Save The Steel
HIGH Wiping out a heavy mech with a perfectly-called headshot.
LOW Finding out that an Atlas showed up to ruin a medium mech party.
WTF If you don’t have illegal tech on your dropship, why won’t you let me search it?
A thousand years in the future, all wars are fought with giant robots. Not just any giant robots, though — they’re ancient robots that no one has been able to build in hundreds of years. Planets are ruled by Lords and Ladies who pledge fealty to Noble Houses, fighting and dying in their border wars. Also there are megacorporations, because it’s the future, and of course there are. As a virtual version of the perennially popular miniature wargame, Battletech tells the story of a minor noble who is betrayed and usurped, and the mercenary company she hires to help reclaim her birthright.
The gameplay breaks down to about 60/40 between turn-based combat missions that almost exactly recreate the tabletop experience, and resource management — the player has to skillfully navigate through battles with superior forces while simultaneously keeping an eye on finances to make sure that they’re able to carry on.
Both aspects of Battletech are well-crafted, and a huge amount of thought has gone into making the base systems easily readable and user-friendly. Checking out cashflow and upgrades is intuitive and simple thanks to well-written tutorials. A player could probably muddle their way through most of the game just following the advice that pops up whenever a new feature is introduced, but there are plenty of advantages to exploring all of the systems.
While battles are fought with groups of just four mechs, players can gradually – by either salvaging or purchasing – build up a roster of over a dozen robots to ensure that they have the right armor to use for any situations. When dealing with enemy fortresses, players will want to lean on long-range missiles and particle cannons to do damage without putting themselves at risk. On frozen planets, they can go hog-wild with all of the energy weapons that would normally overheat after just a few salvos. In other situations, they might have to stick to physical attacks and comparatively cool slug-throwing weaponry.
The tactical gameplay is like a dream come true. As a longtime fan, I’ve hoped for a computerized version of Battletech to let me enjoy the deep strategic combat without spending hundreds of dollars on models, paint, and huge decorated playfields, not to mention something to automate all of the measuring and die-rolling that comes with it. Now that Harebrained handles the mechanics, the player is free to examine the map as they please and can test out plans before committing to an action. All of the elements that make for truly in-depth strategic experience are present here — elevation, terrain, concealment, player movement, enemy movement — and all of it boiled down into easily-digestible stats that even strategy newbies can manage and interpret.
Whether battling against real players over the internet or AI foes in the campaign, I never had much trouble managing combat. I’d win some and I’d lose some, but as in any great strategy game, I never left a match without new insights into how to approach the next battle.
Also, just like the tabletop experience, there’s a clear element of luck to the battles — I’ve both won and lost matches that were decided when a lucky headshot took out a powerful mech’s pilot, changing the balance of power in an instant. However, I’ve never felt cheated by such a result. Strategy in movement and weaponry are the secrets to success, and the singleplayer mode’s varied missions will prepare players for almost any situation they’ll find themselves in when battling real-life mechwarriors.
Battletech isn’t completely flawless, however, and in my many hours of play I encountered two persistently annoying facets.
The first is how the maps are laid out. There are an enormous number of playfields on which combat can take place, but most of them lack a visual cue to let players know how steep change-of-altitude tiles are. Some maps have cliffs (easy to understand and navigate around) but some slopes can be walked up, and some must be leapt onto using jumpjets which not all mechs possess. The problem is that players can easily find themselves planning to lumber a heavy hitter up into an overwatch position, but it’s hard to tell in advance whether the plan is feasible. A movement planner that lets players plot hypothetical movement a few turns in advance would have easily fixed this problem.
The other issue is the game refusing to let players know what kind of fight they’re going to be in for when they take a contract. While the story missions are always laid out clearly and let the player make appropriate preparations, random contracts are a crapshoot. They’re rated on a 0-5 scale that’s supposed to give a general overview of what kind of fight it’s going to be, but in practice, the ratings are almost meaningless.
I’ve taken on level three contracts that ask me to do nothing more than take out a few turrets, and I’ve played level one contracts where I was asked to take out three light mechs, only to discover that my targets had backup that vastly outweighed my own forces.
Of course such surprises are a feature and not a bug – it’s the devs’ attempt to show that merc contracts are always risky propositions. However, the inclusion of an easy mode that took this randomness out of the mission structure would have gone a long way to ensuring that players don’t reach a rage-quit level of anger. Even worse? When players manage to defeat these suddenly-difficult missions, they don’t get bonus payments or salvage for their time and trouble.
Battletech is a great game in its tabletop format, and while it probably shouldn’t have taken over thirty years for a perfect computer adaptation to arrive, this version is one of the best miniature strategy experiences out there, and it’s more accessible than it’s ever been. While I can’t speak to how a complete newcomer will react to it, I can report that it’s a wholly satisfying example of tactical turn-based combat and team management. This is the title that Battletech fans have deserved all along, and it’s great enough to recruit a whole new generation of players into the game’s ranks.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Harebrained Schemes and published by Paradox Interactive. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. 15 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: At the time this review was written, the game had not been reviewed by the ESRB, but it’s roughly a T. It contains Violence, Language, and Mature Themes. This is a historical war of succession in space. People are betrayed, tortured, out for revenge… there’s backstabbing, both figurative and literal. Oh, and the dozens of hours of giant robots shooting at one another. Keep the younger teens away from it, but that’s the only real restriction, as the violence is never too graphic or extreme.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played the majority of the game with the sound off, and had no problems of any kind. There are zero audio cues that don’t have visual accompaniment. All you’ll miss out on is canned NPC comments during combat, which are not subtitled. The game’s font size cannot be changed.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls. It’s played with a keyboard and mouse, and the player is able to customize which buttons hotlink to which actions.