The BattleTech universe is probably more familiar to gamers through the MechAssault and MechWarrior series, but Harebrained Schemes are taking us back to the series’ roots as a turn-based tactical board game. This isn’t a direct translation of those tabletop games, but a modern and compelling take on the universe.
The main story takes place early on during the 3025 Succession Wars, and sees you fighting to restore Lady Arano to power after she was betrayed on the day of her coronation. After years spent struggling as part of a mercenary unit on the Frontier, it’s a no-brainer to join her growing movement, acting as the crack troops that go where they’re needed to further the war effort. Naturally, as mercenaries, you’re working for hire, even though your character has a personal connection to Arano, and you’re able to venture off into other parts of the star map to find work.
You have to juggle quite a lot of different factors in manoeuvring your lance of mechs across the battlefield. There’s no hard cover system beyond simple line of sight and minor obstructions from trees – when these mechs are bigger than buildings, there’s not much point in trying to cower behind cover – but you need to be aware of your mech’s positioning and direction they’re facing to avoid being flanked or take too much damage. Each mech is segmented with different weapons and pieces of equipment like heat sinks and jet packs in place. Lose an arm and that’ll be the laser cannon on it destroyed as well, lose a leg and you’ll be limping on its wreckage. Obviously, if the central torso is blown up or the head where the pilot sits is destroyed, it’s game over.
You also have to manage a mech’s heat which builds up from using the various weapons, as overheating can damage the superstructure and lead to the mech shutting down to cool off – different biomes affect how easily heat is dissipated. At the same time, mechs can be destabilised and even knocked to the ground by too much missile damage or melee attacks.
The user interface definitely takes some getting used to, and could use some further improvement. The information for general armour and core structure is easy to see, as is heat, stability and the number of evasion pips earnt for moving quickly, but you can’t see at a glance what a particular mech’s locational armour and damage is unless it’s your active mech or an enemy you’re targeting. When they are targeted you can see all the information, but again, you have to mouse over to see where certain weapons are so you can do your best to disarm opponents or view each part’s remaining armour. The information is there, but it’s awkward to get at and can lead to some enemy mechs feeling practically invincible, especially when you’re dealing with your lance overheating and the need to whittle away points of evasion.
Make no mistake, this game can be really hard at times, and there’s no difficulty settings to choose from. It might serve up randomised contracts that you can quite easily grind through to keep the Argo and your mercenary crew sailing through space, but the priority missions that advance the story will really test you tactical skill, your ability to set up your lance to suit the conditions, and your luck in a fight. I’ve had missions that I’ve tried several times over, eventually ending in a crunching brawl between mechs on the top of a hill, surrounded by the smoking skeletons of other mechs and fallen comrades who have a 50:50 chance of being dead. The satisfaction of successfully adapting your lance and overcoming the odds is ultimately worth it, though.
There’s a few prongs to your progression in the campaign, with your first being the MechWarriors pilots which you can level up in general ability and with a handful of skills, such as multi-lock to target multiple enemies. A bigger factor is the mechs themselves, which come in dozens of different shapes and sizes, with a set number of weapon “hardpoints” to determine the kinds of loadouts they can carry. You can customise them further, but there’s often tradeoffs to armour or heat dissipation that you have to make, and the default loadouts are generally quite competent. The more meaningful upgrades here are in scavenging parts after battle or visiting a planet’s shop, where you might find weapons with a + or ++, which are slightly more powerful variants.
The final part to your progression is with the Argo that becomes you floating home in space. Once you earn it and free your crew from the Frontier, you can fly anywhere and take on contracts, returning to help Lady Arano as you see fit. Upgrading the Argo means your mech repairs can be faster, the crew morale (which gives you a couple of easy boosts in battle) can start higher, the ship travels faster, and so on. Travelling between systems is a bit of a drag, only punctuated by seeing tasks completed and occasional decisions to make between crew members about coffee supplies, for example.
There’s still a rough and ready feeling to several parts of the game, that I really hope Hardbrained can return to in time. The cinematic camera does a decent job of framing the action, most of the time, but it often picks weird angles and makes the game feel slower – thankfully you can micromanage which dynamic cameras are used. There’s also visible stutters, such as when the game doles out lots of status changes after a particularly damaging attack.
It’s still a slow and methodical game, especially when you’re sat waiting for enemies to take their turn, and it would be nice to speed this up somehow, especially when the pathfinding AI sometimes decides that it wants to walk backwards for 20 seconds instead of turning and moving. Some of the randomised missions also plod along, with odd pacing that has you escort trucks halfway across a map and only have enemies dropping in right as you get to the end, or an assassination target who doesn’t fight back and simply runs away, despite having a gigantic and powerful mech.
There’s also a dearth of voice acting. Only certain cutscenes using animated artwork and moments of mid-mission chatter are voiced, and it’s odd when there’s lots of silent moving mannequins for briefings and story leading to priority missions. I’d have loved to have these fully voiced, but either time or budget must now have allowed for it. A nice touch is that the backstory you create at the start of the game can give you certain minor dialogue options.
This game is clearly a foundation for Harebrained Schemes to build on, with this sector of space and the neighbouring factions capable of holding many more stories, not to mention the potential to add further generations of tech and mechs that appear later in the BattleTech universe. There’s also only minimal 1v1 multiplayer support, which Harebrained will hopefully expand to feature 2v2 and beyond.
Though it’s rough around the edges, has difficulty spikes and very much feels like the foundations on which Harebrained can build upon, the core turn-based tactical gameplay of BattleTech is great. Micromanaged the tactical combat is gripping and tense, whether you’re crossing your fingers that the damage won’t pierce your armour, or laughing as your mech punches a hole through the middle of an enemy. This could easily grow into something special, and I hope it does.
Available on PC & Mac