Battletech’s been out for about a week, and not having early access to it (I didn’t kickstart it) meant that I got it the same time as everyone. Actually, a few days later, as I was trying to avoid mainlining giant-mech-flavoured meth into my system in the hopes that I would actually get some painting done. (In other news, I apologize there’s not Tabletop Thursday today. Battletech happened.)
After a bout a week of playing (and a week of OHMYGODAREYOUSTILLONITAT2AM aggro from my wife), I can safely say that it’s scored a critical hit for me. It is, after all, my favourite genre of all time. (Look at how many giant stompy robots I painted for Warmachine and 40k).
Buried beneath a pile of rubble
That’s not to say Battletech, by Harebrained Schemes, is without its flaws. It definitely has flaws. Flaws that will annoy even the most stalwart mech-fan. Most, however, are technical in nature, and I’m optimistic that HBS will be rolling out patches to deal with them, considering how much sales they brought in.
One annoyance is the speed of some of the animations. Perosonally, I don’t mind the lumbering animations as much as some others; I get that the animations should be slow. This isn’t Gundam, after all.
The worst offender though is the load times. Sometimes minutes long, it gets hair-tearingly annoying when I need to save scum (I haven’t wrapped my head around the mechanics and tooltips well enough that I can say that any mistake on my part is due to poor play and not because I didn’t know about a specific rule). This is compounded by the fact that I can’t manage, name or sort my save files, and apparently the more saves you have the longer your load times.
Other annoyances are rules related. There’s an entire wargame’s worth of rules that you have to digest in order to get good, and no real way for you to learn. The onus is on the player to either have the carry-over knowledge from the tabletop version, or to go out into the web yourself. I know the series but have never played the tabletop game, and I still felt the going frustratingly obtuse at times. For example, all my starting mech pilots are pretty experienced, but have all the wrong skills in all the wrong places. Frankly, a detailed optional prologue that walks through through multiple missions to teach you all the ins and outs of the combat would have been really useful.
Slow motion, heavy metal ballet
Get past all of that though, and Battletech is good. Addicting even. A turn-based tactical layered on top of a management sim with strong plot and RPG-elements is exactly the kind of game that I enjoy.
You play the leader of an ailing band of mercenaries. At the start of the game, you’d deep in the red and the banks are chasing after you. You need to keep your head above the water or fend off the repo-men. As the story unfolds you join part of a growing rebellion, and the art and dialogue really draw you into the story. No real cinematics, but I am perfectly satisfied with the ‘moving concept art’ type of cinematic that we have seen in Endless Space and other such games. It gets the job done and is pretty as hell.
But throughout all of it you have to take contracts to keep your mercenary company in the black.
Fighting takes money. Paying your mechwarriors takes money. Repairs and refits take time AND money. If you’re new to the genre and just run your mechs into the enemy alpha-striking all the way… well that’s a quick way to being back in debt and having to restart the game.
Battletech is at its heart a management sim. On the tactical combat map, it boils down to how you manage your mechs to ensure mission success at the lowest cost? How do you juggle damage, heat, range and stability on the battlefield? How can you ensure good salvage off the combats you run? (Because you’re much too poor to buy mechs off fresh off the factory floor).
Combat is therefore a lot more ponderous than visceral. While you do have the option to leap into the air to land 60 tons of metal onto a cockpit, one could retreating to tempt the opposing mech into an over-extension, or focus firing onto the weak link. Often the smarter option is the correct choice. That’s not to say it isn’t exciting. Just a different kind of exciting. Maneuvering your mechs around to ensure the correct facing and blasting the weak spot engenders a certain thrill, like watching a slow motion ballet with the accompanying percussion of a fusillade of cannon-fire.
This level of thought continues outside of combat as well. How do you customize the mechs (that you salvaged) with the weapons (that you salvaged)? How do you balance the weight, weapon slots and armor for the mech to most-efficiently fulfill its battlefield role? Bear in mind any customization of the mechs you have takes time and money, and your monthly bill is always hanging over your head.
Fundamentally a good game
Battletech is fundamentally a good game. It takes all the fun of the original game, and applies a coat of high-tech spit and polish. The game handles a lot of the busy-work, keeping track of numbers that got in the way of blowing chunks of metal of giant robots.
However, there are still serious challenges inherent in the current version. Game loading and related optimization is a mess. The learning curve is steep, and many mechanics of the combats system will be opaque to someone who isn’t able to invest the time into the game. Once you get the hang of the game though, you’ll understand why the original Battletech had such a large and loyal following, and why many of us are very hopeful about this new iteration.