Battletech’s giant robot brawls can last a long time before one side claims victory. The recently released tactics game embraces a slow, deliberate pace that can lull the player into false comfort. Thanks to an unlikely dice roll, a single critical attack this weekend became one of the most shocking moments I’ve ever had while playing video games.
In Battletech, you run a mercenary corps fighting in a succession war between nobles, fighting on the battlefield in giant robots called Battlemech. Battletech’s pace is slower than most tactics games and fights often become slugfests where one side wears down the other piece by piece. Armor is whittled away, machine limbs are blown off, and ammo is expended in lengthy fights that are never clean. While XCOM or Into the Breach hold the potential for flawless scenarios and clean wins over the enemy, Battletech always has a cost. These setbacks affect your finances in various ways, whether it be repair bills for your mech, the need to purchase a replacement weapon, or the opportunity cost of your ace pilot spending time in the infirmary to recover.
If you do lose a pilot in a fight, it is usually because their mech was chipped away piece by piece until their defense was hobbled. This means that massive, pilot-killing critical hits are incredibly shocking. Taking out a pilot means destroying the cockpit located in the mech’s head, which is difficult to pull off. If you have enough “morale” or have knocked a mech down, pilots can perform “called shots” to target specific parts on a mech. Attacking the head has a two percent chance, so even when you are being deliberate, it’s unlikely you’ll destroy a mech’s cockpit. When you land a shot, you know it is against incredible odds. When the enemy does the same, it feels like a tremendous event.
The first time I lost a pilot was last Sunday, during a mission to liberate a prison camp. My team had breached the walls and put extreme pressure on the small squad of mechs defending the interior. Everything was going smoothly, even if the back and forth was certain to rack up repair expenses. One of the final remaining mechs—a kind of lightweight troop mech called a Centurion—pressed towards my group and fired a single shot at my ace pilot. My pilot was piloting a mech called a Shadow Hawk, which had enough armor to spare that I wasn’t worried.
Turns out I was wrong. The round blasted towards the Shadow Hawk and blew up its head with a horrible pop. A stray shot that should have been impossible robbed me of my best pilot in an instant. Battletech’s slower combat had me convinced that this kind of moment wasn’t possible. My knowledge of exactly how statistically unlikely it was made the loss sting more than any loss I’ve suffered in a tactics game. It felt like a one and a million shot, and my luck had run out.
It’s easy to look at this setback and lament the fact that all it took was a dice roll to knock the wind out of my sails. The enemy hadn’t organized a complex flanking maneuver or focus-fired my mech until it fell down. They just fired a round and got lucky. But in breaking from the established pace and rhythm of combat, Battletech served up a moment of shock that I wasn’t prepared for. In a game defined by attrition, I experienced a rare moment of devastating, arbitrary catastrophe that I won’t forget.