BattleTech review: Heavy metal
- 11 May, 2018 09:55
In past reviews, I’ve made no secret of both my love for giant robots and my enthusiasm for turn-based tactics and grand strategy games, no matter how overwhelmingly complex they are nor how much of my free time they tend to obliterate. With that criteria in mind, it shouldn’t really surprise you to learn that BattleTech - a game which ticks both of these boxes - is a game that I am pretty-much going to endorse right from the outset. Regardless, given my own mixed-experiences with previous efforts by developer Harebrained Schemes, it ended up being a bit of a surprise to me just how deep down the rabbit hole I ended up falling with BattleTech.
Harebrained Schemes might have found their start in the mobile gaming space but they largely crafted their reputation in the wider gaming one by taking one of tabletop gaming's most beloved settings and converting it into a stylish, strategic, and open-ended single-player RPG experience. With that context, It’d be easy to call what they’re doing with BattleTech more of the same.
However, what’s on the table here ultimately emerges from the chrysalis of development as a far more robust and ambitious affair than the preceding trio of Shadowrun games. The execution isn’t without its fair share of stumbles and missteps, nor is BattleTech really a revolution on the genre. But it is a really, really good one of those games - and when the big picture is so appealing, it’s easy to glaze over any of the smaller shortcomings.
Learning to take a punch
Set in the venerable pen-and-paper roleplaying setting of the same name, BattleTech sees you take control of a motley crew of mecha-mercenaries for hire. Following a story-heavy tutorial that’s as much about establishing the kind of character you’re playing as it is the political and personal forces that ultimately shape the narrative, you’re cast adrift in the debris of space but weighed down by looming debt. Your only way forward here is to take job after job, and keep flying. At least, to begin with.
Primarily taking place on sprawling and exotic outdoor environments, each level sees you lead your team of four MechWarriors (called a Lance) towards an enemy you have to destroy. The nature of that enemy varies. Sometimes you're faced with a straightforward fight to the death. Other times you’ll be on the defensive or tasked with taking out a specific objective before retreating to an extraction zone marked on your map.
If there’s anything that defined the flow of BattleTech’s flavor of turn-based combat for me here, it’s that a lot of the “secrets” that allow you to do well usually boil down to literalized common sense. Most of the time, you’re fighting other mechs. It only makes sense that you can permanently immobilize your opponents by blowing their legs to bits or literally disarm them by aiming for their arms. Alternatively, if you’re being harassed by hostile tankfire, stepping on them is usually the most reliable way to take them out of the picture. As with their Shadowrun games, Harebrained have stuck very closely to the way that their source material plays and, as a result, combat in BattleTech often feels like you're playing a tabletop game where a computer handles all the pesky math.
Unfortunately, the flipside of this approach is that a lot of the strategic depth in the game (and systems underpinning that depth) often came off as a little opaque and unexplained. It feels like you're playing a tabletop game but one where you can't readily consult the rulebook. The game’s tutorial sequence goes a long way towards setting up the characters and larger world but doesn’t really do much in the way of exploring the nuance in the combat system. It teaches you the absolute basics but it doesn’t do a great job of articulating the fundamentals. Sometimes this results in neat discoveries that make you feel like a cunning commander but, unfortunately, there are plenty of other instances when you’re faced with a mission you can’t win and it’s not always clear why.
Another area of the game that did come up short was with the technical performance. Throughout my time with the game, I encountered infrequent crashes, glitches and bugs. It was rarely anything game-breaking but I did have to restart some major missions, which is always frustrating. The load times also seem quite slow for a game that often comes across as more-stylistic rather than graphically-intensive. These areas will likely be addressed in later patches by Harebrained but for now they remain an unfortunate thorn in what is otherwise a gorgeous title.
Hit harder not smarter
Of course, the sizzling ground-based sequences of BattleTech are only half the experience here. It’s in the times in-between that these encounters that game’s higher-tiers of strategy and narrative are weaved together in top-form.
Between fights, your focus shifts to ship-management.
Each month, you’ve got bills to pay. Hiring new crew members or building new mechs will increase your overheads. Running a bigger budget but comes with less room to maneuver, should a mission not go your way. Travel time also enters the equation. There might be an easy-looking mission with a big payout on your radar but if its a twenty day flight away, it’s not going to be worth as much in real-terms. BattleTech lets intimate economics enter the picture in a way that other strategy games don’t always do, allowing for a snappy combination of both richer decisions and more meaningful outcomes.
There are also plenty of upgrades and other diversions to consider here. Each of your crew members can be trained, each of your mechs can be customized and your ship itself can even be modified to open up new possibilities. Morale - itself a valuable resource in combat - has to be managed, with the game throwing scripted choose-your-own-adventure sequences at you between full-blown missions where the decisions affect your crew’s overall morale.
Like a lot of tactics games, BattleTech isn’t so much about scoring perfect outcomes as it is managing inevitably-imperfect ones. No matter how well you approach the situation, your crew of mechwarriors are going to take some damage and repairing that damage is going you. No matter well you budget things, you’re always going to need to take that next job to maintain momentum and keep your ship running. As a result, every step of your journey through the cosmos and - from the smaller scraps to more-prolonged, desperate gunfights - feels like it matters.
This is a feat is all the more impressive when you consider the amount of procedural generation in play here. Aside from the story missions, most of the contracts and levels the game serves up are generated on the fly. Harebrained Schemes have even given you the option of outright ignoring the story if you wish and forge your own story. That said, until the developer adds some additional environments and elements into the mix, I don’t know how viable or fun playing through BattleTech this way would actually be in the long-run.
Still, to Harebrained Schemes credit, they’ve built a fascinating and compelling framework that coherently brings the systems and tone of its source material into the digital realm. Simply put, it feels like BattleTech has been build from the ground up to continuously serve up interesting choices and throw you into equally-challenging situations.
For example, I had a mech that - for whatever reason - would almost-always go down in flames whenever I brought it into combat. Often, this played out in the form of unlikely headshots or engine failures. Always, it proved fatal to whomever was piloting it at the time. It became my bad-luck charm. At least, until I eventually took it apart for parts. The point I’m trying to illustrate here is that while there are going to be a lot of other people playing BattleTech, the odds of them having the exact same experience as you seem quite low.
Last but not least, there’s a multiplayer component to consider. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time here but it does offer up the ability to pit a own personalized lance of Mechs and MechWarriors against both friends, randoms and AI opponents. It’s nice that it’s there, and hardcore fans of the franchise will probably get some mileage out of finding the best configurations but I wouldn’t buy into this game expecting it to become an eSport anytime soon.
The Bottom Line
If you, like me, are a fan of a) giant robots and b) borderline-incoherently complex turn-based tactics and grand strategy games, you’re probably going to like BattleTech. Doubly so if you’re an old-school fan of the source material. Even with the occasional bugs and sometimes-frustrating lack of explanation around crucial mechanics, it stands tall as both a strategic and narrative-rich tactics game and Harebrained Schemes’ best release to date.