'BattleTech' Revives the Classic Mech Franchise in All Its Grueling Glory
'BattleTech' is the rare tactics game that makes attrition a tool, not a mistake.
screenshots courtesy of Paradox
The more I play BattleTech, the more violent it gets, and the more violent it gets, the more I love it.
I could try to dress that sentiment up. Talk about the lumbering grace of these giant humanoid machines, the way Harebrained Schemes has imbued them with life and weight via terrific art, animation, and sound. Or the satisfying fussiness of managing them in combat, balancing the different weapons systems and their respective “sweet spots”. There’s the tactical dance you perform as you jockey for position to keep your units at optimal ranges while keeping your opponents out-of-place and on the back-foot. There are a lot of great things about BattleTech that I can appreciate and admire.
But those are justifications for an emotional reaction, not the reaction itself. I’m talking about love here, and what I love about BattleTech is that it’s a game you feel in your gut, where you help topple a totalitarian regime by leaving a trail of broken and twisted mechs, as well as their dead pilots, littered across the stars. And they don’t go down easily, like playing pieces that you take off the board after a good move. They walk through showers of missile fire, shudder under the weight of cannon shot, get slashed to pieces by massive laser beams, and finally pummeled into the ground by other mechs’ massive metallic arms. This isn’t XCOM, where the point is to avoid getting hit while you surgically dismantle enemy squads piecemeal. This is war.
Or at least it’s war as envisioned by Harebrained Schemes founder Jordan Weisman thirty-some years ago when he and his legendary tabletop gaming company, FASA, first released the BattleTech board game. It’s a vision fleshed-out across countless novelizations, massive sourcebooks and technical manuals, a pen-and-paper RPG, a dubious children’s cartoon, and several classic video games made with Activision and then Microsoft.
The BattleTech universe is built around medieval and Renaissance politics played-out across the galaxy, with massive piloted BattleMechs taking the place of the mounted knight. Everything within this sprawling franchise that dominated mid-1990s games culture took its cues from that board game, yet none of its video game adaptations could quite channel the bruising, kinetic combat depicted across pages of dice-roll tables, to-hit modifiers, worn stat sheets, and all the other detritus of 1970s and 80s wargame design.
Because while the popular MechWarrior, MechAssault, and MechCommander games all focused on ranged, robotic combat, BattleTech (in both its fiction and within the design of the board game itself) is as much about hand-to-hand mecha combat as futuristic lasers and autocannons. In novelizations and at the war table, a good MechWarrior knows when the time has come to commit everything they’ve got to knocking someone the fuck out, walking through point-blank weapons fire and absorbing whatever punishment their opposition can dish out just so they can smash an enormous metal limb into another mech and leave it shattered on the ground. No game ever really captured this aspect of BattleTech, that was so intrinsic to the board game and the universe it created.
At least until now.
With this new adaptation, Harebrained Schemes have made a game that captures both the lurid imaginary spectacle of mech combat, and its tactical suspense. Crucially, however, they’ve left most—though not all—of the board game’s daunting granularity and detail in the past. BattleTech takes dozens of different mech types and weapons, several different types of movement and attack, plus the crucial role of skilled pilots within those mechs, and puts them all inside a fast-paced tactics game. It feels like the BattleTech board game in all the right ways, but battles unfold in less than an hour, rather than the 3-4 hour sessions the board game demanded. You also don’t need to keep a calculator and notepad next to you to play.
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While BattleTech is obviously deeply informed by the lore of a thirty-year old franchise and its detailed setting, Harebrained doesn’t expect or require anyone be familiar with that history to enjoy this game. After a short intro sequence and somewhat longer series of tutorial missions, the situation is that you’re the leader of a mercenary mech company on the fringes of colonized space, and nursing a pretty severe grudge against a newly-installed authoritarian regime that deposed the former queen in a coup and murdered your mentor in the process. There are two things you need to do: keep your unit of freelance mechwarriors paid and equipped by taking combat missions for hire, and then go fuck up those fascists.
So you and your band roam planet to planet, sending squads—called lances in the game’s terminology—out to do battle on behalf of different clients. This isn’t just window-dressing: You’re running a business as much as you are aiding a rebel army against an authoritarian regime, so the goal isn’t just to win these bloody battles, but to win them cleanly enough that you’re not spending all your money replacing broken equipment, and all your time waiting for wounded soldiers to return from months-long convalescence.
BattleTech demands you to internalize your role as both lance leader and mercenary bookkeeper. And it’s only once you understand both modes of play that the game’s most obvious thematic and mechanical throughline becomes apparent: Everything in BattleTech comes down to attrition.
In other tactics games, a perfect run might mean never letting your loyal soldiers take damage. That’s impossible here: Everyone is going to get hit. If you’re trying to avoid getting hit, then you’re not doing the damage you need to win and will eventually get crushed. As each mech gets hit, armor peels away and leaves underlying systems vulnerable. Weapons get knocked out, ammunition magazines explode, pilots are wounded. Mechs that take enough punishment get knocked down, leaving them completely vulnerable until they get back on their feet. Limbs get snapped off, taking whatever they carried with them. This is going to happen to you, it’s going to happen to the people you’re fighting. The point is to make sure your side is the one left standing at the end of the battle (and that your wallet is left fat enough that repairs won’t leave you bankrupt).
Every turn is about trying to find the balance between dishing out punishment and taking it, and each fight exerts its own gravity as mechs are pulled toward each other to bring more weapons to bear. How do you distribute your fire among enemy targets? Do you try for a kill shot on one mech right now, at reduced odds, or do you continue to settle for higher-percentage shots distributed across more targets? Maybe this is the moment to forget about guns entirely and get in someone’s face with a giant metal fist.
In a self-contained battle, these choices would be challenging enough. But they are made even more dense with decision making once you figure in the mercenary management layer, too. It’s not only a choice between a low-chance kill shot or more evenly spread multi-target fire. It’s also a choice between pursuing the reliable evisceration of an enemy mech and fishing for a lucky headshot that might leave the opposition’s strongest mech mostly intact and ready to be salvaged. A decision to advance your fastest mech around the flank alone could mean ending the mission with zero losses… or it could get your ace scout killed.
On each mission, you’re limited to just four different pilots for four different mechs. In general, this means you’re bringing out your biggest, baddest war machines whenever they’re fit to deploy. In fact, one of my beefs with BattleTech is that after the earliest stages of the game, it feels like there’s effectively no role on the battlefield for light mechs. They are harder to hit as their speed gives them more “evasion” points that lower enemies’ chances of hitting (though each time they take fire, they lose an evasion point, which means you can reduce that evasive advantage). But the math is still against them: As slippery as they are, a single hard hit can swat them to the ground or kill their pilot.
As the campaign unfolds, you’ll probably discover you have some preferred tactics you like to use, and will increasingly tune your forces to let you wage war the way you prefer. Outside of the lightest mechs, there’s a lot of variety in mech designs, the ways they optimized to fight, and how they will interact with your individual pilots. Meanwhile, pilots develop along four attributes: gunnery, piloting, guts, and tactics. Each track provides bonuses and special abilities, though MechWarriors are limited to just two special abilities.
It’s a slightly underwhelming system at first, especially if you’ve been spoiled by the customizability and variety of your soldiers in XCOM 2, for instance. But I found myself warming to it, since, after all, it is the mech and the pilot that is your combat unit. Depending on who’s in the cockpit, the same mech might be a mobile gun platform (if the pilot is heavy on gunnery points) or a heavyweight brawler (if heavy on piloting points). Likewise, the same mechwarrior might be a sniper-assassin in one mech and a fast-moving skirmisher / harasser in another. The system is more flexible than it appears. It’s just that its discrete parts can seem a bit limited when you look at them outside of the context of the battles.
On the other hand, I’m far less enamoured of the morale system, which gives your characters special abilities that consume team morale. They can be very useful (one basically lets you take a knee and then go early on the next turn, skipping ahead in the order of play), but they feel divorced from morale both as a concept and as a mechanical expression of your MechWarriors’ confidence and spirits. Morale is a special system that exists atop both the management and tactical layers, but its effects generally feel anything but.
However, the morale system does tie into the other half of BattleTech: The mercenary company management sim. In between missions, you can wander your DropShip chatting-up your crew of buccaneering freelancers. They’re an enjoyable team, featuring a disillusioned ex-soldier who services your mechs, a battle-scarred hotshot pilot, and a nerdy engineer-historian who finds herself embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. Occasionally you’ll get little events that flesh-out life aboard ship: one of your pilots starts dismantling pieces of your spaceship to make herself more comfortable, and you either need to tell her to knock it off or let it slide and eat the cost of the damages. Or your engineer gets frustrated with your nosey and demanding MechWarriors, and you can either tell them to leave him alone, or insist they serve as his well-meaning, incompetent apprentices. Each action usually has some effect on your finances or your team’s morale, but mostly they give a taste of life as a wandering mercenary company.
Management also features some of the most daunting parts of BattleTech: mech customization and repair. While every new mech comes in a standard configuration, eventually you’ll have to dig into the refitting and customization screen. While scuffs to your armor can be repaired with a single click of a button and a small fee, to fix heavily damaged mechs or to upgrade operational ones with the loot you scavenge from the battlefields, you’ll need to dive into the customization interface. And this is where I found myself leaning heavily on over a decade’s worth of arcane knowledge about BattleMechs.
Every time a portion of a mech chassis is destroyed, or individual components are critically damaged, you have to go and order them to be refitted. So if a mech’s left arm, and the Large Laser it carried there, is destroyed, you first have to order the limb replaced, and then you have to dig around in your inventory and hope that you have the correct replacement component to fit on the new arm. You probably do, but you still have to click and drag the component from your inventory onto the limb. A bit fussy but not so bad. The worst part is probably the inventory interface, which even at its best still feels like rummaging through a tool drawer in a garage.
Where things could get harrowing if you’re not ready to love BattleTech on its own nerdy, detail-obsessed terms, is mech customization. See, eventually you’re either not going to have the right component to fix a mech or, more likely, you’re going to have an awesome piece of weaponry that presently doesn’t fit any of your standard loadouts. So you decide to make it fit and just like that you are in the guts of the BattleTech system, in ways that will have critical impacts on the tactical combat.
Every mech has a maximum tonnage, and every component adds weight. Bigger weapons add more weight. They also tend to generate more heat, which is the biggest limitation on what your mech can do in combat. As a mech overheats, it begins taking internal damage, so you can’t run too hot for too long or you’ll basically boil your mech to death from the inside. So you have to decide how to balance three factors: firepower, heat dissipation, and armor. In effect you can only have two. A mech that can just stand in combat and blaze away turn after turn is either a glass cannon, or it’s probably carrying a light enough armament that it’s not generating too much heat—nor doing too much damage. The mech lab is where you make these choices, tweaking configurations until you’ve hit your max tonnage.
Honestly, this screen is almost like you’re playing Mech Manager 3026, tweaking your lineup before you send your mechs down to the pitch to put theory into practice. If that sounds awesome to you—and it does to me, having internalized all of this logic in high school—then BattleTech’s management layer is just another place where it brings the classic tabletop game back to life and gives you more options you can employ in battle. But I can also easily imagine this being off-putting to people who are unfamiliar with most of the mechanics and terminology of this universe, especially since the game’s interface fails to offer up some important, bottom-line information about your mechs’ capabilities.
All of these components cost money, and some rare, high-quality versions of equipment provide bonuses in combat. As you collect gear and customize your mech company around your preferred loadouts and tactics, you’ll start going into battle with expensive, hard-to-replace warriors and war machines that are the perfect reflection of who you are as a commander.
Which makes it even harder when the time comes to commit them to the kind of desperation-plays you need to turn around a battle. It also makes BattleTech incredibly dramatic at those moments, like when a customized 55-ton Shadow Hawk, out of Long-Range Missile ammunition and watching its squadmates getting shredded by a 60-ton Quickdraw, takes to the skies in a desperate death-from-above attack to try and even the odds.
“Death From Above” is an attack where a jump-capable mech lands on top of an adversary, trashing its own legs but inflicting an arsenal’s worth of damage on its opponent. It’s the kind of all-in, sacrificial gamble that gets at the heart of why BattleTech succeeds as a tactics game, and how the violence of these engagements is far more than just satisfying spectacle. For all my quibbles with this game, the ways I wish it were just a bit more like XCOM 2 or Jagged Alliance 2, it gets this dynamic right.
At their best, these battles start to feel like prize fights as exhausted combatants circle toward each other, weighed down by the history of old scars and the knowledge that the bill collectors will come knocking, win or lose. Every new hit means more time and money spent on repairs, every lost component is something new to be replaced, every wound means additional weeks in the hospital for your pilot. Again: It’s all about attrition. Even if you win, you’ll still lose… but at least you’ll be alive.
Of course, you don’t always win. Sometimes it feels like maybe you can’t. On one contract, I was supposed to knock out a squad of light mechs. But no sooner did I start skirmishing with them than a squad of heavy reinforcements showed up behind them, each as large as my biggest mech. I did the math and evacuated, foregoing the pay and taking a hit to my professional reputation in order to avoid getting slaughtered. On another mission, I was supposed to defend a base from a group of marauders, only there were far more than I expected, and they were attacking from every side. But the moment all my mechs left to attack what we thought was the main group, I realized I’d been lured away, and had to send my lightest mechs on a Hail Mary attempt to break up the enemy surprise attack. It was one of the most desperate battles I’ve fought in the game, and it wasn’t even a story mission.
I’ve put over twenty hours into BattleTech and still haven’t finished the main campaign, and am still being surprised by the things that happen on mission and in battles. But most of all, I’m continually surprised with how much I am living and dying with each missile strike, with each laser blast, with each mighty punch. It's gruesome and grueling in a way that reflects the grim tactical equations underlying the game and its universe.
The other day, one my best pilots—who went by the callsign “SAMNITE” and who spoke over the radio in a bright, no-nonsense Irish accent—was at the helm of the old family Blackjack that your character receives at the start of the game. My character had moved onto a more customized mech, but the Blackjack was still a good skirmisher in Samnite’s capable hands, gnawing away at targets from the fringes of the battle and maneuvering to focus on their weak points. But as my best mech ace, BEHEMOTH, got into trouble that was way over her head, I realized I was about to lose her, the Centurion she was piloting, and probably the entire battle all in the space of a turn. So I sent Samnite into the middle of a heavyweight brawl that was way, way above her weight-class.
She jumped in front of an enemy Hunchback and unloaded on it with every weapon she had at point blank range. The shots blew through its damaged armor and caused autocannon ammunition to shatter the enemy mech’s insides and ripped off one of its arms. The move saved Behemoth from destruction and probably won us the whole battle, and the next turn my pilot, my character, stepped forward in his sniper-loadout Vindicator and put a shot through that Hunchback’s cockpit windshield.
But Samnite didn’t see that. She died when that wounded giant slammed its remaining arm against the head of of her mech. The Blackjack slumped to the ground, a marionette whose strings had been cut.
It was too late for Samnite, but she’d bought us the heartbeat we needed to win the fight. It may not have felt like a win, but it did to the client, and on that day they were paying well enough to make it worth the cost of going the distance.