• Review - Battletech



    A Review of Battletech
    By Alwyn

    The Setting


    Welcome to the Aurigan Reach in the 31st century! It's a time when a galaxy spanning empire has fallen, warring states compete for control of what remains, and battlefields are dominated by towering Battlemechs commanded by royal houses, corporations and mercenary companies. This sounds like a setting offering adventure, exploration and intrigue - but does this game of tactical combat and strategic choices achieve its potential?


    If you'd like to catch up on key events from the 22nd to 31st centuries, the game's introductory video offers this.

    In the late 28th century, when the Star League split into warring states, much of humanity lived in the Inner Sphere with rich settlements in about two thousand inhabited planets (according to a BattleTech Wiki). These settlements are linked by travel using JumpShips - the equivalent of Rome's road network. Outside the Inner Sphere is the Periphery, whose nations are in a similar situation to the Celtic and Germanic tribes on the borders of the Roman Empire. Stefan Amaris, the leader of the Rim Worlds Republic (a powerful Periphery state) carried out a coup against Richard Cameron, the First Lord of the Star League. The killing of the Star League's leader and ruling family led to civil war, as the leaders of major powers in the Inner Sphere fought each other.

    The game is set in the 31st century, during a period of intermittent warfare - the Succession Wars - which has already lasted for over two and a half centuries. During the the Succession Wars, some Star League technology was lost (this is known as lostech) - just as technology regressed after the fall of the Roman Empire. Despite the loss of technology, it's possible to acquire high-tech weapons and equipment, including even SLDF (Star League Defence Force) Royal BattleMechs, the state of the art before the Star League collapsed. There are remnants of the Star League, such as abandoned bases and derelict starships, which can be sources of lost information or equipment.


    The Argo, the player's main ship, entering orbit.

    The Aurigan Reach, the area covered by the campaign map, is part of the Periphery with around 200 worlds. Star systems vary from those with rich megacities and high technology to planets where scattered survivors of the wars barely scratch out a living, or where the settlements have been abandoned. Different worlds offer differering biomes which present the player with a variety of challenges. 'Mechs which win battles easily on an icy world might struggle in a lunar or Martian environment where managing the heat of your 'Mechs is more difficult, for example.

    At first, I was surprised that the campaign map only includes part of the known Battletech universe - I looked for, and couldn't find, Earth because the campaign map doesn't include it. To be fair, the game aims to provide the experience of being a mercenary in the Periphery and it does this successfully. It makes sense for the developers to do this well, rather than rushing to create more star systems just to have a bigger campaign map. For players who'd like a larger campaign map, the Inner Sphere Map mod makes the whole Inner Sphere available, and overhaul mods such as Battletech Advanced 3062, Battletech Extended 3025, and Roguetech also add a significant number of star systems.

    The variety of star systems makes it enjoyable to explore and discover the challenges and resources (such as unusual weapons and equipment for your mercenaries) which they offer. A useful map filter makes it easy to identify star sytems with missions of a particular difficulty level, or with specific traits (such as a former Star League presence, which may indicate that rare items can be found there.) Battletech was not the first to create a science fiction setting based on the fall of the Roman Empire (Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of novels used a similar idea) but it does this well.

    Strategy and Tactics

    This is a tactical combat game which also offers strategic choices. For example, if you repeatedly attack the same faction's forces, they will resent you - but, as a mercenary, you need to make money by fighting someone. If you're a Total War player, you might think that the solution is to attack the pirates - surely everyone else will like you if you fight them? But, if you become friendly with the pirates, you can be invited to visit the Black Market, a pirate-run store which offers advanced equipment and 'Mechs.

    Unlike in Total War games, the player cannot seize settlements or hold territory. Instead, you can upgrade the Argo, your DropShip (which carries your BattleMechs and crew between planets and docks with JumpShips for journeys between star systems). After paying salaries and maintenance for your mercenary company, you can spend your remaining money on better 'Mechs, improved weapons and equipment, more 'Mech pilots or Argo upgrades.


    As the Argo is too large to enter a planetary atmosphere, you deploy your 'Mechs using a smaller Leopard DropShip, shown here below the Argo.

    Upgrading the Argo enables you to improve the morale of your 'Mech pilots, speed up repair times and improve travel times between worlds. If you've played a horde faction in a Total War game such as Attila or Warhammer, where you can upgrade a horde as a sort of mobile settlement, you'll find this somewhat familiar. While strategy exists in the setting of Battletech, the player's actions are generally on a small scale. Your missions won't lead to planets changing hands, except in the main quest line of the Campaign. Missions allow you to improve the reputation of your mercenary company with your client (and harm your reputation with the faction that you fought against), to earn money and scavenge items from the battlefield.

    The opportunity to take items from the battlefield adds an extra dimension to battles. If you scavenge enough parts of a 'Mech, you can assemble it and use it in battles. There are different ways to defeat a 'Mech. You can go for the high-risk, high-reward option of shooting at the enemy's head (this is hard to hit, but if you succeed you get three 'Mech parts), you can aim for the legs (easier to hit than the head, and if you succeed you can get two parts) - or keep firing at the 'Mech until you destroy the central torso (easier to achieve than the other options, but this only gives you one part of the 'Mech).

    The default setting requires you to collect three parts to assemble a complete 'Mech. You can increase this (requiring more parts to assemble a 'Mech) as an option, to make the game more challenging. There are several options which you can adjust to increase the difficulty - such as whether 'Mechs come unequipped, whether they can be destroyed entirely, and what level of payout contracts offer.

    Before each battle, you can negotiate the rewards for a successful mission; this involves a trade-off between money, salvage and reputation. Your decision when you negotiate the reward for a mission is likely to affect your tactics. If you negotiated for high salvage, you'll probably aim for 'clean' kills (taking out the head or legs of an enemy 'Mech or incapacitating the pilot). If you negotiated for money or reputation, you'll probably want to destroy the enemy as quickly as you can. However, unlike most Total War battles, destroying the enemy isn't always the main objective. Sometimes you can succeed in a mission in other ways, such as retrieving a person or information, or by placing beacons for artillery fire, and withdrawing before the enemy can do any serious damage. This opens up new options for the player: do you bring your heaviest 'Mechs on a mission, or the fastest 'Mechs, or compromise between the two to keep both options open?



    Unlike Total War games (where you play as a faction), here you're playing as mercenaries for hire - but diplomacy still has a role.

    Each time you win a mission, you improve your diplomatic relations with the faction who hired you and worsen them with your opponent. You can choose different strategies to manage your reputation (your relations with each faction). You can keep changing sides (to maintain fairly good relations with everyone) or choose factions that you prefer to work for. Better relations with a single faction provide bonuses (better pay for missions, reduced prices in their faction stores and the opportunity to do more challenging and lucrative missions), while good relations with everyone allow you to do missions and access stores everywhere. If you have very positive relations with a faction, you can ally with them. This provides extra opportunities (access to special faction stores and missions) while removing others (you can't accept missions against an ally).


    Battletech offers two modes, Campaign and Career. Career offers sandbox adventures; in the Campaign, you help Kamea Arano regain something that was taken from her.


    Battletech is not about battles between equal numbers of similar-quality troops - it's about a small team of adventurers, whose equipment and skills improve through the game, enabling you to achieve heroic victories against the odds. In some ways, Battletech feels more like a role-playing game, such as Skyrim or Diablo, than a Total War game. Skyrim has main quests and side-quests; Battletech has main Campaign missions in the service of Kamea Arano; you also do side quests (ordinary missons) across the Aurigan Reach, to improve your characters' skills and their 'Mechs. In Career mode (sandbox game-play, without the main campaign), optional Flashpoint missions appear from time to time, providing an equivalent of the main quest. I enjoy the main Campaign missions, the Flashpoints and the side-quest missions. As I progressed through the Campaign, I was more immersed in the characters and the story as it developed. Flashpoints are shorter than the main Campaign quest-line, but offer challenging battles, engaging drama and dilemmas to choose from; there are also lighter moments, such as a Flashpoint client who hires the player to recover items from a Star League stapler factory (with a funny back-story about how the situation developed.)



    As well as offering a variety of worlds to explore, a big part of the game involves encountering unusual 'Mechs, such as the Hatchetman.

    Some 'Mechs, such as the Hatchetman, only appear in ordinary battles after the player has completed a Flashpoint mission. I have the Season Pass which gives the player all three of the game's DLCs, providing the maximum variety of missions and 'Mechs (unless you add more with a mod). I recommend getting the Season Pass if you can (especially if you can buy it in a sale). Each of the game's three DLCs (Flashpoint, Heavy Metal and Urban Warfare) adds Flashpoint missions. The DLCs also add extra features such as new 'Mechs and weapons and new mission types; some add new environments for battles. Flashpoints offer a series of linked missions, similar to quest lines in Skyrim (such as Skyrim's civil war quest line). They offer unusual challenges and rewards. They usually provide a choice for the player, such as discovering that a battle you fought in forced a group of civilians to flee from their homes and need to decide whether to escort them to safety (increasing the difficulty of the mission). Flashpoints can have lasting effects; they can dramatically improve or worsen your relations with factions or causing new 'Mech designs to appear in subsequent missions. For example, the Hatchetman only appears after the completion of a specific Flashpoint (and there are at least two other 'Mechs which only appear after specific Flashpoints are completed.)

    On the battlefield


    Success in battle isn't only about making the most of movement, cover and concentrated fire - it's also about managing the heat of your 'Mechs.

    When the red heat bar is full (as shown above, for this Crab) the overheating 'Mech will shut down, making it vulnerable to attacks. You can equip your 'Mechs with weapons such as flame-throwers and inferno missiles to cause enemy 'Mechs to overheat. The player can reduce the risk of overheating in several ways. For example, you can give your 'Mechs heat management systems (such as heat sinks and heat banks), choose not to fire every weapon every turn or move your 'Mech into a lake.


    When you defeat a 'Mech on the battlefield, you can acquire parts of it.

    You can defeat a 'Mech by destroying the head, central torso or both legs, or by incapacitating the pilot. Melee attacks and kinetic weapons (such as missiles) fill up a yellow stability bar (as shown above, for this Trebuchet). When the bar is full, the 'Mech will fall over, injuring the pilot.


    When you have enough parts to assemble a new 'Mech, you can try different combinations of weapons and equipment.

    Some 'Mechs have built-in special equipment, such as a Marauder's Lance Command Mod which reduces damage for your lance and enabling the Marauder to fire unusually accurate precision shots. (A 'lance' is the smallest unit, a team of four 'Mechs; larger units exist in the Battletech universe, such as a company which would typically have three lances). As you progress through the game, you can acquire better items (shown with one or more + symbols) and rare weapons such as ER (extended range) lasers.

    A Typical Mission

    Total War games normally offer a variety of battles - such as sieges, field battles and ambushes. In Battletech, you're offered a wide variety of missions. They include ambushing or defending a convoy, attacking or defending a base, assassinating a target, escorting a government official, recovery missions (where you need to acquire one or two items) and target acquisition (where you act as the spotter for artillery fire). Even in missions of the same type, there's variety. Your next mission might be a simple battle, but there could be a complication. For example, you could be hired to defeat a lance of 'Mechs - however, a second lance from another faction could appear, intending to defeat the same target. These situations provide interesting tactical choices - do you continue to attack the target lance or pull back and defeat whoever wins the engagement between your target lance and the second lance?

    You choose which missions you'll take. You can specialise in specific types of missions - for example, you might prefer bringing the heaviest 'Mechs you can get and fighting straightforward battles, or bringing fast 'Mechs that can move in quickly and get out of the area before the enemy can stop you - or you can try every mission. Here's an example of an ordinary mission (not part of the main Campaign or Flashpoint): the Pirates hired me to ambush a convoy.


    Before starting this mission, the player is warned that the convoy include a Schrek PPC carrier - a powerful, long-range tank

    Missions often have two (or more) objectives. You can decide to aim for them all or to focus on one and leave. Here, we need to destroy the convoy to succeed - destroying the escorting 'Mechs is optional. I'd like to defeat the 'Mechs if I can, but there's an additional risk. The more enemy fire you expose your 'Mechs to, the greater risk that they'll take structural damage which is expensive to repair (and could outweigh your pay for the mission) or that your pilots will be injured or killed.


    The view from above; three of my 'Mechs (in the lower part of the picture) have reached the enemy.

    My 'Mechs are running, so they're hard to hit (represented by the number of white chevrons). There's a choice to make - should you attack the 'Mechs defending the convoy or go past them and attack the vehicles in the convoy directly? I choose the latter, because my 'Mechs are fairly fast, the convoy have heavy weapons (the Schrek PPC carrier) which could do a lot of damage - and the tanks in the convoy are easier to destroy than the 'Mechs defending them.


    My Kintaro arrives

    Normally, you see the action from above (as shown in the previous screenshot) which helps with making tactical decisions. When you move or attack, the game zooms in to show you the action closer up - here, my fourth 'Mech (a Kintaro) joins the other three. My next move is to use my jump jets to get past the enemy 'Mechs and focus fire on an enemy vehicle. Which target should I shoot at? The convoy includes the Schrek PPC carrier I was warned about, a Gallant Urban Assault Vehicle and an Inferno Carrier. The Gallant has a heavy weapon (an Autocannon 10), it's not as dangerous as the Schrek but could do a lot of damage. The Inferno Carrier worries me, becaue it fires missiles containing burning gel. This could overheat my 'Mechs, forcing them to stand still to cool down, making them easy targets. I focus fire on the Inferno Carrier and destroy it. The Phoenix Hawk is fast, but has only light weapons so I can only destroy the Gallant in a single turn by focusing all of the Phoenix Hawk's weapons on a single area of the tank's armour.


    My Phoenix Hawk targets the Gallant tank with a called shot.

    The called shot works, taking out the Gallant. My other three 'Mechs focus fire on the Schrek and destroy it. So far, the battle is going well - I've achieved the main objective and I'm moving so fast that the enemy 'Mechs have done very little damage. However, using jump jets and firing all my weapons caused my 'Mechs to gain a lot of heat - as shown above, in the red and yellow bar next to the number 3 (the red part is the heat level of my 'Mech at the start of this turn, the yellow part is the extra heat caused by jumping and firing all weapons this turn). If I reach the small white marker, my 'Mech will start taking damage from overheating and if it reaches the right hand edge of the bar, it will shut down. As well as running hot, I'm facing several enemy 'Mechs, so there's a decision to make - run or fight?

    I could run for the extraction zone, but I'd like to defeat the enemy 'Mechs. Doing this would provide better salvage than destroying the vehicles - it's important to acquire 'Mech parts and equipment to improve my mercenary company. However, my 'Mechs are running hot so I can't keep jumping and firing everything. You might have noticed the fountains, towards the top of the previous picture. When my 'Mechs stand in water, they cool down faste, so I head for the water.

    There's another choice at this point - which enemy 'Mech to target. The enemy 'Mechs include a Shadow Hawk, a Javelin and a Centurion. The Shadow Hawk is an all-rounder, a medium 'Mech with a good balance of firepower and speed. The Javelin is a small fast 'Mech, the Centurion is a medium 'Mech with a heavy weapon, an Autocannon 10 (like the Gallant tank) which can do a lot of damage. I decide to focus fire on the Centurion, and get lucky - one side of its torso is destroyed and the ammunition for one of its weapons goes too. This was the left side of the Centurion's torso which contained ammo for its long-range missiles (LRMs) - the autocannon ammo is on the right side, so I fire from the right side of the 'Mech as much as I can. The Centurion gets a couple of hits before I can defeat it, and two of my 'Mechs have big holes in their armour. The enemy Javelin jumps behind my 'Mechs, firing at the thinner rear armour - if this keeps happening, I'll lose weapons and equipment quickly, so I focus fire on the Javelin before defeating the Shadow Hawk.

    The mission is a success - I achieved both objectives, avoided serious damage or pilot injury and got some useful salvage. Minor repairs (to a 'Mech's armour) are automatic and free after each battle, but repairing damage to a 'Mech's structure and replacing lost limbs, weapons and equipment can be expensive. This adds to the strategic layer of the game: do you keep fighting battles that you can easily win, or fight against evenly matched enemies, or take on forces which are more dangerous than yours? Repeatedly defeating easier enemies enables you to buy better weapons, equipment and even better 'Mechs eventually - but if you mostly defeat less powerful 'Mechs, it's harder to get better 'Mechs by salvaging parts from the battlefield. Taking on equally capable or harder enemies can give you better salvage (a faster way to get more powerful 'Mechs) but it can also lead to ruinously expensive victories that can bankrupt your mercenary company. You can 'mix and match', saving money in a series of easy missions to give you enough money to repair your 'Mechs after more difficult fights, ruthlessly sacrifice your current 'Mechs (scrapping them if they're severely damaged and you can't afford repairs), or hope that good tactics and well-equipped 'Mechs will lead to decisive victories.

    How difficult is the game for new players?

    Battletech can be forgiving for new players in several ways, for example you can re-start a mission and save your game during a mission, making it easy to try out different tactics. In the Campaign, you get big payouts for the main quest missions, although doing main quest missions also increases the difficulty level of your ordinary missions, so it's important to do ordinary missions (side quests) in between the main missions, to improve your characters and their 'Mechs. In the Career, you can keep going to low-difficulty planets for as long as want, until you're ready for harder missions.

    Sometimes new players experience a big jump in difficulty when they start doing harder missions. Each planet and each mission has a difficulty rating on a 5-point scale. Planets offer missions slightly above or below the planet's overall rating - for example on a 1 difficulty planet you can be offered a 1.5 difficulty mission. The difficulty level of a mission is only an estimate - the actual difficulty can be somewhat higher or lower - so your 1.5 difficulty mission might be more like 0.5 (where you're fighting two light 'Mechs) or 2.5 (where you could fight two lances - eight 'Mechs against your four - or a lance of fairly good 'Mechs). Also, you don't know the actual strength of the enemy until you see them on the battlefield. I like the unpredictability which this offers, especially as there are common, unusual and rare 'Mechs, so it's exciting when the opposing force includes a 'Mech that I don't usually see - especially if I'd really like to salvage that 'Mech and add it to my lance.

    Some harder missions can be very difficult or impossible to win in the early stages of the game. For example, when you're hired to defend a base, you usually fight a vanguard lance on one side of the base, followed by a lance of enemy reinforcements who approach another side of the base. However, sometimes there are two lances of enemy reinforcements and they approach from different sides. It's difficult to move your 'Mechs quickly enough to defend against two lances; also, you're outnumbered and your 'Mechs have been fighting the vanguard lance (so they may be over-heating or damaged). In straightforward battles, occasionally a second and third enemy lance arrive to reinforce the first, and the crew of your DropShip suggest that you withdraw from the mission. That can be good advice, to avoid severe damage to your 'Mechs or injured pilots. In Battletech, not every battle is meant to be winnable (although battles like these can be won later on the campaign, when you have excellent 'Mechs and elite pilots).

    In some games, you can win every battle in your campaign. Does that sound realistic - for a commander to fight dozens of battles and win every time? Realistically, there should be some battles where you can achieve every objective, some battles where you achieve one objective, then retreat - and some where you face overwhelming odds and your best choice is to withdraw. I like this aspect of Battletech - for me, it adds realism and an extra element of decision-making. Part of the challenge of this game is that, when you go into battle, you don't know which of these situations you'll be in. You need to decide when to go for every objective, when to achieve one objective and run and when to withdraw even if you face a small drop in your Mercenary Ratings Board number for what the game calls a 'bad faith' withdrawal (not completing any mission objective). Missions in Battletech often have several objectives and the characters sometimes encourage you to decide whether to pursue them all. For example, you can be assigned to recover a spy and the information they stole. Achieving both objectives would mean taking a 'Mech to two locations on the battlefield. If you retrieved just one, sending a fast 'Mech to the location and then running like hell, you can make some money and take less damage. Alternatively, you can go 'all out' to achieve both objectives and destroy the enemy 'Mechs, for the maximum pay-out and salvage.

    Problems and Possible Solutions

    Like other games, Battletech has shortcomings. Some can be solved through options in the game's menu. For example, if the turn-based combat is slower than you prefer, because of the time that the animations take, you can press the space bar to speed up a particular animation or select a graphics option for faster combat which speeds up almost all animations.

    If one of your 'Mechs suffers extreme overheating (so it's going to shut down, unless you stand still and do nothing) and if you move that 'Mech, you can be in a situation where the game won't let you end your turn. I experienced this problem very rarely - only in one battle in my first couple of hundred hours of game-play. The solution is simple: when one of your 'Mechs is in this situation, click the 'Done' button to end its turn. Your 'Mech will be an easy target for a turn, but most 'Mechs can withstand a turn of enemy fire and next turn your 'Mech will be able to act again.

    Another very rare problem is that a saved game won't load. Like the previous problem, I only saw this once in my first couple of hundred hours of play. The solution, for me, was simply to load another save. The game has an 'Ironman' option (where you can only have one save); you can turn this off, or simply make a manual back-up of your saved game occasionally. Savelocation.net explains where to find your Battletech saved games.

    A third problem was overheating. It's ironic that, in a game about 'Mechs which can overheat, your computer can overheat too. In the first two hundred hours of play, my computer shut down through overheating a couple of times. The solution was simple - to set a maximum level for my fps. If you have an NVIDIA graphics chip, you can do this on the NVIDIA Control Panel. If you don't, you can download MSI Afterburner and use that. With my fps capped, the game still looks great and the overheating problem doesn't happen anymore.

    A fourth (potential) problem is that Battletech only allows the player to bring a lance of four 'Mechs on each mission. It can be frustrating when the game allows you to have enough 'Mechs and pilots on the Argo for a company of 12, yet we can only bring a lance of four. As I see it, there are two ways to deal with this. The first way is to use mods (Bigger Drops and Mission Control) which together allow you to bring more 'Mechs (some overhaul mods, such as Battletech Extended 3025, also include the ability to drop with more than four 'Mechs). Alternatively, you view Battletech as a role-playing game (similar to Skyrim) rather than being similar to Total War games. It's an adventure role-playing game with tactics and strategy, not a battle simulator intended for equal numbers on both sides. In Skyrim, your hero (and follower if you have one) often defeats bigger groups of enemies. You do this because your characters have better skills, equipment and tactics.

    You can do the same thing in Battletech. When I lose a battle, sometimes re-starting the mission and making different choices turns an impossible situation into a manageable one. In a base attack mission, I followed the road to the base and found two enemy lances between me and the base. They were supported by four turrets, so I was being fired on up to 12 times each turn. I sent a fast 'Mech to attack the turrets while the other three tried to hold off the enemy. The result was a disaster! On my second attempt, I took my lance around the edge of the map, crossing a high ridge. This allowed me to start attacking the turrets immediately, and to defeat two of the enemy 'Mechs before the others could get in range. This time, I completed the mission objectives without losing a 'Mech.

    Overall

    If you're looking for a Total War-style game in a science fiction setting, this isn't it. It would be easy to imagine a Total War game in the Battletech universe - you could start the campaign as the ruler of a minor planet on the Periphery. Battletech doesn't aim to offer this - that isn't a criticism of the game, it deserves to be considered in relation to what it's trying to do.

    Battletech offers tactical, turn-based combat with a strategic dimension - and it does this well. If you enjoy open-world role-playing games, you could enjoy Battletech. Like Skyrim, Battletech is about exploring, judging carefully when to continue with a mission and when to withdraw, and improving your skills, equipment and tactics as you progress. As in Skyrim, there is a main quest (in Battletech's Campaign mode) or a series of possible major questions (the Flashpoint missions, in Battletech's Career mode) and you can switch betwen progressing in the main quest and improving your mercenary company by doing side-quests, as you prefer.

    There are some features which I would have enjoyed if they were available - it would have been great to play a multiplayer co-operative campaign, to run a mercenary company with friends, just as people could do in the tabletop game which this is based on. The game does offer multiplayer battles, but only in Skirmish mode - Battletech's equivalent of custom battles in Total War games - and doesn't allow co-operative play.

    Overall, Battletech offers an interesting setting and enjoyable game-play for players who prefer games which reward good tactics and strategy (as opposed to success being based on fast reflexes, as in a first person shooter). I highly recommend it!