Preview: Battletech01 Jun 2017 2
The team at Harebrained Schemes, led by BattleTech series co-creator Jordan Weissman, isn’t pulling any mech punches in their ambitious digitization of the franchise. It’s the first strategy game set in the universe since the 2013 iOS adaptation, MechWarrior: Tactical Command, and the first BattleTech game ever from Harebrained, the studio that also spearheaded the highly successful return of Shadowrun to video games. On paper, it sounds like everything I could possibly want in a strategic-level MechWarrior game.
What we’ve seen hands-on so far is just the tactical combat - which is looking pretty slick, and we’ll get to that. But I’m most excited about the campaign, and I suspect many strategy fans will agree when they hear the pitch. Set in the inner sphere, BattleTech will you in command of your own mercenary company exploring an open-ended universe to turn a profit by shooting giant robots with other giant robots. There’s a deep, pre-written story to follow involving political intrigue among the universe’s warring noble houses, of course, but Weissman was quick to point out that the only real objective is to earn cash. You can keep playing after the story is over (it’s even possible to “fail” it), and you aren’t forced to experience it in a specific way.
From aboard an Argo-class dropship, you’ll manage a staff of navigators, medical professionals, support crew, and of course MechWarriors (the guys and girls who actually drive your mechs), as well as a MechLab where you can maintain, customize, and upgrade your walking tanks to a level that Weissman described as being as deep as the old school MechWarrior games. The core of it all is a sort of tycoon game: Mechs need to be purchased and repaired. Staff and pilots need to get paid. If your mercs aren’t getting their cut, their combat performance will suffer and they’ll eventually quit. That is, if they don’t die first, which is expected to be a common fate. As Weissman put it: “Your MechWarriors are going to die all the time."
My first experience with the tactical layer seemed to confirm this, as the light mech I sent ahead to scout for enemies on the opposite side of a ravine from my deployment zone got blown to hell by rockets almost immediately. There’s a lot to unpack when the lasers start flying, with terrain, positioning, facing, and weapon types all playing a large role. Each mech acts in one of five initiative phases based on its weight class, meaning smaller and lighter bots have the edge in maneuvering and combat initiation. But the bigger guys have enough firepower to more than make up for it.
Heat is a key system, which should be familiar to long-time players of MechWarrior games. Even movement generates some heat. Firing all of your weapons every turn is a great way to cook your core systems and force a reboot - and believe me, losing a turn can be catastrophic if it happens at the wrong moment. Stability is another major consideration. If a mech’s stability is depleted, it will topple over, which forces it to spend action points standing up and allows foes to take called shots at specific body parts. (Location-based damage is always enabled, but where an attack hits is normally random if the target is not prone.) Melee combat, a staple of tabletop BattleTech but a facet that hasn’t made much of an appearance in computerized MechWarrior games past, is being introduced to add more depth and options to this shoving match, with close combat attacks being one of the primary ways to deplete stability.
Terrain and line of sight can also win or lose battles. Obstructions like forests add cover to a mech, which is represented as a straight damage reduction from incoming attacks rather than modifying their chance to be hit. Placing a smaller mech on high ground or sneaking them around a flank is a great way to spot for heavy artillery mechs that can fire on an area indirectly as long as they have a teammate to help them determine where to aim. All weapons also take facing into account, with every mech having a limited effective arc that must be set every time they move. Longer sprints reduce the amount you can tweak your facing in either direction once you arrive at your destination. Especially when things get up close and personal, this system creates a lot of opportunities for clever flanks and forces you to set up overlapping fields of fire that try to predict what enemies are going to do next - or at the very least, to suppress them from moving into a particular area so you can keep them where you want them.
One of the more interesting ways the tactical and strategic levels of the campaign will intertwine is in the objective structure, which doesn’t require a total victory on every map. Different objectives in an engagement will earn you set payouts, and since you’re essentially running a business, there will always be risk/reward calculations to consider. If you wipe out an enemy team but lose a very valuable mech with an experienced pilot in the process, you might actually be looking at a net loss. It will often be more profitable to complete some smaller objectives and bug out with your squad intact. Profit is your only true metric for success, so there’s no sense in heroic sacrifices.
I’ve really enjoyed the multi-layered considerations that go into the combat system, though there’s only so much ownership I could take of the mechs under my command when they were already made for me and piloted by MechWarriors I know nothing about. The true test of BattleTech will come when we can actually get our hands on the campaign layer and see how everything locks together, from the story to the economic sim to the skirmishes themselves. But from what I’ve played so far, and assuming Harebrained can deliver on creating the type of campaign they’ve described, I can’t wait to get into the inner sphere and start building my rep as a merc.