Over the ridge, I see a turret. It’s balanced on top of a tower, surrounding the massive walls of a pirate base that my mercenary crew has been tasked with destroying. Our four ‘Mechs idle in the shadow of the night, their headlights cutting streaks through the gloom.
The turret isn’t that bothersome—in Battletech, turrets are minor enemies, slow to fire and naturally immobile. What I’m immediately thinking about is not the turret, but the wall. The enemy ‘Mechs surely just outside of my visual range. Currently, we are not “in battle”, as my lumbering crew has yet to enter radar range of the enemy stronghold, and so it is quiet, with only the massive engines of my compatriots’ vehicles audible.
It is in moments like these, the calm right before the battle, that Battletech is at its most powerful. Not because the battle itself is disappointing, far from it, but because it’s in these quieter moments that I am thinking about all that is at stake. This isn’t a story mission, it’s one of the many optional missions that you as a commander can take in order to make a few more precious C-Bills before the monthly finances hit.
If a single ‘Mech of mine loses even a single limb, that will cost thousands of C-Bills to repair, and weeks in a repair bay. The money that we are making off of this successful mission could end up only being pennies if too many of my units are harmed. That’s not even taking into consideration the pilots.
In Battletech, ‘Mech pilots can be harmed—even killed—while their ‘Mech still stands. An injured pilot spends months in recovery, during which they can’t command a ‘Mech nor offer help in other ways. A dead pilot represents months of in-game training time lost, not to mention the simple hardship of losing a character you had any sort of attachment to.
Battletech (developed by Harebrained Schemes and published by Paradox Interactive) revels in the cost of war. Every tactical or financial decision you make comes back to haunt you: Was that shot too risky? Will I be left overextended? Should I have splurged on the new ‘Mech bay, knowing that that means we will need to take another contract before the month’s end?
Like other media in the vast Battletech/Mechwarrior universe, 2018’s Battletech glorifies the mechanic as much as the ‘Mech. Refitting and retooling your ‘Mechs is a constant part of the game, and even with a few affordances for accessibility, it still contains the complexity that will either drive away players or hook them even tighter. ‘Mechs are fully customizable to the extent of their chassis: Every limb or portion of a ‘Mech includes slots for equipment, and various hardpoints for a player to attach one of the four weapon types in the game: Energy, Missiles, Cannons and Support weapons.
At times, the game can feel simply unfair. As a player, you are tasked not just with in-battle tactical choices but also the day-to-day of running a BattleMech mercenary outfit, including hiring crewmates, maintaining a spaceship, and the aforementioned fitting-repair-refitting cycles that are required after every battle that your ‘Mechs come out scathed.
On top of the massive level of customization available per ‘Mech, Battletech adds further layers of gameplay complexity through its framing as a mercenary simulator of sorts. After a few introductory hours of getting used to the games battle and tactics layer, the universe opens up and you are free to take missions wherever and from whoever you like.
In the down-time between missions, Battletech presents a wonderful cast of non-pilot characters on your ship. Your crew is tasked with aiding the deposed Kamea Arano back to her throne after her uncle, Lord Santiago Espinosa, staged a coup for power. Time is as much a resource as money or ‘Mechs, and as you slowly tick away the days until ‘Mechs come out of repairs or travel to a new location is complete, small text encounters will occur. Your chief mechanic requires more space to rearrange for a repair bay restructuring—do you tell him he can use some of the crew quarters, to make do with what he has, or drop a couple C-Bills on expanding the bay immediately? Any of these choices can affect the meta-progression of the game, and the various opportunities available to you as the captain of your crew.
Most of these mercenary missions are picked from a small handful of possible types. All involve some sort of combat, but the specifics change. Some are straightforward battles, hunts of enemy ‘Mech lances in various terrain. Some are escort missions, usually based around protecting a small caravan of vehicles as they cross to an extraction point. Some missions have you defending bases or strongholds.
All of this is weaved into the political tapestry of the Battletech universe, to varying degrees of success. Before each mission, you can bargain with the faction assigning it, asking for more pay in exchange for fewer pieces of salvage after completion, or vice versa. Taking purposefully lower pay and salvage will earn you additional reputation with the assigning faction, leading to more profitable and plentiful ventures in the future.
BattleMechs in Battletech are powerful, yes, but also quite vulnerable after one un/lucky strike. It becomes crucial to pay attention to where your enemy’s armor is weakest, and positioning your shots to take advantage of that. Advanced play becomes intuitive as you realize that little things can help you out in combat—blowing up a ‘Mech’s torso adjacent to a cockpit causes an instant injury to the ‘Mech’s pilot, and possibly setting off a chain reaction of internal damage as ammo boxes (themselves attached to parts of the ‘Mech’s chassis) explode, dealing additional harm to a ‘Mech.
Battletech presents combat as a cascading series of desperate choices. It is nearly impossible to escape a mission without taking damage in some form, and Battletech knows this, and plays on the cruel randomness of ‘Mech-on-‘Mech strategy. At its most gratifying, it is a struggle against impossible odds, with brave pilots constantly fighting for the slightest edge on one another. At its lowest, it feels like your squad is outmatched and outgunned at every turn.
But even when I found myself banging my head against a particularly hard mission, I never felt unsatisfied. Battletech shows a cruel and vast universe of empires and kings and queens, and narrows the lens of storytelling to a tight and contained thread of a queen regaining her throne with the help of a mercenary crew. You never feel like an army, and that’s to the game’s benefit. This isn’t a game about a war, even though it is set against the backdrop of one. Battletech is a game about battles, in all their sad and joyous desperation, and the machines that they so lovingly destroy.
Battletech was developed by Harebrained Schemes and published by Paradox Interactive. It is available for PC.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.