Released on PC last week, Battletech is a new strategy/tactics game by Harebrained Schemes (Shadowrun). In the absolute simplest terms, it’s kinda like XCOM, only you’re in control of some giant lumbering mechs.
Battletech is a game of two halves. You’ll spend most of your time doing turn-based battle on 3D landscapes, but there’s also a strategic element to the game that you need to manage between combat missions.
Let’s talk about the tactical battles first, which are a blast. They might look like your standard turn-based stoush, but there’s a lot more going on here than most other games of this type are attempting. You’re free to move in a sort of mesh over the landscape, rather than being restricted to a grid, which is not only more interesting but allows for maps to be far more realistic than if they’d had to be built with squares in mind.
The heart of Battletech’s tabletop game experience has been adapted here, and it takes some getting used to. Engagements aren’t decided by a handful of well-placed shots, because the mechs are sporting heavy armour; instead, fights are about wearing down your opposition with the correct weapon choices, flanking moves and considerations like which direction your mechs will be facing when they end their turn.
When battles are over, you’re returned to that XCOM-like strategic view, where you’re placed in charge of a mercenary company and are responsible for stuff like hiring pilots, refitting mechs and making sure enough money keeps coming in to pay the bills.
It all looks great, but it’s a bit of a shame that the game is so slow. Tactical battles can drag thanks to animation decisions (some of which can be turned off) and turn cycles, but the strategic section of the game also suffers from poor time management. On the one hand, there’s a lot of drudgery that should have been automated, like the ability to save mech loadouts; intead, every time a mech is damaged, you need to go in and drag all of its weapons, ammo and gear back onto it.
On the other hand, while at some points there’s too much work to do, at others there’s not enough. Repairing mechs and healing pilots takes time, as does travelling to systems to perform a job (and there’s not much else to do other than that other than chat with your crew), so a lot of the strategic section is spent simply waiting for a clock to spin forwards.
I initially found Battletech surprisingly difficult, even given my experience with turn-based tactics games, but I’m now on top of things enough to have made some decent progression, picked up some quality mechs, got my bank balance under control and mastered the basics of combat. In a refreshing change of pace for a game like this, much of the management of the game gets easier as it goes on, not harder.
Combat, however, never fails to challenge and surprise. The fact each mech is made up of a number of individual limbs and components, instead of just a single health meter, makes each encounter a fascinating struggle between firepower, armour, elevation, cover and terrain. Some mechs can take an absolute pounding and remain in the fight, while at other times a glancing blow can sever an arm, sparing a unit’s overall health but potentially eliminating its primary weapon.
And while this can be frustrating, it also really opens the game up and broadens the number of tactics available to you. Mechs don’t have to be destroyed. You can knock them over, slow them down, disarm them...you can even try and snipe their cockpits, killing the pilot but leaving the mech intact.
Of course the same can happen to you. There are few things as gut-wrenchingly agonising as watching one of your own trained pilots, assumed safe beneath the armour of a well-protected mech, killed instantly by a 1:1000 shot from the AI.
I’d also like to give a quick shout-out to the game’s art. While most of it is of course constrained by the needs of the license, Battletech takes a few pages out of Relic’s creative handbook and renders its cutscenes as partially-animated 2D art, ala Homeworld. It’s cheaper and easier than animating expensive cinematics, sure, but there’s also a simplistic charm to it, one that lets us appreciate the art that went into the game within the game itself.
I’ve been having a good time with Battletech. While there have been a few rough edges when it comes to the UI and strategic management, its tactical combat has great depth and flexibility to it, and it’s great to see the franchise back up and running on PC after the demise of MechWarrior Tactics.