Indie Spotlight: Battletech

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Are your shoulders bent with the misery of knowing everything you think you own doesn’t really belong to you? Do you worry it might take years of hard labour to pay for all of your expensive acquisitions? How many of you have ever had the misfortune of being deeply indebted to the bank? Possibly you decided to further your education and submersed yourself far into the red in the process. Maybe you decided to buy an upmarket house or fancy car and borrowed the money from the bank to do so. Perhaps you bought a spaceship full of massive battle mechs and needed to pay a crew to help support your expensive hobby. Regardless of the reason for your loan, you will often find that the banks don’t take too kindly to your not paying them back. The funny thing is the bank then spends more money to send goons after you in an attempt to squeeze their money back out of you. Luckily, you have those aforementioned battle mechs! That isn’t the shine of a pulse laser blast coming towards your heavily mortgaged ship though, it’s the shine of the Indie Spotlight, this time featuring the outstanding machinery of BattleTech!

Quite some time ago, in a previous century in fact, I acquired my very first computer. Packed with it were a number of games spanning various genres. I played each and every one of them starting with the one that soon became my favorite of them all, MechWarrior 2. Back in the good old days I would play that game for hours. I even learned nifty little tricks you could do to help you win the battle. The first and most important one was to ensure you had jump jets. See back in those days, you could shoot a mech’s leg clean off. Without the leg, the mech would typically be unable to move. However, if you had jump jets, you could still get back to your extraction point simply by using your jump jets to hop slowly forward. Nowadays, losing a leg simply means you can’t move very fast. The second of all, was you could use an emergency glass cannon style move if you are in danger. Basically, unload all weapons at once in alpha strikes until your mech overheated and shut down then hope that it would come back online before anything killed you. Back in those days once you managed to get the heaviest mech, you could pretty much obliterate anything that got in your way, but the smaller lighter mechs were the fun ones that added a challenge to the game.

BattleTech is more similar to the old MechCommander games rather than MechWarrior series. Instead of just controlling a single mech and hoping for the best, you are in command of a small squad of them. Instead of being pretty much live action it is now turn-based. The game has a main story you can follow at your leisure under the guise of being called priority missions and has a seemingly infinite number of optional missions for you to undertake. During the early portion of the game, you are up against the wall due to your huge expenditures and bank debt, however, once you start doing the priority missions you quickly find yourself swimming in currency…well more like wading, upkeep can be expensive if you have a large team and tend to get blown up a lot!

Before we get too far into the game, let’s talk about some of the options you have. First and foremost, you get to customize your character’s backstory. The elements you choose will have a small impact on the story dialogue options you have to choose from as well as some of your starting stats. Once you actually make it into the game and clear the tutorial you are left free to do what you want. An interesting feature is the fact you actually get to decide what kind of reward you want from risking your life on the proposed side mission. You can maximize your credits to keep back the debt collectors, you can maximize your salvage in the hopes of adding new equipment and mechs to your arsenal, you can choose a blend of those two, or you can be a philanthropist who gives up nearly all the money and salvage in order to increase your reputation instead. All the options have their strengths and weaknesses. I personally choose to maximize my salvage although I did frequently risk bankruptcy by doing that. Salvage lets you build new mechs, replace and upgrade weapons you have and basically saves you a ton of money. If you did opt to maximize money, you could simply buy those upgrades assuming you found a store selling what you want. If you increase your reputation, you get more rewards and store perks (discounts on your purchases, extra money from sales, etc.) so any of those actions can be valid options.

Another customization option, as alluded to in the previous paragraph, is your mech…actually, your entire squad of mechs. The game doesn’t force you into using any one particular mech. If you own it, and it is in working condition, you can pilot it all you want. You can also assign your pilots their own mechs based on your own preferences. You can also adjust the loadouts of those mechs to suit your playstyle. Do you hate running out of ammo? Switch to lasers. Would you like to save on repairs by running away from your enemies and unloading extra long-range attacks? Build a sniper. Basically, you can do whatever you want. The thing is, there is a certain element of randomness to the game. You can’t load a side quest to see what mechs will be in play, then reload your save and launch again with the perfect countering team, it won’t work. The game will randomly add different enemies to the map. It’s better to go in ready for anything and try to play tactically rather than attempting to game the system.

You can also level up your character and the rest of your team in any way you choose as well. There are special abilities that you must choose from as you can’t have them all on one character, but with careful character building, you can access all those abilities across your team. For example, if you have a real heavy bruiser of a mech that doesn’t mind having multiple alpha strikes against it, you could assign a pilot with sensor lock ability to command it. That way it can mark targets for your long-range snipers to unload their long-range missiles safely from outside of the movement and weapons range of their hapless victim. You will end up getting every non-special skill, so you really only need to prioritize what basic skill increases are best for your playstyle. I’d probably suggest guts.

You are not immune to damage, and there is no magic wand to make it magically go away either. If your mech loses an arm, all the tech attached to it is destroyed as well. You need to rebuild the arm with new parts rather than salvaging the old one. That means if you had some special edition weapons on there, they are lost forever. Even your pilots can end up with a long stay in the hospital if they get injured in combat. The worse off they are, the more likely they will die from their injuries. This means you really need to be careful when you are planning out your next moves. The rear of your mech is not nearly as armored as the front is. You need to try to flank the enemies while avoiding being flanked by them. Having to worry about your positioning, managing your heat, your range, and various other elements in the game really makes the game more interesting and fun than if it was simply you running into battle without having to worry about the costly and time-consuming repairs. As I mentioned, there is no magic wand of healing. If your mech or pilot gets beat up, you often need to wait a considerable length of time for them to be ready for battle again. This basically leads you to having to carefully select your missions as choosing ones with too high of difficulty for your loadout will ultimately cost you more than you gained for doing the mission!

The last bit of customization I feel compelled to talk about is your main ship. You are able to upgrade the systems in your ship in order to facilitate your needs. Do you want more active mechs readily available to choose from? Upgrade the mech bay. That way if some of your mechs are down for repairs, you have some ready and waiting to take over without needing to refit any of the ones in storage. Is your moral low? Build up your crew’s entertainment facilities. Need more crew? Build new crew quarters. Want your ship to fly between planets faster? Upgrade the engines. There are plenty of options you can choose from. Just remember, you are only able to do one upgrade at a time.

Okay, enough technical stuff; let’s talk about the game itself now. The game plays similar to the board game. Your units can move a certain amount of spaces per turn depending on their weight, damage, and if they plan to attack/brace or not. The terrain you are moving on sometimes has special effects that will impact the gameplay. For example, standing in water will help cool your mech faster. There are a variety of different planet types which also will impact how the game plays out. It’s generally not a wise idea to alpha strike with high heat generating weapons when on a desert planet as your ability to dissipate that heat is reduced. When firing your weapons you are able to switch on or off weapons systems in order to help regulate your heat. If you are running too hot and are near an enemy, you also have the ability to melee hit them for a chance at decent damage. Line of sight and obstruction’s also play a roll in what weapons you can use so you need to pay attention and use cover to protect yourself while attempting to inflict as much damage as you can on the enemy. Damage can be a bit unpredictable at times as well, you might land every single one of your shots in a weakened part of the mech and barely scratch the surface even with heavy weapons or you might land a single glancing blow with an autocannon and the mech will fly apart from full health. It’s a mix of good old random number generator and hitting critical that causes that unpredictability, but it is still something to keep in mind. On one really humorous time, I shot off all the weapons from an enemy mech and thought I pretty much left it defenceless. Unfortunately for me, it was clearly piloted by Monty Python’s Black Knight because it kept doing melee attacks against me with what was left of its mutilated remains. The funny thing is, I unloaded 12 mechs worth of alpha strikes into it from various sides, including its back and didn’t really do any damage to what was left of it (three rounds with four mechs). It headbutted my flagship heavy mech to death. I figured with the loss of my greatest mech, I would try meleeing it, and missed. It managed to take out another of my mechs with its headbutts before I finally put it down by making it fall over then unloading a full alpha strike into its cockpit. This overheated and shut down my mech as well as did damage to its structure, but the Black Knight was down. The overheated mech was then taken out by a PPC strike from a tower it had accidentally moved into range of. The after-action report showed two of my pilots killed in action, one wounded for about three months and four heavily damaged mechs.

The game has a difficulty indicator for each of its missions, however, it’s kind of inaccurate. There is a priority mission early on that is only rated 2 out of 5 for difficulty. Should be easy… Nope! That mission was one of the hardest ones I had played to that point. Took me quite a few tries to finally manage it. Other missions that were rated as 4 out of 5 were very easy in comparison. There are a number of different types of missions you can embark on and a number of factions you can choose to deal with. Usually taking any mission will make one faction like you a little more and make another faction hate you a little more so you need to factor that in as you choose the missions you want to do.

One thing that is a little annoying is there is a lot of dead air in the game. Times when the game shows you the action and lingers on the aftermath so you can appreciate the results of your efforts, however, after you have seen it for the 100th time it really starts losing its magic. There are other times when the game basically takes a lot of time to do very little. Like on an escort mission, you need to wait as each vehicle moves individually on its turn, rather than just having them all move at the same time or have them move at high speed. Coupled with the action cam that shows you the intense vehicle moving action, you get the linger cam after so you can truly appreciate those few inches the vehicle moved that turn. Other times is between turns where it pauses the game to tell you it is your turn, the enemies turn, an ally’s turn etc. before actually getting on with it. Sometimes it just pauses with nothing going on at all like the AI is thinking what move it wants to make or perhaps an off-camera enemy is moving. I am not an impatient person, but it does break up the action a bit too much. With that said though, the weapon impact animations are still fun even after the 100th time especially when parts start breaking off. There is a bit of dead air that makes sense though, and that is the interstellar travel bits. The game tries to simulate you voyaging between the stars by having a picture of the ship sit on the screen with days going by. That’s fine. It lets you micro-manage your repairs. Although when you dock and undock with the jump ship can be a bit tedious at times as you can’t do anything else during that phase.

If you ever get tired of battling against the AI or working your way through the story, you can head into online skirmishes against other players. If you thought the AI resorted to using cheap tricks, you have not seen anything yet! Real life players can be much more conniving than even the hardest AI can be.

The graphics in the game are very impressive. The mechs themselves are highly detailed even on the field. The buildings in the game lack a little detail, but it really doesn’t matter all that much, they still look good. Even the environments all have a fair amount of attention paid to them in order to be quite pleasing to look at. When a mech takes damage you can see sparks and small fires erupting in its damaged sections. If the mech has had its gyroscope bashed around too much, it will start wavering on its feet letting you know it is about to get knocked over if it doesn’t get stabilized in time. Rather than using the game engine to generate cutscenes, they actually use hand-drawn lightly animated images to tell the story. The characters in the story all have their own unique appearance and don’t look like they were just copy and pasted and given different names. The character builder in the game allows you to customize the look of your character quite a bit, and it even allows you to tailor the paint job on your mechs as well. You can either try to make them all follow the same scheme like a true lance or you can have a random assortment of paint jobs like any true mercenary band of rogues likely would have. These details show up clearly on the battlefield and really helps it feel like you are waging a war against various different factions.

The music and sound effects in this game are top notch as well. Be it the voice acting, the musical scores or the general sound effects of the heavy mechs clanking their way through the battlefield, everything seems to fit well. They even put some nice touches for when you are hanging around the inside of your ship. You can hear the crew talking over the intercom, some of it is a bit humorous others a bit more serious, but it actually all comes together to make it feel like a real ship full of real people going about their daily lives and doing their duties. I can’t really think of anything I can fault the game on sound-wise. Sure the weapon effects get a bit dull after a while, but that is only because you have heard them so many times. They are all quite well done and well suited to the weapons producing the sound effect.

The controls of this game are simple. There are a fair number of buttons to remember, but the game can pretty much be played entirely with your mouse. Some of the things, like multitargeting, take some guesswork on how they are used, but once you get the hang of it everything runs quite smoothly. I didn’t attempt to play it with a gamepad because these kinds of games are really better suited for the good old keyboard and mouse.

Overall, if you are a fan of the Battletech universe, or have enjoyed previous mech-based combat games such as the MechWarrior series of days gone by, then you will definitely want to check out Battletech! If you are a fan of tactical strategy games, then again, I would recommend Battletech to you. This game is quite challenging and has enough variance in the gameplay that even when the side mission is basically a duplicate of an earlier one you played, it will not play out exactly the same. I feel this is a game you can likely sink a lot of hours into and then restart and do it all over again by designing your character and mech loadouts differently on your next round in order to make the game feel fresher and new again. I have to admit I started writing this review a week ago but had to keep stopping because I wanted to play the game a little more to ensure I had my facts straight. It is easy to become deeply absorbed in this game and several hours would go by then I would end up having to leave without writing more than a couple of sentences. Overall, I have very much enjoyed Battletech and recommend the game to almost anyone who likes a fun challenge.

From the Steam Store:
ABOUT THIS GAME
From original BATTLETECH/MechWarrior creator Jordan Weisman and the developers of the award-winning Shadowrun Returns series comes the next-generation of turn-based tactical ‘Mech combat.

The year is 3025 and the galaxy is trapped in a cycle of perpetual war, fought by noble houses with enormous, mechanized combat vehicles called BattleMechs. Take command of your own mercenary outfit of ‘Mechs and the MechWarriors that pilot them, struggling to stay afloat as you find yourself drawn into a brutal interstellar civil war. Upgrade your starfaring base of operations, negotiate mercenary contracts with feudal lords, repair and maintain your stable of aging BattleMechs, and execute devastating combat tactics to defeat your enemies on the battlefield.

COMMAND A SQUAD OF ‘MECHS IN TURN-BASED COMBAT
Deploy over 30 BattleMechs in a wide variety of combinations. Use terrain, positioning, weapon selection and special abilities to outmaneuver and outplay your opponents.

MANAGE YOUR MERCENARY COMPANY
Recruit, customize, and develop unique MechWarriors. Improve and customize your dropship. As a Mercenary, travel a wide stretch of space, taking missions and managing your reputation with a variety of noble houses and local factions.

TAKE PART IN A DESPERATE CIVIL WAR
Immerse yourself in the story of a violently deposed ruler, waging a brutal war to take back her throne with the support of your ragtag mercenary company.

CUSTOMIZE YOUR ‘MECHS
Use your MechLab to maintain and upgrade your units, replacing damaged weapon systems with battlefield salvage taken from fallen foes.

PVP MULTIPLAYER & SKIRMISH MODE
Customize a Lance of ‘Mechs and MechWarriors to go head-to-head with your friends, compete against opponents online, or jump into single-player skirmish mode to test your strategies against the AI.