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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (416)

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Battletech   PC (Steam) 

In Space, No One Can Hear You Pay the Bills    3/5 stars

“Battletech” is the latest tabletop-to-computer conversion by Harebrained Schemes, the formerly Indie developer which was purchased by Paradox Interactive in 2018, three months after “Battletech’s” release. Harebrained Schemes’ prior efforts focused almost entirely around the resurrection of the ‘Shadowrun’ cyberpunk tabletop RPG in the form of “Shadowrun Returns” and its two expansions, “Dragonfall” and “Hong Kong.” Prior to that long-term project, the team was an unsuccessful iOS mobile game developer, while between “Shadowrun Returns” and “Battletech,” the team worked on an equally-unsuccessful Roguelike/Soulslike in “Necropolis.”

The ‘BattleTech’ IP is, like the ‘Shadowrun’ IP, the brain child of Jordan Weisman, one of Harebrained Schemes’ founders (and the guy who got $7.5 million when Paradox bought the studio), who had previously founded tabletop gaming company FASA in the 1980s, which peddled both his ‘Shadowrun’ and ‘BattleTech’ tabletop games. However, not all tabletop games are created equal, and neither ‘Shadowrun’ nor ‘BattleTech’ became household names like ‘Dungeons & Dragons,’ ‘Magic: The Gathering,’ or ‘Warhammer.’ Instead the FASA IPs became a niche within a niche, where hipsters, neckbeards, and grognards could do their thing away from the ‘mainstream’ tabletop games.

Unsurprisingly, FASA was not spared in the financial turbulence that hit the tabletop gaming market in the 1990s. Unlike the more well-known games, FASA’s IPs largely languished unused in the tabletop space, while ‘BattleTech’ found a PC gaming niche with the ‘MechWarrior’ spinoff series of Vehicular Combat titles, which continued to dribble out through the ‘80s, ‘90s,’ and the earliest years of the ‘00s.

These are the types of titles I definitely would have been interested in at the time of their release, but unfortunately, ‘MechWarrior’ never found a home on the SNES or PlayStation, which kept this series firmly out of sight and out of mind. Instead, I cultivated my love of giant humanoid mechs with Japanese games like From Software’s ‘Armored Core’ series and Squaresoft’s “Front Mission 3.” However, with both of those companies and IPs having become erratic at best, untenable at worst, in recent years, mechs have been largely removed from my cultural diet. Thus, a couple years ago when “Battletech” appeared during the E3 PC Gaming Show, I was ecstatic about the opportunity to, once again, have the opportunity to delve into one of my favorite sci-fi subgenres.

Presentation
Harebrained Schemes failed to truly impress with the presentation in their ‘Shadowrun’ revival games, and they aren’t pushing the envelope any further with “Battletech.” It’s a run-of-the-mill Unity Engine game that uses predominantly canned assets made by other people. Mech models and textures look pretty good, but there are three things to keep in mind: 1) These models weren’t actually made by the staff at Harebrained Schemes, but licensed, 2) The mech models don’t change appearance appreciably when swapping their equipment loadouts, and 3) With the game’s scale and default bird’s-eye camera, there’s rarely any need to see the mechs close-up. Of course, there are plenty of excuses to show the mechs close-up, thanks to a tiresome ‘cinematic’ camera that randomly zooms in on a mech to watch it take its turn via a trailer perspective. These cinematic camera moments can be adjusted (or turned off completely) in the game’s options, so I killed them off to boost the game’s pacing. Environments are even less impressive, with bland, generic ‘biome’ environs representing deserts, tundra, tropics, urban, etc. that are so simplistic and uninteresting, they remind me of nothing more than the royalty-free environments used in the open-source RTS, “Zero-K.”

When not watching adequate-looking mechs trundle across bland environments, the player will spend their time onboard a dropship looking at menus and talking with the crew. The crew members are some of the most impressive polygonal visuals in the game, in spite of the fact that they have exactly one stock animation and zero facial animations. These characters are, ironically, fully UN-voiced during the story-based cutscenes that feature these detailed models, but have plenty to say when their stiff carcasses are off-screen. Maybe they’re shy?

The game’s major narrative cutscenes don’t employ polygon models or Unity Engine assets at all, but are instead hand-painted affairs with fancy camera effects that substitute for most of the animations. They look ‘good’ in the way a stylish comic book looks good, but in a game development environment where CGI cinematics on par with a blockbuster movie are expected by default, this kind of shortcut is really noticeable.

Audio in “Battletech” is largely forgettable and frequently repetitive. The soundtrack is wholly innocuous, with only the stereotypical 5/7/1 chord resolution that plays at the conclusion of every mission sticking in my mind, largely because it has been literally everywhere in Western music for at least the last 1000 years. As previously mentioned, voiceacting is limited to the painted cutscenes and to background noise. While making decisions and operating the menu-based portion of the game, the various characters will constantly chatter to each other across the ship’s comms system. This is an interesting way to build character with little work, but the truly ‘little’ work put in by Harebrained Schemes really shows here, as the performances themselves tend to be a mixed bag when it comes to quality, and there are so few of these moments of banter that the player will hear the same ones over and over and over again through the course of the game’s campaign.

Technically, though, is where “Battletech” is at its worst. In spite of its simple graphics, the game has major performance issues, chugging along and frequently appearing to freeze altogether while loading assets. The load times for individual missions are atrocious, and reloading a previous save is a time consuming affair. Beyond its failure to meet minimal performance baselines, “Battletech” has a horrendous user interface with tiny text that is barely legible at 6 feet for a couch gamer, and of course, further screwing couch gamers, there’s no Xinput support, which means that the now-discontinued Steam Controller is the only sane way to play this game. Perhaps worst of all, though, is the fact that “Battletech” can be VERY expensive for a player who wants the deluxe edition with all the DLC… but the ugly truth is that the DLC adds very little, if anything, interesting to the game, mostly consisting of a handful of optional mech types and a few new options for procedural content. This is, quite literally, one of the worst and most content-free season passes I’ve encountered since season passes became standard.

Story
“Battletech” is an adaptation of the ‘BattleTech’ tabletop wargame. That’s important to keep in mind. While there is a role-playing spinoff based on the ‘BattleTech’ rules called ‘MechWarrior,’ the meat and potatoes of this IP has always been a wargame and not an RPG. What’s the difference, you may ask? In general, the mechanics are interchangeable, but wargames focus on large-scale conflicts with disposable, replaceable soldiers filling out the ranks, while RPGs focus on the small-scale activities of an intimate group of heroes whom we are supposed to watch develop and grow as characters as we become attached to them.

“Battletech” awkwardly straddles the divide between wargame and RPG by positioning its narrative as a simple war story, with the ‘BattleTech’ lore serving as the backdrop. As the 3rd Millennium draws to a close, humanity has colonized the stars through a utopian effort known as the Star League. But humanity being as perpetually fallible, greedy, and myopic as it is has allowed the Star League to collapse and split into numerous warring political factions, even as human culture backslid into hereditary rulership and squabbles between the monied nobility.

Our hero is an anonymous/custom ‘MechWarrior (that is, a solder specifically trained to pilot the gigantic 3-story BattleMechs that are at the core of the setting) serving as a bodyguard for Lady Kamea Arano, a young noblewoman who is about the ascend to the throne of her late father in the Aurigan Reach, a backwater stretch of space in a region known as The Periphery. As things usually go when nobility and succession are concerned, Kamea’s uncle, Santiago Espinosa, stages a coup to take the throne for himself. Our hero’s mentor and Kamea both appear to be killed in the fighting, and we find ourselves picking things up three years later, with our hero running an independent BattleMech mercenary squad and deep in debt to the corrupt corporate banking system.

When an opportunity to be free of this crushing debt appears, our hero takes it, only to discover that Kamea Arano survived and has been slowly gathering support for her Arano Restoration movement amongst the other noble factions. What follows is a fairly predictable scenario of political rebirth from the ashes, starting with the liberation of an ancient Star League era dropship from pirates, which will become the movement’s symbol. As our hero moves from world to world, shaking off the draconian grip of Espinosa’s Aurigan Directorate and its allies, things don’t quite always go as planned, but the twists and turns are, ultimately, quite minimal.

Equally minimal is the amount of character and development in the game. Our hero has a few background options to choose from upon creation, which unlock a handful of distinct dialog options throughout the narrative, but nothing ultimately meaningful. The handful of permanent crew members with recognizable names, faces, and voices remain fairly bland and static through the entire experience. Ultimately, Lady Arano is the most interesting character in the story, simply by virtue of being the plot’s main MacGuffin. ‘MechWarrior pilots are a fully expendable lot who can be hired-on in any star system. While the game always starts the player with the same group of 4 pilots plus the unkillable protagonist, the game expects players to go through these characters like poop through a tuba, thus their only real ‘character’ interactions involve random happenings that occur while traveling from place to place, and which can interchangeably use any pilot’s name, Mad Libs-style.

Between special ‘Priority Missions,’ which actually advance the plot, the player is free to take their fancy dropship and their Lance of BattleMechs (a Lance being the in-universe terminology for a squad of 4 mechs weighing up to 400 tons combined) and participate in any number of other missions in order to increase the skills of their mech pilots, to acquire more powerful mechs and weapons, and ultimately to earn money, called C-Bills. However, all of these non-priority missions are procedurally generated junk pulled from a handful of archetypes (a pool which the miserable DLC packs expand a bit). Post-game, a few more procedural DLC mission types come into play, but are ultimately just more of the same story-free, character-free repetition.

“Battletech” is not a game that excels at presenting its world and lore in meaningful ways. Only the most ardent ‘BattleTech’ tabletop fans will know what all the jargon means, but instead of working these ideas into the narrative and allowing them to unfold before the player organically, the jargon is simply highlighted in orange, allowing the player to hover over such highlighted terms in order to get a glossary definition via tool-tip, at which point learning about the game world is about as exciting as reading a dictionary.

In spite of its overwhelming laziness and predictability, and the fact that at 60 hours the narrative feels incredibly stretched and padded, “Battletech” isn’t, actually, completely awful from a story perspective. It’s threadbare, but at least functional.

Gameplay
“Battletech” places the player in the role of the commander of a mercenary squad of ‘MechWarriors who each deploy in a massive 3-story tall humanoid robot tank powered by a fusion reactor. While it is naturally expected that a commander of such a squad would lead from the front and participate in mech battles alongside the rest of the team, in “Battletech” the commander is also tasked with the responsibility of keeping the company afloat financially… and that last thing almost ruins the game.

Combat in “Battletech” is a straightforward adaptation of the ‘BattleTech’ tabletop rules. There’s a kind of weird initiative system where lighter, speedier mechs get the chance to take their turns earlier than heavier mechs, but may choose to ‘reserve’ their turn until a later initiative phase. Meanwhile, during each initiative phase, the player and opposing AI will take turns moving one of their units with that specific initiative (or that reserved from an earlier initiative), sometime allowing for one side to make multiple moves in a row. Also somewhat unorthodox in the world of turn-based tactical combat is the fact that mechs gain evasion charges the further they move during their turn. These charges reduce the accuracy of attacks targeting the mech, with each individual attack (but not each individual weapon) removing an evasion charge and reducing the accuracy penalty (melee attacks ignore evasion altogether).

Other than those two fairly novel quirks, the ‘BattleTech’ system is very by-the-books. You’ve got mechs with different body locations, each location has a discreet armor and structure (read: health) pool. In order to damage a location’s structure, all of its armor needs to be removed first. Critical hits to any given location can destroy components (like individual weapons or ammo supplies) mounted in that location, with ammo explosions causing further damage. ‘Mechs have much less armor on their backsides, and the head/cockpit location tends to be lightly armored and structurally weak, providing players with numerous tactical ways of dealing with heavily-armored behemoths that don’t involve chewing through hundreds of points of armor to get to the juicy center. Destroying both of a mech’s legs incapacitates it, as does destroying the head or central torso, while destroying the arms or flanking torso segments can injure the pilot (acculumating multiple injuries K.O.s the pilot and stops the mech) and disables any weapons mounted in those sections.

No mech game would be worth its salt without customization, and “Battletech” has it, though not to the degree I would have liked to see. Each mech has a specific maximum tonnage, which determines the total weight or weapons, ammo, armor, and other components it can carry. While each mech has separate arms, legs, head, and torso segments, none of these can be mixed-and-matched or swapped out, with each mech instead coming ‘as is,’ but allowing the player to min/max the weaponry and armor levels attached to each body part. “Battletech” uses a ‘hardpoint’ system, which is, to my understanding, an optional rule variant from ‘BattleTech’ tabletop, which only allows certain weapon archetypes to be attached to certain mech body locations in certain quantities. These weapon archetypes are ballistic, for weapons that fire solid ammo; energy for weapons that fire lasers and consume no ammo; missile for guided projectiles that launch in clusters and consume ammo; and support for short-range weapons that only come into play at melee range. Because each make and model of mech is static in its configuration and hardpoints, the loadouts that each mech can carry are fairly limited, though there is at least some room for creativity and playstyle considerations. Each mech also features a limited number of hardpoints for jumpjets, which give mechs the ability to leap into the air to varying degrees and allow for much greater tactical positioning than just running around on their big, stompy feet.

While all of this mech customization may seem complicated, it’s actually fairly straight-forward, though the lack of any in-game lists of what options are available and what components to look for in randomly-populated shops makes things confusing at the outset. However, there are a few significant balance issues in “Battletech” that allegedly don’t exist in the tabletop game that need to be called out. First, light and medium tier mechs are largely worthless. The game starts the player with a Lance of 3 medium mechs and a light mech, which makes the early game a struggle, as the default loadouts for all mechs are woefully awful, with anemic weapon loadouts and halfway-stripped armor in order to reduce their weight enough to carry those anemic weapons. Second, energy weapons are severely underpowered. The fact that energy weapons are very light and don’t require weighty ammo supplies may make them seem appealing, but the amount of damage they deal is ridiculously low and the player must always be aware of the fact that these weapons will easily generate enough heat to cause a mech’s engine to die, or even self-destruct if they fire off full salvos every turn… which they will need to do if they hope to deal enough damage to compete with ballistics and missiles! Because of these problems with light and medium mechs and energy weapons, players are essentially forced to upgrade to heavy and/or assault tier mechs as soon as possible, and to dump their energy weapons for ballistics and missiles (and even missiles start to fall apart in the end-game when gauss rifles and autocannon shotguns will demolish an enemy Lance efficiently and with little risk to the player’s Lance). Tactics even fly out the window in the mid-to-late game, as the random mechs in the random missions that pad out the campaign all run with their stock loadouts – so they’re weak on both armor and weapons, and always identical. While there are a few Priority Missions that feature unique loadouts for the opposing force, they are a scarce and minor part of the gameplay.

With mech combat out of the way, it’s time to talk about the worst thing about “Battletech”: Financial management. In the grim dark future the game world envisions, corporate greed and overreach has not been eliminated, as it has in the utopian vision of ‘Star Trek,’ but has instead grown progressively worse. EVERYTHING costs money and EVERYTHING is expensive. One would naturally assume that buying a 3-story robot would cost quite a bit of money. One would also naturally assume that repairing said robot after other robots shoot large holes in it would be a recurring expense. But in the ‘BattleTech’ universe, just OWNING a mech costs money: $15,000 C-Bills per month. So having a prepped-and-ready bare minimum Lance of four mechs is $60,000 in upkeep. And that doesn’t include the pilots, who get a hefty wage running from $16,000 per month for a green recruit to nearly $50,000 for a maxed-out master of the craft. Indeed, time is the biggest enemy in “Battletech,” since it takes weeks to travel between solar systems within The Periphery to take different jobs, and repairing – or even refitting a mech with new equipment – takes both time and money. Most inexplicably of all, the crew’s team of MechTechs will only work on ONE mech at a time. So if the Lance comes back from a rough operation and every mech needs three days’ worth of repairs, that’ll be 12 days before the team is ready to deploy again. The glacially slow pace at which MechTechs work is a further sticking point, since it, apparently, takes an entire day for a whole team of people to swap-out one mech weapon for a different one (yet in real life, I can swap heads on my Bobcat skid loader in about 15 minutes, by myself…).

The fact that time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’ into the future in “Battletech” is aggravated by the monthly payday, where after every 30 days of game time (which is, according to tabletop fanatics in the game’s Steam forum, actually supposed to be every 90 days), the player must cough up those mech maintenance fees, pilot salaries, and other incidentals, which for me added up to a quarter of a million C-Bills per month FROM THE GET-GO, ultimately capping out around $400,000 per month at the end game, but largely because I stopped adding additional things to the dropship and only kept the bare minimum of mechs and pilots on the roster. With a starting money pool of a mere million C-Bills and typical mission payouts of $300,000 to a little over a million (though Priority Missions pay NOTICEABLY better), making money in “Battletech” can feel like a struggle, especially during the mid-game when the player hits a point where trashing all their medium mechs for heavies and assaults becomes mandatory, because mechs are, as mentioned, expensive, and good mechs can be hard to find, so buying them when they randomly appear in shops becomes a question of, “Do I risk bankrupting the company by buying this mech or do I risk bankrupting the company with repairs and monthly bills as my Lance gets shot to hell in every mission and needs 2 weeks to recover?”

Other tooth-gnashing financial decisions include deciding whether to negotiate for more salvage or more pay in each mission, with salvage allowing the team to acquire pieces of mechs and eventually put them together, a la Humpty Dumpty, into a complete mech. But asking for too little cash means no money to spend on that monthly upkeep, and asking for too much salvage can see the team walking away from a battle with a big bag of heat sinks and nothing of actual value.

Overall
While there is some good tactical mech combat in “Battletech,” it is largely buried beneath the tiresome and omnipresent need to manage finances and time. Likewise, the setting’s storytelling potential is inherently stifled by the fact that the tabletop version of ‘BattleTech’ is a wargame – focusing on large-scale combat in a vacuum – rather than an RPG – focusing on the finer details of a character’s life and times. The poor presentation and technical performance are just the cherries on top of an almost-good game bogged down by lots and lots of problems, ranging from minor to glaring. Tabletop ‘BattleTech’ fans who are only interested in PvP or the game’s story-free score-attack Career Mode will probably get much more out of this title than an RPG fan looking to indulge their love of mechs.

Presentation: 2/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5

 

 


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