BattleTech makes you run a gauntlet before the end. You get a brief heads-up that you’ve hit the point-of-no-return for the campaign and once you embark on the next story mission, you’ll have to make do with whatever you have on hand. No more repairs, no more upgrades.
I’d probably over-leveled my mercenary company: I could field several missions’ worth of top-tier mechs with hardly any trouble. Even so, during a particularly dicey mission that turned into an unexpected “last stand” scenario, with my best mechs and pilots starting to go down under relentless incoming fire, I worried that maybe I still should have spent more time gearing-up for the final battle. With every pilot who got hurt, and every limb that got snapped-off on of my mechs, I knew I was facing an even tougher final mission.
It turns out that BattleTech is a game that gets better when it tests your endurance and makes you run those gauntlets. By the the time the campaign ended and I saw the final cutscene, I was already thinking about a full campaign replay when the Flashpoint update hits in November. Because these endurance tests are exactly what Flashpoint promises to add.
BattleTech was always a tinkerer’s game. Inevitably you’d find that your play style and your pilots didn’t quite mesh with the default weapons loadouts and you’d start tweaking them to fit your tactics. Once I’d unlocked a few extra slots for spare mechs, I also made a point to have a few mechs hanging around that were good for special situations like high-temperature biomes where overheating was a problem, or mountainous terrain where jump-capable mechs could easily outmaneuver their ground-bound comrades. But despite all that tinkering the late-game began to feel a bit repetitive because just about every mission was self-contained. I was always able to use my ideal custom-built tools for the exact task at hand. Adaptation and improvisation, which had been such a major part of the early game where my squad was often under-equipped, began to fade out of the experience.
It didn’t matter if my brawlers were getting torn to shreds every mission. They’d be put back together before the next battle, good as new. I could always spend money and time to get everyone back on their feet, and run the same overall tactics that I always did.
What has me so keen to play BattleTech anew with the Flashpoint update is that it promises to force a reappraisal of how combat looks. Instead of just being a series of self-contained battles, the “flashpoints” will unfold a bit like mini-campaigns… the kind that BattleTech and MechWarrior players used to run in the pen-and-paper versions. A mix of narrative adventure and linked-missions, apparently some flashpoints will involve “consecutive deployments” where you won’t be able to repair and refit between missions. And that is just what I need from BattleTech now that I’ve basically “solved” the single-mission format.
This kind of constraint is something a lot of tactics games under-utilize. They focus on developing a deep “bench” or rotation of units, and what gets you into trouble is if you don’t conserve and develop those resources. It’s why, in our XCOM run, Austin and I have repeatedly made a point of running missions with weaker soldiers, just so they can roughly keep pace with the escalating difficulty of the game. But our reward for doing that is being able to generally rely on the same bags of tricks for mission after mission. It’s very rare that we have to compensate for a truly weak link.
What I’d love to see emphasized more in tactics games is endurance. You get the odd extended-length mission, and games like Darkest Dungeon use mission-length as a kind of level-check in itself, but you rarely have a tactics game that, instead of resetting the board, asks you to chain together a series of wins with diminishing resources and tools. BattleTech is a great tactics game, but it might be at its very best in those moments when you’re desperately improvising a new battle plan out of whatever you have left that still works.
BattleTech always tried to emphasize these aspects, but when you were rich as Croesus in the endgame, and traveled through space with the firepower and infrastructure of a small nation state behind you, it kind of lost interest in testing your finesse. Its not until its final missions, where it uses combinations of timed objectives, varied terrain, wave-based combat, and finally a denouement where you can’t repair your units, I saw exactly the franchise I hope BattleTech turns into. A merc management game and a campaign-management game, where you have to view your units not just in terms of a single engagement, but of how they’ll likely wear across several consecutive ones.
It’s the kind of twist that will send me back into the mech lab for six more months, tuning and re-considering my mech company as it becomes a game that’s less about winning single battles than it is about waging other people’s wars.