'BattleTech Flashpoint' Turns Up the Difficulty and the Drama

The first significant expansion for Harebrained Schemes' mech tactics game makes few big changes, but lots of important small ones.

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Dec 5 2018, 9:56pm

In its original form, BattleTech always gave you and your giant mech mercenary company a safety net. Yes, the need to pay the bills and fix your equipment lent the game a nice structure and additional stakes to every mission, but it was always undercut by a narrative campaign that was designed to let you get regular infusions of cash and equipment that made you feel a bit more like a trust-funder than a scrappy underdog. You might have left bits and pieces of Mech-and-Warrior scattered all over the deserts of Smithon but in the end you got a fat paycheck and fresh gear that went a long way to replacing your losses and improving on what you had.

With Flashpoint, mercenary management has literally become a game unto itself. More importantly, it’s become a great game that has enriched a mech tactics game that I already loved. What’s funny is that Flashpoint itself only gets about half the credit for that. The other half is thanks to a lot of smart design revisions and seemingly improved map rotation that Harebrained Schemes made since the original launch of the game. Flashpoint is more of a cherry on top of a game that grew and improved in the months after it debuted than a major improvement and expansion in its own right. It’s also a $20 cherry, which has understandably rubbed some players the wrong way, though I think I can make the case that it punches above its weight class despite being underwhelming at first-glance.

You’re able to play Flashpoint with either your endgame mercenaries from the original campaign, or as a new company in the “Career” mode, which challenges you to be the most successful merc you can be in 1200 in-game days of action (complete with a high score at the end). While there are still random events onboard your ship and the occasional “flashpoint” short story sequence (more on those later), you’ll be playing a version of BattleTech that doesn’t give you the cushion of narrative missions and their hefty rewards.. And it turns out that is a much, much harder game.

A tall combat robot is framed against a dark evening sky with a dim, distant sun far above.

Do you know how much money it costs to rebuild a heavy or assault-class mech after it gets hammered in a slugging match? I mean, you probably saw the numbers countless times, but they don’t really mean anything if a multi-million dollar payday is waiting for you at your convenience. Or hell, there’s the overhead costs of just keeping a dozen mechs in operational order: Every month, you basically need to do an extra mission just to afford basic upkeep.

My endgame wrecking crew was, I thought, pretty much untouchable. I could field three full lances of assault mechs, which theoretically meant I could run three max-difficulty missions in a row. How could I ever run out of money with such a mercenary company?

Well, a few ways, it turns out.

First, BattleTech itself has become even more of a game of grinding attrition via a few major mechanical changes, which have inspired some mixed reactions. Most tankier mech pilots will still have the Bulwark ability, but now it’s a passive ability that makes sticking to cover way, way more effective than it ever was before. Where BattleTech at launch was more about making mechs harder to hit via Evasion, now it’s more about making mechs harder to damage even when you do hit them.

This change works for and against you but, since you’ll be outnumbered in most missions, in general it means you end up taking much more of a pounding as you batter opposing mech lances into submission. You might still win, but you’ll have far fewer of those engagements where you just get in someone’s face and rip the heart out of their mech in a single turn of sustained fire. They’ll get two or three volleys off against you when previously they sometimes might struggle to get one before suffering critical damage, and that is a lot of damage that’s suddenly back in play. You’ll notice it a lot when it comes time to rebuild after a mission.

Second, there are a few nightmare enemies you encounter a lot in the late-game. The Demolisher tank, which carries dual AC 20s—autocannons which can kill a pilot in a single volley. Or there’s the SRM Carrier, which fires a salvo of missiles that seems to go on for, oh, a solid minute. A single salvo will strip most of the armor off of any heavy mech that it catches in the open. Whoever shoots you after a hit from one of those will probably knock out a system or a limb. And since all your pilots are in slow-moving assaults, trying to run up and stomp these little fuckers is tough. You can run a “fast assault” like a Victor but… every build of the Victor I’ve tried requires a quarter-million credits in repairs after each mission.

A mission screen from BattleTech featuring contract terms and a character's gloss on the misson briefing.

Third, and this is where the Flashpoints themselves start to come into play… the Successor States are shitty clients.

The Successor States are the Great Powers of the BattleTech universe, and while they are considered the “civilized” core of the galaxy, there’s an interesting argument that BattleTech makes about their role on the so-called Periphery. The smaller Periphery states and unincorporated free planets tend to have a higher level of infrastructure in general (that the Successor States are usually trying to smash). Meanwhile, the Successor States’ frontiers are underdeveloped, battle-scarred hellholes. So if you are taking jobs from the Successor States, you’ll find yourself being pulled into stand-up fights against first-rate national armies, in the middle of some wasteland where getting replacement equipment will be almost impossible.

Furthermore, the they are trying to screw you.

It took me a while to clock that this was happening. But both pirates and regional governments tend to offer you straightforward missions that give a decent sense of the risks and rewards. The Successor States, on the other hand, are basically offering you the BattleTech equivalent of, “FOR REMOVAL: Padlocked chest freezer. I will pay you $50 to remove this old chest freezer from my storage unit. Do not look inside it. You are liable for any legal fees you may incur.”

When a local government asks you to knock out an enemy recon unit, you’ll probably face a recon unit and maybe some reinforcements. When House Marik asks you to knock out a recon unit, it means they’re sending you in to try and stop D-Day.

A beautiful sunset frames a lance of BattleMechs moving out across a mountainside.

One reason I’ve developed a newfound paranoia and distaste for the Successor States is changes to the Reputation system in the current 1.3 version of the game. Factions’ views of you will harden much more quickly, and you’ll face bonuses or repercussions much faster than before. There’s more incentive to “take sides” in the wars of the Inner Sphere and become the pet mercenary of one faction and the sworn enemy of another. Your friends will give you special store access and prices while your enemies will bar you from taking missions. Because I decided to express my allegiance to House Davion by beating the crap out of House Liao across a half-dozen worlds, House Liao is no longer a possible employer and has taken to sending threatening messages.

Where you stand with factions, and the nasty secrets they can keep, play especially important roles in the Flashpoint missions, which are authored missions in the way the campaign missions were, but are now offered as special contracts that you can fulfill when they become available. They don’t overhaul BattleTech. You’ll still be doing single-mission contracts for 80% of the game. But now, for that remaining 20% of the time, you’ll have a specially authored scenario to complete, one that often features a couple twists and turns.

A mission reward screen showing rare components being delivered

Those can feel unfair. There was one mission that was supposed to be a simple base-defense against an enemy force of similar size. Instead, I was outnumbered three-to-one and swarmed from every side. After taking a freaking beating I failed the mission and got partial pay that didn’t come close to patching my mechs back together.

But these missions will at least pose some different tactical conundrums and will occasionally offer the kind of rewards you just can’t buy in this game. Special gear and technology, for instance, that previously only came to you via special campaign missions can now be recovered as part of flashpoint missions. It’s awarded a bit like a random drop or a lootbox: After you go through your normal post-mission salvage phase, you get a second, random collection of uncommon and rare gear for completing the Flashpoint. Some of it can just be a nice bonus, some of it can be really rare, game-changing tech.

A confident, prosperous, and faintly smug looking young man in a snowy white uniform regards you across a BattleTech holo communications device.

They also unfold almost like mini-campaigns, or perhaps the better analogy is a single-session module in a tabletop RPG. You meet a new character or two, get some insight into the wider fiction of BattleTech, and write a quick chapter of your merc company’s personal history. You’re also offered scary choices like, “We have a recon report that guarantees significant but known opposition. Do you want to go in according to that recon report, or do you want to try another approach against unknown opposition?”

The new tropical / jungle biome is folded into the random contracts, and they provide some gorgeous visual like flights of birds scatting as a mech plunges through a forest canopy. They can also throw up some wildly varied terrain: sometimes you’re basically fighting on a flat series of atolls in shallow water, other times you’re fighting across a massive cliffside waterfall with ocean on one side and jungle mountains on the other.

A group of combat BattleMechs do battle atop a beautiful tropical mountain ridge overlooking an overcast ocean at sunset.,

The new mechs provide about as much variety as you’d expect—though the Hatchetman is a bit of a disappointment. It’s a gimmicky medium mech with a giant melee axe welded onto its right arm that allows it do extra melee damage, but honestly not enough that you wouldn’t be better off running something else. (Fun fact: the only memorable sequence with a Hatchetman in the Battletech fiction involves a pilot using the axe exactly once, noting that it is surprisingly effective… and then self-destructing it because it was more useful as an IED than a BattleMech. I sympathize with this position.)

Which I think typifies what is going to be one of the more divisive aspects of Flashpoint: It’s big bullet-point, headline changes aren’t really that game-changing. It’s not like you are going to buy Flashpoint and immediately get a whole stack of new missions and new things to do. Rather, it’s an expansion that embeds itself within the fabric of the open-ended merc management game and widens the possibilities for what can and will happen. You might play 20 hours of BattleTech with the Flashpoint expansion and only do a handful of actual Flashpoints. You’ll encounter the new mechs at random points during missions (only some of which will take place in the new jungles). You’ll also find a new mission type, target acquisition, that you’ll learn to fear because of how epically sideways it can go. But what you won’t get is a concentrated dose of new things to do and see. All of it is interwoven with the same old BattleTech that’s been quietly patched, revised, and expanded for months.

If you’re tired of that game and its routines, I suspect Flashpoint will disappoint. It’s quite literally more of the same, with more variation. But I love that game, I love the ways it challenges and frustrates, and with Flashpoint I find I have new dreams to chase and new chances to be surprised. There is not too much more that I want from this game. At least until the next great campaign.