Battletech’s campaign mode is a robot Dark Ages

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It’s odd to think of Mickey Mouse while ordering a giant robot to rip another robot’s arms off, but in the words of its creator Jordan Weisman, Battletech is kind of like Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland. Opened in 1955, the park was an homage to the march of science that inevitably struggled to keep up. Its present-day incarnations are a bizarre mishmash of the vintage, the cutting edge and the merely obsolete, Flash Gordon-brand retro colliding with touchscreens and VR. Similarly, Battletech is a vision of human history up to the 31st century that began life as a table-top strategy game in 1984, made up of once-outlandish concepts such as artificial muscles that now seem positively quaint.

The series wears its age more gracefully than Tomorrowland, however, because its campaign is as much about obsolescence and forgetfulness as the far future – a re-imagining of the fall of the Roman Empire and ensuing “dark age” that rebuts the concept of history as a steady, linear advance. It’s a solid footing for a strategy sim in the vein of Total War, comparable to Warhammer 40K’s Imperium but less, well, preposterous, though I still think the turn-based battle system Adam sampled in June is Battletech’s strongest asset.

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The base campaign starts you off as captain of a mercenary mech outfit in a galactic backwater, tasked with paying off a bank loan so that you can venture out into more lucrative regions of space and enmesh yourself in the squabbles of various ancient noble houses. The game is set in 3025, following the collapse of the illustrious Star League and three bloody wars of succession, with much of the older tech in operation now beyond the science of the day.

This premise lends a certain workmanlike charm to an otherwise unsurprising core loop of travelling to planets, taking on missions and overhauling your ship, crew and mechs. If you want to warp to another star system, for instance, you’ll need to factor in how long it’ll take your battered Leopard-class starter vessel to chug to a jumpship. Your funds will continue to deplete in the process, so it’s possible you might reach the destination without the means to pay your mech pilots or take on vital replacement crew. In battle, meanwhile, you’ll find that salvage is often worth more than cold hard cash. If you spot a mech with a rare League-era arm cannon, for example, you’ll probably want to keep that arm in one piece by firing on the target from the other side.

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Battletech’s mix of rickety, venerable gizmos and a sprawling cosmic theatre naturally owes a lot to the original Star Wars. “I was a teenager when that came out, and the first couple of moments are just completely mind-blowing, oh my god what’s going on, walking robots and giant spaceships!” Weisman recalls. “And then you’re in a kitchen, and you’re like, oh I know that. I’ve been in that scene, with my parents. You have to create that foundation, you have to create something people can relate to and then bring in the exotic from there.”

If grounding flights of fancy is a familiar sci-fi concern, Battletech’s theme of regression also draws on Weisman’s time with the real-life navy. “During my limited college career in the United States Marine Academy studying to be an officer on commercial ships, one of the things I learned was that we can’t produce a ship’s hull with the level of friction that we had in World War 2. The welding techniques that produce low-friction hulls have been lost. They were making so many ships that they had to develop these techniques, and then we didn’t make ships for a long time, and those people all retired. So even in amongst constant evolution, we lose things, we lose knowledge.”

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Time and cash aside, Battletech’s broad overarching campaign dynamics are morale, which is tracked by individual ship crew member or mech pilot, and faction reputation. In addition to four preset base traits (loosely – ranged accuracy, mobility, resilience and perception), pilots unlock valuable battlefield skills with experience, so keeping veterans happy by bumping up their wages is important, though in the event of a departure you can always find fresh meat at hiring halls on each planet. Pilots also come with origin stories that affect the proceedings in little and large ways. Employ the scion of a noble family, for example, and you can put his or her contacts to use when soliciting new missions.

Faction rep, meanwhile, broadly determines the quality of mission you’ll be offered and the size of your payout. There’s a haggling system that lets you adjust the ratio of cash to salvage to reputation gains per sortie: if you’re desperate for one particular group’s affection, you can even offer to work for free. Lest all this seem too much a question of fiddling with sliders, there are also semi-random multiple-choice story events that may affect crew morale and reputation. One example I’m shown involves stopping two underlings killing each other over the last cup of coffee. You can divide it up between them, tell them you’ve got bigger things to worry about, or down the cup yourself in a fit of alpha-dog posturing. A minor incident, for sure, but one that may haunt you on the eve of a major battle when your ace mechwarrior ups and quits.

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When not soothing egos and balancing the books, you’re going to spend most of your time outside combat tinkering with your mechs – each a gorgeous blend of World War clunk and the sleek proportions of a Macross figurine, comprising a maximum weight allowance and a number of hardpoint slots per limb. There’s scope for quite the range of builds, from insectile, evasive flankers armed with artillery pods and jump jets, to broad-shouldered heavies who are designed to push through concentrated turret fire without losing their footing. You’ll need to allow plenty of time to carry out these overhauls before undertaking a mission, however: nothing screams “amateur” like accepting a tough gig only to find that your star robot is still having its legs reattached.

The most intriguing flourishes in construction are stability and heat management, each of which keys into the wider pressure to salvage choice parts. Most energy weapons inflict barely any knockback, but will overheat the victim faster, ultimately forcing a shutdown and rendering it susceptible to surgical limb shots. Projectile weapons will bowl mechs over much faster, again allowing you to shoot at individual components, but dish out much less heat. Which tactic you favour will vary according to the planetary biome underfoot: when defending a base on a waterworld there’s less need to worry about the temperature, but if you’re escorting somebody through a desert you might want to detach launchers that generate lots of heat when fired.

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There’s a main story arc buried in amongst the game’s dozens of star systems, involving the restoration of a usurped princess (a tale told via lustrous 2D art with animate touches). It’s one of many, many stories Weisman and Hairbrained Games might unearth from or weave into Battletech’s 30 years of world-building, whether in the form of updates or, touch wood, sequels. Weisman is enthused by the prospect of a Battletech equivalent for Paradox’s legendary feud ’em up, Crusader Kings. “I do think there’s a very interesting game to make there,” he says. “I wrote a version of Battletech for tabletop called The Succession War that was at that kind of global, geopolitical level. That would be a classic Paradox gambit, to do Battletech at that scale.” In the shorter term, there’s the possibility of an expansion themed around the return of the Clans, Battletech’s equivalent for the barbarian hordes who brought down Rome.

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If, like me, you’re mostly familiar with the Battletech universe care of the MechWarrior spin-off games, you may be shocked by the sheer amount of ground there is to cover. This is a vast and engagingly ramshackle fiction, encompassing over a hundred spin-off novels and dozens of tabletop and computer games, all of it funnelled into the mournful spectacle of massive, ancient, rickety robots laying each other out for the count. I’m not sure the new game’s campaign options can match the volatility and variety of XCOM or the later Total Wars, but the battling continues to be excellent, and while I’ve picked over the spoils of imploding empires in many games, this is among the few that really explores the premise at the level of systems and tactics. Tomorrow can wait.

Battletech is due for release in 2018.

65 Comments

  1. Gothnak says:

    I’ve only backed 4 things on KS…

    Hex Card Game – Meh
    That Which Sleeps – Fail
    Gloomhaven Boardgame – Awesome
    This – Can’t Wait!

  2. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    I’d like to note that the actual dark age wasn’t actually all that dark, but was more a continuation of the Roman Empire under different leaderships: There was no large scale destruction, the various kingdoms that arose build themselves upon Roman ideas. The term “Dark Age” is more the result of the biases that informed the historians who made that term up. The main decline was economical because no more open borders! Although some of the references of technological decline in the article are rather cool. I also recall that the US Airforce can’t produce the F14 anymore due to certain components being too classified (becuase Iran has them too, and Iran is no longer an ally of the US). There are examples of Bronze Age mettallurgy which can not be reproduced with our current knowledge: None of it was written down.

    This is very much unlike Battletech, which is in technological decline because of a combination of the greater powers nuking each other’s technological bases except those of the neutral Comstar faction (which controls the intergalactic communication and currency), and Comstar strategically assassinating scientists of the major factions so that Comstar may never lose it’s technological edge.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      And i’d also like to point out that in that analogy the Clans are more like Bellisarius re-conquest of Rome and sorry I’m historynerdingagain

      • yonsito says:

        Interesting point.
        I looks like this game takes place before all that “Clans” stuff happened. Now I’m even more interested.

        • imperialus says:

          It’s set in 3025 in the periphery near the Capellan Confederation I believe.

        • Troika says:

          Clans invasion (aka Operation Revival) begins in 3050 so yeah, there are still 25 years to go.

          Also I absolutely agree that it is incorrect to render the Clans as barbarians (on the contrary, actually — as it is them who are few in numbers and technologically advanced. Well, some of their ways might seem “barbaric” to the freebirth scum… er… I mean the spheroids, but other than that they are highly cultural, especially in the way they tend to wage a war)
          Also it is worth mentioning that the Battletech equivalent of the Roman Empire (the Star League) has fallen long before the Clans arrival, so Clans can’t be considered the force which wants to destroy it. In fact, their intentions are in direct opposition.

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          Phasma Felis says:

          Yeah, in 3025 the Star League has been gone for centuries and the barbarians are running the show. The Clans, who show up in 3049, are the fanatical, tribalistic, eugenics-obsessed descendants of the last great Star League fleet that vanished past the edge of known space during the Fall, and they plan to restore the Star League–or, rather, the imaginary mystical utopia that they’ve mythologized the Star League into.

      • Minglefingler says:

        Never apologise for history nerding. I take your point about the dark ages not being as dark as made out but wasn’t there a lot of knowledge lost in the west after Rome fell? Books that were preserved by oriental scholars and were later retransmitted back to the west of Europe. Also I find it interesting that during the period local lords were hiring gangs of thugs to help them extort the local populace. These thugs became known as knights and the practice led to the Catholic church in France intervening by holding vigils for peace. The idea of having an outside enemy to unite Christian Europe, thus preventing such local strife, appealed to the Pope and together with an appeal for help from Alexius Comnenos of Constantinople provided the genesis for the crusades.
        Contray to my earlier statement I now find myself apologising.

        • baud001 says:

          Specifically, some of the lost knowledge was in Constantinople and went West when the city fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

          As for the crusade, I think you’ve forgotten the main reason: the Turk were preventing the pilgrim to access to the Holy Land.

      • Edwin Evans-Thirlwell says:

        I’ll absolutely take historynerding over threads about scores or microtransactions! Appreciate the input.

    • Neutrino says:

      Exactly. The Dark Ages are named because not much historical record has survived so we are more in the dark as to what occurred during that period.

      • Imperialist says:

        While mostly true, the term directly references the “dying of the light” that was Rome. Many historical texts referred to Rome itself as “the light in the darkness”. Theres also the fact that there was a massive loss of historical record, painting a “dark” period in our history, devoid of enlightenment.
        But i would also say that it was both dark literally, and figuratively, as the quality of living dropped dramatically, as well as the hypothesis that one of the coldest ages in historical record occured Europe during the period (Winters mean low sun, dark horizons, little warmth). This may have triggered multiple migrations which led to various bloody events. While the near-apocalypse wouldnt happen for some time, the few writings scavenged from the period paint a dreary picture of a world in shambles. The name is apt…and its use in fiction is one meant to evoke a sense of primordial terror…as when the light of civilization fails, humanity tends to splinter and tear at each other’s throats over it’s flickering ruins.

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      Milli says:

      It is true that the term Dark Ages stems from the paucity of documentary references from the period. But there was a significant change from the previous periods, at least in the UK. The archaeological record shows significant depopulation of Roman towns, and a rapid abandonment of their technologies. Some sites were likely kept going for a time, but there was a definite loss of knowhow. In that respect I think the comparison made in the article is fair.

      • Lowbrow says:

        Yeah, Italian farmers went from general literacy living in ceramic-roofed houses to overwhelming illiteracy in mud hovels. The physical record of the time is pretty stark. The attempt to overcome the Dark Ages stereotypes can go too far, it was a shitty time to be alive whether we call it the Dark Ages or Late Antiquity.

    • LexW1 says:

      Because I’d an awful stick-in-the-mud I feel compelled to point out that the F-14 thing is a myth, and they were operated and upgraded until 2006, when they had finally become obsolete. There are two things you may be thinking of:

      1) In 2007, the US military decided not to allow anyone to sell any more F-14 spare parts ever, and to shred all it’s remaining F-14, to prevent Iran getting the spare parts. Iran is having a lot of difficulty operating it’s F-14s (which the US sold to the fascist dictator who used to run the country before the 1979 revolution), so the US would like to avoid this. It’s not that they “can’t” make them, it’s that they won’t.

      2) The AIM 54 Phoenix missile that could only be fired by the F-14 was a pretty unusual missile, and the US’ only genuinely long-range air-to-air missile. When the US retired the F-14, they lost a significant capability there. This isn’t because they couldn’t make more Phoenix missiles. It’s because no other aircraft was (nor easily could be) equipped to fire the massive bastards. New long-range air-to-air missiles are being developed by the US (the EU and others already have such with the Meteor and so on).

      Greek Fire is a less-mythical example. We really have no idea EXACTLY what the hell THAT was or how it was made.

      There are also quasi-true examples, like the 16″ guns from an Iowa-class battleship. The actual processes for making them seem to be largely or entirely lost, but we could probably work them out by looking at manufacturing processes of the time, and working back from the examples we have. Or we could just build better modern weapons.

      • Hedgeclipper says:

        The best tech example I can think of is Roman concrete which could be made far more durable, especially for marine uses, than anything we can do in concrete today.

        • Premium User Badge

          Milli says:

          I think people may be getting pretty close to cracking that now… link to tinyurl.com

          Anyway… How did this conversation get from mechs onto discussing concrete…

          • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

            Thanks for the link, that’s interesting. I know we’ve struggled to crack Roman concrete for a long time, but I had always wondered why, given access to modern chemical and material analysis techniques. Apparently those are both sufficient, and now we know what made that work!

            And hey, it’s relevant- the idea of losing tech is central to the theme of Battletech, and this is a good parallel.

      • SuicideKing says:

        Fascist, i dunno – imperialist, yeah.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      I’d suggest your argument that the dark ages was just about a lack of historical record is overly revisionist. While its certainly possible to trace continuities from Rome through the period the archaeological record on depopulation, deunbanisation, lowered life expectancy, increased violence, declining material wealth, poorer health, nutrition and pretty much any other indicator of human well being is unequivocal across most of Europe and North Africa.

    • SaintAn says:

      Read a while back that it’s believed that a comet struck the earth starting the dark ages. It created a dust cloud that blocked out the sun causing famines and plagues.

    • Psychomorph says:

      The dark ages weren’t as dark as they say, it had even innovations.

      However, the christianization is what caused it and it was the greatest tragedy of Europe. Loss of some of thousands of years old culture (knowledge of science and natural medicine), which caused a decline in health and living standards.

      The Renaissance reclaimed some of the old glory, but much was lost.

      Christianity was the medieval version of marxism and communism, a destruction of culture.

      • Troika says:

        Except, you know, USSR Communists were by large pro-science, achieved 99% literacy rate among the nation, free education and health-care, and sent the first man into space (also first artificial satellite, first space-walk, first woman-astronaut, etc). Not that I’m overly sentimental towards them (I’d prefer to live without ideological hammer above my head anyway). Just sayin’.

        • Psychomorph says:

          The communists first purged the country of its best, which why they couldn’t invade Poland and Finland before the WW2 war. Millions died in the concentration camps for no reason.
          The only reason they won WW2 was because this time the Russians fought for their home and it is the peoples ingenuity that brought the advancements in the USSR that you mention. Russians should be proud of themselves, not communism.

          However, you’re right to point out that there also have been progress, but putting everything into perspective, I personally see the communist era as a tragedy for Russia and Europe (just as christianity).

      • tomobedlam says:

        you were doing really well until the last line. That’s just a gross misrepresentation of facts.

        • Psychomorph says:

          I respect your disagreement, but I tend to see things from a systematic point of view, rather than from an ideological. The ideology of christianity was vastly different compared to communism, but their systems worked in similar ways:

          – all men equal before state/god
          – tear down the old ways and rebuild a new socialist/christian society
          – extreme use of violence to spread the ideology world wide
          – an initial cleanse of the dissidents/heretics (intellectual elite/those knowledgeable in old culture such as “witches”)
          – centralist global government (soviet committee/one pope initially)

          It is almost like a mirror if looking at the inner workings. Like two sides of the same coin.
          As they say; never judge a book by it’s cover, in this case you have to read between the lines.

          And if looking that both came from the same group of people, should make you suspicious. :)

          • baud001 says:

            – centralist global government (soviet committee/one pope initially)

            I have to disagree on that point in particular. The pope’s authority was limited and did not extend much in the political realm.

          • Psychomorph says:

            @baud001:
            Not uniformly, but they tried. Gregory VII even managed to depose a king. The church was wealthy in itself, but they generally had more of a moral rulership over Europe. If popes could assemble the crusades, than it means they did have power, even if just by influence.

      • baud001 says:

        How did christianization caused the dark age? How about the fall of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions?

        • Psychomorph says:

          I put it wrongly actually. I mean christianization of Rome might have been one factor, although it is disputed, but what I meant to say is that christianity shaped the way the European middle ages developed, the direction the “new” culture took.

          It ended the traditional, pre-christian life of particularly the Germanic tribes. The loss or confusion of culture has always a devastating and traumatic effect on a people (especially a decline in morale and values).
          It is the same thing that happened with the industrial revolution, which led to globalism (and communism is a child of globalism).

          Globalism was another loss of traditional culture, from which Europe still hasn’t recovered. In fact Europe was deprived off its culture twice already.

          Few more “revolutions” and we’re history.

    • jonahcutter says:

      Perhaps the most famous “lost tech” is Damascus steel, or watered steel. Known for its strength, flexibility and ability to hold an edge, the original techniques to manufacture it have been lost. Though there are modern attempts to rediscover it, with varying success.

      The Baroque Cycle series by Neal Stephenson has an entertaining description for how it (along with how quicksilver and a phosphorescent liquid) was possibly made.

  3. Tyrmot says:

    Anyway to get hires on those images?

  4. Atrak says:

    So glad that this has gone the way it has, It’s about time Battletech was given the treatment it deserves, it has languished for too long.

  5. Palindrome says:

    This a a game that I am very interested in. Graphically and mechanically there are no real similarities but I am very much reminded of Battle Brothers, which can only be a good thing. Plus of course giant stompy ‘robots’.

  6. LagTheKiller says:

    Whole world sounds kinda like wh40k cheap ripoff. Gameplay looks fantastic tho.

  7. Imaginary Llamas says:

    Is there somewhere to read about how the game mechanics work? Watching the campaign mission video I couldn’t quite work out how the units turn order was decided.

    • Hydrofoil Goat says:

      Turn order is determined by weight class, if I remember correctly, it’s been a while since I played.

    • HothMonster says:

      I don’t know where you can read it. If you watch the devs play the multiplayer build on Harebrainedschemes’ youtube they talk through it all.

      In the video, the numbers at the top of the screen represent the different weight classes. If both teams have units in a class they alternate turns until one team runs out or the round ends. You move through each weight class from light to heavy and then repeat.

      So if somebody had 4 lights and the other team had 4 heavies the light team would all move first then the heavy team would all have a chance to move. If both teams have 4 lights we would alternate moving our units. The units can be played in any order so long as each unit only takes one turn per phase. You can delay a mech to another round, I think there might be ways to temporarily act in earlier round in the next combat phase.

      • HothMonster says:

        After watching the campaign video; weight class is probably a bad phrase to define the numbered phases. Initiative level would probably be better since the tanks are in the same class as the medium mechs. Though I do believe initiative is mainly based on weight class as that is how they are arranged in the pvp videos.

        And while I am correcting myself; “assault” is the biggest weight class not “heavy”.

        • Hawkeye says:

          Initiative is based on the weight class of the mech.
          Lights go first, followed by Mediums, then Heavies and finally Assaults.
          Tanks go one phase later than their weight class (i.e. light tanks go in the Medium phase, heavy tanks go in the Assault phase and so on)
          There is a pilot ability (Master Tactician, I think) that moves your mech one phase up (that’s why there are 5 initiative phases)
          You can reserve your action to a later phase.
          When a mech takes it’s action, it can either move, then fire or just fire. You can’t fire and then move.
          The further a mech moves, the harder it is to hit it (there is another pilot ability, Evasive, that adds to this)…

          You know what, just have a look into the Beta Manual
          link to s3.amazonaws.com

  8. Moraven says:

    Not to be confused with Battletech: Dark Age set in 3132.

  9. Moragami says:

    Dammit, I saw this article and thought maybe it was releasing soon. sigh, still 2018… I am hoping this turns out to be a good kickstarter, most of the things I’ve backed haven’t been too great.
    Rain World – Mehhhhh
    Torment: PoN – Meh?
    Massive Chalice – Meh.
    Star Citizen – TBD
    Yooka-Laylee – Meh meh
    Divinity: OS2 – Finally something F’ing awesome
    Battlemech – TBD, but I’m still hopeful somehow.

    • Janichsan says:

      I on the other hand can’t really complain:
      Shadowrun Returns – by itself not outstanding, but very solid. Dragonfall then was really great.
      Shadowrun: Hong Kong – Great.
      Wasteland 2 – great, especially with the free update to the Director’s Cut which fixed many of the initial flaws.
      Elite: Dangerous – not perfect, but scratched my space sim itch well enough to become almost the only game I played in 2015 and one of my mostly played games at all. (I’m not really content with the direction the game took since then.)
      Pillars of Eternity – one of the best RPGs I played in recent history.
      Torment: Tides of Numenera – didn’t live up to it’s spiritual predecessor, but very solid on its own.
      Mighty No 9 – not as disastrous as it’s said to be, but indeed not good either.
      Star Command Galaxies – essentially the only complete failure: massively overdue, and development has grinded to a halt. I don’t think that game will ever reach a finished state.
      Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – TBD. The E3 demo that became available for backers was good, though.
      BattleTech – TBD, but shapes up greatly.

  10. Buuurr says:

    Pass… I can’t go another terrible voice acted game. Somehow miners sound like Professor Frink from the Simpsons and the chick in the mech sounds like she is very enthusiastic to take my order. Just complete removal from the setting.

  11. Vilos Cohaagen says:

    Looking forward to this. I love the Battletech universe.

  12. Dancing Joker says:

    I hope they do a Succession War game!!!

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