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Battletech (PC) artwork

Battletech (PC) review

"Knowing How to Play, Truly, is Half the Battle"

There are two frames of mind when it comes to Battletech. In some alternate universe, Battletech by Harebrained Studios never released because of a lawsuit by Harmony Gold, and that reality would deprive everyone an enriching experience beyond what anyone could imagine. However, there have been many moments throughout the absolute highs that nearly crushed my self-esteem as I spent hours relearning the many gameplay subtleties and reframing my Mech loadouts to barely come out on top. Words cannot convey the climactic culmination after fifty hours to assemble a four-man team of Assault Mechs obliterating all who oppose me. In all my years of gaming from Ironman runs of XCOM EU and 2 to CRPGs new and old, Battletech (2018) is the most formidable teacher I have ever encountered. Mistakes are not simply marks against the player’s errors; failure is the lesson and knowing how to make acceptable losses with net profits is the thrill of the adventure.

Knowing How to Play, Truly, is Half the Battle

Perhaps Battletech’s most damnable offense is how steep the learning curve can be to people with zero knowledge about the tabletop or the universe. There are several factors at work that will confuse newcomers because they can be easily overlooked, and there are far too many aspects not properly explained without experimentation. Preplanning missions with your squadron, reading the many important details when retrofitting your Mechs’ armaments as well as reading the combat UI are all the major challenges any diligent player must tackle first.

Unlike other modern games, maturing as a MechWarrior in Battletech isn’t solely about learning the rulesets like 2nd Edition AD&D for Baldur’s Gate. Players also have to build an encyclopedia of the 57 Mechs along with the weaponry designations from AC2s to SRM20s if they wish to know what threats to prioritize. Sometimes the problem isn’t your ability to command or your MechWarriors’ skills but the Mech Squadron you selected as you may perform better with a Light Mech versus the heaviest units. In addition to these challenges, the HUD in combat and the retrofitting screens obscure many vital details due to their minimalistic design that players will often question if they themselves are at fault.

Battletech (PC) image

Most of these details can be learned after the initial sensory overload subsides. For example, you may notice how line-of-sight arcs vary from straight lines (within range of all weapons) to curved arcs (salvos only). You may also pick up that Evasion is vital when you cannot hit those light Mechs without chipping away their “speed armor,” and you may also notice heavier mechs tend to forgo speed for guarding to take less damage (and less injuries). However, other pieces of information are behind several mouse clicks such as previewing hit chances at different locations, relocating armor distribution on Refit screens, or turning off-and-on weapons to multiple targets (or simpler things like how Morale in combat does NOT use Morale from the ship). There are far too many examples in total to account for every player, yet I imagine many players who get fed up with the difficulty never truly had the chance to understand what they did wrong in the first place.

When everything does finally click and you are able to properly plan for a mission as well as coordinate your squadron with a flawless run against the odds in firepower or in numbers, the tactical and the customizable brilliance behind Battletech truly does shine as a strategy game more than as a new milestone for Harebrained Studios as a role-playing game.

All Pay and No Stakes Makes Blackjack a Dull Mech

Although there is nothing wrong with creating a story-driven strategy game rather than a role-playing experience, it’s difficult not to see Battletech as a regression from Shadowrun Dragonfall. Expectations from past successes can be hard to justify, yet the main issues with Battletech’s replayability ultimately stem from their past glories. Dragonfall excelled at creating a non-linear, story-rich RPG about mercenaries with well-developed characters along with branching choices throughout. In contrast, Battletech is an aimless journey of randomized mercenary contracts with varying difficulty along with a surprisingly linear narrative focused solely on one well-developed character, Lady Amano. These priorities are not the only major differences, but they should illustrate Harebrained did not simply apply the Dragonfall framework to the Battletech universe.

Battletech (PC) image

The biggest separation between Battletech’s roots as a RPG and as a strategy game starts out with its leveling-up system. In other games like Dragonfall, you choose a specialized role to build your characters around their strengths, and these stats may play a larger part in the narrative if you are proficient. MechWarriors are only specialists in one area, destruction, and rather than becoming adept in any one Mech class or an area of expertise these mercenaries are versatile with any Mech. Classes are non-existent, although special passive/active abilities do encourage specialist roles; instead, the plethora of Mechs are the only means to encourage variety. Every Mech is tailored for specific combat roles such as Brawler, Heat Generation, Sniper, Support, etc. with a limited amount of tonnage (weight) left over after the frameworks to balance armor, weapons and alternative systems like Heat Sinks and Jump Jets. Maintaining this balance is crucial not only for the advantage of stat bonuses but the uniqueness of every mech is what Battletech expects to carry the rest of the game. To my surprise, all Mechs manage to be useful throughout the entire game, even light mechs with enough armor can be useful despite their shortcomings, yet some early mechs become obsolete due to the squad size.

All other components you would expect of a choice-driven strategy/RPG are otherwise toned down in Battletech. Backgrounds are flavor text with little alterations; choose-your-own screens are randomized benefits and setbacks; influences with major Houses don’t offer any unique missions or rewards, only discounts at stores; finance management is the only threat to fear; and none of your choices have any impact with Lady Amano or any members on the Arno. (The whole relationship between the player and Amano is inconsistent between cutscenes as she sometimes acts like she doesn’t know us in person.) Missions boil down to Battles (Assassination, Bounty Hunts Strike, Base Attacks), Convoys/Extraction and random skirmishes with the chance of reinforcements, and it’s only the story missions that attempt to shake up the formula. Even features I adore from strategy games such as permadeath, which omits your player character, can be too punishing because of how much of a time-sink the game is to simply complete. This homogenized, yet random, execution makes it difficult to become starry eyed once again after the campaign is over because restarting the game will yield little, if any, rewards of its own besides seeing what Mechs are thrown your way.

Graveyards of Metal Debris Left for Another Profitable Day

Sometimes it’s the games I absolutely love that I spend more time talking about its flaws than I spend the time to praise its many achievements, and Battletech is no exception. There is a remarkable game unlike any I have ever played before to be found here, and this statement is said for all the right and the wrong reasons. Harebrained should be commended for another faithful rekindling of a forgotten franchise born out of their own passions with the source material, and I think any fan of Shadowrun or Battletech will be surprised with what they created. Unlike Shadowrun Returns, a faithful, if flawed, experience, Battletech manages to reinvigorate the series on firmer foundations among the carnage of burnt armored husks and craters of misfires along the battlefield.


Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (December 20, 2020)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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