Battletech, at its core, is a game of customizing mechs and bashing them together in turn based combat. Much like how new X-Com streamlined a great deal from old X-Com, this is a less extreme, more balanced, friendlier game than the original board game. But the satisfying feeling of slugging it out with 80-ton robots is intact. Wrapped around this tasty center is a long, varied, single player campaign and an unfortunately stripped down multiplayer experience.
Aside from the combat, the game plays out like the old Mechwarrior. You lead a small mercenary company, negotiating and fulfilling contracts and using the proceeds to slowly grow your stable of mechs. Every few missions you’re offered a “priority” quest (which you can ignore for as long as you like) which advances the story along.
Once a mission starts you’re taken to a gorgeous, hex battlefield. Your lance of mechs proceeds to fulfill objectives and destroy enemies in turn based fashion. The great thing about Battletech has always been how durable yet vulnerable the mechs are. They can take a beating but also put out tremendous firepower. The end result is that every exchange is meaningful and you’ll put a lot of thought into selecting targets and firing your weapons.
Developer Hairbrained Schemes tries to wrap quite a bit around the combat. You negotiate contracts, hire pilots, customize mechs, shop for parts, upgrade your ship and travel freely around a huge galaxy. The problem is that aside from customizing mechs, the effect on combat is minimal and fighting is the most important part.
It’s also sludgy. The UI doesn’t have to do a lot. This layer isn’t super complex, but you do have to constantly touch it and it’s full of little delays between screen switches and button presses. Combined with the lack of central information and you slowly start to hate the entire layer, not because it’s bad but just because it’s not good enough to justify how much time it wastes.
The story is adequate but presented with copious meaningless, flavor text dialogue options and no actual choice. What should be good dramatic moments and twists are clicked through on apathetic autopilot. Likewise the rich lore of the Battletech universe is so distant as to barely register.
In the old Mechwarrior you traveled on a huge galactic map. Each planet had its own set of missions, description and flavor. Here a small handful of missions are available regardless of location. While you might have to travel to another planet to fulfill it, you never look at the galactic map and never need to take the complex allegiances and factions into account. The game bothers to track faction reputation but it makes little difference.
So while you inhabit this massive universe rife with plots and shifting alliances, and have access to a huge variety of mechs and equipment and pilots, you really just spend your whole time flitting between a couple of slow moving screens, having conversations with your non-reactive, lifeless crew. There’s no majesty or character to any of it outside of combat and it makes little sense. You delay urgent rescue missions to sit on your ship and heal for three months. Or as the narrative tries to make you a heroic savior and uncaring mercenary at the same time.
All the annoyances and complaints disappear once battle begins. First it’s beautiful, even when at maximum zoom. Weapons have weight and lovely effects. Location specific damage is shown to a tactically useful extent. The mechs tromp around like giant metal robots should. In fact, the mechs have more personality than any character in the game. Your favorites have retained their essential character so your Hunchback will survive a pounding far greater than his stats would indicate.
As good as the combat is, all the streamlining will probably irk old mechwarriors while making things more accessible to rookies. Everything is less extreme than it used to be. Criticals are far less damaging (pooling all damage for single critical rolls instead of applying one per hit) and when they do connect they don’t do as much (a crit to an ammo location used to mean death, now it’s just an irritant). And most irritating of all to a muscle car loving gearhead like myself, the engines are gone and weapons are limited to hardpoints. No more lumbering, 12 medium laser boats for you.
Likewise the new additions remove some of the challenge. Weapon fire generates heat like it always did but the addition of melee combat alleviates much of the strategy. Whereas a poorly managed mech succumbing to heat would be relatively helpless in the past, the ability to punch gets around sloppy play without using skill. The stability system, where mechs become unstable from ballistic and missile hits, looks like a nice addition on paper. In practice mechs just constantly fall over, robbing them of their weight and juggernaut vibe.
But these are quibbles. The fights remained fun for the entire campaign, even when too easy to be a challenge. Part of that is the salvage system. Damage is tracked and salvage is realistic. An easy mission becomes considerably more challenging if instead of indiscriminately destroying, you try to pinpoint damage to keep enemy mechs largely intact so you can use them in subsequent missions.
So instead of just a binary pass/fail, you also have a fun efficiency game to play to maximize salvage. And while the story is merely adequate when told in text, it’s great fun to play out in the combat layer. Objectives are interesting and varied and shift within a mission in an unpredictable but fair way. Difficulty spikes in odd places however, and the story missions tend to be easier (but more interesting) than the procedural ones.
I feel shallow saying this, but the days of playing multiplayer games for the love of the game are long gone. There simply must be both a meta game and progression. Battletech has wonderful meta thanks to the endless customization of your mechs. But it means little without progression or even tracking an ELO rating. I had fun playing about a dozen matches. Playing a human is instantly more difficult and tense and I got surprised by creative opponent lances (absolutely smoked by a tiny lance of four speedy locusts), but then the match ends and there’s nothing to show for it.
It’s also awkward to play without matchmaking. You have to host a game and then sit in your little lobby by yourself waiting for someone else to come. If other games become available you won’t know, so after a few minutes you’ll kill your lobby to check. Since there are only about 20-30 matches happening online at any time you’ll probably have to make your lobby again and wait a bit more. It never took more than a few minutes but it’s still frustrating.
Further fracturing the player base are all the options – matches stipulate one of four maximum tonnage limits and can be composed of stock or custom mechs. That’s 8 different configurations and you’ll do very poorly if you don’t customize each flavor. I missed out on games because I didn’t have the exact lance configured. By the time I did the match was long gone.
When you combine all that with the sludgy UI, my favorite part of mechwarrior – endlessly refining in the mechlab – loses a lot of its charm. I spent far less time in the lab than I usually do. The meta is also currently wonky. The way initiative works causes small mechs with flamethrowers to be vastly overpowered. Realizing I have to unnaturally adapt to the problem or use the exploit myself ended my multiplayer gaming.
Should you buy it?
If you’re an old fan or new to the series but like turn based combat, yes. There is a great deal of challenging, interesting, tactical fun presented in lavish, gorgeous detail. The music is soaring and even the annoying voice chirps of your pilots don’t detract from the wonderful atmosphere. Buy it primarily for the single player game. It’s long (over 40 hours without doing many options missions), varied and interesting throughout.
The lack of longevity in multiplayer is a tremendous disappointment. There’s a chance they keep adding and improving but it’s moot at this point. The player base will likely decline to nothing and you’ll move on to a new game long before they finish as there’s not even a hint of depth at this time.
Available from Steam