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Now that people have had the chance to try out the Backer Beta for Harebrained Schemes' BattleTech, we get to read their thoughts on it. And even though the only game mode available right now is the singleplayer Skirmish, the preliminary impressions seem to be highly positive:
The mechs are also highly customisable. “You have a chassis,” explains Weisman. “And each chassis has been wired for different types of weaponry, but you can customise any of the weapons. And you can customise the heatsinks, the armour, the jump jets, all those kinda things, to get different performance out of your mechs.” Expect at least 30 chassis, ranging from ones perfect for light scouts, to behemoths designed for walking weapons platforms.
With all these tactical considerations and customisation options, BattleTech seems pretty clever, but nothing is as satisfying as the simple pleasure of watching two mechs box. “In the 25 years we’ve been doing computer versions of BattleTech and MechWarrior, we’ve never been able to have a mech throw a punch before,” says Weisman, grinning. “Now we can.”
I look over at another skirmish playing out next to me. A mech with no arms does the only thing it can, headbutting its opponent, which then explodes. Most of the game is spent looking at these machines from a distance, but occasionally the camera zooms in with a bit of cinematic flair during an attack, capturing the explosions and machines locked in deadly duels. It’s striking and appropriately over-the-top.
In taking their tactics off the grid, Harebrained have fulfilled the fantasy of mechs as heavy machinery: they’re soldiers, yes, but they’re also vehicles. Sometimes you get them in a tight spot, and they need reversing. Sometimes you’ll be in the perfect position to pummel an enemy with a barrage of rockets - but facing exactly the wrong way. These suits are powerful, but my goodness they’re clumsy. You’ll need to plan ahead if you don’t want to be pulling three-point turns under fire.
In going full 3D, too, the studio have stepped away from the realm of abstract rules and percentages that defined Shadowrun. To navigate BattleTech’s outdoor maps is to wrestle with a simulation. At one stage, I wondered why one of my squad’s artillery wasn’t landing the way I’d hoped - only to notice that half its salvo was hammering impotently against a crag close enough to halt the trajectory of my missiles.
Most palpably, though, the engine switch has given BattleTech some much-needed heft. Where Shadowrun combat felt weightless - like a papercraft reworking of XCOM - BattleTech throws its weight around. When mechs take damage they shudder horribly under the onslaught. If they lose both their arms to laser fire - a very real possibility as the fight wears on - they close the distance to melee and nut their enemies square in the cockpit. It’s like they’re fighting the most expensive bar brawl ever.
Weisman says there’s a fully functioning merc company management sim in the campaign, where you’ll need to balance the books, hiring employees (including the Mechwarriors themselves, but also engineers and other techy sorts), promoting and levelling up those employees, and kitting out your mechs. That last part involves scavenging parts from fallen enemies as well as buying new bits from marketplaces, and that feeds back into the tactical battles; don’t destroy the parts you might want to steal and stick on your own mechs.
It’s the campaign that I really want to get my mitts on, but it wouldn’t be worth a bean if the actual combat sections weren’t worthwhile. They’re more than that – the skirmish mode is fantastic, both as an exquisite visual depiction of the tabletop game that Weisman created decades ago, but as a game of tricksy tactics.
Hurling dizzying amounts of fire at your enemy gives a wave of satisfaction, and seeing a foe fall to the punch of another ‘bot is humbly reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. The camerawork may often struggle to reach the photographic marvels of such a high-budget blockbuster movie by consistently bouncing around during enemy turns. We also found issue with the UI being a little jarring and convoluted. It’s difficult to understand each piece unless you put some serious thought into what you’re looking at. Design-wise, it’s an eyesore. But that’s usually last on the game development agenda. We’re happy to give it some time to bloom.
Though we’re currently without the game’s promised campaign mode, a simple skirmish against friends or AI helps make the wait somewhat tolerable. Battetech is raw, powerful and thought-provoking - and we can’t wait to see more.
I’ve really enjoyed the multi-layered considerations that go into the combat system, though there’s only so much ownership I could take of the mechs under my command when they were already made for me and piloted by MechWarriors I know nothing about. The true test of BattleTech will come when we can actually get our hands on the campaign layer and see how everything locks together, from the story to the economic sim to the skirmishes themselves. But from what I’ve played so far, and assuming Harebrained can deliver on creating the type of campaign they’ve described, I can’t wait to get into the inner sphere and start building my rep as a merc.
As you can see, BattleTech has come a long way since our hands-on with the “Super Early Alpha” at MechCon 2016. Melee attacks feel satisfying — no, they feel powerful. Weapons thud with a resounding crash, and the rain of missiles from the sky produces beautiful explosions when they hit your ammunition storage and it detonates, taking your arm with it. It takes every bit of the careful tactics and planning of the tabletop game, but strips out all of the tedium and ruler-based nonsense. While the game has been delayed, and this beta comes later than was anticipated, literally everything about it was worth the wait.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, Commander, I’m heading back to the Inner Sphere for some more BattleTech — I’m determined to get that Death From Above kill!