Exciting strategic decisions and a compelling story are held back by RNG aiming.
Rocket boosting a 60-ton mech to the top of mountain then raining down missiles on your enemy will never not be cool. At the same time, seeing every single piece of that salvo miss the one body part you were actually aiming for is pretty much the polar opposite of satisfaction. Such are the highs and lows of BattleTech, a turn-based tactics game that has as much exciting flavor as it does an overreliance on infuriating random-number generation.
BattleTech is an old and iconic franchise that began on the tabletop, where it spurred the creation of video game series like MechWarrior and MechAssault with its giant walking tanks. Here, in a turn-based setting in which you control a highly customizable lance of four mechs, it feels at home. It’s a thoughtful game that encourages careful planning in both the composition of your mech fighting force and the shots you tell them to take, but some design missteps often rob the execution of that planning of much of its potential impact.
Running a mercenary company is more than just firing missiles. While half of BattleTech is about strategy and tactics in the field, the other half puts you in charge of mechwarrior pilot training, mech customization, and choosing contracts to make sure you have enough money at the end of each month to fund the whole operation. That’s all while completing main campaign missions, but even those are effectively optional (but lucrative) if you want to ignore politics and just make your way through the world one job at a time – though I don’t recommend it, because you’d miss out on the best part of BattleTech.
The main story’s handcrafted missions are full of lore and dialogue to read between and during missions, and it’s all written extremely well. I cared for the characters and the story being told as I fought for the Arano Restoration, and the objectives that story presented to me with in the field — like saving escaping civilians or raiding ancient military bases — were significantly more challenging, interesting, and well put together than anything I found taking a random contract.
Fighting on 50 Tons of Explosives
But even if that story is well told, at its radioactive core, BattleTech is about its fights – and unfortunately, that’s where it can be hit and miss (very literally). There’s a lot I love about the strategy behind each fight; positioning, heat management, and targeting all offer interesting decisions to make and different strategies to learn. But it’s hard not to feel that all those best-laid plans can go to hell simply because of a lucky shot or an unlucky miss, and in a way that’s much more frustrating than you see in other percentage-based tactics games like XCOM 2.
Every mech has 11 different sections: the head, left and right arms, left and right legs, and then front and back pieces for the center, left, and right torso sections. When you are outfitting your mechs on your ship, you can place weapons, ammo, jump jets and more on specific parts of your mech, as well as adjust the armor for each piece. That means that each of the 11 parts has its own armor health bar, as well as another health for its internal structure.
I love to scout out enemy mechs, see a big weapon on their left arm, then aim to blow the left shoulder to take it out.
Once you blow through a piece’s armor the part itself starts taking damage. If that health bar runs out then the piece explodes, along with everything attached to it. Blowing up the head (which is very hard to hit) or center torso (which is usually heavily armored) will even kill the mechwarrior inside, taking the entire mech down with them. It’s a complex system to initially wrap your head around, but also a very cool one on paper.
I love being able to scout out enemy mechs, see that their biggest weapon is on the left arm, then plan to blow up their poorly armored left shoulder to destroy both parts at the same time. It also means I can plan my own mechs accordingly, adding extra armor to parts with important equipment. It influences my positioning on the battlefield too, allowing me the keep the important or injured side of my mechs faced away from the front line.
At the same time, BattleTech’s at-a-glance health bar UI can be frustratingly misleading. Each unit has a bar with its current structure health on the left and armor on the right, but a mech with a near-full bar could potentially be within an inch of death if it’s hit in the wrong spot. Those bars don’t scale consistently across units either, so a turret with seven structure health and 100 armor will have a bar that, at a glance, looks extremely similar to that of a unit with significantly more health. Thankfully, it’s easy enough to click a unit for an accurate breakdown, but the misleading display duped me into a few mistakes early on.
But worse than that, RNG often rears its ugly head to turn any plans I make into guesswork instead of tactical destruction. When you take a shot, each individual weapon displays a percent chance to hit based on distance, the defense of your target, and few other things. Once something successfully hits, each visible piece of the enemy then has another percent chance of what part it will land on. That double layer of randomness makes it difficult to reliably hit a specific part with a regular attack.
There are ways to increase your odds, most notably an ability all mechs have called Precision Strike that lets you target a specific part with a modest probability bump. But using Precision Strikes costs Morale, a resource shared by your entire squad and regained throughout a fight, so you have to save it for important attacks and can’t just use it whenever you want – and you are actually encouraged to horde Morale to earn a small, squad-wide buff. On top of that, Precision Strike doesn’t solve the issue that it’s still just as hard to predict where an enemy will land their damage on you.
The difference between dealing 100 damage to single part instead of spreading it out across multiple pieces is night and day, and whether or not you do is largely out of your hands. I’ve had dozens of moments where I only needed a few missiles to land on a specific part to finish it off, doing everything I possibly can to maximize those odds, but they’ll just pepper the enemy’s unscratched armor instead. That stings, and feels downright disgusting when that enemy then turns my way, gets lucky, and lands a full salvo on a nearly full health center torso to instantly destroy one of my more pristine mechs.
Naturally, I’ve gotten lucky kills and lucky saves just as many times as I’ve been killed or missed killing in the same way. The RNG gods giveth and taketh away. I’m not bitter about a bad hit here and there, I simply wish shots were more controlled across the board. I’m sick of pumping loads of unnecessary attacks into an enemy, praying I hit the part I had used Precision Strikes to soften up before running out of Morale, only to get unlucky and spread that damage almost harmlessly across the rest of its armor. It just feels bad, and as if no planning in the world can account for it.
Hot Hot Heat
Deciding what weapons to turn on or off so you don’t overheat can offer some interesting choices.
Which is a shame, because I love the other strategic decisions that go into a fight. BattleTech made me think about positioning in a big way, as your mechs have a limited firing arc and every weapon has its own minimum, optimal, and maximum firing distances. That means picking your movement can be incredibly important, both in angling around opponents while keeping them at the right range and making sure you aren’t letting them do the same.
The jump jets you can strap to most mechs are a ton of fun as well. They allow you to rapidly reposition and can enable lighter mechs to unexpectedly get behind enemies at times. They also give your mechs the ability to do a falling melee attack from above, though that’ll do damage to yourself as well as an interesting trade-off. The jump jets open up a wide range of tactical options and can be used surprisingly liberally too, as long as you can spare the heat to use them.
Heat management is probably my favorite aspect of combat. Every weapon generates heat when fired, with energy weapons like lasers heating you up more than physical options. You could put out some serious damage by unloading everything you’ve got, but it could also cause you to overheat and potentially even shut down. Deciding what weapons to turn off to stay cool and thinking a turn or two ahead to when you might need to fire more than you can afford now offers some interesting choices that skirt around the RNG.
Heat is also cleverly influenced by your surroundings, so moves like walking into water can cool down your mech quicker. It might not surprise you to hear that it’s harder to cool down in a desert setting, and easier on a polar planet. That means you can start planning your heat management before you even begin a mission. I loved checking the planetary conditions, seeing it was a hotter setting, then choosing mechs with fewer energy weapons so I wouldn’t have to worry about holding back as much.
Even with all that planning, winning fights can become a game of mitigating losses. There are no repairs and no healing on the battlefield, which made me think hard before I left a mech out in the open. And while a destroyed mech can be recovered and put back together after a mission, an incapacitated mechwarrior is almost always gone for good. So even if a mech could keep fighting, I sometimes made the choice to keep an injured mechwarrior far from the action to make sure they lived to see another day. The ‘meat’ is cheaper than the ‘metal’, as they say, and it’s not hard to replace them, but it still sucks to lose a veteran mechwarrior to a random 1% head hit.
Taking losses and rolling with the punches is a fundamental part of BattleTech, and you can even withdraw from non-story missions for docked pay if you want to cut your losses without save-scumming. But restarting a story mission can suck massively because they often take more than an hour to complete. That’s made worse by the ridiculously long load screens I experienced when BattleTech was installed on a hard drive. They were better on an SSD, but would still almost always freeze and prompt Windows to ask if I wanted to shut the program down before snapping back into action.
BattleTech is a slow-paced game across the board. It takes a long time to travel to missions, to wait for mech alterations, to heal injured mechwarriors, to watch your mechs walk across the field, to deal that last point of damage to an enemy, to load between literally any screen and the next, and so much more. I can appreciate a thoughtful strategy sim – not every game needs to be constant action – but if it didn’t take so long to do literally everything, the idea of playing more frequently would probably be less daunting to me than it is.
The battle camera will often be completely obscured by terrain, or miss showing the damage dealt entirely.
BattleTech is full of other rough edges, too, like the dynamic battle camera that takes over during an attack. It can create some cool cinematic moments, but your view will instead often be completely obscured by terrain, or the camera will take so long to pan over to where the damage is being dealt that you miss the result entirely and have no way to see exactly what happened because there’s no log and no way to replay a turn.
The worst of the issues I saw, however, was when the AI-controlled allies I was supposed to protect in an escort mission glitched out. Despite clearing every enemy and trying my hardest to guide them, they refused to move forward and I was forced to forfeit the mission altogether. Even though problems that serious were rare, the constant slew of camera issues, loading screen lockups, and missed damage results felt shockingly common and made BattleTech seem surprisingly unpolished.
Oh Captain, My Captain
Off the battlefield, BattleTech is more of a merc-company sim than a strategy game. Your ship has various stations you can visit, most of which are populated by colorful crew members with stories of their own. You can get new contracts, chat with your crew, upgrade your ship, alter and repair your mechs, or visit the barracks to assign experience points to upgrades for your mechwarriors. You can also look over the star map, and even customize the colors and name of your team at a cute little painting station in your quarters that throws back to BattleTech’s tabletop origins.
Just be prepared to read a lot. Most of the different activities on your ship are easy enough to understand, but BattleTech’s tutorials are thoroughly inelegant. While the basics of combat are taught through a tutorial mission, everything about your ship is learned by clicking through pages and pages of optional tutorial dialogue. Thankfully, it only took one readthrough to understand it all and I didn’t have much of a problem from that point on, but it undoubtedly makes for a rocky start to a campaign.
Once I got a new ship from an early story mission, speaking with the engineer to build new rooms and systems in it was one of my favorite things to manage. The upgrades come slow and cost money, but can speed up your mech repairs, increase Morale, or provide mechwarriors with a constant, slow drip of experience outside of combat, among other things. Certain upgrades require others, and there’s a surprisingly deep tree of perks to discover.
The names of those upgrades may seem superficial, but they can also unlock unique options in random dialogue pop-ups as you travel from system to system. These Oregon Trail-style moments ask you to make a choice as commander, whether it’s if you’ll rush to rescue a burning ship or just how to split the last of the coffee, and can have lasting effects on your crew while providing some enjoyable, bite-sized storytelling. At one point a fire broke out in my mech bay, but my Automated Systems ship upgrade stopped it – less stressfully, my crew once wanted to watch a movie together, which we were adorably able to host in a newly built lounge. However, these events can lose their charm once they start repeating.
Customizing mechs is a whole minigame in itself as well, as you are free to swap out any equipment and weapons, only restricted by a mech’s max tonnage and the designated weapon-type hardpoints it has available. Despite their value, I actually found myself unlocking new mechs by scrapping destroyed enemies fairly regularly, which leaves room to experiment with different loadouts. It’s hard to completely overhaul a mech’s setup in a way that is better than the default, but it was still fun to make tweaks and upgrades when I could, such as deciding where I could risk lighter armor to free up weight for another jump jet or heat sink. It’s a system ripe for min-maxing, assuming your company has the time and money to commit to trying it.
It should tell you something about the delightfully dark BattleTech universe that total destruction of your forces is just another day, but bankruptcy is death.
Mechwarriors can be similarly upgraded, but not with nearly as much depth. Experience earned on missions can be spent to upgrade one of four skills; Gunnery, Piloting, Guts, and Tactics – which roughly relate to aim, melee/evasion, health/stability, and distance/sensors respectively. Upgrading gets more expensive the deeper into a skill you get, but you can also start unlocking special skills like Gunnery’s ability to aim at multiple targets. This let me specialize mechwarriors based on the type of mech they’d likely be piloting, but of course it also makes losing high-level mechwarriors sting.
Hunting for contracts is one of the areas of BattleTech that’s a less entertaining. You generally have two to four contracts offered to you at any given time, all of which are randomly generated based on the planet you are orbiting. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be handed a set of options I simply wasn’t interested in or flat-out couldn’t beat, forcing me to move to a new system. And while you can travel the star map any time you want, it can cost a massive amount of time and money.
It should tell you something about the delightfully dark BattleTech universe that total destruction of your forces is just another day, but bankruptcy is death. Every 30 days you have to pay your bills based on the upkeep of your ship and mechs, as well as the salaries of your mechwarriors. That means spending two or more weeks to go to a new system can be expensive if you don’t have a bit of a nest egg built up.
That restriction would be fine if these random missions didn’t feel so wildly inconsistent. Even though you get a good description of the job, environment, and even a difficulty rating on a scale of one to five skulls, it’s hard to know what to expect until you actually get into the action. Early on, I had a one-and-a-half-skull mission that had nothing but a single mech and a single vehicle standing in my way, then immediately afterward got wrecked by a two-skull mission with a whopping eight enemy mechs.
Additionally, although there are different objectives like capturing a base, escorting a convoy, or simply blowing up all the enemies, they all seemed to quickly devolve into that last one. Enemy reinforcements would often arrive before the fighting even began, and the enemy AI pretty much tells it to work toward you and attack no matter what my mission goal may be. That makes many of these missions play out in a similar pattern, though BattleTech’s wide variety of interesting, hand-crafted battlefields can shake up your strategy a bit.
You Say You Want a Revolution
BattleTech’s story missions are nearly always more fun. You’re usually forced to complete a couple of random filler contracts before the next one unlocks, but the campaign offers a more consistent challenge (though still a very difficult one) with more interesting objectives. Instead of just “fight,” you can be fighting your way toward a ship you need to destroy, stopping APCs to defend a spaceport, or facing off against a special boss enemy.
The story itself is full of exciting moments and tense twists as your mercenary outfit supports the Arano Restoration. Led by Kameo Arano, you aid in a highly political war as she wrestles to liberate a territory of space called the Aurigan Reach from the uncle that usurped it from her, and that struggle is cleverly tied into the missions themselves.
Your motivations are left entirely up to you, be it money, glory, honor, or whatever else you decide.
The top notch voice acting does a great job of breathing more life into Kamea and the other characters, with some compelling 2D cutscenes that look concept art come to life. I never found myself bored by the copious amount of written dialogue either, as I was invested in the story being told. BattleTech also gives you the occasional dialogue option that doesn’t influence anything, as far as I can tell, but let me more confidently roleplay as the commander I wanted to be.
Your motivations for helping Kamea are left entirely up to you to decide – be it money, glory, honor, or what have you – and that fantasy of being the type of commander you see yourself as is emphasized throughout. The initial character creator even lets you choose a pronoun instead of a gender, between ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’. It’s a tiny thing that likely won’t impact the vast majority of people who play BattleTech, but casually inclusive options like this should still be commended whenever they appear.
I enjoyed that commander fantasy, but I wish BattleTech made me want to keep playing just for the sake of growing my mercenary company more than it does. The campaign was a lot of fun over the 35 hours it took me to complete it, and it was a pleasure to build up my ship and grow my team. But the slow pace means it takes a long time to grow that roster once the Arano Restoration stops shelling out the big bucks, and BattleTech can’t stand on its procedural contracts alone.
There is also a fairly robust multiplayer PvP mode, complete with mech customization and lance loadouts split into four different classes. You can look through a server browser to find matches or create your own, letting you pick the map you’re on, whether to restrict mechs to their stock configurations, and more. It’s exactly the type of multiplayer fans of the tabletop game will likely appreciate, and gives you a more competitive opportunity to min-max strategies, but it also comes with all the same randomness problems that are inherent to BattleTech’s combat.