BattleTech Review – The Return of a Legend
Reactor Online. Sensors Online. Weapons Online. All Systems Nominal. Battletech returns as a strategy game, and it's back with a vengeance.
If you’re a young gamer, I wouldn’t blame you for not knowing the name BattleTech. The title MechWarrior is probably more familiar to the younger generation thanks to its series of mecha combat simulators that will come back this year with MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries and to the semi-recent MechWarrior Online.
If you know the MechWarrior series, then you’re set, given that BattleTech is exactly the same franchise. To be more precise, MechWarrior belongs to the BattleTech franchise, as it was the original title of the pen & paper RPG released in 1986 based in the universe of the 1984 tabletop wargame BattleTech by FASA Corporation.
The demise of FASA in 2001 pretty much confined the name BattleTech into relative obscurity, but Harebrained Schemes (brainchild of FASA’s own founder Jordan Weisman) is bringing back the old IPs, and after Shadowrun it’s BattleTech‘s turn to shine.
Interestingly, this game was funded through Kickstarter before receiving Paradox’s support, and since you’ve probably already read the score above, I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by saying that this is by far the best Kickstarter game I have played to date. Saying “All Systems Nominal” would be the euphemism of the decade.
The story (obviously) set in the rich BattleTech universe, in 3025. It’s the era of the Successor Wars, and arguably one of the best periods of the timeline, with noble houses locked in an endless struggle using conventional weapons paired with rare BattleMech that are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain and repair.
Much of the technology developed during the glorious expansion times of the Star League has been forgotten, becoming LosTech, and humanity struggles to find balance.
In this time of strife, the Aurigan Coalition is ruled by House Arano, and its heir, Kamea, is about to be crowned after the death of her parents. The player is tasked with escorting the feisty princess to the ceremony, but they get caught in the middle of a coup staged by Kamea’s own uncle, Santiago Espinosa.
As a result, we find ourselves drifting in space on a decrepit Leopard-class DropShip, in command of a mercenary company in financial trouble, with no patron or long-term plans.
While most of the elements of the story behind BattleTech have been created directly for the game, they fit perfectly within the lore of the franchise, which isn’t surprising considering that some of its creators have been working on the video game. The familiar mix of science-fiction and knight errant-style adventures is back, and we can definitely say that the narrative is worthy of the BattleTech name.
The cast is interesting and well depicted, providing a large group of characters from all walks of life, and creating a great look into many aspects of the lore. This is done via a clever system of tooltips during dialogue that delivers an inordinate amount of information on the setting, which is invaluable to improve immersion.
Good voice acting also strengthens the delivery of the narrative, paired with adequate sound design and a really enjoyable score that includes a ton of tracks varying from epic to somber, setting the perfect mood for each scene. While this might not be a soundtrack supported by massive budgets in comparison to top-of-the-line AAA games, Composer Jon Everist did a fantastic job with the resources he had.
The one weak point among the cast is that our fellow MechWarriors (the pilots of the mech we’ll bring in battle alongside our main character) don’t get much of a spotlight compared to the rest of the crew of our mercenary band. This is understandable due to the fact that there are a metric ton of available characters that we can hire as MechWarriors, and they’re expendable and replaceable, but this is a bit of a missed opportunity
As for our own character, we get an adequate — but not exceptional — set of customization options. A nice touch is the ability to choose his or her background in a similar style to the RPGs of old, very close to what we could do when we first created Shepard in Mass Effect. A fun added touch is that the background elements we choose at the beginning then open special dialogue options during the story. While I don’t know if they actually change anything relevant, the feature certainly adds flavor.
The story itself is narrated via a set of cutscenes made with absolutely charming illustrations and featuring limited animation. They’re a joy to watch, and another example of achieving the best possible result with relatively limited resources.
The overall visuals of the game are definitely well done, especially thanks to the charming lighting that greatly enhances the atmosphere of each map. While Unity is often seen as less powerful than other engines like Unreal and CryEngine, this is probably one of the best-looking games created with it, even thanks to the fact that the engine itself has been making great strides lately.
The flow of the campaign goes a lot beyond the main story. As a matter of fact, after a couple of missions, you can pretty much ignore the main story and just wander the universe in search of contracts for as long as you like.
The whole thing feels delightfully open-ended and sandboxy, and you’re free to take your own personal approach to the life of the mercenary commander.
This also means that if a mission proves too challenging, you can try doing a few more contracts instead, in order to salvage a few better mechs, or maybe buy improved parts to give youreself an edge.
In non-story missions, you can even retreat if the odds turn against you. Your pay and salvage rights will be greatly reduced, but it could help you save your MechWarriors and mechs if you bit more than you can chew.
This is one of the aspects of Battletech that I like the most. The game can be quite challenging if you end up facing a full lance of heavy or assault mechs (and often even mediums and simple tanks can give you some trouble, if you’re not well prepared or you underestimate them), but it does a lot with releasing the player with the typically-gamey obsession with victory and success at all costs (or at no cost, as it happens in the vast majority of games nowadays).
Almost everything, including mechs, parts, and pilots, is replaceable. A battlefield is a dangerous place, and while you can prepare well and take as few risks as possible, that stray AC-20 hit to the head can still kill your best MechWarrior and topple even well-protected mechs.
Missions that seemed a milk run can suddenly turn ugly, and things won’t always go your way. The game teaches you and gives you the tools to roll with the punches, bury that best MechWarrior and kiss goodbye to that powerful mech without feeling like you need to reload your save.
Don’t get me wrong, “save scumming” is very possible. There is nothing preventing you from saving your progression before every shot and reloading every single time you don’t score a critical hit. BattleTech doesn’t provide any sort of IronMan mode and relies on you being honorable to preserve its balance. If you stick to it without abusing the ability to save and reload, I guarantee you’ll have a lot more fun with it.
The one thing that might discourage you from reloading too much is one of the largest flaws of the game: load times are quite long. If you can, I suggest installing on an SSD, because that will help a lot.
Having experimented quite a bit with it, I noticed that BattleTech simply creates a new file every time you save. When you start having a lot of files in the folder, it appears to be a major component in the degradation of loading performance. Keeping your save folder clean is a good practice when many of your save files become obsolete. Unfortunately, the game does not include a feature to delete them in bulk, but you can do so manually by finding the “\637090\remote\C0\SGS1” folder on your hard drive. Clean that up when you feel that loading missions becomes sluggish, and things will instantly improve. Obviously, don’t delete your latest save unless you wanna lose your progression.
That being said, the inability to overwrite save files instead of continuously generate new ones, and to delete old files in bulk from within the game, is a major development oversight in the user interface, and hopefully it’ll be fixed soon.
Once you select your mission, negotiate your reward, and finally get on the battlefield, the controls are pretty intuitive. Yet, there are many caveats that truly make the tactical depth of the BattleTech franchise shine.
Movement isn’t just a matter of getting as fast as possible from A to B. Heading is as important as position, or maybe even more, as it determines which enemies will be in your line of fire, and which parts of your mechs will be exposed to retaliation.
Not moving at all can provide MechWarriors with the right skills higher survivability under fire, but going fast will increase evasion. Shooting all your weapons in a powerful “alpha strike” can deliver devastating damage, but puts you at risks of overheating if you’re not careful. This is especially true if you’re fighting in a hot environment, or the lack of atmosphere minimizes the efficiency of your heat sinks.
Terrain is just as relevant. Knowing its features and their effects can very literally mean the difference between victory and defeat. Forest will provide cover, unstable terrain will make your mechs more likely to fall, while water will help you cool down much faster.
When it’s time to deal some punishment to your enemies, there are more factors to keep in mind. Do you focus fire on the weaker mechs to kill them quickly, or attack the heavier ones to eliminate the worst threats? Do you use ballistic weapons that can severely compromise the stability of their targets, potentially causing a catastrophic fall or energy weapons that don’t run out of ammo?
The best aspect of BattleTech is that you’ll have to ask yourself this kind of questions all the time. Pretty much everything is a trade-off, and there is no “perfect solution” for nearly any situation. While those who know only the most superficial aspects of combat might be able to get by, mastering all of its many facets and adapting to ever-changing challenges is the key to keeping your men alive, your mechs in one piece, and your bank account in the black.
This isn’t just limited to battles but extends beyond them. There is an extremely deep set of systems that let you customize your mercenary company down to the nuts and bolts. Not only you’ll take high-level decisions like name, emblems, colors, and how to improve your ship for various bonuses. You’ll have to hire and train your MechWarriors one by one, choosing the best skills in which to allocate their experience.
The deepest area of customization is, of course, your BattleMechs. You’ll be able to strip them of their default weapons and refit them with those that suit your taste and the tactical situation. Do you mount the heaviest guns you can at the expense of armor? Or maybe you prefer protection while lowering your offensive power? Removing a gun or two can make room for more jump jets, considerably improving your mobility. On the other hand, stripping a few tons of armor can let you carry more heat sinks, giving you more room to deliver devastating alpha strikes without overheating.
The possibilities are endless, and all the options are available at your fingertips all the time. Tinkering with and min-maxing your favorite Lance (a group of four BattleMech) is a true pleasure.
The BattleTech franchise has been confined to relative obscurity for a long time, but Harebrained Schemes managed to bring it back in a way that not only returns it to its original splendor but is as fun and interesting as ever.
Despite a few technical shortcomings, BattleTech skillfully mixes a fascinating setting that deserves to be explored with a compelling story, extremely enjoyable sandbox elements, a ton of customization, and amazing tactical gameplay. If you love stomping around with giant robots (and who doesn’t) and turn-based games, I can’t recommend this game enough. It’s arguably the best mecha video game on the market right now.