What is your favourite Battlemech? Is it the 100 ton Atlas, king of the battlefield with it’s death’s head cockpit? A bit on the nose, don’t you think? How about the Zeus or the Battlemaster, each titans in their own right? Perhaps the more stately Catapult, bristling with Long Range Missiles (LRMs), or the fragile but devious Firestarter?
I’ve fallen in love with the Shadow Hawk all over again. Sitting at the high end of Medium weight-class, it’s a lot zippier than its heavy cousins, especially when kitted out with jump jets. The Shadow Hawk is a another Battletech classic, a mech that literally punches above its weight class, with melee and Death from Above (DA) damage that many heavier mechs might envy. Behemoth’s Shadow Hawk gives up long-range weaponry for more intense medium-close range firepower and heavier armour, and it’s cherry, only the best ++ and +++ parts for Behemoth’s ride.
She doesn’t let anyone else pilot it either, by which I mean I don’t assign anyone else to that mech: it seems like bad things happen whenever I do, whereas it’s a lucky charm for Behemoth. I know it’s just the RNG (as tweaked by the devs, to accommodate the fact that humans are bad at probability), but once she took an Autocannon 10 (AC/10, a heavy weapon) barrage right to the ‘hawk’s head early in a battle, basically leaving her with an open-air cockpit and guaranteed death if anything larger than pigeon droppings hit there again, but I couldn’t afford to sideline a quarter of my force, so Behemoth diced with death the rest of the fight and won through with only minor injuries.
That’s the kind of game Battletech is. Messy, with a lot of RNG-management and risk, but you get really attached to you (poor, mortal) pilots and (rebuildable, functionally immortal) mechs and even your (sadly destructible) high-rarity weapons, and the game balances its crunchy mechanics with a credible crunch, squeal, and snap of stressed metal.
Battletech launched really rough, leaving many players wishing they had Star League-era double heat sinks for their graphics cards and crashing more often than a one-legged Locust. Even now, when my gaming laptop is running on battery power, I get graphical stuttering. Also, the load times are too damn long… install this one on a SDD, if you have the space (I don’t). The upside is the the mechs look great, with a scratched-and-dinged sense of power I’d really love to see in an OG Transformers game, and the look and feel of weapons fire is on a level with current-gen FPS games [caveat emptor: Tof hasn’t played an FPS since Quake II – Ed].
The sense of scale and mass in this game fits its mechanics, in which the arms, legs, and other bits of mechs are a clear advantage, giving a range of places to soak hits, and hefty structure underneath armour, whereas even the most heavily armoured turret quickly succumbs to sustained fire and vehicles “pop” easily. Battletech has been accumulating lore since it’s tabletop inception in 1984, and if you know the lore, you’ll know that in Succession Wars era (the main Battletech setting) human understanding is in decline, and many Star League-era technologies have been lost – in particular, computer targeting has gone to shit, explaining why there are no “guided missiles” and how it is possible to miss a stationary target three stories high with a laser.
It’s taken me forever to write this review, because my experience with Battletech proceeded in phases: first patience, then awe followed swiftly by frustration, into intense absorption and now… uncertainty? I waited out the bugs before digging into Battletech. That’s something that Rock Paper Shotgun can’t afford to do, but I profited from my patience, and editorial largesse [it’s not generosity, I’m just lazy -ed.] here at Stately Play. [I’d dock your pay, if you were getting paid, slacker! -Ed.]
When the game was ready to come out of the oven, it wowed me with it’s style. Battletech was published by Paradox, and there are touches to it that feel very Paradox-y. The painted art in the cinematics was a clever design decision: it gives a sense of historicity to the game, rendering its most dramatic moments as memories, accounts, the recollection of pivotal moments in a messy setting with room for heroism, but no simplistic narrative of good vs evil, just the deeds of flawed, stupid, arrogant humans.
Right after the intro, I was blindsided by the inclusion of nonbinary “they” pronouns as well as male and female in character creation. Hallelujah! It’s not just that: the world of Battletech has always been diverse, and the new game brings that to the fore. Most of the major characters in the story appear to be multiethnic, and only about a quarter of the pilots you can recruit are classic “tough white dudes” – many of those having the blue flag that marks a pilot as based on a Kickstarter contributor at the $2000 level or above. Most of the major characters in the story are crew on your starship, sparing the game’s writers from having to worry about them dying in combat. My favourite is the genius engineer Dr. Farah Murad: she’s Muslim, roughly middle-aged, and has a credible real human build, one suiting her hands-on approach to engineering.
The wonder wore thin as a series of bad decisions, compounded by bad luck and incomplete tutorials, got my pilots killed, my mechs trashed, and my coffers too depleted to recover. Any Paradox grand strategy touches to the contrary, Battletech is not a game where you play until you lose and then start again, it’s a classic PC campaign-based strategy game, where if you lose, you load a save file and try again. But the game’s economics make it possible to reach a point where losing because of bankruptcy is inevitable, at which point either you’re left to dig back through the archive of auto- and manual saves trying to figure out where things went so badly wrong, or you can start over… and be forced to replay the game’s introductory tutorial/story missions. I could have had this review in weeks ago if I’d stopped when Altjira, my first PC, hit the end of the road. Instead, I started again with Macro, and fell in love with the game.
There’s so much to fiddle with in this game, and that’s probably what will ultimately make or break your enjoyment of it. Stock mech loadouts will do for stock roles, but customizing, optimising, and experimenting is a large part of the fun. Not much beyond a mech’s weapons hardpoints and total tonnage is completely fixed: if you’re supremely confident your Long Range Missile (LRM) carrier will never come under enemy fire, you can strip all the armour off it to add more ammo. If you want to turn that same mech into an ambusher, you can replace the LRMs with Short Range Missiles (SRMs), add jump jets, make sure your other hardpoints have effective close-range weapons, and make whatever sacrifices are necessary to beef up your armor, especially on those legs so they don’t blow up the first time you use a DA attack. Right now, I’ve got a Dragon that’s optimised purely for melee, with zero damage output at medium range or beyond. Is that a good idea? Probably not, but I wanted to give it a try.
Given that the sim side of the game involves balancing in-game time, money, and extremely limited access to improved-quality equipment (indicated by one or more + signs next to the item’s name), it takes both time and money to re-equip a mech, and you have to have all the parts you need before you start. That’s part of how I screwed up my first game: after a battle, I’d refit my handful of mechs with new toys, then have to wait days or weeks before scrambling them again. The game wants you to have to work with what you have and then refit during interstellar travel.
Those restrictions can chafe, but they start to become interesting once you have at least two full lances worth of mechs and pilots. You can start refitting your favourite mech, and let a couple of injured pilots rest while you send another team on a milk run (hopefully – there’s also a lot of uncertainty built into the game’s random scenarios). Just don’t ever send less than a full lance: that’s exactly four mechs. Getting my PC nearly killed (over three months recovery time!) in the last tutorial mission and having to field teams of three, then two mechs was anther part of how my first game went awry.
Never commanding more than four mechs helps with the pacing and balance of the game, but I often wished lances were based on tonnage, not number of mechs, allowing me to field light mechs late in the game without making massive sacrifices in terms of total firepower. As it is, Behemoth’s Shadowhawk is starting to look more and more like a liability. Maybe if I max out the Jump Jets on a Battlemaster…
So here I am, closing in on the end of the campaign (I think, I’m avoiding spoilers), and wondering what to make of it all. I really like Battletech, possibly more than I should. I suppose the comparison to Into the Breach is inevitable, but I think it’s unproductive. Subset‘s second game is precise and deliberate, restrained and subtle, whereas Battletech is big and baroque, ambitious and messy. It’s like comparing Michonne’s katana to Ash’s chainsaw hand: sure, both are used to chop up zombies, but they exist in different genres, different realities. Oh no… I bet they’ll do it now, they’ll make an Evil Dead / Walking Dead crossover, and it will be all my fault. I’m sorry, truly I am.