Battletech

I am no stranger to the Battletech universe. As a kid I played several of the MechWarrior games so I have a passing familiarity with it. That said, the newest game set in the universe, Battletech (Yes, that is not going to be confusing in the future whatsoever) which had just recently released allowed me to get a deeper dive into a universe fraught with war and giant robots, known as Mechs.

For those unfamiliar with the setting, the game does a good enough job summarizing key points. Suffice to say its the 31st century and everything sucks. Humanity has spread across hundreds of stars but has lost a lot of its technological advances thanks to internecine wars which wreaked havoc on many worlds. Thus, people cling to what working relics of the past they can maintain as a new feudal society rose to prominence, with the Mechs – giant bipedal war machines, acting as its equivalent of knights, only dozens of meter tall and able to destroy a small city with Gauss rifles and phased plasma cannons. In this universe, noble houses wage war with each other over planets and technological relics.

The story itself is set in the Aurigan Reach, a region of space in the Periphery, located between several of the major powers in the Battletech universe. The player takes the role of a mercenary captain, down on their luck with debt and loans piling up. When a mysterious client offers the player a chance to climb out from their financial black hole, they’ll get embroiled in the struggles of the noble houses in the Reach.

The main story of the game wouldn’t shame a season of Game of Thrones. There is a healthy dose of drama, intrigue, backstabbing and reversals to truly engage the player. The various supporting characters all play roles in the bigger story and have interesting backgrounds of their own. The motivations of all parties are quite fleshed out, amplifying the tragedy of their actions. Suffice to say the story both surprised me at points and had me invested in it heavily. That said the game takes place before the invasion of the clans, so sadly no Timber Wolves.

Gameplay wise, the game is of the tactical turned based combat genre. The player operates a squad of 4 Mechs (also known as a Lance in-universe) which they can customize beforehand. Once deployed, the Mechs will be under the player’s control as they attempt to complete objectives. The combat system itself can be described as complicated at best, and obtuse at worst.

Mechs are assigned their combat turn per round depending on their initiative, which is dictated by their class and pilot skills. The heavier the Mech, the later its turn in combat would come. If the player has several Mechs with the same initiative, they can choose whichever one they wants to move or decide to reserve them, thus further delaying their turn. Mechs are usually able to move first then shoot. The further a Mech travels the more evasion it gains, making it harder to hit by the enemy.

Thus movement and positioning are key in combat. Mechs are armored, with the front and sides being the most heavily armored parts. Its important at all times to present the front of the Mech to the enemy as it is able to absorb the most damage while maneuvering to the back of hostile Mechs and vehicles where the armor is thinnest. A Mech that doesn’t move during its turn will simply become a sitting target.

Terrain itself is vitally important. Battletech operates both on elevation and lines of sight. Certain weapons require unobstructed line of sight while others offer indirect fire, not to mention the ranges. The game does a good job showing firing arcs, optimal ranges and whether the target is visible or hidden behind terrain. The other role terrain plays is in stability and heat management. Mechs, being bipedal walkers, must be stable. Weapon impacts may destabilize them, causing them to be knocked down which injures the pilot, temporarily decreases initiative and allows the enemy to get Called Shots (focuses the firepower on a specific part of the Mech, thus able to inflict greater damage). Things like rough terrain increase stability damage and decrease overall movement.

Heat is another factor in fighting as weapons generate heat. Each Mech has a heat threshold which can be improved with pilot skills. Once a Mech passes the threshold, it risks internal damage and worse, emergency shutdown which takes it out of action for a round. Terrain can contribute to heat retention (like geothermal fields) or aid in its dispersal (such as lakes and rivers). Biomes also play a role, as snowy biomes give Mechs lower heat retention while deserts and lunar landscapes cause Mechs to overheat much faster. Thus it is important to pick the right Mechs for the environment.

For these reasons, the game doesn’t feature an overwatch function. Instead the player must be careful and pick and choose which weapon systems to employ, at what distances as they watch heat accumulation and effectiveness, being mindful of the enemy’s next turn. The point of a battle is always to incapacitate hostile Mechs. There are several ways to achieve that:

The most tried and tested way is to blow out the main torso. This is not an easy feat considering that shots have a percentage modifier to hit and that hits’ damage can be halved by armor, brace command and pilot skill. The second tactic is to incapacitate the pilot, usually by causing recurring injury as pilots have limited injury tokens which can be improved through skills and equipment. Third option is to blow both legs off a Mech, but considering leg armor is second only to torso in thickness, this isn’t very recommended. Fourth case is lethal cockpit damage, usually by blowing out the Mech’s head. This is very hard to achieve due to the small target area (even with Called Shots and a skilled pilot I never saw more than an 18% chance). The last option depends on the type of Mech, as those that use missiles and artillery house the ammunition inside of them. Destroying the part of the Mech where they are stored can cause internal explosions which can bring the Mech down from the inside.

Last part of combat are the pilots themselves. Pilots have 4 stats, each corresponding to a different aspect of the Mech. Pilots gain experience through completing missions, enabling them to improve their stats. Once enough experience was gained, pilots can also unlock special abilities, specializing in one of the 4 branches and having a secondary ability in another. The 4 branches are Gunnery, which improves hit chance, Piloting which increases evasion and melee attacks (as well as stability thresholds), Guts, which increases health and heat threshold (don’t ask me how) and finally Tactics which gives better detection range as well as decreases penalty for indirect fire. Pilots can die in combat and injuries are so common place that its always recommended to have alternates just in case. The pilots themselves are not bound to specific Mechs and can be easily re-assigned.

It is this complicated combat system that can either frustrate a player or satisfy them. For my part, as much as certain aspects galled me, overall I did enjoy it. That said the game’s difficulty is quite wonky. There is no adjustable difficulty level, and certain missions can easily overwhelm a player. One bad mission can easily derail a campaign. Thus save scumming isn’t just necessary, but is recommended. Mainline story missions are more balanced but contract work can often surprise you as the difficulty indicator only tells the player the total tonnage of a hostile lance, not the number of hostiles or Mechs (many missions will have reinforcement waves of hostile Mechs). Often times the player will have to choose between just completing the main objective then bolting, standing their ground for a bonus or just withdrawing.

This is a problem as money in the game is tight. To get better Mechs the player has to either locate a planet selling them, often at an inflated price, or salvage them from the battlefield, which may take several battles to find enough parts to assemble one complete Mech. This forces the player to choose in contract negotiations whether to pick more salvage and receive less pay or sacrifice overall salvage for a much needed monetary relief. Salvage is also important in finding and getting better weapon systems.

Mech customization is a factor as well. Each Mech has a set tonnage and number of hardpoints and it is up to the player to decide what to load them with. Players can replace generic weapon systems with upgraded ones, add more heat sinks to better manage heat or jump jets for better maneuverability. They can even decide to just remove certain weapon systems and focus instead on thicker armor. There are many ways to tweak a Mech to suit a player’s playstyle though that said, Mechs do have set roles.

Graphics wise, the game looks beautiful. The Mech models are detailed, giving them a very realistic look of bulky war machines with paint flaking and scratches. During combat as the Mech accumulates damage it can be seen on the model. Sparks will fly out of sockets of lost weapon mounts and fires will burst out. As heat builds up the Mech will start venting steam and glow redder. Environments are nicely detailed though not as much as the Mechs, and physics can glitch at times leading to some hilarious animations. Overall though its quite a pretty and visceral robot punch out game.

The game’s cutscenes can be described as still images with limited movement added to them. They remind me Battlefleet Gothic: Armada with their style. They are quite beautiful to look at, and the voice acting itself is quite good. Sound design is satisfying as Mechs sound like the lumbering metallic constructs they are. The creaking of metallic limbs, the high pitch of lasers and the dreaded shrieking hiss of a missile barrage all add to the experience. The soundtrack though was completely forgettable, so much so that I quickly gave up on it and just had podcasts and my own music playing in the background for most of the campaign.

There are several nitpicks to be had. The player is given the illusion of choice in dialogue segments, but it all boils down basically to roleplaying. Loading times are an arse. I wouldn’t usually comment about this but having just bought a new mid range rig, I thought it worth mentioning. Some levels would take minutes to load up. Travel between systems also brings the game’s flow to a standstill and contract work dries up in a system after a couple of missions. The game tends to favor bigger, heavier Mechs as it progresses, changing the game style a tad (from fast and flanky to slow and lumbering). Oh and the game remains a 4 Mech lance for the entire duration.

That said, many of my complaints can be countered with the narrative. Of course travel between systems takes time due to the backwardness of human civilization. That time is also used for repairs and healing crew members. It is only logical that a mercenary outfit will only have a few contracts thrown its way per planet as competition is fierce and will need to seek higher paid work elsewhere. A Battletech squad is a 4 Mech lance and of course bigger Mechs are preferable due to their thick armor and punishing firepower (my favorite is just kicking smaller Mechs with an Atlas II and seeing them explode from the sheer power of the strike). Since Mechs are such an important commodity of course they’d be hard to find and expensive to buy.

Which brings me to the final score. I wrestled with myself for a whole week over the score. It is part of the reason I hate, though understand, the need for numerical scores. Having fretted for a week, the game’s ending was the clincher, raising the score a whole point (which tells you just how much I liked the story). Thus:

Battletech is a good game which brings its namesake universe to life. It has a deep combat system, a good story and beautiful graphics and sound design. However, its soundtrack is forgettable, its difficulty level non adjustable and certain game design choices may turn off players. 8/10, I recommend it to Battletech fans and newcomers alike.

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