It’s been a long time since the Battletech franchise released a strategy game, with Mech Commander 2 being released in 2001. The series has found much better footing in the more action-oriented genres, and it’s seen a lot of success with a series of first and third person games.
However, the series is based on a board game, and finally someone has decided it’s time to bring that to the digital world. That someone just happens to be Hairbrained Schemes, previously known for their amazing work on the Shadowrun games, which were also digital conversions of traditional pen-and-paper games. Are mechs still exciting from an eye-in-the-sky view, or is this destined for the scrap heap?
Blow Things Up for Money
BATTLETECH‘S plot is surprisingly good for a game otherwise about blowing things up for money. You play a mercenary veteran in the service of House Arano, who’s king just died leaving the throne to his daughter Kamea.
On the day of her ascension, the royal city is attacked by Kamea’s uncle and cousin who start a civil war and steal the throne, killing your best friend and attempting to kill you and Kamea in the process. Now, three years later you’re in charge of a small mercenary company hired by Kamea to serve as her military backing for her upcoming coup. She agrees to bankroll your operation, and in return you get revenge. A win-win for everyone.
While the writing is generally great, taking cues from other fiction steeped in political meandering like Game of Thrones, there are two major issues with the plot. The first is that it all just seems so familiar, and it is, unfortunately, a story we’ve seen time and time and time again. The evil side of the family wrestles control from the good side, a fight breaks out, and the good side, after overcoming hardships and hurdles, wins the day, probably with a deal of sacrifice too.
Secondly, the plot at times just doesn’t show up or isn’t clear. In fairness, the bulk of the game is spent as a mercenary, but the story literally will just stop dead at times only to reappear when it thinks it necessary, making it difficult to care when you do finally return to the reason for playing the game.
Battletech Is A Little Too Familiar
That said, while the main plot may not always show up, BATTLETECH does do a great job of allowing you to create your own story, usually the one about you being on the verge of bankruptcy most of the time. Time and money are everything and it is impressive how, in a game about giant robots firing lasers and missiles, the most dangerous enemies are the clock and the checkbook.
The early game is going to keep you extremely lean, often forcing you to take contracts just to pay the bills, but because the game does a great job of creating an atmosphere of being a hungry mercenary commander, this never feels totally detrimental. Mostly the game simply shows you goa od time and money management and makes the payoff when you finally buy some breathing room that much sweeter.
Unfortunately, the time/money management does highlight one of the biggest issues with the game: the pacing. Quite frankly it’s all over the place. A lot of management-style games of this nature have downtime, waiting for the aliens to show up in Xcom or for your team to heal in Jagged Alliance 2, but the downtime between engagements in BATTLETECH can be insanely long, slowly bleeding you dry in the meantime.
The world doesn’t stop because your mech lost an arm or your pilot took a round to the abdomen, and certainly neither does the bill collector. Repairs and hospital time can really add up and you can go months on months without a team ready to deploy, all the while paying upkeep costs and edging closer to bankruptcy. It does get better as you unlock faster repairs and better medicine, but before than an entire campaign can end if one of your mechs gets too badly beaten up.
A Long Wait
It’s unfortunate that there’s such a long wait between combat missions because tactically this is one of the best turn-based-strategy games in a long time. Combat just feels amazing, and clearing a particularly difficult mission with minimal damage is an outstanding feeling. There are a few idiosyncrasies that can take some time to get accustomed to, especially if you’re coming off of other turn-based strategy games, but once you get into the swing of things combat is incredibly satisfying.
To start, the encounters are split into phases, based on the weight class of mechs, with lighter mechs moving first. You’ll always know which phase every unit is slotted for, so thinking ahead is easy to do, and certain abilities can manipulate the phases to change when your units activate or allow you to activate twice.
Then there’s the evasion system, which is based on movement and terrain. The more you move the more evasive you mech is, and certain terrain types grant bonuses like forests give you cover or water cooling your mech down, or debuffs like slower movement or increased heat. Finally, there’s heat and stability, the former builds as you fire weapons and if you overheat you’ll take damage and risk a core meltdown, and the latter is affected by taking damage, and can cause mechs to fall over and become easy targets.
All of that is on top of the variety of different weapons, never mind the mech pilot’s skills and the positioning of the two mechs facing each other. Then there’s layers of armor and special weapons, as well as melee damage and pilot abilities. All of this could and should be difficult but the game does a good job of making the whole thing manageable, and more importantly, easy to use, mostly. There are enough feedback and information given out that combat is simple and enjoyable, although again the UI doesn’t always do a great job of presenting info in a logical manner, and finding some stats seems unnecessarily difficult.
Ruthless Enemies, Player Bias
As for the enemies you’ll face, they can be downright ruthless at times. The AI is particularly fond of ganging up on weaker targets, and frankly so should you. Enemies will often outnumber you two or even three to one with vehicles and turrets as well. While most enemies will have less armor, more difficult missions can be absolutely punishing and some encounters can drag on for turns at a time. Still, the game often felt more player-biased than some other strategy games, and the balance landed on comfortable more often than not.
Visually the game is sort of all over the place. There’s a LOT of detail put into the mechs, and zooming in on them is a treat for fans of the series. Far from their Eastern cousins, the mechs of BATTLETECH are slow, hulking, utilitarian things and that shows perfectly in their design. Damage modeling is also handled very well and it is genuinely exciting to watch as limbs go flying after a great hit.
Unfortunately, terrain art is somewhat lacking in any detail, and a lot of the maps feel barren and mishmash as a result, occasionally spruced up with small features. It doesn’t really hamper the experience, but it can make the game feel less alive.
The audio is a bit better. Weapon sounds have a decent enough punch to them, even more so when accompanied by an explosion signaling a good hit. The mechs themselves have a lot of groaning and whirring, matching their look perfectly.
The music is quite good, matching the fantasy influence of the story with the sci-fi industrial world for a great soundtrack that matches the action without overpowering it. Finally, voice work is mostly decent, with Lady Kamea being a standout the few times her lines are voiced. Your pilots also have a decent selection of barks to match their actions, everything from landing a critical hit to moving for cover and the variety is decent enough that your team will feel dynamic.
It’s All About Those Robots
Unfortunately what can really bring the game down are the numerous bugs and glitches, ranging from mildly amusing to actually game breaking. While none were experienced during this review there are far to many reports on the Steam page to ignore, and players are complaining about audio not starting to frequent crashes.
Also, despite being a Unity engine title the game can be an absolute system killer, thanks to some poor decisions like uncapping menus to let them use resources unchecked. The developers have stated they’re aware of these issues and as of this review some patches have already dropped, but it should be something to remember if you’re planning to pick the game up.
BATTLETECH might just be the closest a game about managing a mercenary company of giant robots has ever, or will ever come. There are issues, and at times the game almost seems reluctant to let you get to the good stuff, but when you outclass and out maneuver a massive enemy force to win the day and score the contract that all seems to go away. It’s a game that will keep you hungry, always looking for the next fight, and when it delivers it’s simply amazing.