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Mechs, Mayhem, and Death From Above — BattleTech Review

BattleTech takes place during the mech-war dominated year 3025. Giant mechanical robots have waged war for generations, dividing the universe into several city-states in a state of perpetual battle. A vicious and devastating battle between the Great Houses has left the universe in a shocking state. House Cameron has been destroyed completely, and now Houses Davion, Kurita, Liao, Steiner, and Marik have pulled back to their respective territories in the Inner Sphere, licking their wounds. The four stages of this Succession War have rendered hundreds of worlds into lifeless husks, and much of the technology that the universe had built has been lost in the bloody aftermath. Few even understand the giant Battlemechs that these houses used to wage these wars thanks to the protracted conflict.

But you don’t care much about that…you fight for money.

As a mercenary, your job is to pay your bills, taking the jobs that pad the most demanding client — your bottom line. The best place to stake your tiny claim is in the Aurigan Reach. Harebrained Schemes designed this tiny slice in between the Taurian Concordat and the Magistracy of Canopus, bordering the Inner Sphere Successor State of the previous Capellan Confederation. If you aren’t that invested in the admittedly very deep lore, suffice it to say it’s a slice between two Major Houses where the castoffs of previous hegemony, as well as various Minor Houses collect. Now, the Aarano family is trying to consolidate and unify this area, and they have no compunction about using hired guns to get it done. This is where your story begins…

I’ll forewarn you — the BattleTech universe is vast, and as a result, this review will be a bit long. Even as long as it is, there’s no way I could cover all that is on offer here. Strap in, MechWarrior — there’s a lot of ground ahead of us.

“You can bring in the support now, we have ’em surrounded from the inside.”

Whether you are a stalwart rulebook thumping pen and paper devotee, or somebody fresh to the universe, it’s well understood that your function as a mercenary is to make money. Political infighting among the major houses, the machinations of the minor houses, getting yanked around by loan shark banks, and the ever-changing wind of who is aligned to what causes will pull you across the entire Inner Sphere, but at the end of the day, C-Bills are king — you are here to line your pockets.

As a mercenary commander, you’ll spend as much time behind the stick and throttle as you do behind a desk — sorry, it’s one of the “perks” of being in management. Battletech simulates this gameplay loop in a number of ways that are far more fun than the drab picture I just painted.

Through the story you’ve managed to capture a 200+ year old Argo — a LosTech relic from the days of the Star League. As exciting as that sounds, it’s in bad need of repair. The electrical is shot, the structure is crumbling, bulkheads have collapsed and are restricting space — she’s barely spaceworthy. The shoddy aforementioned electrical grid can be upgraded, making it more safe and able to support other modules. Habitat Pod expansion grants additional berths for pilots, with MechBay upgrades offering similar housing for their metal counterparts. Med Bays help your pilots bandage up and re-enter battle faster, and Training Modules give a little bit of experience boost for rookie pilots and those not actively fighting. These modules can get very expensive, and while they all offer a boost in some way or another, they also add to the bottom line cost of running the Argo from month to month.

“If you are outnumbered, look on the bright side … it’s harder to miss.”

Many games have pilots for vehicles, and often they are simply nameless meat that you never really connect with. If they die, you hose out the jumpseat and slot someone else into their spot. Battletech looks to push a connection with the pilots by making each unique. Your ship has a limited number of berths for pilots, and the better the hotshot, the more they drain your bank account. Each pilot has four primary skill levels — Gunnery, Piloting, Guts, and Tactical. Gunnery is their ability to hit the broadside of a Battlemaster, Piloting helps them race around the battlefield without tearing a myomer bundle, while Guts is tied directly to your ability to take wounds, but also handles heat thresholds for your pilot and recoil tolerance. The Tactical skill provides the incredibly useful Sensor Lock ability (reveals the target for everyone, removing two evasion chevrons for a single round) and improving range. More than walking stat pools, however, your pilots also have unique backstories. Each one gets a short description of their origins, as well as how they are getting by in this hostile world. As you visit the different areas of the Inner Sphere, your reputation (both with the houses, and with the Mercenary Review Board) will greatly influence whether these pilots will even join your team. Pinch hitters for your roster to keep from having to wait for your pilots to recover can be expensive, but as the costs to run the Argo mount, you will likely need more than four pilots to keep her in the air.

Beyond backstories and motivations, your pilots also have three skills slots to be filled through specialization. These help further define the abilities your crew brings to the field. It’s one of the ways that simply applying the same set of four pilots, as you often do in other games, might cause you a whole mess of problems here. Upgrading your Gunnery skill will increase your chance to hit, but getting your pilot skill to level 5 grants you the Evasive Movement perk, providing an additional Evasion pip beyond the norm. You can’t pick all four perks, forcing a choice of just two. Once those two are selected, you can then achieve mastery (level 8) and pick up a final specialization. This makes the pilot as important as what they are piloting, as a mission that calls for speed and range is likely a poor match for a pilot who specializes in Bulwark (reduction in damage when standing still).

Training can give your pilots the skills to succeed in the field.

“Nah, it’ll be fine. It just needs a little paint, a little wiring, and duct tape. LOTS of duct tape.”

The Argo is equipped with a fully-functional MechBay. Each mech has a handful of standard configurations you can use, and that’s perfectly fine and will carry you far. For those of us who like to get our hands greasy, you’ll be happy to know that you can tear your mech apart and refit them just about any way you’d like (within reason, of course). Taking apart a 50 ton Hunchback gives you the option to remove the AC20, two medium and one small laser, and then drop a PPC on its arm and an AC/2 in the chest, then strapping four jump jets on the legs. Each mech has a set number of hardpoints that can be keyed to specific weapon types — ballistic, energy, missile, and support. Some mechs are more flexible than others, and all of it has to fit underneath the chassis weight limit. Finding the right balance between weapon payload, ammunition, heat sinks, jump jets, extra armor, and weapon types can make the difference between a lethal powerhouse, or an overheating liability in the field.

If the MechBay sounds daunting, thankfully your Chief MechTech Yang Virtanen will walk you through storage options, component selection, repairs, and the customization available here. He will also walk you through Mech Storage — a crucial part of managing your fleet (you don’t pay upkeep on Mechs in storage), as well as potential salvage, which we’ll go over later.

Contracts – the lifeblood of any mercenary’s work.

Get a job, ya freeloader!

As I mentioned, your job is to make money, and that means taking jobs. You might be assaulting a base, stealing some tech, guarding a VIP, or sometimes straight up assassination. You are free to accept or reject missions as you balance your conscience against your powerful need to eat. These missions also help expand the storyline as there are always implications to their outcomes. Twists and turns aside, who you are doing it for is almost as important as what you are doing.

Getting paid is a function of balancing several factors. Each mission has a maximum pay for completion, as well as a salvage value you are allowed, and a maximum reputation impact attributed. Missing objectives will cost you a chunk of that max pay, but more importantly how much damage your mechs take will directly impact your bottom line. Similarly, retrofitting salvaged mechs costs money, but repairing your fresh kill when you’ve ripped them to shreds can cost you more than the mission was worth. Using sliders, you can negotiate higher pay for less salvage, or more salvage for higher pay. When available, it will also affect your reputation with the faction you are going to represent on the mission. Your current needs will drive your choice. Darius, your Executive Officer, will rank your mission from half a skull all the way to five full skulls (they are Atlas mech heads, to be precise) as his estimation of the difficulty.

Stepping out on the randomized mission is nerve wracking. The limited amount of intel Darius provides you will help you select the right lance, but conditions in the field may change the second you make contact. On one mission, I was to charge and and take down a pirate mech lance. I ran straight towards them and engaged, only to be flanked by a second lance of reinforcements from the side. Two of those reinforcement mechs sat on a nearby cliff top and peppered my team with LRMs. Their objective was to break the stability of my mechs, and they were wildly successful. There are certainly “milk runs”, but you never know when you’ll stick your foot into a bear trap, and that’s one of the best parts of this game.

Upon mission completion, you’ll get scored on how you did against your stated objectives, submissions, your cash payout, and even a rating by the Mercenary Review Board. The MRB scores how effective and trustworthy you are, which is important to noble houses and potential pilots alike. Any impact to affected factions you encountered are also represented visually here, letting you see the effect of any decisions you may have made.

Decisions that matter

BattleTech opens with immediate decisions needing to be made. Beginning with “Decades ago, your family came to the Reach from…”, the game presents your opportunity to set your origins with House Kurita, Marik, Davion, Steiner, Liao, or the Magistracy of Canopus, the Taurian Concordat, the Rimward, Periphery, or the Deep Periphery. This provides a bit of backstory for your MechWarrior, though you aren’t bound to follow any of the traits ascribed (e.g. Taurian Concordat MechWarriors are stubborn and aggressive). It also provides a number of mouseovers within each description, allowing those of you who aren’t as deep into the lore of this universe to read up, if you are so inclined. As we’ve seen in other Harebrained titles, these will open (or close!) doors for you in dialogue trees, contract negotiations, and opportunities, so choose wisely. You’ll further shape your background by deciding what happened when you turned sixteen. Picking from dozens of options across several screens, these choices have a direct impact on your various stats, making it more than cosmetic, as they serve as the base for your starting skills. Reunited with your old mentor, and with a Blackjack BJ-1 (your ancestral BattleMech, passed down to you courtesy of your noble birth) already in your possession, you’ll then pick your character’s portrait, callsign, first and last name, and even the pronoun (he, she, or they) with which others will identify you.

The customization piece isn’t new to Harebrained titles, but in the past you’ve only been able to pick from a handful of portraits. Now, you have a ton of them (and it’s very easy to mod them in, if you aren’t happy with the stock images), but you also have fourteen toggles to further modify these now-3D portraits. Makeup, tattoos, scars, hairstyles, expressions, complexion, facial hair, clothing, and colors for nearly every choice, creating an instant connection with a character you feel like you’ve had a hand in creating.

Upgrades to your ship, pilots, Mechs, reputation in an area, and all other decisions you make tie directly into the mission-based meta story elements that can occur mid-flight as you travel from system to system. The game will present you with a dilemma for you to tackle, as well as contextual options that can have consequences no matter what you choose. An electrical issue may pop up near your reactor shielding, and your Chief Engineer may ask to borrow your most highly skilled MechWarrior to help solve the problem. That could sideline them for several days, cause them injury or death, or result in a spectacular outcome as they learn new skills or pick up a morale boost. Sometimes you can talk your way out of a problem, and other times your hard earned cash is the best way to solve it. Like any good RPG, there are also optional sidelines based on whether you’ve completed a specific task, have a particular upgrade in place, or if your reputation is of a certain height or depth.

In addition to the interstitial mission moments, there is a StarCraft II-like hub where you can talk to your crew. Getting to know your Navigator, Engineers, and Chief Mech Tech, just to name a few, provides a ton of backstory, as well as connects all these fantastic subsystems together seamlessly.

The battle is won, but your next fight will likely be with a pen and paper. Every month you are expected to reconcile the books with a financial report. You’ve got mechs to operate, pilot salaries, loan interest (and I thought Sallie Mae student loans were bad!), and those figures culminate in a simple balance sheet that tallies your end of month funds, your operating expenses, subtracts the two, leaving you with the balance. Obviously your choice of missions has a great deal of impact on this, as does having a bloated roster or mech lab full of unused steel. As you roll into the next month you’ll set the spending level for the next 30 days, from Spartan to Extravagant, which directly impacts your overall ship morale. You won’t need an accounting degree to handle any of this, but it does make your decisions matter.

The maps are huge, as are the mechs that stomp around them.

“McPherson. Stop striking the enemy in the groin with your grenades. It`s uncivilized.”

Battletech is, at its core, a turn-based tactical game, not unlike games such as XCOM, or Harebrained Schemes’ own Shadowrun titles. Before you let that dissuade you, if you were turned off by obtuse interfaces, excessive challenge, or slow-paced combat, I’ll tell you that BattleTech is a giant steel beast all its own. While there are many more subsystems than simply ammo and health (the bare minimums we’ve seen in other games) it’s in this tiny slice of management that the game shines.

Fielding the right mech, armed with the right weapons, with the right pilot, at just the right time, is key to success. Each weapon system has advantages and disadvantages, and this can be incredibly complex to keep track of. The team at Harebrained has masterfully provided easy-to-follow visual cues that makes all of this fairly simple, even for a novice to the universe.

Every weapon you fire, almost without exception, generates heat. Heat, when too high, can cause damage to your mech. On a long enough timeline, it can even cause your mech to explode, and given that they are most often powered by fusion engines, potentially killing everyone in the immediate area. What I’m saying is that heat management is important. Rather than counting heat sinks and calculating how they are impacted by standing in a dry desert vs. a shallow stream, there is a simple bar that indicates heat levels. Similarly, ammo has a counter in a simple grid, right next to a to-hit percentage for each weapon. You can fire these weapons in a group to break up your largest heat sources, and that’s easy to designate as well.

Line of sight is incredibly important in the Battletech world. While missiles can lob over the top of a mountain if another mech can see the target (and has the right equipment to relay targeting info to their buddies), nearly every other laser or projectile-based weapon is a straightforward affair, requiring a linear path to their target. Here, a red line indicates whether or not you can see your target, what arc your weapons will take, and the cone of vision for your pilot. A little red eyeball will appear when line of sight is broken. A paperdoll system shows your current armor levels, both front and rear. For something that usually requires several rule books to understand when played tabletop, Harebrained has built a system that brings it together in an easily understood format.

The team made incredible complexity easy to manage with a fantastic interface.

Cover makes a big difference in the field as well, both in your ability to hit, but also in terms of movement, spotting distance, and damage reduction. Those sorts of bonuses and detractors apply to all environmentals, such as marshes, water, desert, and cities. Elevation is king, but line of sight is equally as important. If you’re thinking the game will be overly complex, fret not — the team has explained how all of these things interplay, with clearly-defined status indicators and explanations.

There are certain tactics at your disposal that can help mitigate or avoid damage — specifically evasion and bracing. Evasion is inexorably linked to movement, as you might expect, and that’s represented by little chevrons that appear on the hud. The faster you move, the harder a target you are to hit, but locking sensors on a target removes two of those pips, making it easier to hit. Once you know that you are likely to get hit, it’s all about bracing for impact. Bracing will reduce your damage by half, which is helpful in the “oh shit” moment when a LRM-laden Catapult crests the horizon and bears down on you.

Combat, as in the real world, is all about timing. Once the battle is joined, Mechs move in turn-based phases. Lighter mechs move earlier than heavier ones, though you can also reserve an action to act later in the round. Planning is key to your success, and simply running towards the enemy and “gunboating” will only take you so far.

In the first 10 or so hours of the game, I was able to use my mechs like a blunt instrument, throwing the kitchen sink at whatever was in front of me. Once the game opens up and lets you fly where you’d like, the subsystems of the game became far more important. Alpha striking every round (firing all weapons) became a problem, as heat management while facing multiple targets can be leave you stranded with little options. Similarly, reserving actions to bait your foes into position, using the speed of a light mech versus the firepower of a heavy one at the right time, and applied at the right time, becomes paramount. When facing a mixed lance, do you focus on the heaviest hitter? You might regret that when the lighter missile boat mechs knock your mech off its feet through repeated needling with SRMs.

This game is absolutely MASSIVE in scale.

I’m going to freely admit that I’ve been playing the game non-stop for the last week, and I’m nowhere near the end of the game. Put simply, I have no idea how long it’ll take me to complete the game as I zip around the universe hunting for salvage, upgrading the Argo, and building my stable of mechs and pilots. The “Game of Thrones meets Firefly” campaign is challenging without being punishing, and every piece of scrap I cobble together into a mech brings with it incredible satisfaction. Ripping off the arm of a mech with a called shot elicits joy every time it happens, and I cannot see that ever getting old. This is a rare gem.

Morale is very important in the field. Mercs with high morale are just plain more lucky. They may take a PPC shot to the chest and somehow shrug it off. They can hit an impossible shot from an impossible distance. As an active skill, you can spend some of your morale for a called shot (firing at a specific target area, with a better chance of success), or reset your stability and vent heat. During our multiplayer game, John blasted the head clean off my otherwise-pristine mech with a called shot, so it can be a real game changer. Conversely, if your morale drops low enough, you may find yourself with an empty MechWarrior bench, fights in the halls, or worse. It’s hard to run a lance with no pilots, so it’s important to keep them happy.

One of the things I appreciated is that Harebrained didn’t just throw new players into the deep end. The game’s tutorial and first few missions very slowly build your knowledge, ensuring you understand the interplay of systems, turn phases, weapons, heat, ammo, structural vs. armor damage, and cover before ever exposing you to things like the MechBay or salvage operations. It lets the player understand why they might need to change this part or that before pushing them into something that might be otherwise overwhelming.

Salvage is key to expanding your mech lance, as well as the weapon payload.

Batting Cleanup – Salvage and Repairs

The best source of money, outside of your negotiated contract rate, is salvage. Not unlike the sailors of old, the Noble Houses will issue Letters of Marque, granting you operating and salvage rights in a particular area. Your salvage rights contract grants you a specific amount of items, as well as a priority to that salvage. You can’t just snap up all the best gear — those Great Houses need to feed their own war machines, too.

Once you’ve selected and collected your parts, you’ll find that Yang has them stored in MechBay storage. Once you’ve collected enough pieces to reassemble a functional mech chassis, the team will automatically assemble it and prep it to either stay in storage (potentially to sell for C-Bills), or you can pull it out and add it to your ready roster. If you leave it in storage, the chassis is left bare (without weapons, heatsinks, etc.), and thankfully Yang somehow makes it all fit, so you don’t have to worry about storage space on the Argo. That said, bringing a Mech out of cold storage requires a few days, with cost and time variables based on the equipment you stack on the chassis, so choose wisely what to keep and what to stow.

Your salvage after a mission is often a collection of weapons, and the occasional mech part. Based on your negotiation, you may receive a lot of salvage, or you may receive higher priority in selecting that salvage. Getting to pick first is preferable when the big goodies drop, but volume of gear may be more valuable if you’ve lost some weapons along the way.

Mad science in the mech lab. Time to build a monster…

Like the pen and paper game, weapon manufacturers create their tech differently, and as such, there are slight differences between them. A Large Laser made by a different manufacturer may do additional stability damage, or a LRM could have a little bit of extra distance on it. These weapons (designated with an extra + or two next to them) are rare, expensive, and worth every penny in the field.

Repairs are an essential part of keeping your pilots alive, but it’s also one of your biggest cash sinks. While Yang insists that armor repairs are essentially free thanks to the pile of spare armor he’s got laying around, structural damage and component repair/replacement is painfully expensive. Worse still, it takes time. When you have a smaller stock of mechs, having several out at the same time may cost you dearly as you don’t have enough mechs to tackle a mission properly.

While we are talking about repairs, let’s talk about refitting. Certainly you can skip this entirely if you are inclined, instead fielding stock mechs throughout the campaign, but where’s the fun in that? Eventually you’ll end up taking some catastrophic damage and lose an arm or weapon off your mech. At this point, you’ll need to put it in for refit. Refit provides a paper doll representation of your mech, granting you full access to the hardpoints where you can mount weapons, equipment, heatsinks, and additional armor. All of this has to be done within a certain weight limit for the chassis, and all of the consequences against your movement, firepower, durability, range, melee attack power, and heat efficiency will be affected by your choice. The other thing that it directly impacts is your wallet, as each of these things take time and have an associated cost. It creates a risk / reward between crazy customized loadouts and keeping the Argo flying month to month.

The Sights and Sounds of Battle

BattleTech is absolutely gorgeous, and that comes as a combination of the wonderful art assets of Harebrained Schemes, and a partnership with Piranha Games, who provided the Mech assets from their online title, MechWarrior Online. The environments look better than anything Harebrained has done to date, and the effects (fire, smoke, sparks, damage, etc.) are stellar up close.

There are also fantastic moments courtesy of the physics engine. Punching the arm off a mech as you face off on an incline, and then watching the armor chunks and arm roll down the hill puts a smile on my face every time it happens. The satisfying crunch of having my 55 ton mech kick a 20 ton Locust in the face never gets old.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jon Everest’s amazing soundtrack. The 60 tracks he has composed for the game easily match or exceed his incredible work he did for Shadowrun Dragonfall and Shadowrun Hong Kong. If you backed the game at a high enough level, you will have access to it at launch, but if you missed out, you can still nab it at the link above. The swelling orchestral tracks are inspiring, and the darker tones that play during the inevitable betrayal moments cast the game in the perfect light. It’s a soundtrack worth buying.

“If brute force doesn’t solve your problem you’re obviously not using enough.”

John Farrell and I stepped into the multiplayer mode of BattleTech together over the weekend for a quick skirmish. Both of us commented at just how impressed we were with the depth of it. There are a dozen maps with seven weather / time of day conditions at launch, and a bevy of additional options you can toggle to make your battle bespoke.

Whether you tackle the skirmish mode in multiplayer or single player, you are presented with 56 mechs (including variants), as well as roughly two dozen pre-built and balanced lances, and a dozen people to pilot them. The battles are split by the size of the budget of the metal in the field. A Clash requires that your lance come underneath a 15 million C-Bill price tag, whereas Battle and War are 20 and 25 million, respectively. There is also an unlimited option if you want to field a Steiner Scout Lance (that’s all 100 Ton Atlas Mechs, for those not deep in the lore).

As you set up a multiplayer match, you can also force players to use a full lance of four mechs, further restrict them to stock loadouts, or let them go crazy and use the MechBay to build their own custom monstrosities. You can do the same thing on the single player side, but all of the multiplayer options are trimmed back.

I still cheer out loud when I land a called shot. It never, ever, gets old.

“Bargained well and done.”

John and I had a quick confab on this topic, and we both came to the same conclusion — this game exceeds every expectation we could have possibly set. Our only complaints are nitpicks versus the pen and paper version of the game. I ran into a handful of animation bugs in an earlier build, but three patches in the last week has removed all of them, the only remaining issue being a small animation hiccup when effects are applied (lost weapon, knockdown, etc.) I could complain about the randomized missions as their premise can repeat, but once my Leopard drops my mechs onto the planet surface, I forget all about that and get to the work of removing the meat from my future-salvage.

Pilots:
Ron Burke
John Farrell

Mechs, Mayhem, and Death From Above — BattleTech Review
95

Excellent

Battletech

Review Guidelines

Harebrained Schemes has transformed the complexity of the pen and paper BattleTech universe into an incredible game that welcomes veteran and rookie pilots alike. BattleTech represents the perfect culmination of all of their previous works, and the team should be proud of how well it all came together.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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