BATTLETECH review — No guts, no galaxy

The year is 3025 AD. Almost a thousand years ago, humanity first took to interstellar travel, courtesy of the Kearney-Fuchida jump drive.

Expansion amongst the stars followed, and four great houses rose to power within the greatest entity in history — the Star League. As all empires do, the Star League fell to a bloody civil war and its greatest general escaped with its defence forces into the Deep Periphery, past the edge of known space. Much has been lost. Once common technologies are now LosTech, and the Succession Wars have ravaged the Inner Sphere, killing billions and reducing some worlds to little more than ash or medieval fiefdoms. Through this chaotic future, the BattleMech strides as a master of war and their pilots ride like knights. They are the MechWarriors.

The BattleMech is the king of the battlefield.

This is the setting of Harebrained Studios’ (HBS) new game, BATTLETECH. Whilst the game might be new, the setting is not — the BattleTech universe has been in constant development as a hard sci-fi setting since the 1980s and has played host to the eponymous tabletop wargame, a D&D-style RPG; around ninety-or-so published books; and a host of video games. You might have heard of them — MechCommander and the MechWarrior series are perhaps the best known.

A bit of a personal disclaimer — I grew up playing MechCommander (FASA/Microprose, 1998) and have been in love with the universe ever since. I also won’t cover the multiplayer component of the game here as I’m yet to try it, and it’s not the main focus of what HBS created.

As an heir to this legacy, I’ll say it straight up — BATTLETECH does not disappoint. At its core, it’s a fairly faithful recreation of the original tabletop rules. If you’re not familiar with tabletop wargaming, or the franchise, this takes the form of turn-based tactical strategy. If you’re running really short of comparisons, think XCOM, Xenonauts or the like.

Your mobile base of operations for much of the game.

That comparison really doesn’t do justice to the sort of thing we’re dealing with here, though; BattleMechs are eight to fourteen metres tall and the heaviest weigh a hundred tonnes, packing enough armament to level a city block. All that weaponry and armour comes at a price; these walking tanks have to manage the heat build-up of firing and running their fusion-powered engines — and their human pilots are still pretty squishy. Put a heavy autocannon round through the cockpit window and BAM! — there goes the ‘meat’.

I’ll avoid story spoilers here; after a few scene-setting ‘tutorial’ missions, your custom-created pilot takes the role of commanding a mercenary company. You’re responsible for managing your roster of MechWarriors, ‘Mechs, finances, contracts, morale and reputation with potential employers. Later on, you’ll be able to upgrade from your starting dropship to a larger, more advanced model.

Here’s where the management part of the game gets really interesting. As you jump around the Periphery, advancing the story and taking on randomly generated contracts, you can work with your engineer to develop the ship, providing bonuses (similar to the base building in XCOM or XCOM 2). These might mean crew morale increases, you can repair damaged ‘Mechs faster or you can hire more pilots. All of these upgrades come with cost, and balancing the cost-benefit triangle is a key part of your role as commander.

The Periphery is your oyster.

Your pilots grow and develop in their careers as well, gaining experience each time they pilot their ‘Mechs into action (and more often if you install training pods on the ship). For randomly generated mooks, the procedural pilots do grow on you — in the same way as your troopers in XCOM — and the game’s subreddit is full of anecdotes and stories.

As you explore the Periphery, you’ll also be able to recruit unique pilots with detailed backstories and beautiful hand-drawn portraits based on KickStarter backers. With unique callsigns, during my playthroughs I did get into a ‘collect ‘em all’ mindset, and happily travelled between star systems looking for more unique pilots to add to my roster.

BATTLETECH Mechwarrior
One of the excellently detailed KickStarter MechWarriors.

You won’t just be growing your roster of MechWarriors, however; salvaging ‘Mechs you’ve destroyed in combat is key to progression. With each area of a ‘Mech having its own armour values, you can try to go down the ‘score’ or ‘gore’ routes (blowing out the cockpit or both shoulders and knocking them over) to kill the pilot and secure full salvage. You’ll get a lot of ‘Mech parts, but the risk to your own team is greatly increased. You could also just ‘core’ them out, wrecking the fusion reactor but collecting only one of the three pieces you need to field a completed ‘Mech.

The combat mechanics from the tabletop game have been fairly faithfully recreated by HBS, albeit with a few changes for playability. Heat, for example, damages internals rather than causing random shutdowns or ammo explosions. Your ‘Mechs are limited in what they can carry by their ‘hardpoints’, their overall tonnage (made up of engine, armour, weapons, ammunition and other equipment), and how much heat they can sink per turn. There’s nothing to stop you filling a mech with tonnes of laser weaponry, but you probably won’t be able to fire it all at once without cooking your pilot. An overheating mech shuts itself down in combat, as well as taking internal damage.

BATTLETECH Customisation
A late-game set of ‘Mech Bays, full of heavies and mediums.

Obviously, this is a bad thing, leaving you vulnerable to attack and weakening your mech. Lose all your structure and that part of the mech will blow off — be it an arm, leg, torso or, worst of all, the central torso (containing the fusion core). Lose that central torso without ejecting your pilot and you’ll lose your carefully trained ‘meat’. If losing them personally isn’t enough of a problem for you, you’ll also lose all your carefully planned investment in their wages and skills.

In the turn-based ‘battle map’, ‘Mechs move in initiative order, with the slower, heavier ‘Mechs going last (rather than a dice-roll initiative in tabletop). Going last does expose your heavies to more fire, but gives you better knowledge of enemy positioning to lay down fire. In BATTLETECH, everything boils down to neatly balanced ‘risk:reward’ trade-offs.

Still, BATTLETECH isn’t without its faults. Whilst its recreation of the universe, ‘Mechs and management systems give the ‘feel’ of classic BattleTech, I couldn’t help but feel that a few things were missing. One of my major gripes felt like an artificial limitation — no matter how advanced your ship or your progress, you can only ever drop four ‘Mechs into combat. Remembering MechCommander — where you could go up to a full company (twelve ‘Mechs) — and that a fully upgraded ship can store twenty-four in its bays, this felt like a let-down. It’s not much fun having twenty-four pilots and ‘Mechs, but only being able to use a small portion of them.

Watch that heat, MechWarrior.

Once you’ve put a lot of hours in, the contracts can become a little samey as well, with briefings, maps and enemy types cropping up in pretty similar formats. Tied into this are some minor issues with the briefings themselves, with your ship’s officer Darius often providing intel way off kilter with what you end up facing.

Also, as with all tactical turn-based games, you’ll find yourself praying to the random number generator, but by the time you’ve trained up a strong cadre of MechWarriors, you should be able to overcome the worst of RNG’s vagaries.

The number of ‘Mech variants in the game falls far short of the total number available in 3025 AD (in-universe lore), although more may be added in future through DLC. In part, this lack of enemy variation is due to an ongoing copyright lawsuit, variations of which have plagued the universe since the early 2000s thanks to the tabletop game’s origins. If you really want to look up why this is, do a Google search for ‘Harmony Gold Battletech lawsuit’ and read at your leisure.

BATTLETECH flying ship
Your ship, late in the game, is pretty much a flying city.

The lack of official mod support (and no Steam Workshop as a result) may also be a drawback for some, but thanks to the way the Unity engine works — and HBS’ tacit support for modders — a healthy scene is developing, backed by an active subreddit and Nexus page. What modders have achieved without official tools has been pretty amazing — one mod unlocks the entirety of the Inner Sphere (hundreds of star systems) and turns the game into a true sandbox experience. Others bring the combat mechanics closer to tabletop values and rules, and one industrious individual has even made a Faster Than Light game clone.

Despite its drawbacks, and what can occasionally feel like arbitrary limitations, Harebrained Schemes’ BATTLETECH is something I’d definitely recommend to anybody familiar with the universe, as well as to anybody who enjoys games similar to XCOM or Xenonauts. The detailed management of your mercenary company paired with enjoyable, tense, tactical combat, is brilliant. And, once you run out of story, you can always go in and mod the game to your heart’s content.

With developer HBS’ recent acquisition by Paradox, and DLC, long-term support and patches on the horizon, now is as good a time as any to give it a go. Most of all, remember: ‘No guts — no galaxy!’

BATTLETECH is available now on PC & Mac through both Steam and the Paradox store.

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