sandbox mode, or perhaps to try and beat the campaign with as few side missions as possible. I also want to play more with the post-storyline sandbox mode and explore some of the more interesting looking planets and do the highest difficulty missions. I must say, though, that the music, art, and level design in the campaign game is excellent. Some people have criticized the cutscene art style, but I like it very much. As for the maps and mission design, HBS really took out all the stops, especially in the campaign. The design of the setting  for each mission is stunning, and I was continually impressed. There’s enough detail in this game to write another 3000 words describing it all. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover.

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Even the lens flare is minimized in good taste.

Multiplayer and Skirmish Mode

I’ve only played a small amount of multiplayer, but it’s serviceable. For those who have been waiting a long time for this type of game and have friends to play with or a group to organize a metagame or tournament around, it’s a godsend. For those used to games with more fully fleshed out multiplayer experiences, you will find it lacking some features. Mechs are fully customizable in skirmish and multiplayer modes, but you can’t just slap on anything you want. Players need to worry about cost and balancing your lance around cost efficiency is an interesting set of choices. Each chassis and component are assigned a cost in C-bills and matches are played with c-bill restrictions of 20 million, 25 million, etc.  In addition to playing against human opponents, the lance cost restrictions mean players have to be even more careful about what they decide to bring to a battle than they do in the campaign.

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Mmmmmm… The Atlas. 100 tons of fearsome destructive power.

Combat rounds are timed in multiplayer, and that means you have to learn to think quickly. On the upside, you won’t get bored waiting around for your opponent.

Critical Hit

With all that other stuff out of the way, I’ll level some well-deserved criticism at the game, taking into account the 1.1 patch delivered in late June.  After watching and coaching our beloved Dailin in a stream and checking out some of his Let’s Try series, it’s clear that while the game does a great job of introducing players to the quick version of the lore, it makes the mistake of doing the same thing with the tutorial (or “prologue”) missions that introduce players to gameplay itself. There are quite a few nuances in the UI that communicate useful information quickly, but if players don’t have them pointed out, they could be ignored. The game really needs an optional expanded tutorial.

I also want to say that the MechWarrior experience and skill system needs some love. It’s a bit flat, partly because players have complete control over which skills their pilots pick up. This lacks flavor and allows players to min/max and homogenize their pilots’ skills. In my opinion, MechWarriors should instead gain experience based on battlefield performance. Score a headshot? Cool, now you get an accuracy boost. Destroy three mechs with melee attacks? Cool, now you gain a bonus in that area. Survive a huge amount of damage in one round? Yay, now your MechWarrior gains the ability to take more wounds in combat. This (or something similar) would provide some variation. As it is, there are some very clear choices for players that want to min/max, depending on their playstyle and I never felt much attachment to individual MechWarriors.

My next complaint is something that virtually all BattleTech-based PC games have had an issue with: light mech usability. As is, light mechs simply become obsolete as the game progresses. This happens for two reasons. One, you’re limited in the number of mechs you can bring to a mission, but not limited by weight, so why bring lighter mechs? Two, there simply aren’t many objectives that require speed and maneuverability to achieve, so the strengths of light mechs aren’t needed. Despite this being generally true, there is one mission before the end of the campaign where you are actually required to have two separate lances to deploy, so you can’t simply bring all of your best Mechs to one mission. This is actually a genius method to fix the light mech problem, because it forces yet another interesting layer of decisions.

The problem is that it’s only used once! Need more please! In multiplayer there is a C-Bill restriction on lance makeup, and it works well because it forces you to vary your mech weight classes. I’m not sure why they chose to leave this sort of system out of the main game completely. Along these same lines, the non-story “filler” missions are fun at first but get a bit repetitive. They’re procedurally generated, so of course it’s understandable, but the campaign mission types simply aren’t that varied. As if your ragtag underdog merc company is actually part of the Lyran Commonwealth, there’s really no reason not to simply bring four assault Mechs every time.

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A typical Steiner-family-funded scout lance.

Another sticking point a lot of players ran into at release is the difficulty system. It uses an indicator of one to five skulls, which can then vary a bit in addition to the skull rating. The problem being that I learned this from the lead developer’s Twitter account instead of the game itself. It’s a system that could really use some explanation in game. At release, players would go on one or two-skull missions and, due to a reinforcement mechanic, end up having to fight Mechs of higher tiered classes with veteran pilots that could wreck their day, or they might end up fighting an enemy force two or three times their own size. To make things clearer and fairer, HBS has revised the rating system as well as the reinforcement mechanic to make things a bit more clear.

I personally didn’t find the game too difficult for the most part, but I did have to game the terrain hard and exploit the AI to beat some missions. There were plenty of challenging missions, but only three to four that were memorable in that regard. Point is, I’ve actually read some complaints from veteran players that the game is too easy. You can’t please everyone, but at release it seemed like they need to tweak the system to at least please more people.

In 1.1, another major addition has been new difficulty settings that really let you set up your game/campaign to reflect your playstyle. These changes have a good chance to add replayability in the long run by letting players make granular adjustments to their liking, and they add promise to the direction of post-release development and DLC. You can find a list of the changes here. Of course, this sort of granular difficulty system always comes with the caveat that players end up siloing themselves and it obfuscates communication between players, not to mention it makes it harder for HBS to parse player feedback. A few settings are welcome, but too many presents a problem. While I haven’t played a second campaign, the new settings options look like they avoid going overboard.

With regard to the story, I enjoyed the fact that you were allowed to customize your character portrait and background, and that it fed into interactive dialogue choices. All of it was well written, but the choices really just let you match up the dialogue with how you feel about the situation. The choices aren’t really meaningful beyond that, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to alter the story, go on extra side missions, or change the ending. I thought the mercenary theme should have let you play with morality a bit, but alas, maybe we’ll get this sort of thing in an expansion.

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I’m pretty sure this line in the game is secretly directed at the player.

Finally, I’ve got a few gripes about the stability damage mechanic in the game. Missile and ballistic weapons in the game do “stability damage” and this fills up a yellow bar in addition to normal damage. That is, they make mechs unsteady and vulnerable to falling down. When the yellow bar is topped out within one round, the Mech falls over. Mechs that have been knocked down are subject to called shots from enemies, meaning they get an increased chance to hit on a specific chosen section to model that the mech isn’t moving and is easier to hit. This becomes rather easy to exploit with the right configurations and can make the game rather trivial if you “cheese it” in this way. Patch 1.1 has increased the stability threshold and the rate at which Mechs recover stability damage points, so that should go a long way to balancing this feature. On top of that, you can turn on a setting which will restrict salvage so that weapons that have additional stability damage mods will no longer appear after missions.

Shutting Down

This piece has been a long one, but I feel like I’ve left out so much. I didn’t get into Death From Above attacks, pilot abilities, MechWarrior morale abilities, and Dekker death memes. I’m going to end it here, though, because I think I’ve vomited enough of my opinion to give readers an idea of what to expect. Despite my last section being full of criticism, this game is flat out impressive, and the patch 1.1 changes are encouraging. Beautiful art, satisfying music, fast-paced, tension-filled combat for a turn-based game, and a wonderful metagame of mercenary management all come together to make one of the best games I’ve played in a long time.

The developers have already announced that if the game is successful, they plan to advance the timeline and continue the story, adding Mechs and other features. I can’t wait. I can imagine a multiplayer metagame that fleshes out the star map. I can imagine a sandbox war mode that allows you to try and repel the Clan invasion in 3049 (if you don’t know what that is, you’re in for a treat). If BattleTech fans didn’t have enough love on the PC, we’ve also got MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries to look forward to (supposedly also releasing later this year). The long night is finally ending and the dawn is looking pretty bright. Now, if only the game came with a babysitter so I could play more multiplayer I’d give it my “best game ever” rating. Don’t miss out on this one.

TL;DR: This game is friggin’ awesome. Easily one of the best titles in the turn-based strategy genre to come out in years. A great storyline and complex metagame surrounds a deep combat system that is filled with tension and reward. Minor gripes keep it from perfection, but for BattleTech and strategy gaming fans there is much satisfaction to be had.

You might like this game if:

  • Big stompy robots make you feel all fuzzy inside
  • You like games in a universe filled with rich lore
  • You like the XCOM reboot series and want to repeat a similar experience but with giant robots and feudalism
  • You’re a ruthless gun-for-hire at heart

You might NOT like this game if:

 

  • You don’t like turn-based tactical combat games
  • You prefer more simplicity in damage modeling in games like this
  • You demand branching storylines in your single player stories
  • You can’t stand games with tutorials that leave out important features, forcing you to watch videos or ask friends

Disclosure: Matt backed BattleTech on KickStarter with his own money, but traded that key for a free Steam review key to get a head start on playing the game for the purposes of this eXcursion. He has played 50+ hours of BattleTech on a custom-built PC which has an Intel i7-6700K, 16GB DDR3 RAM, and an MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6GB.

Categories: eXcursions, Featured, Strategy Game

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9 replies »

  1. Excellent eXcursion. I took 80 hours to beat the campaign because I never got tired of taking non story contracts. While I did see repeats of maps it was not often. I also came across some maps only once during my 80 hours. Which is kinda sad because several of them I would have enjoyed playing again.

    My biggest complaint is destroying a mechs leg doesn’t prevent it from running across the map and putting a fist through your cockpit.

    I gave them more money than any other project I’ve backed. Every penny was worth it. Also glad they have joined with Paradox. Seems like it will be a good fit and makes it more likely we will get more content from them.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great write up! I have a question though… I understand that the game is running on 32bit unity and that can cause some stability issues. Do you know if there is a plan to fix this?

    Like

  3. I had severe stability issues, but I was running unsupported GPU :). In fact this game was making me blue screen and my hard drive started failing. I do not blame the game, but the DISK I/O and GPU memory usage is sky high on this beast so it exposed it. Got a new HD/SSD and a slightly less old GPU and it is running pretty good now.

    Like

  4. Great write up and review. Full of nostalgia. I agree with most of what you said. The glaring issue with the game for me is, if you looked at this game from a glance – 2 things say to me this is a master piece. One being the star map and Two being the mech bay. Both of these things hint at something at a grand scale. The problem? You never need all the mech bays because you only need 4 mechs at a time ( I found myself maybe cycling 8 – 10 mechs tops towards the end. ). You will also only explore 5% of the star map. So ….., why is the rest there? You can hire…how many mech warriors? 18? You should never need more than 8. Great great game, but it has not hit its perceived potential yet.

    There is of course the Roguetech mod that addresses some of this. Beefy mega mod, it will further slow down your game but it does kind of address the light mech problem by implementing drop cost based on tonnage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yea, being eyeing those two mods, but I won’t mod my game for now. I have all the mechs full because of different load outs I like. I agree with the MW’s, but that’s because they need to be fleshed out. A real missed opportunity.

      Like

    • Yeah I agree with this, and I really hope they expand on the mission depth, mech bay needs, and the star map. It’s so juicy and you put it well when you say it hasn’t hit its potential. There’s so much more that could be done. I get the sense that the devs realize that fact. We can only hope they have the fan input/support and freedom (as a part of Paradox now) to make it happen.

      Interesting to hear about your stability issues. I had no problems, but my system is relatively new. Glad to hear some modest upgrades were able to get it to a playable state.

      Like

  5. Excellent long-form article, thank you so much for spending the time and effort to give us a detailed view! I do not mind the length of that type of article at all. On the contrary, while it is easy these days to get short capsule reviews or quick looks at games, well-written examinations that delve into the subject matter are a rare treat. Kudos! It might just make me get that game…
    Also thanks to the rest of the team for the site and podcast.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the comment. I knew when writing the piece that it would be long, but the staff agreed that it’s worth it. I haven’t been writing game reviews for very long, but I get the sense that long form detailed reviews are appreciated (and missed). i remember reading long articles in print gaming magazines, and I just don’t get that many places these days. Podcasts are probably the only other form besides a Let’s Play video that delivers that kind of detail, and both of those require sound!

      I hope the longer articles are worth the wait. Enjoy the game if you do take the plunge!

      Liked by 1 person

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