Thoughts: Warhammer 40,000 – Mechanicus

mechanicus_servitor

And so we go from a terrible Warhammer 40k video game to a really quite good one, and one which I wasn’t expecting to like anywhere near this much. Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus is a tactical squad-based strategy game somewhat in the vein of XCOM that stars the Adeptus Mechanicus and their tech-priests as they raid a Necron tomb world for technological secrets. Right off the bat I’m inclined to think favourably of Mechanicus because it’s eschewed taking the obvious route of making an XCOM-alike featuring Space Marines and instead chooses to focus on two of the 40k universe’s lesser-known factions, which is an extremely smart move because there’s something like fifteen different factions in 40k but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Warhammer video games that don’t have you either playing as the Space Marines or as a force that includes them1. This allows developers Bulwark Studios to create something that feels very fresh when compared to the 40k adaptations I’m used to, not only in terms of atmosphere but also in terms of the amount of mechanical tinkering they do to make the squad-based gameplay something that’s appropriate to the Mechanicus and their Necron opponents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the 40k universe beyond Space Marines (and honestly, who could blame you given the one-note nature of the universe beyond the actual 40k game itself) the Adeptus Mechanicus are the Imperium’s resident organisation of techno-religious zealots. They spend a lot of time jetting about the galaxy in gigantic battleships chasing down rumours of ancient technology, and so when they get wind of a Necron tomb world that’s stirring from its slumber they show up in orbit pretty damn quickly — the Necrons are a race of hyper-advanced robot skeletons who went for a quick nap sixty million years ago and woke up to find that a lot of their planets had been colonised by humans in the interim, so they’re understandably upset and start repossessing their property with terminal force. The Mechanicus have their own standing army called the Skitarii which is doing most of the fighting on this particular tomb world and there’s plenty of references to Skitarii troops getting shredded by unfathomable robot horrors, but Mechanicus chooses instead to focus on a small strike team of tech-priests who are essentially functioning as the Mechanicus special forces. Don’t let the word “priest” fool you into thinking these guys are all peace and harmony, either, because the very nature of their religion means that the tech-priests are cyborg super-soldiers with access to the very best weapons available to humanity — including a lot of good stuff that they refuse to share with those glory-hogging jerks in the Astartes — and since they are religious zealots the Mechanicus are just as enthusiastic about xenos extermination as the Necrons are about pest control.

mechanicus_mission

As with XCOM, Mechanicus is split into two parts: a squad management component where you equip and upgrade your merry band of tech-priests, and a tactical strategy component where you take those tech-priests into battle to blast some robots with your latest piece of salvaged technology. Mechanicus also has an intermediate roguelite layer where you run around a simple layout of whatever tomb you happen to be looting as part of the mission and get presented with a simple set of choose-your-own-adventure options on every node, but I’ll save that for later because I don’t think it worked out anywhere near as well as the rest of the game and would rather give it a kicking towards the end of the review. The tactical squad combat part of the game is where most of the Mechanicus flesh resides; however, I was a little surprised at some of the decisions Bulwark had made for the squad management side because it turns out squad management is pretty much all you do there. There’s no research or manufacturing in Mechanicus, and choosing which mission to do next is simplified down to picking one from a list — although it is always a genuine choice because there’s never fewer than four options available, with your decision being made based on the rewards you’ll get for it. You are shown exactly what you’ll get for completing each mission, which is usually one or two pieces of equipment or passive squad upgrades plus some money, which is used to level up your tech-priests. Equipment, once you get it, is totally free and comes in infinite quantities and you can instantly mount it onto your tech-priest’s endoskeleton just so long as they have the augmentation capacity to take it; you get an additional augmentation point each time you level up a tech-priest, but the best pieces of equipment require three points each and since each tech-priest has eleven separate equipment slots you still end up having to make some hard decisions on what exactly you’re going to strip off to free up augmentation points for that big gun you just unlocked.

The squad management part of the game consequently struck me as a little light, but I was never sad to return to the Mechanicus battleship that serves as their base of operations because it meant another five to ten minutes of adjusting tech-priest equipment loadouts and skill builds before diving back into another mission. It might be stripped down, but it gets the important bit right and ensures that core loop still works almost as well as it does in XCOM. The same could arguably be said of the tactical combat in Mechanicus, but I think that would be damning it with faint praise because the way Mechanicus takes core XCOM concepts, examines them, and then chucks them straight out the window because it thinks it doesn’t need it is actually pretty bold. Consider:

  • There is no cover system in Mechanicus. There is line-of-sight, and if there’s some level geometry that’s blocking your line-of-sight to something then you can’t shoot it, but there’s nothing in the level that you can hunker down behind that’ll reduce an enemy’s chance to hit. This is because…
  • There’s no chance to hit in Mechanicus either. Instead your shots will always hit their target, just so long as they’re in range and you have a clear line-of-sight to them.
  • Also there’s no fog of war. This is something of a logical follow-on from the combat environments in Mechanicus being much smaller than a typical XCOM level — they’re designed to be quick 10-minute challenges rather than 30-minute slogs — but you have complete vision over all of it so that when a Necron clambers out of their tomb you’ll know about it immediately, and while there are occasional (scripted) mid-mission enemy spawns it’s very rare that you’ll be totally blindsided by an enemy pod in Mechanicus.

This all strips out a hell of a lot of the RNG we’ve become accustomed to in XCOM and makes it feel much more deterministic — they’re somewhat different games, but Mechanicus reminded me a lot of Into The Breach in places as they’re both predicated on the player having (almost) perfect information and the strategy being about sequencing your turn correctly instead of managing risk.

mechanicus_move

Now, in order to make that a challenging problem in an environment that has ostensibly been reduced to just moving and shooting Bulwark have to add something back into the formula, and their chosen solution is a rather artificial one: scattered around the various levels are Necron steles and inscriptions that grant Cognition points when a tech-priest moves next to them. The Necrons themselves also yield Cognition points when they’re downed, and each tech-priest has a floating servo skull companion that they can send off to retrieve Cognition points from afar. Cognition points are squad-wide and you can only store a limited amount at once, starting at four and rising to nine with squad upgrades, and they do not regenerate naturally; they must be acquired from the surrounding environment.

Why are Cognition points so important? Well, the fluff explanation for them is that they’re Necron technological secrets that are somehow being repurposed into tech-priest processing power, but the actual in-mission use for them is for pretty much everything that isn’t walking around, since “Cognition points” is just a fancy way of saying action points, and they’re the primary restriction on what precisely you can do with your tech-priests in a given round. As I mentioned earlier you can cram up to eleven pieces of equipment onto a tech-priest, and every piece of equipment grants them some active ability. You can mount superchargers for your weapons that grant bonus damage for a round, curatio claws that can repair damaged tech-priests, and mechadendrites that lash out at any enemies that get too close, and all of these utility equipment abilities are gated by cooldowns where you can only use them every two or three rounds.

mechanicus_techpriest

This is just as you would expect from an XCOM-alike; however, the very interesting thing Mechanicus does is that it treats guns just like any other piece of equipment, in that equipping one grants you a “shoot” ability with that weapon with a one-turn cooldown. Equipping two guns allows you to shoot twice a round, once with each weapon. Equipping two guns and a power axe lets you shoot twice and and then run in to slice up your target with a melee attack. This would allow each tech-priest to output a truly ridiculous amount of damage every round – if most weapons’ attack abilities weren’t gated by these Cognition points. Hitting somebody with an axe? That costs a Cognition point. Immolating somebody with with a flamethrower? That’s two Cognition points. Firing the insanely powerful black hole gun you get towards the end of the game? Five Cognition points. There are a couple of pistols that don’t require Cognition points to use, but they have comparatively weedy damage and past the early game are only useful for finishing off downed Necrons. Since Cognition points are also used to activate many of the tech-priest skills they get from levelling up, and also allow them to do bonus moves on top of the free one they get every round, and are also used to summon regular Skitarii troops to the battlefield — these are disposable mooks ranging from simple Servitors to hulking battle robots that you toss towards the enemy to soak up gunfire in lieu of taking cover, which is possibly the most 40k thing a videogame has ever done —  there’s a lot of demands on this very limited resource, and so you have to take care to structure each turn so that you don’t run out of Cognition points.

These Cognition points are rather more boardgame-y than I’d like (in that the designers have come up with the bare naked mechanic of running around the battle map hoovering up action points first, and then searched for the flimsiest possible way to link it in to the theme of the game — it’s a bit stupid that a tech-priest can’t pull the trigger on his flamethrower if he’s run out of think-juice, after all), but I can’t deny that in the early and mid-game they add a hell of a lot of depth to something that might well have ended up being dangerously oversimplified. I found myself having to stop and think for a couple of minutes at the start of every round: I need three cognition points to fire this gun and kill that Necron, but I only have one right now, but if I use my base move to run past a Necron corpse I can suck up another cognition point on the way, and then spend that cognition point to do a bonus move that’ll put me adjacent to a Necron stele that grants two more, giving me the three points I need to fire. And that’s a simple example; when you start chucking in tech-priest abilities it gets even more complicated, but pleasingly so. This is why I say Mechanicus felt like Into The Breach as much as it did XCOM, as you know precisely what your available tools are and what your opposition is, and you need to come up with a set of actions that uses the former to kill the latter while trying to avoid damage to yourself.

mechanicus_shoot

Of course it’s no fun planning that kind of thing without a very, very good UI to help you, so it’s rather fortunate that Mechanicus’s UI is very, very good indeed. In fact it’s like somebody looked at the shitshow that is XCOM’s UI, noted down every single thing that was annoying about it, and then came up with something that rather pointedly avoids all of those incredibly obvious mistakes. Placing a move order locks the target square but requires a second click to confirm, preventing you from moving out of position by accident. Hovering the mouse over a potential movement square will bring up indicators on nearby Necrons that tell you if they’re going to be in range of any of the tech-priest’s weapons when he moves to that square. It will also bring up indicators telling you if you’re blundering into the firing arcs of any stationary turrets that happen to be nearby. It doesn’t tell you Necron movement or firing ranges, which is something of a curious omission when the rest of the game is so information rich, but this becomes pretty easy to judge after a few missions and the UI does the basic job of stopping you from wasting your Cognition points on stupid mistakes so well that Firaxis will have absolutely no excuse when they inevitably strike out for the third time with the UI for XCOM 3.

Put that all together and you have a tactical battle layer that traces some roots back to XCOM but which feels fresh and unique and makes describing Mechanicus as “XCOM, but 40k” feel like I’m doing it a disservice when it’s come up with many new ideas that I sincerely hope move this genre forward. It’s also one of the few games (after Battlefleet Gothic and Dawn of War) that actually appears to halfway understand its source material; I didn’t much care for the Adeptus Mechanicus before I played their game, but Mechanicus absolutely nails the atmosphere with the tech-priests communicating solely in binaric cant (which incidentally saves on voice acting), a soundtrack that’s very appropriate to the mix of religion and technology that the Mechanicus represent, and a truly unsettling upgrade process where your tech-priests start out looking mostly human but gradually turn into wholly unnatural machine-men as you swap out more and more of their body parts for powerful augmentations. Yes, the writing is rather suspect in places, but then I’ve yet to play a 40k game that actually had good writing so that’s just par for the course. While it doesn’t exactly have a high bar to clear, Mechanicus is that rarest of beasts: a Warhammer 40k adaptation that’s well worth playing.

For about two-thirds of its length, anyway.

mechanicus_black_hole

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll have noticed me caveating much of my praise for Mechanicus with the phrase “early and mid-game”. This is because — somewhat predictably for something based on XCOMMechanicus falls apart in the late-game as your tech-priests go shooting off of the expected power curve and get launched into the stratosphere at around about the point where they can fully fill out two of their skill trees, because many of the skills haven’t been fully thought through and badly needed a few more balancing passes. To encourage the player to mix-and-match skill trees the first skill in each tree is one of the most powerful ones available, but this makes it far too easy to cherry-pick the best skills across all of the trees and create some truly overpowered techno-abominations. For example:

  • The first skill in the Tech-Auxilium skill tree has a three turn cooldown, but then it needs it because it lets you fire a weapon without paying the Cognition point cost. This almost always saves you four or five Cognition points because you’re always going to use it when firing your heaviest, most destructive guns.
  • The first skill in the Dominus skill tree increases the range of all weapons by four tiles. Which is fine for most of them, but it also boosts the range and/or radius of area-of-effect weapons, and if you remember your basic geometry adding four tiles onto a cone effect that usually has a range of eight tiles is more than doubling the affected area. This is insanely powerful.
  • The last skill in the Tech-Auxilium skill tree lets you fire off Canticles for free. Canticles are one-shot powerups that do a lot of things, but my favourite is the one that boosts the damage of the next attack by twelve points of pure damage, effectively doubling the damage of the most powerful weapons in the game. Canticles are supposed to be balanced by only being able to use them once on a given mission (which can include up to three combat encounters), but this skill makes them reusable as many times as you want.
  • The third skill in the Lexmechanic skill tree gives you a Cognition point whenever you kill an enemy, which is great when you’ve just used the previous three skills to fire off a free damage-boosted attack that’s had its area of effect increased so that it covers basically half of the map.

You can jam all of this onto a single tech-priest about two-thirds of the way through the game, which is around about the same time that you pick up the final piece of the puzzle, which is a weapon rather than a skill: the Torsion Cannon. This is the aforementioned black hole gun, which can fire through walls and which causes a giant explosion centred on whatever it hits that also passes through walls. When boosted with the range-increase skill the explosion radius is so large that the Torsion Cannon needs to be fired at maximum range to avoid catching your own tech-priests in the blast, but if you boost it with one of the free Canticles, some Energia Enhancers, and maybe one of the damage-boosting blessings as well, it will easily one-shot any Necron caught in the blast. Hell, for most of them it’s downright overkill. I had combat encounters where I took out the entire opposing force with a single shot from the Torsion Cannon before they’d even had a chance to move. Even the end boss of the game didn’t manage to do much more than clamber out of his sarcophagus before I jammed a black hole down his throat. You sometimes need to spend Cognition points lavishly on bonus moves to get your tech-priest into position to fire, but you’ll get them all back when he takes the shot because you now get Cognition points for Necron kills.

mechanicus_tomb_emerge

This is undeniably satisfying for the first few missions after it all comes together, but the satisfaction quite quickly gives way to boredom as combat encounters become an annoying chore. The core of the problem here is that while a lot of thought has gone into the Cognition points system and how it can add to the decision space of a squad-based strategy game, Mechanicus gives you too many tools to ignore or subvert it and once you’re able to do this it becomes exactly what it was in danger of being all along: a dead-simple cakewalk that’s had most of the strategy stripped out of it. The good news is that I think it’s a problem that can be fixed quite easily by rebalancing the worst of the offending skills — that free attack one should be at the end of a skill tree, not at the start of it, and the free Canticle skill should be replaced entirely — and some items, like the mechadendrites that let you suck up three Cognition points at a time from any Necron that’s in melee range. Because they’re so freely available it means the time cooldowns on skills and abilities just aren’t an issue as you can juice up a single tech-priest with Cognition points to run halfway across the map and kill everyone and he can replenish them as he goes; however, if you turn off that spigot just a little bit you suddenly have to start thinking tactically again and using more of the tools at your disposal, like the Skitarii troops. It’s probably going to take Bulwark a little while to get there, but there’s no reason that Mechanicus can’t have these balance issues polished away in three months’ time.

The same can’t be said of the roguelite tomb exploration layer that sits between the squad management and the tactical combat, alas. Once you pick a mission to attempt you’ll be taken to a randomised holographic representation of the tomb the mission is set in. The tomb consists of a series of rooms connected by narrow passages, and each room contains an event of some kind. Gold diamonds are rooms that you have to travel to in order to complete the mission, and you’ll always be thrown into a combat encounter when you enter one. Red Necrons are optional combat encounters you can do for additional money. Green Glyphs are the equivalent of the mystery potions in other roguelikes — you’re presented with a series of glyphs with no indication as to what they do, and have to learn over the course of the game which ones are good and which ones are bad through trial and error. That’s fine since this is a roguelite; the problem is that most of the rooms have blue diamonds on them instead, which indicates that they’re bog-standard text adventure events where you read a snippet of blurb and then pick one of three choices relating to it, but the outcomes of those choices are entirely unpredictable and don’t actually appear to have any relation to what the text said was happening in the room. Picking what appears to be the sensible choice often backfires and what appears to be the stupid choice often yields a beneficial outcome. You’re never given any hint as to what the result might be, and since each event is unique with no relation to other events that have come before or after you’re effectively choosing at random — it’s basically the glyphs again, except the glyph effects are at least constant across the entire game, whereas the text adventure bits are the equivalent of flipping a three-sided coin and hoping it comes down on the side that gives you equipment rather than the side that lets the Necrons go first in the next battle.

mechanicus_tomb

This struck me as an astonishing waste of what was quite a promising idea. Because it very quickly became apparent that the actual text in the event descriptions was totally irrelevant I very quickly stopped reading it, and this turned the roguelite layer from something that could have added some quite significant thematic padding around the combat encounters — which are always one of the same three types of mission, so they could sorely use it — to an annoying speedbump that I had to sit through before I could get to the good part of the game. It would have been very cool if each tomb was a proper mini text adventure with later rooms in the tomb reacting to what you’d done earlier; instead it’s a concentrated dose of painfully shallow tedium, where you end up ignoring most of the tomb (and the potential loot) and instead plot the most direct route to the objective rooms because that will at least mean it’s over quicker. The thing I really don’t understand here is that the tomb exploration isn’t a throwaway part of the game; it’s had a significant amount of effort expended on it and the writing is actually quite atmospheric (when I bothered to read it), it’s just that the actual game design part of strikes me as something that didn’t come together for whatever reason and had to be simplified down into what’s in the final game in order to make a release deadline. Again, I think the tomb exploration isn’t irretrievably bad since there’s at least the shell of a good idea in there that could work if they completely stripped out the innards, but fixing it is going to be far more work than fixing the skill trees and I’m not sure Bulwark are going to have the resources to provide that level of post-release support.

So my impression of Mechanicus was broadly very positive for the first twelve hours I was playing it; it felt fresh and new and the tomb exploration wasn’t grating too much and I hadn’t yet managed to get enough levels on my tech-priests to trivialise the game. My impression of it for the last three hours was the polar opposite since all of the game’s components turned into a boring chore. However, this was something of a self-inflicted wound for two reasons. One is that I didn’t have to break the game quite so hard as I did, it just happens to be the way I like to play games and so I guess I got exactly what I wanted, in a way. The other is that Mechanicus might have a bunch of systems that outstay their welcome, but it at least has the wit to realise that this is a danger and unlocks the final boss mission for you when the Necron Doom Timer (yes, it’s pinched the doomsday clock from XCOM 2) is only three-quarters full. That I played other missions for a couple of hours past this point when I wasn’t really having that much fun with them is entirely my fault. That means I’m going to be a bit more forgiving of Mechanicus’ flaws than I might be otherwise; it’s a good first attempt at shaking up the XCOM formula and most of the rough edges can be sanded away with a little post-release support, and while I think it’s a borderline purchase right now (although certainly worth a look if you’re into 40k) it’s definitely got a lot of potential.

  1. The list goes something like Rites Of War, Fire Warrior, Dawn Of War (which I guess counts for Dark Crusade and Retribution), Battlefleet Gothic, the 4X that came out recently that’s apparently not that great, and that’s about it.
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2 thoughts on “Thoughts: Warhammer 40,000 – Mechanicus

  1. Andrew Ahn says:

    Good review, and I’m glad you’re back.

    • Hentzau says:

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! This one turned out a little more list-y than I’d like, but part of the reason I’m back is that I decided to stop obsessing over the reviews that get away from me a bit and just enjoy the process of writing.

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