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Wot I Think: BattleTech

I like everything it does, but not how it does it

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Update: though the below complaints stand, my feelings about Battletech’s tactical core have become significantly more positive as a result of continuing to play it following publication of this review.

I was perplexed to discover that my partner, also a home-worker, was wearing earplugs as she sat at her computer. There was, for once, none of the thunderous din of new kitchens or loft extensions being built in one of the adjacent terraced houses, and nor was my own PC’s volume set high as I threw stompy tankbots at each other in XCOM-meets-Mechwarrior turn-based strategy game/boardgame adaptation BattleTech. Stony-faced, she informed me that listening to me sporadically bellow “Oh god, it’s so boring” every few minutes is not terribly conducive to work. I didn’t even know I was doing it.

I don’t like calling things boring. It’s an aggressively dismissive criticism, and often says as much about the accuser as the accused. I’ve returned to BattleTech repeatedly, in different moods and with absolute determination to find the fun in a game made from components I usually thrill to, but I keep winding up in the same place: bored. And then hating myself for feeling that way.

It’s not that I don’t like what BattleTech is doing – turn-based strategy skirmishes between squads of giant, human-piloted mechanical walkers, in very much an industrial rather than fantastical vision of science-fiction. There aren’t many videogame elevator pitches that would appeal to me more. It’s precisely because of that that I’ve kept on blaming myself, rather than BattleTech, for how bored I’ve often felt. How could I not enjoy a game that might as well have been made just for me? Eventually, though, I had a moment of minor epiphany.

You have, I trust, played a Civilization game or six in the past. Y’know how thrilling it is in the early and even middle stages of a campaign, where the majority of your decisions feel meaningful and the ratio of you doing stuff vs you watching stuff happen is very much on the side of the angels? And you know how, in most Civs, so much of the late game collapses into a slow-motion war of attrition, these gigantic empires slugging away at each other with all the energy of a 58-year-old boxer in the eleventh round? And how that essential ratio inverts, until ultimately far, far more time is spent observing than doing?

A BattleTech battle feels like that from the first turn of each battle. The scales are tipped massively, maddeningly in favour of watching rather than acting here. Every animation is too long (even after all the ‘glamcam’ over-the-shoulder action sequence options are turned off), each action is followed by numerous ticker tape-slow stat and status updates, automated camera pans have all the speed and grace of a shopping trolley with four rusted wheels, and the entire game lapses into unexpected motionlessness for a few seconds as frequently as the exhausted pusher of said trolley. My heart sinks when new enemies lurch into view – not because of the (significant) threat they represent, but because more units means more waiting.

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I don’t think that redemption is impossible. Patches to my review code have tamed some of the pre- and post-action pauses already, and there’s no reason to think that more delays still can’t be crushed underfoot over time. Some tough decisions need to be made beyond that, though.

For instance, a Mech gracefully arcing its five different weapons and a stream of missiles through the sky sequentially, rather than simultaneously, is like watching industrial ballet the first time it happens, but multiply the several dead seconds involved by (on rough average) 12 mechs over 12 turns over dozens of battles. So many passive, tortured hours of waiting for the results. Same goes for the stomping – we all want stomping from a mech game, obviously, and high-speed stomping would just look silly, so an unhurried, AT-AT-like approach seems welcome. But 12 mechs, 12 turns, dozens battles: oof.

Clearly too, we want our Mechs to be heavily-armoured engines of death, not tissue-paper-thin ‘bots that crumple after one hit. In practice, the super-armoured approach taken is less like watching titans duel to the death and more like watching two people take turns to disinterestedly fire water pistols at each other.

The stuff you really want to see, like gun-arms being blown off, mechs collapsing to the ground as their legs are blown out from under them and death-from-above jump’n’stomp attacks, is in here. Such pay-offs have to be built up to only after several units’, and usually several turns’, worth of slow hitpoint attrition, with only minimal sense of consequence or tactility.

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Getting to that point does require careful tactical thinking on the player’s part, about where to shoot from, who with, with what weapon and sometimes with a coup de grâce special ability, and that process I do enjoy, despite my frustration at its slow-motion presentation. It is satisfying to see a tough enemy’s missile-launcher hand disappear in a shower or sparks, or to slam two car-sized feet into its chest if you’ve knocked it down, but getting there is such a slog. On the other side of the coin, sitting through six enemies queuing up to lazily pepper your most vulnerable unit with as many as two dozen individually-fired guns is hellish, when all you want to know is if your lad lives or dies at the end of it.

Smart tactical thinking and a smattering of novel TBS ideas underpin BattleTech; it is not at all a mindless slugfest, and it is not afraid to be challenging. Positioning and range and weapon type and heat management and exposed flanks and permadeath and all that good jazz is here. I wish I could tap directly into it, bypass all this damned time-wasting.

I like almost everything BattleTech does, but not so much how it does it.

BattleTech’s boardgame origins are self-evident, even if the finer detail of its rules are different from its venerable, physical source material. Two meatbags locked in deadly competition over the space of a couple of hours is a thrilling time, but the subtle differences inherent in playing against voiceless AI, adding animations to every action and reaction and keeping the fight alive for dozens of hours changes everything.

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A certain kind of pep is needed to re-inject the drama – your heart needs to be in your mouth almost every time you commit to a decision, VO and music need to build a sense of crisis, new enemies need to arrive at the worst possible time, rather than simply as a tedious matter of course. You need to never be more than a few moments away from taking the situation in-hand yourself.

BattleTech feels so functional in all these regards, going through the motions turn after glacial turn, and particularly failing in the matter of making enemies’ turns fast, vibrant and scary. My new mouse has already gained grey-brown stains where I’ve spent the past few days impatiently drumming my fingers upon it while I watch and wait and wait and wait for the fleeting opportunity to move a small distance, then shoot with almost invisible effect again.

Even the user interface feels flabby. Essential concepts are badly-conveyed by the tutorial, and the screen is drowning in arrows, meters and icons. I welcome complexity and variety, and mech-specific concepts like managing your tankbots’ heat or trying to carve away specific parts of your enemies appeal deeply, but here it’s poorly-taught and clumsily-presented. ‘Slog’ is the word that keeps coming to mind about BattleTech – even sussing out what’s going to happen when you move there or shoot that lacks the necessary at-a-glance ease. It’s not impenetrable: it’s just a slog.

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The abundance of slog could have been offset by a big personality. There are well-written and performed, lore-heavy cutscenes in between storyline missions (which you do not need to follow slavishly – there are plenty of narrative-light sidemissions, which you’ll need to do to pay the bills in any case). These don’t outstay their welcome, and they do on occasion lend some humanity to this cold, muted war of machines. By contrast, almost all is silence in-mission, outside of intro and outro dialogue.

I don’t want my pilots or their enemies babbling away while I’m trying to think, obviously, but BattleTech’s gone too far – it feels like no-one’s there at all. Just some long past caring robots duking it out in a dead world. It doesn’t even play to giant mech strengths all the much. Most terrain’s not deformed when your squad stomps over it, trees are not toppled by the weight of a 60 ton machine slamming into them, there are no puny humans to squish… The closest BattleTech gets to cannonfodder are more conventional yet still bullet spongey tanks, while I feel like I’ve seen its rather lifeless environments in two dozen other games.

I wish the Mechs themselves felt more distinctive, too. There’s an impressive range of different walker-types in here, which will thrill Battletech vets, but in practice most feel interchangeable – light/medium/heavy designation and short or long-range weapons is what matters most, and precious few mechs are immediately recognisable at a glance. I’d like to feel desperately proud and protective about my favourite mechs, but here it’s hard to care about them on a level beyond repair cost.

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I should point out that BattleTech is not all battles. There’s also a base mode with its own inelegant and baggy interface, in which you can repair, upgrade and buy mechs, choose missions, unlock pilot skills, chat to ally advisors and so forth, and most importantly worry about having enough money to do any of that. If I were an awful person, I might say that it feels a lot like this whole section of the game borrowed too liberally from XCOM then tried to hide it with unnecessary sub-menus.

In fairness, it is a lot more involved in terms of managing damaged/hurt units and having to field a B,C,D or worse team while all your best guys are getting welded back together. Equipping a mech with a range of situation-specific weapons, heatsinks and jump jets offers a degree of fine customisation that takes them far beyond templates, and I also like the system whereby you can choose to scavenge specific items from the debris of a successful battle. Round up three mech carcasses of the same type, and you get yourself a free mech. There’s no shortage of meat on these bones, which is why I’m reluctant to part ways with Battletech despite how often its treacly missions make my poor partner suffer my banal bellowing.

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There is something great glinting just below BattleTech’s dour and crusty surface. So much now depends on whether future updates will dig for it or not – I pray they do. I’ve put an inordinate amount of time into playing Battletech, even starting the campaign over at one point, so convinced was I that I must be missing something or playing it wrong, but now I have reached an inescapable conclusion. If you want a picture of BattleTech, imagine a giant robo-tank silently firing an ineffective laser at another giant robot-tank – forever.

BattleTech is released today, via stores including Steam, GOG and Humble, for $40/€40/£35.

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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