An era of metal and might
Some things in this big ol’ universe are so old and complicated that we dumb ol humans can’t remember how to put ‘em back together. Battlemechs are one of those things. Set in a great giganormous star-filled ocean of political turmoil and ancient secrets, the Battletech universe has been floating around for a good number of decades. Back in the days when I used to go to gaming conventions that had attendance numbers in the double digits, I was first introduced to the world of big humanoid tanks, heatsinks, jump jets, proper facing, evasion, armour points, loadouts, and death from above attacks.
I’m as skilled a Mechwarrior as a squirrel is at handling taxes. Mostly I stared at the board in terror until someone gave me nudge, then I’d scramble, panic, and mess everything up. But unlike taxes, it was fun. And if I had the time and money I would have been hooked. But thankfully – like good opium – that addictive habit was expensive.
In a year when the first Warcraft game was released, my cobweb-addled brain could not imagine an era where we would have amazingly scored, high quality, digital representations of this game. However, we now have the electronic witchcraft of Harebrained Schemes and the publishing might of Paradox Interactive coming out with a game I never knew I needed. Instead of paying hundreds for the Battletech experience, we now get it for the very reasonable price of $39.99 USD.
Keeping Cool Under Fire
The big attraction of the game is the giant walking, shooting, punching tanks we call Battlemechs. Framed in a story of betrayal and revenge, we find ourselves leading a group of Mechwarrior mercenaries. I named my mercs Fox’s Honour Guard (after my pet rabbit) and began spreading the legend of our prowess through system after system.
Taking missions for those hard to earn (and easy to spend) C-Bills lands you in one of a variety of worlds, each with its own dangers and challenges. As the Commander of Fox’s Honour Guard, I’d look over the contract briefings, see what the client was asking for, how much they were willing to pay and find a balance between salvage, goodwill and, of course, C-Bills. Our faithful XO would give his thoughts or concerns about any particular mission, and also flag it on a danger scale that ranged between one and ten, measured in very cheerful looking red skulls. While the easiest missions were ranked at half a skull and the hardest at five there was always room for poor intel and over worrying. This could result in the difficulty of the mission actually being higher or lower by a margin of two points.
Did I mention the game doesn’t have a difficultly slider? So, you are left taking a risk that the mission is going to be as is, more difficult or super easy, based on the cruel whims of the RNG gods. I was concerned at first, but it really worked for me. It builds a high tension that I don’t often get in slow-paced tactical games like this. Also, considering that the missions and maps have large, randomly generated aspects, you are going to have a hard time feeling 100% prepared for any mission.
After several deployments, I got into a regular, but never a boring pattern. Check my intel target locations. Twirl the camera around, like I was a first-year photography student who had way too many espressos in order to get a good lay of the land and the corresponding topography. Look for places we wouldn’t want to get ambushed in, avoid them, and look for places where enemies might be hiding, and if not, lay in wait there ourselves.
One mission we crept behind some ice-peaked mountains on a tundra world. We had a quick laser laden Jenner for our scout, a Hunchback and Centurion as our main line of engagement, and a Trebuchet with stripped-down armour, a pair of Long Range Missiles and lots of ammo in the back. Just missiles and a great pilot. We snuck around to get a good view on the enemy base, and with our Jenner acting as the spotter, we quickly took out any enemy resistance with a combination of fiery death from our missiles and the deadly alpha strikes from our Hunchback (which normally runs a bit hot, but on the tundra world not so much.) We finished our primary objective and collected a nice payday.
Mechwarriors and the Battlemechs are separate beasts. You can swap them around, one can get messed up pretty bad and the other survive an engagement without a scratch. You need to watch everything. Facing, elevation, turn order, sensor range, and way more information that I could elegantly lay out in this review. Rest assured it is a tactical players dream come true.
Everyone acts on a set initiative during the turn, which is determined mostly by Mech weight and can be affected by Mechwarrior ability. The units are granted a variety of special abilities – some activated, some passive, and some based off of your current morale score. Most of these abilities are determined by the training of your Mechwarriors. There are a bunch of details to the combat and they really captured the essence of the tabletop game, but at the same time managed to make it feel super accessible. I can get overwhelmed by these games and run around like my poor Locust mech with both arms blown off as I try to get my bearings. But for me, the difficulty curve was a steady climb. Each deployment I learned a bit more and honed my game (with the wonderful advice from my twitch chat) and eventually I started feeling not just confident, but competent.
Basically, if you enjoyed the fight mechanics in Divinity Original Sin 2 or the X-Com series, but wanted a bit more meat on it? You are going to really enjoy this one.
C-bills Don’t Buy Happiness – But They Pay the Rent.
But wait, there’s more! You aren’t just getting a bad ass tactical game. You aren’t just the assigned leader of a mercenary group that is just the vessel for fighting an ever-increasing roster of different mechs. In this game you need to worry about C-bills, resolving crises aboard your ship, C-bills, ship upgrades, C-bills, contract negotiations and reputation with factions, C-bills, the hiring and training of new Mechwarriors, and, of course, C-bills.
Now, I know I have a canny bunch of readers, but in case some of you missed it, getting paid is really important in this game. It strikes a horrifically good balance between letting you feel like a tactical badass in one breath and in the next a business owner constantly on the cusp of bankruptcy. And that is the death knell of your character. Yeah, you can get blown up, you can have everyone in your employ die horribly on the battlefield, your mechs can be reduced to a pile of scrap. But as the protagonist, you can’t actually die – the game moves on in all those cases. But if you go bankrupt, that’s lights out for your dreams.
Sure you keep taking tiny jobs, grind for experience and bigger and better mechs. But, as your roster of both Mechwarriors and Battlemechs increase, so do your costs. Seriously, this part of the game is ruthless.
Beyond balancing your books, you need to balance your team of Mechwarriors. This means the occasional interaction events that can be influenced by character tags and what ship upgrades you do or don’t have, and other factors. In addition to this, you need to guide the training of your Mechwarriors. If you just have the same four pilots handling things every time, one day that is going to bite you. Sometimes you need to haul ass to take a few easy jobs to let the greenhorns learn the ropes (while hoping against hope that the intel is good and the mission will at least not set you back fiscally.)
Experience can be spent to buy up points in the four skills – Pilot, Tactics, Guts and Gunnery – and each skill has two special abilities that you can unlock. But each character can only have three of these special skills and half of them are locked behind the other half. You need to choose wisely based on your strategies, the mechs at your disposal and what the team needs. I made a bit of a mistake early on and wound up having a quarter of my Mechwarriors all with the same exact skillset. This meant rotating them on our deployment roster to assure they all had the same practical experience – the other option was to just let one of them go, and I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I’d hate to have seen Bobtail back in the unemployment line after all we’d been through – and Behemoth was one of the original crew, and suffered too many head injuries under my command for me to feel comfortable with that call.
Do you like customizing tactical loadouts for giant ancient weapons of battlefield destruction? Then get ready to meet your new best friend, Yang. Yang runs the mechbay for your merc group and he knows his stuff. Seriously, read the tutorials he offers, it will help. At the mechbay you are going to repair your mechs if they took serious damage, but you’ll also be able to refit them.
I had dreams of a Trebuchet with nothing but long-range missiles on it. Part of a sweet salvage I got was an advanced LRM20 that increased accuracy and stability damage. Raining hot death from a distance was fun. Knocking an enemy mech over from a distance was pure poetry. So I stripped the armour off the legs, dropped the jump jets since I figuring it didn’t need the mobility, and surely we didn’t need that many heatsinks? The result was pretty damn close to the mech I wanted. But having that custom made loadout made me nervous. We bailed on a mission that we could have probably won, mostly because I didn’t want to risk damaging the Trebuchet too much.
Once an enemy tears your wonderful armour apart, you start seeing those dreaded orange damage numbers and rest assured someone is going to grumble about taking internal damage. Armour is fixed for free between missions, but internal damage takes time and C-bills. Enough internal damage you are going to lose that limb and with it anything that was on it.
You’ll find special bits of gear as you progress, clearly marked with a plus symbol. Each plus means an extra perk. The general rule is the more pluses the better, but sometimes you will want to keep a lower valued one because the bonus to accuracy might be more useful for a particular mech than doing extra stability damage and a bonus to critical hits.
Between your Mechwarriors and the machines they ride, you have a great deal of customization in how you run your company and guide your troops in battle. What this translates to is a game that allows you to engage with it how you wish. And in this old guy’s books, the more playstyles that are welcome, the better. And from the spirited debates from the grizzled Mechwarrior veterans in my twitch chat, there are a lot of different playstyles out there.
The Coming Conflicts.
So, the closing notes? The game keeps trundling on after the main story. HBS has dreams of content for the various ages of the Battletech universe rolling out as time goes on. Not tiny content packs either, but big ones.
The art direction is just wonderful, proving that CGI realism isn’t needed to make a cinematic gripping. It’s clear that HBS took what it learned from its previous titles and really sharpened that already excellent edge. The musical score has become one of my top favourite video game OSTs. Jon Everist really did a fantastic job on this. Really folks, not to slight the game at all, but I’d have paid 40 bucks just for the soundtrack.
There is a multiplayer aspect, but it wasn’t a focus. This lets you do matched PVP and is really not meant for the e-sports crowd, but more buddies at a bar bragging how they can one-up each other in a fight. I expect them to expand on it as time and money allow, but for now, it isn’t the main attraction.
I may be an easy sell when it comes to these kinds of games. You let me go at my own pace, play my own way, throw in turn-based combat, roleplay elements and factions, and I’m going look at you with big comical hearts popping out of my eyes. There were some things that needed work – the reputation system could use a bit more teeth, as it is very bare bones right now. Some of the missions can be downright unfair, and I’m not sure if that is a feature or a bug. Some players are going to like it, and some will hate it. I’m on the fence depending on how much tea I had before playing. However, any complaints I have are insanely minor.
This is one of the single best games I’ve played. Ever. It has inspired me to look deeper into the Battletech universe. The game is cruel at times, the RNG gods are vicious, but that feeling when you get that third piece of a salvage that completes a new mech that you were itching for, it’s just amazing.
Final Score: 9/10 – it won’t be for everyone, but if you are a tactical combat fan who wants a really good feel of running a merc squad, enlist today. Also… Giant. Walking. Tanks.
Review by: Joshua Smith
Edited by: Jesse Roberts
This game was provided for purposes of review.