[Disclosure: A review copy was provided for the contents of this article]
Giant mechs trading blows in a turn based strategy game eh? Whilst deep parts of my brain tell me that this is an incredibly cliched concept, I can’t actually name that many games cut from the same cloth in recent years. Sure, Front Mission was amazing, as was Mechwarrior Tactics, but neither has seen a release anywhere near the current generation of consoles.
Finally, with the release of Battletech, fans of the genre have reason to be cheerful once again. Based on the tabletop game of the same name and produced by the team at Harebrained Schemes (makers of both Shadowrun: Crossfire and Necropolis) Battletech follows a very similar approach to the XCOM games. Lengthy, challenging missions are tackled in a variable order, interspersed by repair and rearmament phases where players choose contracts and prepare themselves for the next mission.
One of the best reasons to play Battletech is its story, which revolves around the political machinations of a backwater system known as The Aurigan Reach. At the moment of her coronation, the rightful heir to leadership over the Reach is betrayed by her uncle and cousin, leading to her presumed death. Several years pass as the player joins a ragtag crew of mercenaries and attempts to make ends meet, but it isn’t long before Lady Kamea Arano is back on the scene at the head of an army she calls The Arano Restoration.
There are many twists and turns in the story of Battletech and as a result, you’ll always have a reason to push onwards toward the next mission. Whenever you do feel the need for distraction elsewhere, mercenary contracts and side missions are plentiful. You will need them, too, because repairing, arming and upgrading mechs is expensive, as is hiring new pilots. Losing entire mechs and having pilots killed in action can be devastating – as I discovered on my first play through when I went bankrupt after the very first mission.
Tactically, taking damage is very difficult to avoid in Battletech. Whilst mechs come in different classes (including light, fast-ish ones) we’re not talking about the super nimble kind you’ll see in most action focused mech games. These are the kind of building sized, toe-to-toe combatants that care a fair bit about terrain advantage, facing and the percentage chance to hit. It might be possible to jet pack or even walk behind an enemy, but even a full salvo in the back will only infrequently take out one of these ugly behemoths.
Missions feel just as ponderous as the mechs themselves, often taking at least an hour to complete and comprising multiple phases. There’s no mid-mission repair or healing option, so each time one band of enemies is cleared out, you’ll simply need to advance carefully until your team (or Lance) of four mechs makes contact with the next. As always in games like this, the purpose of this method is to enable a relatively modest force to face off against a much larger one – albeit over several skirmishes.
Enemies and weapons are fairly varied too, as is the range of terrain on which the battles will be fought. There are indeed mechs of many kinds, as well as a whole host of ground vehicles and even fixed turrets to contend with. Dispatching these foes is a matter of efficiency – will you split your firepower in an attempt to clear out weaker enemies quickly, or will you focus fire on a single, tougher mech? Some upgrades allow mechs to use skills like the jet packs I mentioned earlier, or to use precision shots or even split their weapons between several targets.
The tactical options are varied, but the way in which hits are calculated can be frustratingly random. Like XCOM, every shot has a percentage chance to hit, which can depend on a mechs evasiveness and the weapons being fired at it. You’ll often see shots with a likelihood of seventy five percent or more fly hopelessly past their target – or at least much more often than a quarter of the time would suggest. Targeting individual body parts is almost a complete waste of time, so low is the chance to hit.
Regardless of the few minor issues it does have, Battletech is still a success. It looks great and has a fantastic story that is filled with great, unusual characters. Tactically, I don’t think that it does anything new, but it does deliver a tight, challenging experience. I don’t think it has the personality of some of the Japanese games that fill out the mech genre, but it makes up for that with a deep and grown up plot and a lot of tactical depth. As a result, you should at least: