'BattleTech' Brings 'MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries' into a Post-'XCOM' World

Reinventing an Ameritrash board gaming classic, sans all the trash.

by Rob Zacny
Jun 6 2017, 3:00pm

screenshots courtesy Paradox Interactive

Packed in alongside a new video card, 1995's MechWarrior 2 was a revelation. Between dazzling alien skies, a propulsive soundtrack, and the incredible physicality of piloting 70-ton robots into battle, MechWarrior 2 seemed to herald a new era of PC gaming as it transported players to the battlefields of another world.

A confusing world, though. I found its song-winded passages of flavor text baffling as I tried to figure out what the hell a Jade Falcon was, and what exactly they were fighting over in this game. Fortunately for me, that was the age of BattleTech, when North America's answer to Macross and all things Gundam had improbably conquered nerd culture.

At arcades in nearby Chicago, people lined up to play inside BattleTech simulation pods. There was a syndicated, GI Joe-like children's cartoon. In the sci-fi section at bookstores, BattleTech novels covered entire shelves. At the hobby shop, you had your choice of BattleTech editions, pewter figurines, and MechWarrior RPG sourcebooks.

And I got into all of that shit.

"The 90s were certainly the peak days of the franchise," creator Jordan Weisman admitted, when we spoke at ParadoxCon in Stockholm last month. Then he paused and said, with a shit-eating, used-car salesman smile, "Until starting later this year!" Then he cringed, shrugged, and said with a sheepish smile, "Sorry, but I think I have to say that, right?"

Because later this year, BattleTech is coming back as a PC tactics game via Weisman's Harebrained Schemes, fresh off their successful resurrection of the Shadowrun series on PC. Weisman is sanguine about the new BattleTech's prospects. He points out that it was a far bigger game that Shadowrun ever came close to being, and it has an audience that has largely gone hungry ever since, in Weisman's words, Microsoft let it atrophy for a decade.

Yet for all my nostalgia, I've also been apprehensive: as both a board game and a franchise, BattleTech might be beloved, but it is also dated. I wasn't sure a modern PC game could both do it justice and also make something fresh and interesting.

I nursed those doubts right up until my first game of the new BattleTech on PC, at which point I was instantly returned to my faith. It happened when I watched my lowliest, shittiest BattleMech step out of concealment from behind a treeline, sneak up on a massive enemy Assault Mech with almost five times its firepower, and throw a punch so hard that it peeled the other mech's armor open and ruptured its nuclear reactor. It was one of the most savage and satisfying things I've ever seen in a tactics game, and it is pure BattleTech.

It feels just like the board game that I used to play. Mechs dance around the map, jockeying to keep the enemy at optimal range, managing their own overheating, and avoiding deadly crossfires. Some Mechs are long-distance harassers that can pepper their enemies with fire for turn after turn, while others can deal out massive knock-out punches in a single turn, but don't have the stamina to keep up that pace for long. It's a game of positioning and opportunity, as play goes Mech-by-Mech in order of initiative (though a player with initiative can always choose to pass and defer their move to later in the turn). It's a lot like the tabletop game, but with absolutely none of the hassle.

Yet Harebrained have also made a very modern BattleTech, and this is the thing I didn't think they'd manage to pull off. This new game feels absolutely authentic to its source material, both the tabletop wargame and the expanded universe that it inspired, but it has also cast-off the dated 70s and 80s anime aesthetics and the fussy "throw 2d6 at every problem" game design without betraying its identity.

"The tabletop game has not been updated in 35 years," Weisman admitted. "And it really feels its age, right? It's not a modern game. On computers, it does not fare any better. So one of our biggest challenges in the project has been, 'How do we stay true to the essence of that game but make a modern computer tactical game?' Which— I mean—I think we all point to XCOM as a shining example of a modern tactical game."

XCOM was both my hope and my fear for a new BattleTech. If BattleTech was "XCOM but with Mechs" it might still have been a good game, but it would not have been a great BattleTech game.

Weisman gets it. "Our constant goal was that your familiarization with the Mechs from the old days should be valid," he said. "The tactics you employed from the old days should be valid. So it shouldn't make you rethink how to play the game. It should just do it in a way that's much more modern."

The modernization extends to the game's aesthetics. The Mechs themselves are more chunky and detailed than their original 1970s designs. The "modern warfare" look extends to the sound of the weaponry itself. Autocannons let fly with a whirring-buzz that's straight out of a Liveleak video of an A-10 airstrike. Long-Range Missiles jet skyward like modern top-attack anti-tank missiles before diving on their target, causing them to quake and stumble under the rain of ordnance. Armor buckles and components break with a piercing shriek of tearing metal. This, like the new Battlestar Galactica, is a post-Cold War reimagining of a classically kitschy source material.

In the build made available to press, I've only been able to play skirmish games between two teams of four Mechs. The full game is going to have an overarching campaign where you lead a band of mercenaries from contract-to-contract, slowly growing from a fly-by-night operation of mechanized goons into a first-rate, full-service military contractor. Uber but for planetary assaults.

This has always been the other key fantasy of the BattleTech universe: small business management. If you played MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries, you quickly learned that one key to success was running around blowing-off enemy Mechs' legs so that you could salvage all their valuable gear. Every new Mech you got was a fixer-upper that you slowly upgraded and hot-rodded into being able to confront deadlier enemies. It sounds like BattleTech is largely following in this tradition, with surgical takedowns of enemy Mechs being rewarded with more salvage, and players encouraged to cut their losses when the margins on a mission start to turn against them.

Along the way, you'll recruit new MechWarriors to pilot your Mechs, and new support staff to work aboard the JumpShip that carries you from job to job. I don't know if it's going to go in a full Jagged Alliance direction in terms of merc-personalities, but you will be making choices about hiring and firing different pilots, and developing a team of engineers, technicians, and logistics officers to improve the operations of your company.

You'll do all this against a backdrop of interstellar war between five warring houses in a feudal dark age. Weisman is quick to liken it to the Game of Thrones universe, though BattleTech was never quite as morally complicated, and certainly never as violent. It was a fairly bloodless place where statesmen mused on the costs of war in between trips to a Mech cockpit to go inflict some of that cost on their enemies.

(To give you an idea of what we're working with here: In one legendary scene, Prince Hanse Davion is darkly reflecting on the growing antiwar movement against his leadership. About five seconds later, his palace is attacked by enemy raiders and Hanse sprints to his old Mech—saying something like, "My enemies have forgotten that the battlefield was once my kingdom, and a Mech cockpit my throne!"—and rides to battle, single-handedly saving his capital. In the process he's wounded, and is satisfied that now his haters will have to acknowledge he pays the same price he asks of his people. It's like if the Queen's line about "being able to look the East End in the face" during the Blitz came on the heels of her using a Spitfire to shoot down a squadron of Stukas. And if I'm being honest, I still love this shit.)

Most of that universe's history is already written, and BattleTech takes place before most of the major events that players remember ever happened. It opens in 3025, the starting era for the original game and arguably remains the best, most interesting ruleset. If what you remember of this universe is about comes from the likes of MechWarrior 2 and MechCommander, this predates all of that by about 30 years.

"It's a fundamental starting point, with the way the five houses are in battle with each other," Weisman said. "We're at small scale warfare, not giant armies, so that a small scale game that we're going, your mechs can actually have big impacts at that scale. And it gives us the opportunity to walk through the history." Weisman suggested that if this game does find a following, that walk through history will lead this series through a lot of the universe's major events.

There were a lot of ways for BattleTech to go wrong (and, until we see the campaign, a lot of ways it still could). But even in with this incomplete, skirmish-only version that has been made available to Kickstarter backers and press, you can see both the ways in which it is faithful to its origins, and the ways it has cleverly reinvented and remade the source material to adapt it for a modern tactics audience.

It's a lesson Weisman learned on Shadowrun. "I was going back to a game I created thirty years ago, and I was starting to say, gosh, some of that I would do differently. I would change this, and change that. Let's update this! And I started going down the path of messing with the IP itself and I realized, I was doing a Han Shot First. And I don't actually have that right. Just because I made it up originally, that doesn't mean I have the liberty to change that. So we stepped back and decided our goal was to make it modern without really changing it."

If I hadn't played it myself, I'd say that sounds like a woefully unambitious and rose-tinted view of what a modern BattleTech should be. But several games into this beta, I have to admit that Weisman and Harebrained seem to have accomplished both of their seemingly mutually exclusive objectives. It's the BattleTech I remember, but new and different in all the right ways.

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Board Games
Harebrained Schemes
Jordan Weisman