How BattleTech Hopes To Do Giant Mechs Justice
Learning lessons from XCOM.
There is no shortage of classic MechWarrior games for PC. MechWarrior 2 was one of the defining 3D action games of the 90s, and MechCommander remains a beloved tactical game among the people who remember it. But you could argue that there's never been a real BattleTech game, one that faithfully recreated both the tabletop tactical games and the kind of warfare portrayed in in the sourcebooks. The PC games set in the MechWarrior universe all had to make drastic departures.
Now, over thirty years after he created BattleTech, Jordan Weisman is finally getting around to making a PC wargame that does it justice. After successfully reviving the Shadowrun franchise on PC, his company has brought BattleTech to Kickstarter. It's a descended from the boardgame in ways that the other PC MechWarrior games never could be. I spoke to Weisman about why things would be different this time.
"This is a turn-based game, and that allows us to dive a little deeper into what makes a mech a mech. When you're real-time, you have to kind of… not allow the player to dive into that kind of depth because there'd be too much information overflow and decision paralysis," Weisman said. "But with turn-based [play], we can have the user take that kind of information and micromanage the resources that are so valuable in the game: heat, ammo, understanding the discrete risks-and-rewards of trying pull off a complicated maneuver like a hairpin turn or death from above."
These were elements that could be too fussy or complicated for action games or real-time tactical games. But they were also what helped make BattleTech an occasionally magical experience, and one that's never been adequately brought to life on PC.
The greatest game of BattleTech I ever played was the last one. My friend and I would play it all the time in high school, to the point where we'd memorized half the fire tables and all the weapon stats, and could just focus on the Wagnerian spectacle of 180 tons of armored, humanoid war machines methodically dismantling each other with cannon fire, massive particle projects, flocks of missiles, and even bare metal fists.
The last time we played, it was the culmination of years of play together. We knew each other and we knew the game and played to each other's level. It was a perfect bloodbath. Our two mech squads were largely destroyed, scattered in pieces all around the map, and only my Grasshopper still stood against his wounded Centurion at point-blank range. Nobody had any weapons left, or none worth considering. We'd all taken "critical hits" that had turned our mechs into shells of themselves. So I hit my jump-jets to try a Death From Above, a move that's riskier to the attacker than the defender, and was never anything other than awesome and hilarious. One mech attempts to stomp the other into the ground like Goomba.
To my astonishment, it worked. His mech crumpled to the ground, limbs breaking off in the fall. But he looked in the rules and discovered his mech could still make an attack, since we'd ended up in the same hex. He kicked out with his remaining leg and swept my Grasshopper to the ground, snapping of my leg. We now had two disabled mechs, lying next to each other in pieces, locked in combat. With our mechs re-enacting the end of Warrior in the dirt, we decided to call it a draw.
It was a game that surpassed anything I'd ever done in a mech game, including classics like MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries or MechCommander. Even the best MechWarrior video games never quite managed to capture the sheer nuance of the BattleTech board games, with their painstaking management of heat, engagement ranges, and armor exposure. No game let you fight mechs past the point of dismemberment and disability. No game got across the sheer gladiatorial spectacle of mech warfare. These weren't walking tanks. They were demigods.
That's what Weisman wants to bring back to life with his upcoming BattleTech game. But it can't be the game that I played all those years ago.
"The tabletop design, it amazes me, it's the same 31 years later. And 31 years ago, that game was considered a modern design," Weisman said. "It was less finicky than the games that preceded it. But by modern standards it's not at all a modern tabletop game."
This is sad, but true. I own the reissued edition from Catalyst Game Labs and discovered, to my horror, that the game involved a lot more math, resolution tables, and record-keeping than the BattleTech I remembered. I once tried to bust it out at a Christmas party and, an hour of setup and rule-explanations later, just gave up and joined everyone else in playing Mario Party. Even among a boardgaming crowd, its day was done.
"So why does it feature so prominently in people's memories?" Weisman asked. "The same reason we look back favorably on a film we saw that meant a lot to us when we were a kid. ...So I think it's a matter of kind of what the emotional residue of the experience was. About the role the game and the universe played in our gaming and socializing while we were growing up. That's is what we're remembering. Our hope with the computer game is to take those memories, and that universe that we have that emotional connection to, and bring it into the modern world."
As they've considered how to do that, Harebrained have naturally looked hard at games like XCOM for inspiration, even if most of its tactical level wouldn't really work for mech combat.
"What we're taking away from it isn't the mechanics, but the gameplay loop," said Mike McCain, creative director. "Most missions take 30 minutes, give or take, and you're always having that nice loop between being on the battlefield and going back and managing."
Weisman added, "There is the relationship between tactical micromanagement of units on the battlefield and the meta-management of a military force altogether. So the way we're doing that is: you've got a military outfit that you're managing, from salaries, to what gets repaired and what doesn't, and the skill growth of all the MechWarriors under your command as long as you keep them alive."
That split focus between battlefield combat and a longer campaign also brings the astonishingly detailed fictional military history of the BattleTech universe into play. Mitch Getelman, co-founder of Harebrained and the producer on the original MechCommander tactical game, pointed out that BattleTech was always more than just a wargame about mechs.
"The other thing, beyond the tabletop and the rules is the IP and the strength of the setting. Jordan's always been really great at honing in on the core fantasy fulfillment of a world and an experience, and I think that's one of the big reasons why BattleTech and MechWarrior has persisted in such a big way."
He pointed out that BattleTech didn't just spawn a lot of tabletop and video games. It also developed an intensely devoted audience of readers who followed the evolving future-history of BattleTech via a long and successful series of licensed novels. They told stories that stretched from the Machiavellian politics of the Great Houses who dominated the galaxy to the small dramas that unfolded on distant frontier outposts. And within that universe, few types of stories were as popular as the ones about mercenaries.
As MechWarrior 2 players will recall, if you take the "small business sim" angle out of MechWarrior, the game becomes very different and a little less interesting. There is little reason to avoid risks or refrain from brute-force tactics, which can reduce BattleTech combat to deterministic slugging matches.
"We really want to see players in that mercenary role going through that mental calculus looking at what the cost of victory is versus the cost of defeat. Figuring out that maybe I need to withdraw from this battle because even if I win it I'm going to lose a fortune, so I'll take the hit to my reputation for withdrawing from the battlefield," Weisman said. "When every shot you're taking has a longer-term ramification than just this mission, that's really going to change how you approach the mission overall."
Those battles should also be a little more complicated than most people got to experience in the MechWarrior series, or even the basic BattleTech board game. The MechWarrior universe was built on military sci-fi, with emphasis on things like battle doctrines, force composition, air support, artillery, etc. Yet most of the games were predominantly about mechs slamming into other mechs.
BattleTech is going to break this mold, and depict battles that are a little closer to the sophisticated combined arms encounters shown in the novels and sourcebooks. It also helps provide the sense of context and scale that makes mechs seems slightly less like big, silly robo-men.
"In a single player game, you want to be able to have a wide variety of units that are less powerful than you," Weisman said. "Because for a mech to be the king, there have to be pawns. So that's why the combined arms for the campaign are such an important component, to have that wider diversity of units available."
Still, as the BattleTech Kickstarter winds down, Weisman and company also want to bring back that competitive tabletop experience I remember so vividly. The last stretch goal standing is multiplayer, which will be set in mech-only combat arenas, where you can play with a variety of different army compositions in a variety of different tactical settings.
"Multiplayer is a challenge from a design standpoint, designing something that will work as well as a single player and as a multiplayer game," Weisman admitted. "But it's a challenge we're relishing."
BattleTech's Kickstarter will end tomorrow and is aiming for a 2017 release.