Come on, Harebrained, you’re better than this.
I like Harebrained Studios. I like their games. I like Battletech. In fact, I like Battletech so much I gave it the number two slot on my list of the top five games of 2018. Given that track record I should like Flashpoint, the first DLC expansion for Battletech.
Alas, I instead find myself struggling to think of a non-cosmetic DLC that, when thrown into its base game, makes such a weak splash as Flashpoint does. Certainly I can’t think of one sitting in the £15 price bracket that adds so little. Hell, if I didn’t like Harebrained and Battletech so much that I don’t particularly have a problem with throwing more money at them in general to support the studio, I’d be feeling pretty damn cheated by Flashpoint. It is astonishingly anemic.
Flashpoint has been released at the same time as the 1.3 patch for Battletech, and this is something that’s worth delving a little deeper into because when you consider that package as a whole it’s not actually too bad. 1.3 reworks the Mechwarrior skill trees to try and make the optimal skill build a little less of a no-brainer (which mostly succeeds) and adds Career mode, otherwise known as “what I actually wanted out of Battletech all along”. Career mode dumps the scripted campaign missions, the overpowered campaign mission rewards and the cliched campaign story in favour of a completely freeform experience where you start out with the unupgraded Argo and a few lighter ‘mechs and build your mercenary company up from there by doing the randomly-generated contract missions. Contract difficulty is now fixed per-planet and no longer scales up with your MRBC rating (a proxy for contracts completed), so you can jet off to a more difficult planet to try and take on some strong opposition — and possibly salvage their ‘mechs, resulting in a power boost for your company — and then when you inevitably get shredded you can withdraw to a less difficult world while you wait for your strongest ‘mechs and mechwarriors to get out of the hospital. Obviously Career mode has the long-term gameplay goal of building up to being able to field a full lance of Assault-class ‘mechs with additional spares, but you’re also given a Career mode score and ranking that’s built up through a series of Pirates!-esque scoring categories, like collecting one of every Battlemech or maxing out your friendly/enemy reputation with each noble house.
Career mode is a fine addition to Battletech. I personally think it should be considered the primary gameplay mode of the game from this point onwards, as I can’t see anyone ever wanting to voluntarily sit through some of the campaign missions a second time. It’s not without serious problems, though, as Harebrained have massively overcooked it by giving it a 1200 day time limit and making some of the scoring goals fantastically grindy. I crunched the numbers and figured I’d need to do somewhere in the region of 200 maximum-difficulty contracts before I maxed out the C-Bills and Contracts scoring categories. As it was I fought well over 150 engagements during a seventy hour Career mode run — and this was with the “Speed up battles” option turned on throughout — and there’s no tactical strategy game I know of that can prevent fatigue from creeping in when you’re asked to do that many encounters. Even after seventy hours playing a single Career I still had 300 days left on my Career mode timer, and there doesn’t appear to be an option to retire at will as there is in Battle Brothers or Pirates!, so I ended up sitting in orbit around a planet for a year doing nothing but running down the clock just so that I could finish it and move on to something else. It needs significant tuning before I’ll consider doing it again.
Still, the 1.3 changes are broadly positive and go a long way towards shoring up Battletech as a long-term prospect. The 1.3 patch is free, though, and this is ostensibly supposed to be a review of the Flashpoint DLC, a paid-for package that will get you the following in exchange for fifteen British pounds1:
- A new Jungle biome.
- A new Target Acquisition contract type.
- Three new Battlemech models, one of which has an additional variant.
- The eponymous Flashpoints.
Tackling each in turn, the Jungle biome is nice to look at with some interesting maps (especially the island one) and I’m certainly not complaining about its presence in the DLC. The Target Acquisition contract requires you to take control of three points on the map within a strict time limit, and it’s supposed to encourage you to use lighter, faster ‘mechs to accomplish this over fielding a 400-ton Assault lance in every encounter. However, I found that if you actually use a light ‘mech to get to the furthest point quickly it’ll get shot to pieces by the full reinforcement lance of Panthers that the game spawns on top of it, and anyway if you just put a 95-ton Banshee on sprint orders it’ll get there with enough time to spare, enough armour to sit on the point and not die, and enough firepower that it can still krump an enemy ‘mech or two on its way back to the evac point. Target Acquisition fails at its intended design goal, but still has some minor worth in adding some extra mission variety to the game.
I’d say the new Battlemech models are very hit and miss, except out of the four variants introduced there’s only one actual hit. The Hatchetman is a 45-ton Medium ‘mech with a special Hatchet component that lets it punch things with the power of an Assault ‘mech, but it’s utterly rubbish at its intended role because unlike the actual Medium-class melee stars (Shadowhawk and Centurion) it doesn’t have anywhere near enough armour to survive closing to melee range, and its pathetic number of weapon mounts mean that it can’t otherwise contribute to a fight. The Crab is another 45-ton Medium that comes with a couple of Large Lasers in its default loadout but which, again, doesn’t have the tonnage to mount enough heat sinks to make use of them properly; I don’t know why I’d field one for long-range support over a Trebuchet. The Cyclops is a 90-ton Assault ‘mech that comes in two variants: the Cyclops-Q has a big autocannon and is designed for front-line combat, while the Cyclops-Z has a special Battle Computer component that lets all of your ‘mechs go one initiative phase earlier than they would otherwise, which is insanely powerful. Since the Cyclops is under-armoured for an Assault the Q variant is crap, but the Z is well worth taking if you stick a couple of LRM20s on it and use it for long-range fire support.
Then you’ve got the Flashpoints, the front-and-centre feature of this Battletech expansion. These are multi-stage contracts which usually have consecutive deployments between which your ‘mechs supposedly cannot rearm or repair, and which will also occasionally have some hard limits on the maximum tonnage of your ‘mechs The rewards for dealing with these longer, more difficult contracts are potentially very worthwhile, since they include Lostech items such as Gauss Rifles that would just be handed to you for free if you were playing the main campaign2 (along with the Assault ‘mechs that they’re bolted to). I thought the Flashpoints were going to provide a more uniquely scripted experience compared to the generic contract missions you’re normally doing in Career mode, that they’d be a refreshing change from the umpteenth identical Capture Base contract. Instead I discovered that what the Flashpoints actually are is a wrapper for the same sodding missions I’ve already played hundreds of, with some custom intro text and some custom outro text but which are otherwise identical.
Take the Kurita Flashpoint that requires you to intercept a war criminal. There’s some intro text about how the war criminal is a very bad man, and some more intro text from a generic helmeted Kurita goon about honour blah blah blah Space Japan stereotypes are so fucking boring. Once you get into the mission you discover the war criminal is travelling in a convoy of vehicles, and you have to stop them before they get to the escape point! Exciting! Except not, because Convoy Interception is an already-existing mission type in the game that the Flashpoint wrapping doesn’t change a single element of: anonymous vehicles plod across the map with a ‘mech escort, and you blow them all up. You then get some interlude text that tells you that that wasn’t the right convoy, and that the war criminal was actually in this other convoy, and you then get to do the Convoy Interception mission again. Then there’s an outro where you get some money plus some rare salvage, and the Flashpoint is over.
Even when the Flashpoints do add custom bits to the missions they end up falling flat on their face. One Flashpoint has you protecting the components for a super special new Steiner ‘mech as they’re transported to a research site in (sigh) a Convoy Escort mission. Then the R&D site comes under attack in a Base Defense mission, and you’re authorised to unbox the special ‘mech and use it to defend the base. Awesome! But then the “special” ‘mech actually turns out to be a Hatchetman that appears to be even more underarmoured than the stock variant and which locks out one of your existing ‘mech drop slots, and which goes on to inevitably eat an AC/5 round to the face on the second or third turn of the battle leaving you with just three ‘mechs to fight off the onrushing hordes. Another Flashpoint has you working with legendary mechwarrior Morgan Kell to save his one-time paramour and child, which is (double sigh) another Convoy Escort mission, followed by a straight up Battle mission where Kell himself joins you on the field… and turns out to be a bumbling idiot in a stock Orion who can’t hit the broad side of a barn with his PPCs. I had to keep him near the back so that he wouldn’t get iced while the real mechwarriors got the job done for him.
Each Flashpoint usually has some decision point where you can choose to a) save the babies for no profit or b) eat the babies for maximum profit, but the only one of these decisions that was remotely interesting was the one where I got to choose which rare ‘mech I’d go after: the one armed with Gauss Rifles or the one with Pulse Lasers and Double Heatsinks (obviously I went with the Gauss because Pulse Lasers are still indescribably bad). This was a good decision because it was a clear branching point and the reward lying at the end of each path was spelled out for me so I could make an informed choice; the rest are so vague as to what their consequences are you might as well be flipping a coin to decide what to do. They’re just so superficial. The Flashpoints are an extremely thin narrative veneer over the same missions I’ve spent well over a hundred hours doing at this point and am pretty sick to death of, and while the Flashpoint system could maybe be used to produce something moderately engaging if, say, Flashpoints were linked together, or you could make actual impactful decisions during their component missions beyond “kill all the baddies”, the Flashpoint expansion doesn’t even try to do this. It just throws words at you and hopes that’ll be enough to justify the DLC’s existence.
Crucially Flashpoint does absolutely nothing to address my primary complaint about Battletech: that the missions you fight in don’t make any attempt to play to the fiction, or to provide flavour to otherwise anonymised encounters. All of your opposition, no matter who it is — pirates, Great Houses, renegade mercenary commands — behaves the exact same way in-mission, fielding the same ‘mech models as everyone else, fighting to the death and making absolutely no attempt to save themselves or their fantastically expensive and irreplaceable war machines when things turn against them, and this pushes the already generic contract missions into becoming dangerously overused. It’s only the wide variety of ‘mechs present in the game that props either of the campaign modes up for as long as they last; I was really hoping Flashpoint’s Flashpoints would provide the narrative shot in the arm the game needed, but instead it’s turned out to be a trivially inconsequential expansion whose only real value is that it widens the biome variety by one and the opposing ‘mech variety by three. Charging £15 for that is a big fucking ask.
I understand that Harebrained were running out of money when they released Battletech, weren’t sure how successful it would be and (probably) wouldn’t have had DLC going through the pre-production pipeline while they were finishing up the main game because of that, and so this first piece of DLC will have been difficult for them. Game dev is hard, and they’re not a big studio used to setting up that kind of content pipeline. I get that. Even so, Flashpoint is still the first unambiguously disappointing purchase I’ve made from them — there’s almost nothing worthwhile here — and if I were to make it again knowing just how insubstantial it is I probably wouldn’t bother. I really can’t recommend anyone else buy it3.
- Price correct at time of writing. If you’re reading this after Brexit you’ll have to multiply by ten. ↩
- You can also buy Lostech from the pirate black market, so people who don’t have Flashpoint aren’t locked out of acquiring it in Career mode. ↩
- At least not until the Urban Warfare DLC comes out next summer, when Flashpoint will inevitably be marked down to half price. ↩