BattleTech is the other mercenary management game I’ve always wanted.
I’ve always thought that the mercenary company concept is a perfect one on which to base a game. Not a real mercenary company, whose historical (and modern) goal has been to do as little fighting as possible while getting paid as much money as possible, often by taking bribes from the opponent not to fight1, but one set in a fantasy or sci-fi universe where there’s already a certain amount of suspension of disbelief going on, and it’s not that much more of a stretch to believe that in this world a mercenary would be willing to die to honour the terms of their contract. Running a mercenary company fits the tactical strategy genre in particular like a glove: you’ve got strategic-level movement, economy management, hiring and firing personnel and scrounging together decent equipment built straight into the idea without even having to lift a single design-related finger.
Given that running your own fictional mercenary company is such a good fit, it’s a little baffling to me that there are so few examples of it in the wild — and most of those are decades old. There’s Jagged Alliance, there’s Mercenaries: Playground Of Destruction (which was a GTA-alike but also handily demonstrated how the concept can be applied to just about anything) and there’s a few Japanese tactics games2. There’s also the much more recent Battle Brothers, which was the best game released last year and which tragically didn’t do well enough to convince the developers to stick with it post-launch. If there’s one franchise that’s consistently stuck with the idea throughout its existence, however, it’s BattleTech’s neo-feudal giant robot brawl ‘em up universe, where the galaxy is divided into warring states run by noble houses who are all looking for a good mercenary company to solve their problems. The original MechWarrior used it as a base, MechWarriors 2 and 4 both had expandalones that contextualised their mech-driving laser-shooting gameplay with the ins and outs of managing your own mercenary lance of MechWarriors, and the MechCommander series did the same for its small-scale RTS core.
As BattleTech is the first entry in the series since 2013’s MechWarrior Online (which I enjoyed on launch, but which from the sound of things has not had a smooth ride since), and since it’s supposed to represent a return to the series’ more cerebral tabletop roots, it’s only appropriate that it too embraces the mercenary company idea with open arms. The set-up is going to be very familiar if you’ve played any of the games I mentioned above, with the gameplay split into two layers. There’s the DropShip layer, where you hire and level up MechWarriors, buy and sell equipment, bolt specific selections of guns onto your ‘mechs so that they can better fulfil their chosen role in combat, and decide what your next contract is going to be. Once you’ve accepted a contract and arrived at the designated location, you drop onto a planet surface with a single lance of four ‘Mechs to eliminate any opposition in a turn-based tactics layer. Developers Harebrained have, to a certain degree, played it safe with BattleTech: if you’re unfamiliar with the universe there are certain mechanics that may come as a surprise — such as putting together pieces of destroyed enemy machines being your only realistic method of acquiring new BattleMechs — but at first glance it’s exactly the sort of game you’d expect them to produce when given $2.8 million of Kickstarter funding to make a tactical strategy game set in the BattleTech universe.
A closer inspection made over several dozen hours of gameplay eventually reveals more than a few cracks in the facade, but we’ll get to those in good time. First, let’s focus on what BattleTech does well, because there is a lot of it. I said just now that BattleTech is not surprising, but it is different. It certainly feels far different to play than something like XCOM, simply because it treats the concept of the BattleMech logically and extends that logic into its gameplay mechanics. These are walking tanks that stand dozens of feet tall covered in many tons of armour plating, and they are not going to be randomly one-shotted by the setting’s equivalent of a Sectoid with anywhere near the same degree of frequency. Instead they have an absurd degree of durability, with the larger variants being able to soak up literally hundreds of missiles, laser bursts and cannon rounds before being brought down — at least, if you use them correctly. This is because each shot that hits a BattleMech then has a chance of hitting one of eight distinct locations: left and right leg, left and right arm, left and right torso, and then centre torso and head. Each location has its own set of armour and underlying structure points to chew through, and a ‘Mech can lose up to five of them and keep on trucking; any equipment that was in the destroyed location will be destroyed along with it, and if you take out a leg it’ll have reduced movement as it slowly limps around the battlefield, but it can still continue to fight with whatever it has left. There are only four ways to outright kill a BattleMech:
- Destroy the centre torso. The easiest method, and the one by which I have made probably 95% of my ‘Mech kills, but still much easier said than done as the centre torso is the most heavily armoured component of all. While there is a global Called Shot ability that allows you to focus fire on a specific location it’s something you can only use a few times per battle and which doesn’t even guarantee you’ll hit that location – it just raises the odds of hitting it.
- Destroy the head. The head contains the ‘Mech cockpit, which contains the pilot, and killing the pilot disables the ‘Mech. The head is also comparatively under-armoured and there’s more than a few weapons that can one-shot even a braced ‘Mech’s head. The problem with this approach is that your base chance of hitting the head with any given attack is just 1%. If you invest thousands of experience points into your MechWarriors and fill out the Tactics line to level 10, that chance goes up to 16% – you might chance it if you fancied claiming the ‘Mech for salvage, but it’s not something you really want to trust in happening with any degree of reliability.
- Take out both legs. Often more impractical than either of the previous methods as it requires you to destroy two locations instead of one, and the legs are quite hard to hit.
- Kill the pilot. An obvious consequence of destroying the head, but also achievable through other means. If you score a hit on the head – any hit — you injure the pilot. If you score a critical hit on a location and cause ammo stored there to explode, you injure the pilot. If you destroy the left or right torso locations you injure the pilot, and if you manage to hammer the ‘Mech with so many missiles that it loses stability and falls over, you injure the pilot. A pilot can only take so many injuries (baseline of three, although this can be increased) before they’re incapacitated, so knocking the ‘Mech around so much that the pilot is eventually turned into mush is a perfectly legitimate — if time-consuming — strategy.
So, even if you’re smart, bring the right tools and know how to use them it’s incredibly rare that you (or the enemy) will one-shot kill an opposing ‘Mech. There are few quick wins in BattleTech. There’s also not really any concept of cover, as it would be slightly absurd for a 100 ton war machine to hide behind a tree — moving through wooded terrain or spending a turn bracing a ‘Mech will reduce incoming damage, but it’ll do nothing to stop missiles and lasers from hitting that ‘Mech in the first place. This ensures that battles become protracted exchanges of fire over many rounds, with your ‘Mechs soaking up fire and turning so that the locations with the strongest remaining armour values are facing the enemy. Armour is replaced for free at the end of every battle, so there’s absolutely nothing wrong with charging in a heavy ‘Mech to tank a few shots with its face while your lighter stuff maneuvers for position to strike weakened enemy armour. You’re constantly examining the enemy and weighing up the pros and cons of crippling a ‘Mech by tearing off an armour-stripped arm and maybe blowing through to the left torso, versus depleting some of the armour on the central torso to enable a future kill, which will still leave the ‘Mech able to fight at 100% capacity until you achieve it.
‘Mech durability ties in very nicely with the weapon design in BattleTech, which is well-executed enough that there are only three or four outright dud weapons, with everything else having a legitimate use on the battlefield. Every weapon takes up some of the tonnage capacity of your ‘Mech and if you mount too many you’ll have to start stripping significant quantities of armour to make room, which is frankly suicidal. Most weapons generate heat when fired, which only dissipates by a certain amount each turn; overheating your ‘Mech causes structural damage (bypassing armour) and even full shutdowns. Energy weapons don’t require ammo but do generate a lot of heat, requiring you to use some of that precious tonnage to fit extra heatsinks if you want to be firing more often than every other turn. Ballistic weapons (which in the time period BattleTech is set in solely consist of AC Autocannons) don’t generate much heat, but are heavy and require additional tonnage be set aside for ammo, which can then explode catastrophically if the location it’s stored in takes a critical hit. And missile weapons require ammo and have a moderately high heat output, but make up for it by putting out a lot of damage — the drawback being that missiles are fired in salvos of anywhere from two to twenty, each missile makes its location hit roll separately, and individual missiles do very little damage. This ensures that the damage from missile weapons, while amongst the most damaging weapons in the game on aggregate, ends up being spread out over the entire body of the target ‘Mech unless you can focus fire with a Called Shot. And in a game that’s about trying to concentrate your firepower to achieve ‘Mech kills quickly having the damage distributed like this is an attribute that renders missile racks far less potent than they would be otherwise.
Now, what missile racks are actually for is inflicting a disproportionate amount of stability damage, which manifests as a yellow bar underneath the ‘Mech’s health bar that’s split into five segments. Fill up three segments of this bar by batting it around with heavy fire — autocannon rounds and PPC energy blasts inflict chunky stability damage of their own, although these are single-shot weapons and nothing comes close to the destabilising potential of a full 20-missile salvo from an LRM rack — and the ‘Mech will gain an Unsteady debuff that impacts its accuracy and strips any evasion penalties from future to-hit rolls made against it. Fill up all five segments of the bar, and any ‘Mech that’s already Unsteady will slowly topple over to lie prostrate on the ground. Knocking over a ‘Mech like this injures the pilot and doing it three or four times will kill them and disable the ‘Mech, but inflicting Knocked Down on enemy ‘Mechs is far more important than that because any shot on a prone ‘Mech is automatically a Called Shot that can be targeted at a specific location. It’s your cue to start smacking the centre torso with your biggest, heaviest guns in an attempt to either core the ‘Mech completely or at least damage it to the point where a single frontal attack will destroy it when it clambers back to its feet.
Still, while knocking down ‘Mechs is an important part of combat it’s still difficult to pull together enough firepower to completely destroy a downed one in a single turn — at least until the endgame when you’re rocking a full lance of Assault-class ‘Mechs with multiple large-bore AC/20 cannon. Until then most ‘Mechs will die on their feet, which is why it’s also important to balance your loadouts with a few high-damage weapons that inherently concentrate their fire by virtue of being single-shot — you might not be able to choose where specifically the round will hit, but you can at least guarantee that wherever it hits will end up losing a lot of armour. These high-damage weapons are invariably PPCs and autocannons that come with significant heat and/or tonnage drawbacks, so you’ll also want to load on a few Medium Lasers, which don’t have much range but are low heat, low tonnage and have one the highest damage-to-tonnage ratios in the game, making them a very useful backup weapon when your big gun is overheating, out of ammo or destroyed. If you want to specialise a ‘Mech for close assault you can bolt a bunch of jumpjets and support weapons onto it; the jumpjets allow it to close distance with the enemy quickly (at the cost of generating some heat) and the support weapons — which comprise Small Lasers, Machine Guns and Flamers, all of which have their own niche coupled with an incredibly short range — will fire automatically when you execute a melee attack, adding to the already considerable damage of having ten tons of ‘Mech fist smack into the unfortunate target’s cockpit.
While there are a few weapons that simply don’t get used because they haven’t been balanced particularly well — AC/2s are not worth the tonnage over an LRM rack, and Large Lasers don’t do anywhere near enough damage to justify their heat output — the fact that the vast majority of them are viable gives the game a surprisingly broad possibility space when it comes to experimenting with ‘Mech loadouts. Add 50-odd different ‘Mech classes and variants to the mix and you have something that’s far more interesting than choosing loadouts in XCOM — BattleTech hands you a vastly different problem to solve, and a vast set of tools with which to do it. The durability of ‘Mechs and the various damage mechanics make the tactical strategy layer a wonderfully tense experience; I’ve had a mission where unexpected reinforcements meant I ran out of ammo for my missiles and autocannons and had to bumrush the last few enemy ‘Mechs with my jumpjet Shadow Hawks so that I could punch them to death out of desperation; and a mission where my SRM boat Kintaro cored two ‘Mechs before being downed and pounded on, ripping off an arm and a leg but miraculously surviving — I kept it in the fight for a few more rounds because I needed the firepower from the remaining two SRM6s it had, continually jumping away and keeping the least-damaged side facing the enemy, before ejecting the pilot once she’d had her revenge on the ‘Mech that downed her. (That’s another big difference between this and other games of the type, in that you can eject a pilot who is at risk of death from a ‘Mech that is in danger of being destroyed, and the only penalty is a hefty repair bill and having to continue on with the mission one ‘Mech down.) Even in the post-game where I’m fielding the heaviest ‘Mechs with absurdly optimised and overwhelming firepower, piloted by elite MechWarriors, it still sometimes surprises me; just yesterday I had my King Crab get into an awkward situation where it had to hold a mountain pass, alone, against three assault ‘Mechs and a heavy, while I rushed my other ‘Mechs into positions where they had line-of-sight on the enemy and could attack with their main armament; only the presence of a dedicated LRM boat Stalker that could support with indirect fire and keep the assault ‘Mechs flat on their asses prevented the Crab from being swamped, and even then they managed to hole the armour on the right side and destroy one of its autocannons.
Thanks to the drawn-out nature of its engagements BattleTech is very, very good at creating memorable encounters like these. Really, I don’t have enough good words to say about the tactical battle component of the game; it has a few rough edges to figure out in your first battles — mostly UI-related, in that the way line-of-sight works isn’t always clear and it could really use the LOS tool from Steel Division — but is, on the whole, astoundingly well put together. The battle maps definitely help things along a lot; they’re all hand-crafted, which means they’re very good at providing knotty tactical problems in a very intentional way, but there’s also dozens of them, meaning you see very few repeats even over a hundred battles.
When it comes to the strategic layer I do have several significant complaints to make, however. At first the strategic layer is great fun; during the first twenty-odd hours of the game you’re scrabbling for money, weapons and ‘Mechs in precisely the way a hard-up mercenary company should be, and this adds an extra dimension to the tactical battles. Any wounded MechWarrior requires a significant stay in your medbay to recover to full health. Any damaged ‘Mech requires time in the Mechbay in order to repair it. Healing pilots is free, but repairing any structural (not armour) damage on ‘Mechs takes at least a couple of days and thousands of space dollars. If one or more locations on the ‘Mech were destroyed it can take ten or more days to repair, and the bill for it spirals into the hundreds of thousands — and that’s made so much worse if the location contained expensive weapon mounts, since you’ll have to replace those too. In the first instance this encourages you to build up a pool of backup MechWarriors and ‘Mechs that you can rotate in when your first choices are in human hospital and robot hospital respectively, but it also makes the process of taking and executing contracts rather interesting, since an extended scrap against heavy opposition can potentially incur a repair bill that’s larger than your fee for taking on the contract in the first place. If it looks like things are going south and you’re going to sustain significant damage — or, god forbid, actually lose a ‘Mech — it’s probably better to cut your losses and hit the Withdraw button. The worst case scenario is that you take a reputation hit with the faction that gave you the contract, and you might even still end up getting paid some money if you managed to put up a decent fight before bugging out.
Salvage adds yet another consideration to your contracts. Most worlds have a store you can visit that’ll sell basic stuff like lasers and missile ammo, but practically none of them sell ‘Mechs — and the ones that do charge millions of spacebucks for basic Medium models. For context, your average early-game contract will, if you go all-in on the money, pay out around three or four hundred thousand C-Bills. Clearly this is an impractical method of acquiring new stuff, which is why you can negotiate down the monetary reward when taking a contract in favour of more favourable salvage rights. All of the equipment from enemy ‘Mechs and vehicles that you destroy during a mission goes into a salvage pool — that is, if if the equipment wasn’t itself destroyed via a location kill3. At the end of a mission, depending on your salvage rights, you’ll get a certain number of items out of out of this salvage pool. If you’ve gone full money and no salvage you’ll get a paltry two pieces of equipment that are randomly selected, but better salvage rights both increase the amount of equipment you get and allow you to make a limited number of specific picks, which guarantees you’ll be able to get the totally sweet upgraded autocannon that Atlas dropped. The opposite extreme – full salvage, token money — allows between three to five specific picks and an additional 15-20 randomly determined pieces of salvage. The random picks are somewhat less generous than they sound because ‘Mechs come mounted with multiple heat sinks and jump jets that each count as individual pieces of equipment, meaning your random pool inevitably has a lot of heat sinks and jump jets in it, but the specific picks are very useful because they’re how you acquire new ‘Mechs from the salvage pool.
Of course it’s not quite as easy as picking up a whole Centurion wreckage from the pool and carting it home. ‘Mech chassis salvage is special, in that it comes in multiple pieces and you need three of them to salvage a full ‘Mech. This obviously means you’ll need three specific salvage picks in order to guarantee getting that Centurion — but there’ll only be three Centurion bits in the salvage pool if you managed to disable it in a mostly-intact state by killing the pilot. If you had to destroy locations in order to take it out of the fight there’ll be fewer pieces of it in the salvage pool; blowing off both legs will leave two pieces of ‘Mech salvage, while a central torso kill will leave just one. With some forethought, planning, flawless battle execution and appropriate salvage rights negotiated beforehand it is possible to score headshots on heavy ‘Mechs and take the full chassis home with you, but this will represent the minority of your acquisitions — at least in the early game. Most “new” ‘Mechs are painstakingly built up over multiple contracts from the smashed remains of multiple enemy machines, which makes completing one feel like something of an achievement — as well as giving you some appreciation of the new machine’s power level, as you’ll have had to murder up to three of them to get one of your own.
Beyond the Mechbay the strategic layer is rather light on content; there’s a series of ship upgrades that increase the speed of ‘Mech repairs, decrease the time taken to travel to other systems etc. etc., but these largely represent the game’s only sink for money left over after repair/refit bills and your monthly operational costs are dealt with. The monthly costs initially appear significant but are more than manageable and, while things were a bit tight at the start of the game, I never once had a serious cashflow problem in the 45-odd hours it took me to finish the main campaign. Which is, I guess, the first of my complaints about the game: mercenary companies exist to be paid for fighting, but once you’ve been paid there’s not a huge amount to do with the cash. Occasionally you’ll buy a nice variant of laser in one of the shops, but 90% of your funds go into your ship — and once you’ve fully upgraded it there’s nothing left to spend money on. There’s not really an economy in BattleTech; there can’t be, really, when the vast, vast majority of your equipment and all of your ‘Mechs are acquired for free through the salvage system. As much as salvage adds depth to the tactical battles, it does also rather take some of the fun out of that core mercenary concept I like so much.
Complaint number two is about the way the game is split into procedurally generated mercenary contracts and a series of scripted missions that advance the plot. When you’re playing them the procedural missions are great. The difficulty is tuned a little on the unforgiving side as you’ll usually be facing two-to-one odds, but if you have played literally any strategy game before you’ll know about the concept of defeat in detail, and that’s what BattleTech wants you to do: maneuver your lance around the enemy forces so that you’re only fighting one or two of them at once and it’s you who gets to concentrate your fire, blasting the enemy ‘Mechs in a rolling series of mini-engagements. The problem is that next to no effort has been made to differentiate the factions you fight in these missions; fighting ‘Mechs from a pirate lance is identical to fighting ‘Mechs from a rival mercenary lance is identical to fighting ‘Mechs fielded by one of the Successor States. Each faction controls an associated area of space and the game tracks your reputation with them, but there’s no difference between taking missions from House Kurita and taking missions from House Davion. You can be on great terms with both, the missions will be the same (except the opposing ‘Mechs will be sporting a different paint scheme) and raising reputation with them just gives you increased monetary rewards and a discount in their shops.
There’s been nothing done to inject any flavour into these procedural missions, in other words, meaning that they’re rendered down to the abstract mechanical challenge of the tactics layer and nothing more. The really weird thing is that BattleTech doesn’t even try to play to the established norms of the universe; nobody ever ejects from their ‘Mechs, even if they’re crippled and outnumbered, and opposing mercenary and pirate lances — who are just as motivated by profit as you are — can never be damaged to the point that they’ll cut their losses and withdraw. Everyone fights to the death. Your opponents are always totally anonymous, which is odd considering there’s a great system in place for randomly generating MechWarrior callsigns and portraits and I don’t think it would have been that hard to do the same for mercenary outfit and military detachment names. Each mission type has several different sets of flavour text — so the Assassinate mission type can be taking out an insurgent leader or an elite MechWarrior or even the star of a TV show about mercenary MechWarriors — but that goes no further than the contract description; in-mission each of these will play out in identical fashion, with the target driving an isolated heavy ‘Mech with a single light ‘Mech for backup, a lance of heavy ‘Mechs as escort, and then another lance of heavy vehicles as reinforcements. There’s no communication from the target, no attempt to lean into the theming. Just the mechanical challenge of taking on those forces and winning.
What flavour there is to be found in BattleTech is found in the scripted campaign missions, but — curiously for the studio that gave us Shadowrun Dragonfall and Hong Kong — the plot accompanying these is somewhat sub-par. It’s a completely standard story of betrayal with no surprises or real distinguishing features beyond the (very nice) moving-painting cutscenes and Adam Jensen’s voice actor turning up halfway through the campaign, and as such does little to sell the BattleTech universe on its own merits. I enjoyed playing the campaign missions themselves, but even here I have a significant criticism to make: halfway through the game you get a free Assault ‘Mech (the heaviest class of ‘Mech there is) as a reward for completing one of the campaign missions, and this comes at a time when you’ve only just started fighting enough Heavies to scrounge together a full lance of them yourself. To make matters worse this Assault ‘Mech comes with a weapon that makes headshotting any future Assault ‘Mechs you encounter way way easier, and I’d picked up two more of them just three contracts after getting the free one. This is game-breaking, as BattleTech’s idea of a tough challenge at the very end of the game, twenty hours down the line, is to throw a lance of three Assault ‘Mechs and a Heavy at you. Until that point it was very entertaining to watch waves of Lights and Mediums throw themselves at my immovable 325-ton wall of ‘Mechs and get gunned down in one or two shots — that durability I was talking about is only relative to equivalent weight classes, and an Assault ‘Mech can mount enough weaponry to simply blow away anything that’s 30 tons lighter than it — but these were supposed to be desperate defences against overwhelming odds, not target practice for my MechWarriors. I’m used to finding game-breaking mechanics, of course — I enjoy it greatly and it’s one of the reasons I play the things in the first place — but I think BattleTech might be the first time the game has broken itself for me.
(Should probably stress that this strictly applies to the campaign missions only — the most difficult procedurally generated contracts remain a stiff challenge even for the heaviest, most kitted out lance you can put together.)
I think that on the whole I would have much preferred that the plot and campaign missions be jettisoned and the effort redirected into giving the procedurally generated mercenary contracts a lot more depth, similar to what Battle Brothers achieved a year ago. I know why this didn’t happen, of course: first, Harebrained are not making this game just for me and they also have to hook in people completely new to the BattleTech universe, and the easiest way to do that is with a traditionally linear story campaign. It’s just that in this case it rather unfortunately doesn’t do the job very well at all. Second is that Harebrained went a year over their delivery estimate for BattleTech and were (I assume) running out of money and had to get the game out the door, and a lot of content was cut. Given how shallow the faction mechanics etc. are there was probably a more elaborate system planned that was cut for time. Ditto shipboard events, the star map (90% of which is locked off until you finish the main campaign, at which point you discover why), the MechWarrior personality attributes (which are totally unused, as far as I can tell), off-map support from aerospace assets and artillery, Mercenary Review Board rating — there’s so much that was planned here that was later cut or truncated into sad stub features that it’s honestly quite amazing that BattleTech is as good as it is considering a good third of the systems on the strategic layer are missing.
If you want to be generous — and I am inclined to cut Harebrained some slack here considering their track record — it’s best to view BattleTech as the Shadowrun Returns of the franchise. Shadowrun Returns was a decent game held back by a hell of a lot of rough edges, both mechanical and technical, whose major achievement was that it served as the base for two far superior sequels. The expandalone Dragonfall took the systems pioneered by Returns, fixed the bugs, sanded off the rough edges and ended up being an outstanding game that’s still somewhere on my top 10 list of RPGs. BattleTech is much better at being a functioning game than Returns was — I have sunk 57 hours into it so far and have enjoyed almost all of it — and so I’m excited to see how Harebrained build on the concept now that they’ve built the basic product and have some time to iterate on it. As it stands BattleTech’s tactical layer is endlessly repeatable and engaging and probably worth the price of admission alone, but while the campaign is acceptable for a single playthrough game it’s probably not something I’d choose to replay any time soon.
That’s a bit of a downer to end a review on, so I’ll finish by saying this: I haven’t posted on here in a while due to personal issues but I haven’t stopped playing games by any means, and I have had more fun with BattleTech than any other game I’ve played this year. Partly that is going to be because I really like the BattleTech universe . Partly it’s going to be because I really like the mercenary concept. But a significant part of that is simply because BattleTech, despite all of its flaws and bugs and technical deficiencies and cut content, is still a good game in its own right, and something that definitely warrants a look if you’re into turn-based tactical strategy and/or giant robots at all.
- Whose fictional archetype are the Thousand Swords from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law novels, who are based in part on the Italian condottieri during the Renaissance period and are, if anything, underselling it. ↩
- Front Mission and Final Fantasy Tactics are the ones I’m thinking of, although there’s probably more out there I haven’t played. ↩
- Which is why you ignore the giant, expensive AC/20 autocannon on the right torso of the Hunchback and instead go for the left torso, where the ammo is stored. ↩