The universe of BattleTech might seem new to many gamers, but this tabletop's history has been around in the video game sphere for a while now, most notably through the MechWarrior franchise. Now the series makes a return, this time more in line with that of its tabletop origins. This is the game that BattleTech fans have yearned for, but is it everything they hoped for? Kind of.
BattleTech, developed by Harebrained Schemes of Shadowrun Returns fame, brings back the company's strategy expertise with this Kickstarter-backed title. Players take the role of a mercenary leader, tasked with, among other things, fighting in the midst of a galactic civil war.
Shadowrun melded story with tactical gameplay, with a heavier focus on narrative elements. In Shadowrun, you could, for example, talk yourself out of a situation or bypass challenges altogether with the right words. This is not the case in BattleTech. There is a story here, but the emphasis is on strategic combat.
Make no mistake, there is something for BattleTech lore buffs. For a newcomer to the series like me, I really appreciate the developer's attention to detail and effort to bring someone like me up to speed. During dialogue, there are options that are highlighted which, when moused over, outline lore on that particular subject. There was never a point when I was ever lost in the lore, because there was always background information on bits of lore I wouldn't otherwise know.
As for the main story, you are the leader of a mercenary company that is tasked with taking back the home world of an usurped ruler. As you progress, you will take directives from Queen Kamea Arano of the Aurigan Coalition. I'll leave it at that so I don't spoil anything, but I will say that the story is intriguing, at the very least. It isn't on the same level as Shadowrun in terms of the characters you'll come across, but I don't think that's the point. Nevertheless, if you are more of a story-centric individual, it will hold your attention, especially for those BattleTech veterans out there.
Of course, your character will be one of the most important individuals within the story. You create your character at the start, choosing various answers to determine your background. The answers you choose at the beginning will change the dialogue options you receive later, but it doesn't have grand impact on your actual character. In the Shadowrun games, this was done very well, and had impacts on scenarios and progression. Besides choosing background, you will customize your character's appearance, which is laughable at best. The options are very limited and most characters look extremely awkward.
The main aspect of BattleTech is the combat and company and ship management. It is very reminiscent of XCOM, as you will be required to manage the finances of your company, outfit your units, hire different pilots, and ultimately take on a mission and fight.
As a whole, I think company management is done well enough. The options aren't as robust as XCOM, since it isn't necessarily a base-building game. You'll hire different mechwarriors and level them up, giving them new skills and boons. You can sacrifice the morale of your crew to spend less money, allowing your company to stay afloat and possibly buy that mech you've been saving up for. The real meat of it comes from managing your mechs. Mechs are by no means cheap, and as you bring them home from combat they may need repairs and refitting.
Now, outside of combat, mech customization is absolutely essential. You'll be given a lance - a squad of four mechs - from the get-go, each of which will be able to do well in combat at the beginning. Later on, however, you might want to upgrade their weaponry or buy a new chassis altogether, but that is a huge resource sink. Tweaking mechs and repairing them also takes up in-game days, so you'll be managing every aspect of your company. The options for customizing your mech are also pretty substantial. You can sacrifice firepower for more armor, or vice versa. The choice is yours, so this game rewards experimenting, granted that your mech isn't destroyed in the testing process.
That brings us to combat, which is very intimidating, to say the least. You'll drop on planets of various biomes, each mission having different objectives. One might have you defend a group of buildings, while another might task you with destroying an enemy lance or base. Once you initiate combat, all the courses of action appear, and they are plenty. The game's strategy layer is very deep, rewarding thoughtful and methodical gameplay, while punishing the hasty.
You'll have several different classes of mech, from the light to the assault. Light have less firepower with more mobility, and assault are the heaviest and slowest, but pack a huge punch. I found that the light class of mech is, for lack of a better term, useless. They are too squishy and hit like a wet noodle, which is a shame because there are quite a few light mechs available. The heavier the mech the better, because that extra weight means more firepower.
Once initiating a foe, you'll want to consider placement, weapons and their heat, and abilities. Each mech has arms, legs, chests and other parts like a human, all of which can individually be damaged, allowing one to cripple a mech. Weapons are often mounted on arms, so destroying an arm not only decreases the mech's overall health, but also gets rid of that mounted weapon. The placement of your mech determines where you'll shoot, so if you notice a damaged arm, you might be wise to position your unit on that side so that your weapons hit it for sure.
This only scratches the surface of the game's combat, but fans of the RTS genre will find much to love. I think that the enemy offers a reasonable challenge at some times, but other times the difficulty will quite unfairly ramp up and you might get totally decimated.
Unfortunately, even though the greatest strength of BattleTech is in its combat, this also contains its greatest weakness. The game is an absolute slog at times. Combat is tediously slow. I get it, mechs are slow, but they are so sluggish that it really gets old after a while. Enemy turns also take a long time, and sometimes you'll be facing a lot of them. This is really hard to get over, and after most missions I grew tired of it.
Another problem is that I don't find the game to be the prettiest in the world. Even on higher settings, the landscapes are pretty ugly. Character models in the ship look dated and can be an eyesore. Thankfully, mechs are detailed and look great, where the visuals count the most.
I already see Harebrained Schemes is going to address these issues, mainly the sluggishness of combat. If they can actually fix these issues, it will turn a great game into an amazing one. It's not hard to recommend this game to strategy fans and lovers of the game's universe, but for those on the fence, it might be wise to wait a few months until all the kinks are fixed.
BattleTech is out on PC and Mac now, and it costs $39.99.
Austin reviewed it on PC courtesy of a Steam code provided by Paradox Interactive.