A reasonably compelling turn-based strategy game with reams of lore and old-school tabletop sensibilities, BattleTech is the contemporized classic fused with XCOM and Game of Thrones – it all just takes too long.
This might come as something of a surprise to long-time readers, but I’ve never played a single tabletop game, least of all BattleTech, the hard sci-fi strategic war simulator that cursory research tells me was the basis of the MechWarrior series. I guess I just don’t come from much of a tabletop-gaming culture. The town I’m from only has one comic book shop, for instance, and it’s covered in metal bars because people kept putting the windows through.
That makes me either the very best or the absolute worst person to review this version of BattleTech, which was developed by Harebrained Schemes and feels a bit like the techno-feudal lovechild of the original source material and the XCOM series. The underpinnings of the whole thing are turn-based strategic skirmishes between squads of giant, human-piloted bipedal mechs, which is lovely in theory, a bit underwhelming in practice, and in retrospect probably exactly what fans of this material were hoping for. So, take that as you will.
Most of this I was expecting. But what caught me off-guard wasn’t an unexpected rocket salvo, but torrents of incurably dorky worldbuilding that assaulted me during the pilot-creation process and never quite let up. It’s one of those games that slap reams of text on the screen, and certain proper nouns and such are highlighted, and if you mouse over them you get another text-box full of clarifying detail. The explanations are fractal. Each clarifying statement opens up five or six others that all need their own clarifications, and it could conceivably go on forever.
No matter. I won’t detail the story, both because I didn’t understand a word of it, and because the only story that really matters in BattleTech is the one of whether your mechs **** up the other mechs or collapse to the ground, limbless, in a shower of red-hot sparks. The game itself seems to understand that, which I assume is why you’re allowed to dive into the lore at a depth that suits you, and why all the dialogue is so sparse and utilitarian once you’re playing. This is fine with me. After all, there’s only so much claptrap about deposed queens of industrialised space-empires that I can reasonably tolerate.
Anyway, BattleTech works thusly. You control a four-mech team comprising mostly-interchangeable walkers of either a light, medium or heavy designation. Your twinkle-toed slimmed-down fellas do the bulk of the scouting while the big damage-soaking thickies amble in like nightclub bouncers to do the heavy lifting. You select where to move your units, which direction they should face, and then a weapon to use and a target to use it on based predominantly on what the likelihood of scoring a successful hit is.
Simple stuff, then. But there’s a lot more to it, and in totality you might be surprised how much tactical thinking and careful play is actually required to avoid getting your chunky legs blown into puddles of slag. This is especially evident in a localised damage system that distributes trauma randomly across various leg and torso sections, and a stability level that needs to be properly managed to avoid your mech dopily falling over and exposing itself to further critical injury.
Heat, too, is another thing to worry about, as it accumulates from firing weapons and will, at best, severely limit damage output if it isn’t vented in time. All these things – positioning, unit type, weapon type, chance-to-hit, heat and stability management, etc. – are intended to be familiar enough for players to not feel overwhelmed, but distinct enough in combination to distinguish BattleTech from its competition. And I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say it accomplishes the former much more adroitly than the latter. In fact, most skirmishes tend to devolve into the same clutch of tactics anyway, since concentrated firepower is so important that you’ll inevitably be keeping your big lads linked arm-in-arm, as if you’re simulating some hysterically uncoordinated barn dance.
You can play BattleTech more daringly if you wish, but I didn’t for two reasons. I’ll get to the second momentarily, because it constitutes the game’s biggest and most persistent issue. But the first is this: As the leader of a mech-mercenary outfit, you have bills to pay. You need the mission moolah coming in to keep the lights on. But if you constantly have to pony up for expensive repairs and reinforcements, your bank balance takes a mission-postponing hit. The odd arm and leg being welded back together is all fine and dandy, but being constantly pummelled when your adventurous tactics don’t pay off is a quick path to insolvency. I have enough financial strife in my real life that I don’t particularly want to worry about my giant-robot overheads.
Here’s the other thing: BattleTech can be glacially slow. Every animation takes too long. Every stat and status update, every faux-dramatic camera pan, and every sequential action by every mech across every turn throughout every battle – it all takes too long. The attritional you-then-me combat is only compounded by such a little sense of impact and tactility that it’s like watching sumo wrestlers duke it out by taking turns at prodding each other with one finger.
I know, I know – that’s how it works (and you can turn some of the fancy camerawork off in the menus). But you can’t tell me a few more seconds couldn’t have been shaved from each turn. And if you are going to tell me that, then wait until a few enemy units have ganged up on your most-vulnerable teammate and peppered him with a dozen individually-fired rounds of ordnance. How tortuous was that? Of all the novel ideas underpinning the BattleTech formula, I wish one of them was just an option to fast-forward through that bullshit so I can work out how much it’s going to cost me to glue the dude back together.
Don’t even get me started on the user interface. For all the time I’ve spent impatiently drumming my fingers on my desk and slamming my palms on my legs waiting and waiting for my next turn, I’ve spent as long, if not longer, poring through all the meters and arrows and diagrams and icons that flood the screen to badly-convey essential concepts and information. Depth and complexity are lovely, but needlessly flabby presentation doesn’t make BattleTech deep or complex – it simply makes it annoying. There must be a clearer, more efficient way of communicating this information at a glance. As it stands, the reasty numerical mire isn’t impossible to wade through, but it still stinks.
For all the time I spent wishing that less of the screen was obscured by fussy windows and overlays, I can’t say that the environments are all that interesting anyway. Distinguishing features are scant, and the terrain barely responds to you stomping through it. The mechs themselves, even, feel bizarrely interchangeable given how many varieties there are. What it almost always boils down to is how large they are and whether they have short or long-range weapons; after a while you’ll see them only as a cascade of numbers, most of them representing how much they’ll cost to repair.
About 50% of BattleTech is spent waiting, but 100% of BattleTech is spent worrying about money. Between missions you’ll attempt to balance the books by choosing new ones, repairing, upgrading and buying mechs, increasing weapon and equipment stockpiles, and chin-wagging with advisors in a base mode. It’s all pretty flagrantly ripped off XCOM, but at least the bridge crew are a bit more engaging than their XCOM counterparts, and a bit better integrated into the tale of epic clans and houses that’s a bit like Game of Thrones, only in space. It’s just unfortunate that there’s no analogue for the Iron Bank.
Don’t let me be too downbeat, mind. I can’t speak to how faithful an adaptation of its venerable source material BattleTech is, but it certainly strikes me as something that’ll be right up the alley of a certain kind of player. It also strikes me that such a player will have bought the thing already, rendering this review relatively pointless. If you’re on the fence, so to speak, I wouldn’t want to turn you away completely, as there’s meat on these bones and future updates might well fatten it up even further. Plus most of the criticisms apply to the genre in general, which lots of people – perhaps those with more time – will have developed immunity to. If that’s you, add another star or something. Otherwise BattleTech is a decent-enough turn-based strategy game that might just last forever – for all the wrong reasons.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.