Oh, you want to see what’s behind door number 17 on our advent calendar of 2018’s bestest best PC games? It’s no good charging straight at it, trying to slide a finger into that little cardboard gap in the hope of wrenching the thing open. You’ll only break a fingernail and tire yourself out, you poor love.
No, you need to come at it sideways. Find the weak points. Go for the hinge.
Alec: Hey, 24th April 2018 Me, you won’t believe what just happened…
Battletech made a poor first impression on me. I said so, in public, because that’s my job’n’that. Enough people I respect (and a lot of other people with all the warmth of a spent, rained-filled can of Red Bull that spent the entirety of November lying in a gutter in Tromsø) had a more positive reaction to it; I’m old enough and ugly enough to know that refusing to hear other points of view – whether or not they adjusts my ultimate opinion – is Angry Young Man-ism, prioritising screeching righteousness over useful understanding. So I went back, I worked harder to understand what this turn-based strategy game had explained about as well as a Sherbet Dib-Dab-addled toddler teaching quantum physics, and, yeah, I got it.
And here we are today. Here I am today, having singlehandedly made the case that Battletech should be one of RPS’ bestest best games of the year. (No other rotter on staff has played it yet). Suck it, 24th April 2018 Me.
It’s a line I’ve used before, but the true meaning of Battletech is not a bunch of big robot suits firing lasers at each other until one of them falls over – it’s interplanetary Pokemon.
First time around, I was playing on the basis that I had to win, by hook or by massively self-destructive crook – essentially, trying to pummel the enemy into submission before they could do the same to me. Traditional, XCOMish tactics didn’t seem to get me very far; it seemed to be an endless war of hitpoint attrition, like two hippopotamus slapping each other with banana leaves until somebody decides to have a nap.
But then! No, don’t do that, you fool. Go for the legs, you fool. Not, not even the legs, not any more – go for the side torsos, the ammo stores, the difficult headshots. Rack up pilot injuries rather than reducing your 100-ton trophy to rubble. Kill the meat and spare the metal.
That’s how you build an army of steel. That’s how you play Battletech. It’s a slow game for sure, but the way I play it since The Revelation doesn’t feel slow, at least not now there are animation speed controls patched in too. Taking down (and then taking home) an enemy mech is a co-ordinated lightning strike on specific body parts, from specific angles, where once it was like pelting the side of a bus with Haribo.
There’s so much I’d change about Battletech if I could; the presentation, tone and storytelling is about as a lively as a night on the tiles with Iain Duncan Smith (even if it is olden tabletop source material appropriate), the tutorial as helpful as a cat trying to explain existentialism, and those headline-grabbing mechs themselves would struggle to give a VHS machine from the 1994 Littlewoods catalogue a run for its money in the ‘fabulously imaginative technology’ stakes.
I can’t stop playing, obviously. The core loop, the essential realisation of precision-subsystem-strike combat, is so well-realised, so compulsive and so satisfying, that I don’t even see the sea of brown’n’grey any more. I see my plan. I see my trophies. I see glory.
Better still, the recent Flashpoint DLC liberated Battletech from its bafflingly pro-monarchist, slow-motion shrug of a plot, transforming it into the long-term, delightfully endless game of freelance, iron-clad mercenary work it truly deserved to be. Battletech will be one of the longest-term residents of my hard drive in quite some time.
Looking to open another door? Head back to the RPS Advent Calendar 2018.