Science fiction involving mechs, referred to as “mecha” in Japan, has always held a soft spot in my heart. Japan had Gundam and Macross, the former exploring war and its socio-political ramifications as the latter indulged more in music and love. However, for many of us growing up in the West, there was BattleTech. The 1994 BattleTech animated series was our first introduction into this strange world of bipedal, hulking warriors that functioned more like oversized tanks than graceful fighters. The original board game universe, Classic BattleTech, was crafted by FASA with designers Jordan Weisman, L. Ross Babcock III and Sam Lewis at the helm. This would give way to various role-playing titles and expansions with various authors breathing life into this wondrous universe. While FASA Interactive only really had a hand in developing MechWarrior 4: Vengeance and MechCommander 1 and 2, Weisman and his cohorts more or less defined the era of pilotable mechs in the West with their work.
Why is all this relevant for BattleTech, Harebrained Schemes’ latest turn-based strategy game? Firstly, because it takes place around the edge of the Succession Wars Era, running alongside the lore while telling a brand new tale to further immerse players in the overall universe. Secondly, it’s directed by Jordan Weisman, who helped bring the universe to life.
"That feeling of something larger playing out contrasts well with the story told here, which is no less important in its emotional weight."
After FASA ceased operations in 2001, the legacy of BattleTech and MechWarrior would see sparse new titles in the video game realm. BattleTech (2018) isn’t just nostalgia, glued together with crowd-funding to appeal to niche players. It embodies the wonders of political intrigue, sci-fi warfare, space travel and mech combat into one compelling package. Described as “Game of Thrones meets MechWarrior”, BattleTech‘s complex story is further aided by its gameplay and whether the universe grabs hold of you or not, the strategy will definitely make you stay. That feeling of something larger playing out contrasts well with the story told here, which is no less important in its emotional weight.
That compelling narrative is a major strength of BattleTech. While the developer has been excellent with its Shadowrun series (Shadowrun: Hong Kong being a personal favourite), BattleTech is on a completely different level. The opening cinematic recounts the journey of mankind as we traveled through space to the establishment of the Star League and the chaos that resulted. Noble houses, both minor and major, came into being but Battlemechs were the tool to enforce one’s will.
The story takes place in the Aurigian Reach, starting with the Taurian Concordat. With the death of High Lord Tamati Arano II, it falls on his daughter Lady Kamea Arano to succeed. Things are rarely so simple and soon, Kamea finds the throne usurped by her treacherous uncle. In the midst of all this, various bits of lore are dispersed in loading screen tips and through different contracts, detailing different conflicts, mercenary units, Houses and whatnot. While the opening and similar cutscenes aren’t pre-rendered CG, they are packed with beautifully illustrated artwork and minimal animation that conveys the story exceedingly well.
Of course, in the beginning, your role is simply that of a Mech pilot who serves in Kamea’s royal guard as the coup occurs. It’s possible to customize your appearance and backstory from the beginning, each choice defining bonuses to different attributes like Guts (more mech health), Firepower (more weapon damage) and so on. Depending on the choices made, you’ll see different dialogue choices throughout the story. After the intro, it’s not long before you command your own Mech Lance unit. To the game’s credit, it does a good job of explaining a number of its mechanics in the opening mission. It’ll still take the average strategy player some time to get a handle of it all.
"All of this adds up and eats into your bank balance. When managing your own Mech Lance unit, you need to factor all this in, perhaps selling off weapons and parts in the process to make bank."
Case in point, you have to manage your Mech’s position as well as their perspective in battle. If your Mech is facing away from the enemy, then its susceptible to increased damage. Then there are heat levels to manage, generated from firing weapons continuously but these can be lowered by either guarding for a turn or dipping in water. If you must attack an enemy but don’t want to overheat and potentially damage your Mech, disable certain weapons and reduce the overall heat generated. Different sources of cover like forests will provide bonuses to your defense but travelling larger distances can result in your Evasion rating being increased. Also don’t forget that certain enemies can be spotted from a distance using sensors and bombarded thanks to different weapon types, mech types, etc. Some mechs are beefier and capable of holding their own like the Blackjack and Shadow Hawk but others like Spiders and Locusts function more like scouts, flitting about the battlefield and gathering reconnaissance while dealing poke damage.
There’s more. Weapons have different accuracy ratings so it’s possible for attacks to miss. You can either focus on a single target or activate the multi-target system to deal damage to a swathe of enemies within a visible arc. Precision shots can also be called to attack specific points of enemies. Calling damage onto a Mech’s legs will disable it; targeting the centre canopy will result in the pilot potentially being killed. Try to keep some enemy mechs relatively intact as they could serve as valuable salvage later.
Your own pilots can take injuries and have their own parts disabled, losing arms and weapons in the midst of battle. Completing objectives is important but so is managing your team. Too many injuries and your pilots will need time to recoup. Mechs can take a pretty hefty beating as well and if certain parts are blown off (as opposed to damaged, which require repairs), they’ll need to be refitted with new weapons.
All of this adds up and eats into your bank balance. When managing a Mech Lance unit, you need to factor all this in, perhaps selling off weapons and parts in the process to make bank. Every 30 days sees your balance eaten up for monthly expenses. If pilots are injured for too long, then it could take months for them to get back into action (which is a problem if all of your pilots are injured and you’re simply eating maintenance costs). If repairs are too heavy, you may not have enough money at the end to continue and thus go bankrupt, necessitating a restart from a previous save. You can alleviate this – and progress the story – by taking on contracts, which usually involve destroying enemy units with all manner of lasers, bullets and artillery.
"It’s a lot to take in, for sure. Despite doing a decent job of explaining much of this, BattleTech doesn’t hold the player’s hand."
However, the actual objectives – like taking down a turret generator to shut down a defense perimeter or stopping a convoy while managing its guards – add different strategic layers to the experience. Take note that some objectives are rather linear, like simply destroying a handful of enemies in an area, but I noticed the game would find ways to make those interesting as well. For instance, while replaying a contract after going bankrupt on the first go-around, that map wasn’t a snowy terrain with magma-like surfaces and plenty of forest cover. Instead, it was a mountainous snowy region with steep elevation and two Mech units to battle as opposed to a single unit and four tanks.
BattleTech also lets you decide how you want things to play out. Take on reduced maintenance costs at the risk of crew morale. Bypass certain repairs for the sake of saving money and send your Spider unit into battle without a left arm and jump jets. Don’t care much about salvage from missions but want more money? Negotiate with clients for that or tank any Reputation gains entirely by asking for decent amounts of both. You can hire new pilots and mechs, purchase new weapons and develop specialized kits for your squad to thrive in various circumstances.
It’s also worth mentioning that completing different contracts will earn you points with different Houses. In this way, you can decide which factions will offer you different benefits. How you go about completing the main campaign is completely up to you but there are equal measures of heroics and cunning required.
There’s a lot to take in, for sure. Despite doing a decent job of explaining much of this, BattleTech doesn’t hold the player’s hand. It’s very easy to muck things up and find yourself bankrupt before the second contract mission just because you didn’t factor in how many days it takes to travel. Your tactfulness in battle is as important as managing resources back home. The similarities with Firaxis’ recent XCOM games can be ubiquitous at times and like that game, BattleTech has its own share of annoyances. Missing Precision Shots despite having 70 percent accuracy, the relatively useless multi-target system in initial stages, and so on can wear on you. However, you can stomp on tanks or jump high in the sky before delivering death from above. Just don’t abuse the goomba stomp method too often or you’ll find said mech without any legs to stand on.
"I hesitate to say that BattleTech isn’t for everyone – it may not be for those who don’t enjoy turn-based tactical strategy but it’s a quality experience that’s worth checking out regardless."
Visually, BattleTech feels splendid with its detailed mechs and animations. The dynamic combat camera lends a great personal feeling to battles but those dramatic angles can be reduced or turned off completely to speed up the pace of games. Map design is similarly on point, offering numerous advantages and tactical positions to attack from while keeping a solid visual tone (even if the deserts can get somewhat monotonous). There was some odd animation here and there, like a unit ordered to attack an enemy in front of her but opting to go the other way before quickly turning around. But these are relatively few and far between. Unit damage feels raw and visceral – you’ll actually feel like your mech is being pummeled by continuous damage, which pilots will further reinforce with their voice lines.
Speaking of which, the voice acting is generally very good, even if certain characters can come across as a little too cliché (the over-enthusiastic girl, the grim-dark edgy guy, etc.). However, even the characters that seemed cliched had their own appeal in a way – it made BattleTech feel closer to the classic animated series without being overly offensive to my taste. In terms of writing, characters like Kamea and Raju stood out immediately while others like Yang, Sumire and Darius will grow on you. Finally, the game’s soundtrack is epic, delivering booming orchestral tracks and moody pieces that stir different feelings like deceit and tension.
What grabbed me about BattleTech wasn’t the fact that it was a complex tale of politics and interstellar warfare fueled primarily by metal boots on the ground. It was the various nuances to the gameplay, the strategic depth that felt overwhelming but not overpowering. These two aspects are backed by a strong narrative with great writing, strong visuals and awell constructed soundtrack. I hesitate to say that BattleTech isn’t for everyone – it may not be for those who don’t enjoy turn-based tactical strategy but it’s a quality experience that’s worth checking out regardless.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Well-realized universe with great writing and strong characters. Orchestral score is varied and conveys the perfect emotion for the occasion. Strong strategic depth with a number of customization and management options guarantee a varied experience. Visceral mech combat that feels immersive. Tons of replay value.
Some objectives may be a bit too similar at times. Can be unforgiving for those who aren't well-versed with its mechanics immediately. A few annoying characters here and there. Multi-target could be better.