Missile after missile dug ever deeper into the front of her 55-ton Shadow Hawk as it trudged down the hill. Behemoth did have a knack for making her armor take more of a beating than it seemingly should, but this was getting out of hand. Minutes earlier, she’d shrugged off heavy cannon fire, resulting in only a dent. The stubborn BattleMech armor was her own ironclad personality.
Weeks earlier, one of my officers caught her entering our spaceship, the Argo — from the outside — while we were en route to the planet Weldry. This was a serious breach of rules, a dangerous stunt, and not at all out of character for Behemoth. However, instead of reprimanding her, I ordered the chief engineer to suit up with us so she could show us the flaw that allowed her to exit the airlock in the first place. She would help us fix it, then promise never to leave the ship again.
When we were drifting in the peaceful silence of space, she explained to me why she did it. She longed for a moment away from the constant strife and weapons fire. As I saw that vast void dressed in purple and gold nebulae reflected off her helmet visor, I forgot about her rebelliousness. She was a valued member of my team, and she needed our support.
And now mere weeks later, she was on that hill, obediently absorbing blow after blow, opening up the foe to our long range attacks from the adjacent ridge. This dangerous maneuver was essential for us to be able to thin out the overwhelming enemy presence, but seeing her armor chip away was nerve-fraying.
When that last salvo of missiles breached her armor, her short range missile bin ruptured, sending fire and shrapnel up into the cockpit. Her deadly gambit was our key to gaining the upper hand. She gave us momentum and the enemy could not stem it, so we routed them handily. By any measure it was a clear victory, but her violent death meant that after we left, there were no celebrations on the Argo. The solemn feeling hung in the air for weeks, only interrupted when more contracts crossed my desk. Back to work.
Tabletop wargames and RPGs from the 70s and 80s are often rife with rich narrative, fictional worlds, and histories. For proof, just take a trip down the Warhammer 40,000 or Shadowrun wiki rabbit holes. It’s all surprisingly textured and fascinating, but for me, none of these properties are more special than BattleTech, with its several-stories-high, multi-ton walking BattleMechs driving its conflicts.
This property is no stranger to video game adaptations, but only lately have we seen a resurgence in this realm. Harebrained Schemes has not only made the first computer game based on the property in years, but the first BattleTech tactical RPG since Westwood Associates’ marvelous BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge. That was in 1990.
The intro explains the broad strokes of the universe’s history via the same gorgeously painted motion graphics used for all its cutscenes. It begins with the successful testing of a warp space drive and the interstellar colonization it enabled, moves on to the pompous founding and grim dissolution of the Star League, and finally to the succession wars that blasted humanity into another dark age.
BattleTech takes place at the tail end of the Third Succession War, around a backwater nation in The Periphery, near the edge of inhabited space. Previously, as a palace guard, you witnessed a coup during the coronation of the queen. The coup succeeded, and you were forced to escape. Now you are the commander of a mercenary group that has fallen into a dire financial situation. The mortgage on your humble DropShip is an Albatross adorning your neck, and paying the debt is a huge chunk out of your earnings. However, you are soon hired by the deposed queen, long thought killed during the coup. She pays down your DropShip if you make yourself available for her vengeful march back to her throne.
As mercenary commander, you’re in charge of all the major operations of the company. You accept and negotiate contracts, purchase equipment and new ‘Mechs, and try to keep company morale high.
Thus, BattleTech requires you to put in work. It requires tending to your ‘Mechs to ensure they are battle-ready, management of your crew, and careful financial decisions. It also requires patience, as it takes time for repairs to complete and wounds to heal. Your journey lasts several in-game weeks before arriving at your destination. Even customizing your ‘Mechs means days of waiting to allow the MechTechs enough time to outfit them to your specifications, and repairing broken ‘Mechs takes even more time. Despite the fact that days pass as real-world seconds, there’s a fair amount of downtime. You could potentially go 8-10 minutes between drops. This is to BattleTech’s benefit.
All of these considerations and plays on your patience are necessary for the spontaneous narratives — like the story preceding this review — to breathe and develop their full essence. Behemoth had survived similarly dangerous situations up until the one that ultimately killed her. She even survived other missions in which her ‘Mech was completely shot out from under her. She was the linchpin in our close-range combat capabilities, often punching above her weight and coming out on top. We pushed our luck with that pivotal maneuver and she paid for it.
Additionally, these lulls serve as a vehicle for interacting with your crew via random events that play out in pop-up windows à la FTL (Faster Than Light). These moments simultaneously allow you to repair and refit your ‘Mechs according to the roles you imagine for them. They serve to communicate the vastness of outer space. They serve to help you appreciate how harrowing and tense the tactical battles are.
Turn-based sorties are the centerpiece of the experience. The interface, onboarding, and tooltips do a fine job of helping you understand how to effectively wage battle, which is fortunate because it is just different enough from other recent turn based tactical games to require some getting used to. The main issue is the grognard-like nature typical of the BattleTech universe. This means that each unit has different weapons systems in different parts of its body, each of which potentially generates different amounts of heat, has different optimal ranges, does different types of damage, etcetera. Each body part, and even each component within that part, can be damaged or destroyed.
This presents a lot to consider tactically. For one, you must manage the heat your weapons generate. If overheated, your ‘Mech will begin to take internal damage, which can lead to many problems from a compromised internal structure to catastrophic ammunition explosions. If you generate too much heat at once, your ‘Mech will shut down, forcing you to miss your next turn as it powers up. You must also consider the direction it is facing. Rear-armor is far thinner than front-armor, and as your ‘Mech takes damage, it may be necessary to present its less damaged side to protect your now weaker one.
Team members with line of sight on the enemy share targeting data, which enables units without line of sight to, for example, unleash volleys of missiles from behind a hill. Reckless commanders will find themselves incessantly awash in the enemy’s long-range missiles coming from hidden positions. However, you can inflict the same tribulation on your opponents if your units are positioned wisely.
Battlefield effectiveness begins in the ‘Mech Bay. Ever since Activision’s foundational 1995 title MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat, ‘Mech customization has been an important part of every computer game based on this property. Customization here will be easy to understand for anybody who’s familiar with a MechWarrior game, but may be daunting for others. Your machine is presented as a diagram divided into its body parts: head, left/right/center torso, left/right arms, and left/right legs. Each part has a certain number of slots where components may be inserted, such as weapons, heat sinks or ammunition. Different components take up any number of slots and weigh different amounts.
There is a great deal of flexibility in ‘Mech customization, but you cannot exceed the weight limit or attach weapons to body parts that do not have the appropriate hard points. These restrictions work very well in preserving each ‘Mech’s battlefield role. In my case, if I was modifying a loadout, it was usually because I was forced to improvise due to a lack of replacement parts in my company’s stockpile.
You primarily acquire weapons, parts, and even ‘Mechs in two ways: purchasing them in the store or salvaging them from the battlefield post-mission. More or less, you can pick any parts that survived the battle off of your fallen enemies. Sometimes, you can even salvage a mostly-intact ‘Mech. As far as purchasing items in the local store: if a specific item is needed, you may be out of luck, since the closest store may not have it in stock. This is especially important with certain highly rare weapons and components that you may simply never find replacements for. It’s tempting to use that powerful weapon, but you’ll have to baby it, trying to keep it out of harm’s way so you don’t lose it forever.
Compellingly, BattleTech is a game that constantly tries to drag down your progress. Even if you successfully complete a mission, the cost of your losses may exceed that of your earnings. Attrition is a constant presence, but if things are looking grim, the answer is often to push on through the setbacks. You must accept that perfect victories, with no loss of personnel, materiel, or both are nearly impossible to achieve. This makes most of the battles nail-biting affairs ripe with narrative and drama.
BattleTech is not afraid to throw haymakers. It tests your ability to stay in the fight and persevere despite setbacks or difficult odds. This is the main manner in which it differs from other tactical games, which may encourage you to complete missions efficiently as a scalpel. This is reflected in both the gameplay and the gripping main plot. Unfortunately, this expectation to persevere bled into the real world as a bug forced me to exit and restart the game twice.
Aside from the main campaign, there is a career mode that lets you carry out a career free of the shackles and direction of the main plot. Here, you’re more or less free to travel from system to system, take whatever contracts you fancy, and even favor a faction enough to form an official alliance with them. The structure of the game ensures that even without a main plot, you’ll be able to experience your own story. Also, since you’re not stuck to the periphery, you have better access to rare items, different biomes, other factions, etc. The three available DLC packs are also great additions and do a fine job of fleshing out the career mode.
BattleTech is a special kind of experience that doesn’t come around too often. As much as it demands from you, it offers equal or greater reward in return. As I said before, this property is very dear to my heart, so it brings me joy to see this game achieve what it sets out to accomplish with so much success.