Review: BattleTech24 Apr 2018 0
Released 24 Apr 2018
There are those of us old enough to remember poring over BattleTech books, who remember the plastic models of FASA’s table-top tactics, and who remember the story that underpinned MechWarrior 3, a game that stunned us at the time with its landmark 3D graphics. BattleTech, the 2018 video game incarnation of Jordan Weisman’s hoary mech-centric table-top game, is meant for us, the nerds who remember. It’s an intense turn-based tactical combat game wrapped in a business management simulator that leans heavily on long-term investment in the franchise and nostalgia. While enchanting for players who have been waiting for this since 1995, it’s a much tougher sell for newcomers.
You are a MechWarrior, a soldier trained to pilot a gigantic six-storey BattleMech in combat. In BattleTech, you’re quickly stripped of your royal rank and placed in a mercenary company, and so your job title quickly becomes freelance company manager, even as you continue to lead MechWarriors on the field. There’s more of that business layer in this game than I think many people will be expecting - that’s not inherently good or bad, but if you’re coming in hot with MechWarrior nostalgia, you may wind up coming away a bit cold.
The meat of the game is its tactical battles. You command a 'lance' of BattleMechs, which is up to four giant bipedal war machines and their pilots, who each have a particular skill set. You’ll use these in a variety of missions that mostly boil down to 'go to this location and blow up the bad guys.'
If you ever played the table-top version of BattleTech, you know what you’re in for. The videogame version is astonishingly faithful to the original FASA game, and you’ll be tracking heat build-up, called shots, and weapon arcs just as you would have done with a box of plastic models and mat 20 years ago. Heat management is critical, and building up too much of it will render weapons unusable or even cause damage to your ‘mech.
Weapons-wise, you get your choice of ballistic, energy, guided missile, and support. Support weapons generally are small machine guns that provide damage buffs when you opt to fight hand-to-hand, and yes, you can have your giant robots punch other giant robots in their giant robot faces. Each weapon has a specific accuracy and a heat build-up cost, and you get to select which guns you use with each shot you make.
What you’re able to do on the battlefield, though, is largely a function of what you’re able to put together beforehand. The game’s potatoes have you, as the leader of a mercenary outfit, counting every penny as you try to create a MechWarrior lance that’s well-armed and resilient enough to handle whatever contract you can take to keep your operating budget workable. BattleTech gives you a crazy variety of customization options, and you’re able to trade off armor plating for heavier weapons or add heat sinks if you pull off a laser array.
As your MechWarriors gain experience, you’ll be able to sink training points into their skills, but employing better staff means they’ll require better pay. Outside battle, this is a constant concern, and you’ll often find yourself weighing keeping a talented veteran on board over firing them and picking up a cheap newbie to fill out a perfunctory scout role.
Taking hits in combat is also important since you’ll need time and money to repair and refit ‘mechs that take damage in the field. Pilots can also be injured, and they need to spend time in sickbay to heal. Every month, you’ll get a financial report, and if you don’t have enough C-bills to cover your expenses, it’s game over - you’re bankrupt.
This financial pinch puts an entirely different cast over BattleTech’s hum-drum combat. While the giant robot fighting is passingly interesting in an XCOM-esque way, what makes it truly compelling is the constant consideration of what’s affordable rather than just doable. Having an arm blown off a heavy-class mech that I had just outfitted with an armor-melting (and expensive!) PPC is heart-breaking in a way I haven’t felt since losing experienced soldiers in XCOM.
If you couldn’t tell, this is all fairly high praise, but let me temper that a bit. BattleTech fights your ability to enjoy it with every stompy step. Graphics are nothing to write home about, and yet the game by default insists on having you watch your moves play out with a close-in battlefield 'action' camera. That would be fine if it worked, but hits and movement in the game lack a certain punchiness and weight. If I’m going to get an intimate shot of one giant robot punching another, I feel like the impact should have more than it does here.
BattleTech also does a fairly terrible job of explaining itself, and the tutorial is something you can pretty easily fail. A ton of necessary information is hidden behind dialogue tree text walls, and while I think the writing itself is pretty top-notch, it’s frustrating that the game itself makes me want to click through it as quickly as possible.
One consistent complaint I’ve heard from people who have played or watched BattleTech prior to release is that it seems “sterile.” And it is. The lack of 'punch' to the battlefield combat, the plain-Jane Unity visuals, and the knockoff Dune storyline make it hard to feel very invested as an observer. But playing the game creates a truly compelling experience. Every ounce of metal out there is something you fought and earned, and each decision you’ve made using the scrap you’ve salvaged from past fights means the difference between a lucrative operation and a disastrous money-sink.
BattleTech is very much a game designed for me, specifically. I love the way it creates tension through its budget mechanics, I love how it eliminates the “min-max” phenomenon by constantly giving you interesting gear choices, I love the references to decades-old table-top lore. But if you don’t already love those things, BattleTech doesn’t do anything to engender that love. It’s a game that invests heavily in a well-established universe and fails to be an entry point in that universe whatsoever.
That’s a shame because, between every mission, you can see how much thought has gone into shaping a narrative and world that’s so consistently and richly BattleTech. But the takeaway is ultimately what you bring to the story rather than anything original. This is a fairly by-the-numbers tactics game that becomes ethereal if you have the right set of memories. Being that I do, this is a game that I’ll cherish, for all its stompy clumsiness.