Battletech Review : Big Robots, Big Fun

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Battletech, by developers Harebrained Schemes, brings the original tabletop strategy game to the PC. In it, you control massive war machines as you engage in turn based tactical battles. It is really important to state this early, because people can be a bit odd about turn-based, tactical strategy. It is very much a case that people either love it, or hate it. Personally, I love it, and Battletech does turn-based combat very well. I also suspect that it doesn’t do anything that will help to change the minds of people who don’t.

Robo Basics

Missions center around your control of four battlemechs as you take on various enemies across some very involved maps. It’s not just about positioning either. Where you are facing, how fast you are moving, where you are in relation to cover, all have great importance to the success or failure of a strategy. As is tradition, lighter units are considered to be faster, and outside of increased mobility, they can also act more quickly than heavy units. These become the out runners of your force, moving into beneficial angles that open up shots on enemies’ rear armor. Your heavier units are better served by getting the enemy’s attention, and then trading massive salvos of fire with them. A whole host of skills and perks also play into your decision making. High speed enemies can be nullified by stripping their evasion bonus, making them easier for your big hitters to damage. Some units can target very specific parts of an enemy, perfect for going for cheeky kill shots on damaged foes.

Big Robot
Big RobotSteam • Licensed by Owner

As combat goes on and damage builds up, your mechs will lose weapons, armor, and even vital components. They can be knocked down and staggered, and pilots can be wounded by lucky shots. Even things like heat management need to be considered. If your mech has been involved in a protracted fight, causing it to build up heat, you can get to cover and then brace to remove some of it. You may also want to stand in a handy river or pond, which will cause the heat to dissipate. At the very core of Battletech, as with all good strategy games, is the idea that the player will need to learn the individual strengths and weakness of units to find success.

Most strategy games also live and die by their UI. Make it too cluttered and players will find it hard to read information. Assume some element is intuitive that actually needs to be more readable, and they will struggle to get all the information they need. For the most part, Battletech does a good job with the UI. Movement distance is clearly marked, and it is easy to set your mech’s orientation. The enemies that you can see are obvious with arching red lines, although sometimes things are a little less clear. You may end up accidentally committing to an action you don’t want to take simply because the way to cancel an action is not always obvious. You will also learn to very carefully check your shots, as the game might tell you that you have a clear line on an enemy, but the terrain between you and the enemy unit might have a slightly ghostly hit box. What Battletech does well is provide a turn based combat system that is deep enough that swimming in it feels rewarding, but drowning in it would be difficult to do.

Metal On The Bone

Battletech has two main modes; either the lengthy campaign, or individual skirmishes. Skirmishes take the form of single shot missions, while the campaign is where I spent the vast majority of my time. For the campaign, the character creator allows you to do everything you would like to do with regard to the standards (hair, facial hair, gender, skin color, dope scars, etc), and also pick your name, call-sign, and background. What follows is an introduction to your character’s place in the universe, and after that you play the role of a mercenary commander. Being a proper future for giant war robots is easy, you just need conflict, and there is plenty of conflict in Battletech. Out in the fringes of space the rich and powerful are getting rowdy, and when the rich and powerful get rowdy it means robot fights. Money must be earned, mechs must be hired, your ship must be upgraded. XCOM fans will be very at home with this additional layer of decision making, and much like the tactical battles, you need to play smart.

Mech Combat
Mech CombatSteam • Licensed by Owner

The campaign can almost be defined by a single word: risk. Each fight, each engagement, each decision, carries lots of risk. The wrong mission at the wrong time could sink one of your Battlemechs if you combine it with bad decision making during the mission. An unlucky shot might injure a pilot, and not ejecting them might just get them killed. In small ways, the game is brutal, but in the aftermath of everything going wrong, the blame almost always sits with the player. Luck is a finite resource in the Battletech universe, and if you spread it too thin it is going to catch up with you. There can also be some pretty wild variables when it comes to difficulty, which is then built upon by an AI that will seek to put the boot into you every chance it gets. Your enemies will play smart in this game, and the only defense is to play smarter.

One of the slight letdowns that the RPG elements run a little thin. From your own background to the various descriptors of pilots, not much of it impacts game performance.

While you can pick and choose your missions, there is a central mission path that explores the game’s main narrative, the struggles of a deposed queen to regain her throne. While you can either involve yourself in this conflict, or skirt around it, it is where you will find the best rewards, as well as open up all Battletech‘s features. While it would be a stretch to say you don’t have to play them, you can certainly engage with them at your own pace.

Run Robot Run

Performance wise, Battletech ran very well for me. At times there would be four friendly units, six or more enemies, lots of explosions and some buildings getting destroyed, and everything would run smoothly. Load times could be a little long, however, but it has more than enough graphical options that you should be able to find the sweet spot you need. You can turn off a lot of the in-game animations, something that might kill immersion for some, but is an absolute boon for people like me. Graphically, things could potentially be a little tighter, but I am happier to see that the focus was on the mechanics rather than the looks.

What Battletech does well, and what really makes this game a highlight for me, is its sense of scale. Not just with regard to the Battlemechs themselves, but also with your choices. Whether you win or lose a fight, the outcome really does matter. Even scraping together the smallest of wins from an otherwise disastrous mission can have real consequences.

The only areas Battletech really seems to fall down are where it doesn’t fully explore the things it is trying to do. It is, in many ways, a difficult game, for people who enjoy difficult games. But when things go your way, it allows you to feel powerful, smart, and engaged. This is a very hard balance to find, but Harebrained Schemes has pulled it off.