I thought that maybe this time things would be different. With my new BattleTech campaign going incredibly smoothly, and a crack team of elite MechWarriors and mechs at my disposal, I felt like I could get through the game’s notorious Smithon mission cleanly, with all the secondary objectives completed.
A few hours and many attempts later, I found myself once again forced into the gut-wrenching sacrifices and compromises that have made Smithon into BattleTech’s version of hell, as Austin put it on Twitter. It’s also become one of my favorite missions in tactics games, because it uniquely crafted to lure you into running deadly risks and accepting painful choices. Even knowing what the mission is designed to elicit, I keep running headlong into its _Kobayashi Maru_-like choices.
Smithon is a base-assault mission that is daunting on its face: You are significantly outnumbered and the base has strong fixed defenses in the form of missile turrets that will rain columns of fire on your mechs for what seems like hours. To even the odds, however, this enemy base is littered with munitions dumps that can be ignited for massive AOE explosions that will wipe out any buildings and most mechs in their way. That’s obviously the key to the mission, the thing you are supposed to do to have a fighting chance.
However, you get more money for the mission if you save more of those munitions dumps. Furthermore, you get even more money if you prevent enemy supply trucks from escaping out the front door of the base while you are busting down the back door.
My suspicion is that Smithon is entirely manageable if you go in, from the start, with the goal of leveling that base to the ground by blowing up every last munitions storage on the map. That’s the hammer to the mission’s nail. But I haven’t been able to confirm that because Smithon is perfectly designed to bait both my greed, and my vanity. And across several different attempts, I’ve find it’s almost cruelly balanced to make that perfect performance feel tantalizingly achievable… until you’re in so far over your head that there’s no good way to save yourself.
But there is one particular moment that I’ve encountered in each of my successful attacks on Smithon that really raises this mission to Hall of Fame status. It arrives at different times and situations, but it’s been almost inevitable in my experience, and it takes place entirely within my own head.
Somewhere over the course of that mission, a turn arrives when I realize that I am utterly screwed unless I start brute-forcing the mission by blowing-up everything within sight. I don’t want to realize this, and I end up taking about ten minutes of looking at my different possible moves, considering the shattered state of each of my units and how close to death each of my pilots is. Usually one of them is already dead, and I’ve already come to terms with the ida of acceptable losses in what was supposed to be a flawless run but now I am facing a situation where all those sacrifices and risks are about to become meaningless because I’m going to annihilate this base anyway (just like I could have done at the start).
Listen to Waypoint's Rob Zacny and Austin Walker discuss their thoughts on Smithon and the rest of BattleTech right here:
It is surprising to me every time. Every time I do this mission, I think this is going to be the one where it goes perfectly and painlessly. Every time, I am forced to go through a process of rationalizing and acceptance as a define “perfect victory” downward to something that I’d normally describe as “grim” or “Pyrrhic”. And every time I am confronted with a choice between near-certain death or the destruction of my tactical hopes, and my nerve fails me. I start running like hell and blowing-up the base behind me until the last enemy mech is finally engulfed in explosions. Then I take stock of a “victory” that cost me at least one of the pilots I’ve had since the start of the game, and the better part of four different mechs, whose repair bills are going to cut my payment in half.
And I’m grateful.
Which is why I don’t fully agree with Austin that Smithon is hell, because there is something deeply redemptive about the experience. It’s a painful lesson in humility, limitations, and compromise that will serve you well for the rest of the BattleTech campaign.
More than that, however, Smithon is just a magical scenario because it resists the kind of cheesy repetition that so many tactical setpieces fall into. I’m sure there are exact moves and loadouts you can take into the mission that will let you accomplish everything you need, but in something like a dozen different attempts, I’ve never quite found them and short of save-scumming after every move, I’m not sure I ever will. Instead, without forcing any kind of perma-death consequences onto me, Smithon backs me into the same corner again and again, and then forces me to play my way out of it… and leaves me proud and thrilled when I manage it.
What are your first ballot, hall of fame “hell missions”? What are the levels, battles, or scenarios that have turned you into your own worst enemy and made you grateful for the experience?