Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Battletech the PC Game: First Impressions


 



Hi folks,

I have been playing Battletech on the table top for 24 years and it is still my favourite game, despite the many competing entries for that title. It was one of the games that my group of friends played seriously and frequently when we were in high school, followed by several long running campaigns and PBMs (play by mail) in later years.






For the uninitiated, Battletech is a game of armoured combat in which players control a Battlemech (usually...) by managing its movement through diverse terrain, firing weapons, monitoring ammunition expenditure, recording and dealing damage to armour, internal structure and equipment and managing heat build up. It is a glorious exercise in micromanaged combat. If you have an appreciation for detail, Battletech is incredibly immersive and satisfying to play. Its popcorn brother Alpha Strike is a paired down experience that is also enjoyable, without the extreme levels of micro management.








Battletech has had a long history of successful computer games, including the old Crescent Hawk games, MechWarrior, MechCommander and MechAssault on the Xbox. Most recently, a new turn based strategy game has been released on the PC by Hairbrained Schemes. This caused a big stir in my group of mates, the vast majority of which were backers for the Kickstarter and have been chomping at the bit to play. Chief amongst them would have had to be my mate Joel, who passed away a few weeks ago. He had said to me that he was ordering parts for a new PC so that he could run it, as a reward for getting through his surgery. My mate Heinz is doing a play-through of the game as a memorial to him and posting it on YouTube. Trying to predict what decisions he would have made is going be a challenge; Joel had a certain humorous way of choosing the path less trodden. I think as these posts develop there are going to be a lot of feels and shenanigans.


Another one of my mates, Arny, has been kind enough to write a review of his first impressions of the game:

“Alright, enough playing around, time to shoot Arnie in the head.” The familiar sound of dice rattling around between Joel’s massive hands is followed by the equally familiar sound of them hitting the table and rolling across the map. Two sixes.

“Dammit.”





This particular Battletech scenario has played out in various forms over the last couple of decades* whenever I’ve caught up with my friends for a gaming session. Usually it was our dearly departed friend Joel who got me, but everyone had their turn - in a time before internet memes this was our meme. You’d think that I would give it up, go play something else, but I always go back.

For those that aren’t familiar, Battletech has existed in various different forms since 1984, originally as a board game where giant robots (or Battlemechs) fought, but also as novels, video games, a card game and an animated series. Across all of these different elements a rich history has been detailed through almost 40 years of world building, and it’s this lore and the fantastic world that always brings me back.



Battletech art has changed quite a bit since the 80s.



The latest addition to this series is a new PC game simply named Battletech from the studio Harebrained Schemes who teamed up with one of the original creators of Battletech, Jordan Weisman. The core of the game is a reimagining of the original board game as a turn-based combat simulator, which you can dive straight into via multiplayer skirmishes, however the real game lives in the single-player campaign which adds an engrossing strategic layer.

The campaign mode sees you managing a mercenary company, meaning you’re in charge of deciding which contracts you undertake (and thus which planets you travel to), what mechs and equipment you buy, who you hire, and what upgrades and training your crew undertake. Of special note within this part of the game is customising your Battlemechs, which for some will be a game in and of itself! If you’ve ever played the 1996 game Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries, these elements of the new game have a lot of similarities with that experience, however where it really differs is the story. I’m still playing through the campaign, but I’m regularly coming across pieces of lore and other elements that take me back to when I first fell in love with the Battletech franchise.








Once you’ve picked your contract and deployed your forces, you’re dropped into the turn-based combat simulator where you command a lance of four mechs. By choosing between different mechs, assigning your pilots, and customising the loadout on your mechs, you can approach each mission differently and this allows for a lot of flexibility to suit your individual play style. Add to this a number of different mission types and the different environments that you’ll encounter as you travel to different planets and there’s obviously a lot of variety throughout the game.

In terms of my impressions so far, I am loving this game because of how well the story has been merged with every element of the game. Harebrained Schemes have done a wonderful job of applying decades worth of world building to this game and it shows. Like a lot of people, my favourite part of the game is definitely going into combat with my lance of mechs, however this doesn’t mean that I try and move through the strategic portion as quickly as possible as I usually do in similar games (e.g. I’m guilty of this when I’m playing XCOM).








Playing through the combat missions feels great - once you get used to them, the controls that allow you to move around the battlefield and control your forces are excellent. Graphically the representation of your actions and the consequences of those actions is very well done - I’ll never get tired of seeing a mech’s arm fly off as a result of a hit, or watching a mech fly across the map using their jump jets. Add to this the excellent sound effects that really lets you feel the action and the amazing soundtrack that makes you feel like you’re there, and I’ve really been enjoying this part of the game.

I do have a couple of complaints though. At times the interface in the strategic layer of the campaign doesn’t make it clear what you’re expected to do, or even what you can do unless you happen to hover your cursor over the right spot so a relevant tooltip appears. It’s really only an issue when you first start playing and once you figure things out, it’s fine, but it was a little frustrating. The game does feature some tutorials which can help with this, but they’re hidden within conversation trees with members of your crew - I think a more interactive approach on each of the screens would have been more useful.

However, the thing that really sold me on the game was being shot in the head in my very first combat mission - somehow the developers knew, they just knew. Great job Harebrained Schemes - beyond creating an amazing game you’ve also managed to pay tribute to one of my best friends.



Well, there you have some first impressions from someone who knows the Battletech universe intimately, as well as the ins-and-outs of PC gaming. If you enjoy table top gaming, Battletech is well worth trying out; a new introductory set is due to be released this year. The newly released PC game also seems to be a faithful, engrossing, reproduction of the dice and pencil gaming experience. If only I had a computer that could run the damn thing...


See you across the table,

Marc

*Honestly, we really do shoot Arny's Mech in the head every game. I caught it on camera the last time. This is us cracking up because it happened AGAIN: