by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
A SIMPLER TIME
I still remember January 2003 like it was yesterday. Though I’d owned the original Xbox for a few months, my parents had just bought me and my brother a subscription to Xbox Live, and I couldn’t get enough. Playing on the 20-inch tube TV in my room, many a night was spent talking to strangers until sunrise. It was, perhaps, a simpler time in online gaming, before people were quite as nasty and almost everyone had their headsets on. It didn’t matter if you were old or young, as long as you played and spoke nicely you were sure to find some friends. I was so enthralled with this new, amazing game called MechAssault, that I even, for the first time in my self-aware life, skipped watching the Super Bowl. Unfortunately MechAssault, and the larger BattleTech IP as a whole, didn’t prove to be as lasting in the land of video games as my memories of them. You can imagine my elation then, when I saw that Harebrained Schemes, the developer of the recent lovely Shadowrun games, was going to move from cyberpunk magic to the world of hulking steel.
COMBAT IS NUTS (AND BOLTS)
As you’d imagine from a turn-based isometric skirmisher like this, there’s a lot more going on in any given fight than clicking fire on the biggest guns you’ve got. Positioning, resource and heat management, objectives and more, all need to be considered for each mech in your squad, and there’s an incredibly satisfying amount of options to let you get creative and use your brain. Even just getting your mechs ready for battle, before jumping into the fray, gives you more options than many other games. See, it’s not just an issue of picking weapons and armor. No, mechs have a whopping 11 sections (arms, legs, etc) that can each hold armor, weapons, and miscellaneous equipment/aids. Each body part has to be managed and prioritized when attacking and defending, as busting each one means disabling different things. It sounds complicated, but it plays remarkably smooth. I enjoyed not only planning my attacks on enemy mechs, but also using positioning and planning to protect my valuable and vulnerable areas as well.
Not content to let the mechs have all the fun, the environments also play a big role. The environments are nicely varied and can significantly effect the flow of battle. Not only is it important to scout your opponents mechs for strengths and weaknesses, but it’s equally important to scout the map to determine what strategies will best work. Is there likely to be lots of cover? Slower moving robots might be ok. Are there rivers? That’ll keep the bots nice and cool, so heavier firepower should work. Somewhere hot, or without much atmosphere? Well, that’s going to work the opposite, so efficiency is the name of the game. Like everything else with BattleTech, there’s a lot going on, and despite some clunky UI, I didn’t have a terribly hard time working through things smoothly and enjoying the depth once I’d had time to get comfortable.
PRAY TO RNGSUS
It’s unfortunate then, that the random number generator seems to actively function against all of the strategic possibilities we just talked about. Look, I get that the RNG is just part of games like this. They wouldn’t be fun if every time you tried to do something it worked perfectly. Weighing pros and cons and taking gambles are just part of the deal. That being the case, the modular nature of the mechs here make the system seem particularly difficult to stomach. Not only do your weapons have to play the RNG to hit the target mech, but then, if they do, you’ve got to worry about hitting the desired target on the mech. The double-dipping doubles the frustration when things don’t go your way, and makes it seem a bit too random for a game that hinges on strategically taking out specific limbs and weapons. All the planning in the world is great, but it can literally be undone with a pair of unlucky rolls. How much that bothers you is going to depend on what you like and are used to in your games. Call me salty, tell me to “git gud,” or tell me there just isn’t a better way for this kind of thing, but for me it left a little more up to the dice than I would have liked.
THE GOOD KIND OF GAMBLE
Harebrained Schemes has already proven with their previously-mentioned Shadowrun games (especially Dragonfall) that they know how to put together an engaging story with memorable characters, and that same quality present in BattleTech, though never quite reaches the same heights. As the commander of a mercenary crew stuck in the middle of some political powers, it’s up to you to balance fighting with acquiring the necessary parts and funds to keep growing stronger. Like in XCOM, the connective tissue between fights lends the battles much more gravitas, forcing you to not only consider immediate consequences but also the lasting ones. Is that risky maneuver worth the gamble to finish off an opponent? Or is the potential loss of a pilot/mech to hard to stomach? These are the types of gambles I like, and the ones that bring with them the sweetest tastes of victory when they work out.
I don’t think anyone is going to call BattleTech a perfect game, but it is a fun one that brings the IP back into the spotlight with a game that does justice to the lore, atmosphere, and tactical depth that the tabletop and video games were build on. Though its pace might be a bit slow for some, and the RNG can be frustrating in the worst ways, the game has too much going right for it to let those issues hold it back. I may still be itching for more Shadowrun, but I’m pleased that Harebrained’s next endeavor is another win.
Lots of tactical options, combat is not overwhelming, story and characters are engaging, gameplay outside of combat is solid.
RNG is frustrating.