AD 3022. The Inner Sphere of human space is embroiled in the closing stages of the Third Succession War, a series of conflicts between the Great Houses for power and territory. Largely unaffected by the conflict is the Aurigan Coalition, a minor power among the Periphery States which has flourished under the rule of House Arano. Lady Kamea Arano is about to take her place as the head of the house when her uncle launches a brutal coup. Kamea disappears and one of her guardians, a MechWarrior of impressive skill, is rescued by a band of mercenaries. Three years later Kamea re-emerges with an offer to her former allies to help her reclaim her throne.
BattleTech is a turn-based strategy game, set in the shared BattleTech and MechWarrior universe which has been home to a tabletop miniatures game, a roleplaying game and multiple video games for thirty-five years, as well as over a hundred novels and even a short-lived animated series in the 1990s. Produced by Harebrained Schemes, who previously created the three acclaimed Shadowrun Returns RPGs (Dead Man's Switch, Dragonfall and Hong Kong), and designed by Jordan Weisman, the original co-creator of the entire franchise, the game has arrived with a fair bit of hype and a (mostly) positive reception.
The game plays in a manner similar to the recent Firaxis XCOM games, with a strategic section between missions where you can re-arm and repair your forces, recruit new troops and upgrade your base; and the turn-based, tactical combat section of the game. The strategic section is set on board a spacecraft, initially the very cramped and awkward Leopard and later on the more impressive and spacious Argo. You can upgrade the Argo so it can hold more BattleMechs (building-sized humanoid death vehicles) and repair them more quickly, but you can also add what appear to be more frivolous additions such as as a zero-G swimming pool and a 3D entertainment system. These appear pointless but give your pilots additional Morale Points which they can spend in battle to pull off special moves; whether you agreed to host Burger Night might determine later on if your pilot can core-shot an Assault 'Mech that's just about to wipe out your team. You can also wander around the ship and talk to the crew, which is initially entertaining until you realise the crew's dialogue choices very, very rarely update with new information.
The game has a storyline which you can follow, but crucially you can go off-course at any time to pursue side-missions. The game procedurally generates missions which you can undertake for money, salvage and to gain experience for your MechWarriors. The game doesn't make it entirely clear that pursuing side-missions is not optional: if you just try to pursue the story missions one after another, you'll rapidly find the enemies escalating beyond your ability to handle. Taking time between story missions to do other jobs and improve your team is essential. Thanks to a handy starmap, you can visit several dozen systems spread between half a dozen or so factions, with jobs running from simple search-and-destroy missions to base defence to escort.
Once you've picked a mission, you can choose which 'Mechs to use and how to outfit them. The game's tutorials are extremely basic and don't do a great job of explaining 'Mech customisability. Each 'Mech design (there are 36 in the game, with a further 22 model variations) has different hardpoints for weapons, ammo and equipment, such as jump jets and heat sinks. Your weapon choice is key in the game, with Auto Cannons doing tremendous damage but also being incredibly large and heavy, and requiring a separate ammo feed. Long-range missiles can inflict small amounts of damage on enemies at extreme range, but of course hit them enough times with enough missiles and you can take them out before they even enter close-weapons range. Short-range missiles are far more powerful, but are only effective at short range. Laser and plasma weapons have impressive range and don't require ammo, but generate a lot of heat and aren't great at taking out armour. If you find you can't carry all the guns you want, you can make room by stripping off armour...which is great until you realise you've stripped off too much armour and now have a colossal walking arsenal of death which will drop dead if a fly sneezes at it.
This juggling of load-out options is tremendous fun, especially once you have a handle on what decisions will have the most noticeable impact on the battlefield and you can access to special weapons with bonus damage factors (identified by a "+" scene after their name), but again the game leaves a lot of this information unstated and you have to pick it up as you go along.
Once these decisions have been made the game switches to a 3D battlemap. Initially you can send your 'Mechs scurrying around simultaneously, but that ends when the enemy enters sensor range. At that point you can order your 'Mechs to take up new positions, seek cover in forests or behind hills, jump-jet up onto a handy mountain, use a sensor lock to identify the target (allowing you to rain long-range fire on them) or race into visual range and start the slugfest. Combat is turn-based, but is oddly based on mobility: how far your 'Mech moved before firing determines its Evasive skill, which the enemy must overcome before they can hit you. Taking down an enemy 'Mech can be accomplished by slugging away, or (if you have enough Morale Points) making called shots on particular parts of the enemy machine. Destroy the hard-to-hit cockpit and you can capture the enemy 'Mech intact, blow off its legs and you can take the torso off (and if you pick up more salvage from the same model later on, you can patch it back into service) and so on. Particularly entertaining is taking on an enemy 'Mech laden with cannons and missiles, as if you hit the part of the body where the ammo is stored you can set off a chain reaction and blow the whole 'Mech up.
As well as dealing with positioning, facing (if you take a lot of damage on one side of your 'Mech, you can spin around in the next round and present a different armour facing to the enemy) and weapons, you also have to manage heat. Relying on lasers and plasma weapons a lot generates a lot of heat. If you go over the heat threshold, the 'Mech will start heat damage; go too far over it and your 'Mech will shut down for a round, or (much more rarely) explode. As a result, judicious choices have to be made each round on what weapons to use on what targets (an optional ability allows your pilots to target multiple enemy 'Mechs in the same round of fire) and when running into a river to cool off is a good idea. Your 'Mechs' heat management is also impacted by the environment: polar missions will allow you to fire a lot more often before overheating, whilst for a desert mission you may want to ditch the energy weapons altogether in favour of cooler ballistics.
On top of that you also have stability to worry about: BattleMechs are top heavy and can be knocked over by ballistic and missile fire, or smacked over in melee combat (ah yes, 'Mechs can literally punch one another as well). Falling 'Mechs injure their pilots and become much more vulnerable to called shots.
The result is a constantly shifting, extremely fascinating game of rock-paper-scissors-plasma beam, one that you have to re-evaluate as the game continues. There's a lot to keep track of, but also a lot of fun ways of exploiting the rules to find the optimal set-up. On top of this there are your individual pilots or MechWarriors to look after. They gain experience between missions and this unlocks special abilities, as well as giving them better aim and defence. Sometimes you can win a mission, but you may have lost a favourite pilot and a hard-earned rare weapon in the process, and will have to choose between reloading or accepting the loss and carrying on.
Once you get to grips with this information - it sounds more daunting than it actually proves in-game - BattleTech sings. The customisability and character advancement becomes a compelling game in its own right, and the combat missions become great exercises in tactical skill. Like the XCOM games, BattleTech's systems are so well-designed that apparently insurmountable odds and unwinnable missions can often be overcome by stepping back and coming at the situation from a different angle. It's surprising how much of a difference a single weapon change, a single morale-boosted ability or a single change of 'Mech can make to a tricky battle.
The game could be a bit better in how all of this information is presented. The tutorials are exceptionally basic and the finer points of how the game works only emerge through playing. There are also a few minor technical issues: the time it takes to move between screens and menus is somewhat longer than it should be, and occasional visual bugs (such as the camera choosing to sit behind a mountain or tree rather when it should be showing an enemy 'Mech blowing up) irritate. Some reviewers have complained of the animations being a bit slower than they'd like. I didn't notice this myself, but there are menu options to fix this and even a few mods to speed things up if it becomes a major issue.
The game's biggest problem, ultimately, may also be seen as its greatest strength. Harebrained Schemes' previous project, the Shadowrun Returns trilogy, was excellent but criticised for the short length of each game, lack of optional side-content and lack of replayability. BattleTech certainly doesn't suffer from that, with an infinite number of procedurally-generated missions (soon to be expanded through DLC) and a truly vast number of options making each run through the game's story potentially very different. However, the game's reliance on these side-missions and the need to play them to get better equipment and skills - "grinding", to use the common parlance - threatens to make the game very repetitive. My initial run through the game lasted 54 hours, which is a huge amount of time to spend watching robots shoot other robots, and monotony occasionally threatened to set in during a mid-game period when I had to grind to get enough money and heavy 'Mechs to proceed to the next story mission.
But looking past that, the game is certainly rewarding, with a number of interesting systems to delve into and tweak. The graphics are decent (but not exceptional, belying the game's low budget), the sound is punchy and the music is excellent. The story is fairly standard but well-told with some great characters. Some of the story missions are exceptionally well-designed and fiendishly challenging as well. Best of all, the tactical combat and mercenary-management sides of the game come together to create something compelling, fresh and interesting, once you understand how it all works.
BattleTech (****) is available now for PC. Console versions may follow depending on the game's initial sales, and both free DLC and paid expansions on the way.