Editorial note: This review contains minor spoilers for BattleTech.

Pete and I are both nerds of a certain age, and BattleTech is one of those giant robot franchises that was formative for both of us. (Although apparently Pete had waaaayyyy more of the novelizations than I did.) I’m a fan of what Harebrained Schemes has been doing lately (the Shadowrun CRPGs are some of my favorite recent turn based CRPGs, even if they do have some warts), and I’d seen demos of the new BattleTech game at PAX and online, so I was pretty excited for this one. When Harebrained Schemes provided us with two review copies of the game, we thought it only made sense to turn it into a conversation.

Pete: Let me get this out of the way first: I really like the game. It scratches my turn-based itch and combines it with gigantic space robots that shoot missiles at each other, and does so with a nice degree of polish. With that out of the way I am going to nitpick a thousand things but I only nitpick because I love.

Eric: I like it too! It’s scruffy, but fun. I think the game could stand a little more polish than you do (especially in how the game’s systems get introduced) but I kept coming back to it and enjoying it. Now, since I know our readers really want to know how the game plays, let’s take several digressions. First: the story!

Pete: I thought the first mission was incredibly tense! It’s not often that a tutorial mission leaves you wondering if you’re going to hit a ‘Game Over’ screen then and there. I expected a pointless tutorial but instead it just rolled right into the plot. Not returning you to some sort of mission select screen was a bold choice, and as new enemies kept appearing I was not confident that I would make it through. I was a little hurt deep inside that the Space Princess was much better at BattleTeching than my avatar. She was become death, destroyer of mechs.

I did have one problem, though, which was that I quit the game after the first mission, thinking there would be an autosave - and there wasn’t. I had to replay the entire thing. I had fun, but still found that surprising. Always be manually saving.

Eric: I kind of like that the first non-trivial mission contains more than one encounter. Carrying forward damage from the last fight added pressure and tactical decision making going into the next one. I like what I’ve seen so far of the story missions. They’re really making me care about the stakes. After the first mission, I wanted to take out the bad guy SO BAD. After the second story mission, I was all whaaaaat. Some people might find them over the top, but the plot and the understated cinematics are right up my alley. They hit me right in the nostalgia feels from when I was that 12 year old kid poring over Battletech manuals in the game store while my mom was doing other shopping. I’ve only seen the first few pieces of the story arc in 8 odd hours of play, but I keep being fascinated to see what happens next.

I have a small gripe that the story sometimes sets up things that seem like they’re going to be game systems and then… a later story mission changes that. I mean, the tooltip text does basically strongly encourage you to always be story missioning, but (minor spoilers) I was non-sarcastically totally ready to be spending the whole game dealing with crippling bank debt and playing Mercenary Finances Simulator 3017.

Battletech - sweet victory

Pete: I’m full of bitter shame to admit how many terrible BattleTech novels I read when I was a teenager. I literally could not tell you anything about the universe now except something something Katrina Steiner and something something Clans and Inner Sphere. But the “choose your character’s background” choices definitely brought some of that back. I was a little disappointed that the character choices actually affect your stats - I’m a big believer in choices like that being entirely cosmetic or for role-play reasons, because otherwise I feel paralyzed until I figure out the “best” path.

Eric: I know what you mean! The cutscene evoked an emotional reaction for me about the space opera memories I have kind of archived away, but I have no idea what players were what anymore. (Also yes about the stats. Also it seemed like whatever background I picked, I was always going to be a noble, which was a weird non-choice in the middle of a bunch of choices.)

Pete: Well, obviously Eric, the game knows you and your innate nobility.

Eric: I’m in the space 1%! I wonder if I have amnesia too!?

Pete: It’s a certainty.

Eric: The graphics leave me a little hot and cold, I guess. Something about the detail feels a little dated, but I appreciate touches like the action camera. The game is trying evoke the X-Com remake from a few years back, I feel, but doesn’t really hit the same fit and finish of visual flair. It’s a minor nit, but I could feel some of my goodwill from the first few minutes of introduction flow away.

Pete: I thought the graphics worked but I couldn’t find a reliably good position for the camera - I always felt like it was either too close or too far.

Eric: I will also gripe briefly that the game doesn’t support ultrawide resolutions. There are dozens of us! But I will give props that steam cloud saves working between Mac and Windows worked right out of the gate, which I have learned to not expect.

Pete: I have a Windows box, but cross-platform support makes me 100% more likely to play a game. I’m so happy that I can play this on my Mac, and that it supports Steam Cloud.

Eric: Let’s talk about how there’s a vocal subculture of gamers that are the worst. The game has a decent avatar creator, and includes the nice option of picking your pronouns in at least a limited way (he/she/they). This, of course, has caused a certain type of person to become enraged at how basic courtesy and evolving social norms has ruined their fun specifically. What was interesting to me, though, was that picking a pronoun actually filtered the available default avatars. I got why, but it actually felt like the game didn’t “get” the message it was trying to send. (That being said, regardless of pronoun picked, you could go into customization and pick from options for both kinds of gender presentation.)

Pete: I cannot imagine what sort of terrible judgment it takes to arrive at a place in your life where one is offended by a game offering pronoun choices for a fictional video game character. Good on Harebrained for making this customizable. Everyone who is offended is silly and should be ignored and, where possible, shunned.

Pete: In conversation you and I keep comparing this to X-Com and one comparison that jumps out at me is that if this were X-Com the cutscenes and on-the-ship dialogues would be fully voiced. I’m just going to come out and say that I like this style better.

Eric: I like the board gamey feel of it. Shameful confession: I looked at source books and read novelizations as a kid, but never found a group of people to actually play Battletech with. So I have literally no idea how this game compares to the tabletop game. But this feels like a cool computer vision of a thing that was a board game but really was an invitation into a journey of the imagination of having baller big ass robots brutally slugging it out.

Pete: I don’t think that’s shameful. “I read the sourcebook but never played the game” is what I consider the default state for most wargames or deep, complicated board games.. It’s one reason we have so many computer versions of these games to begin with.

Eric: Out of curiosity, I found a summary PDF of the BattleTech rules. My super high level takeaway is that this game is “in the spirit of” but is in no way a faithful recreation of the table top game. For example, move & fire happen at the same time here, as opposed to in distinct phases. It seems like things like the evasion points might be an innovation here, too. My completely naive impression is that the choices made for the game are completely appropriate and the game would feel more like a slog if it was a faithful representation.

Pete: I agree that it’s not like the tabletop game but I’d say it more strongly: it’s good that it’s not like the tabletop game. As long as we’re making comparisons, it’s completely unfair to compare this game to the mid-1990s MechWarrior games. So, let’s compare this game to the mid-1990s MechWarrior games. MechWarrior 2 was what I’d consider a formative gaming experience for me - i was completely immersed in the game world. Of course, as an action game, it had a totally different portfolio than this one. That game sort of broke down where many battles just turned into two mechs circle-strafing around each other, firing every weapon on cooldown. This game, however, feels more subtly balanced. Heat is a much more strategic issue here.

Eric: One of the very first games of the GPU era I ever bought was MechWarrior 2. I grew up on Transformers and Robotech. I gotta be honest with you, giant robots are kind of a core fantasy for me. And launching up MechWarrior 2 and being in the point of view of a giant robot (and hearing all those whirs and computer noises) was just, like, the most amazing thing. And yes, every damn battle became exactly what you describe.

So, of course, I kept buying them, trying to recapture that feel. And I agree with you that the balance is better here, because the tradeoffs are more meaningful. I noticed my heat was going to go over, and… unchecked one of my weapons so it didn’t go over! I felt super smart and like the best pilot in the Star League.

Pete: Tell me about Voodoo Graphics and 3dfx, Uncle Eric.

Eric: Going down that rabbit hole reminded me that the first BattleTech game I ever played was actually on the Apple ][+. BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception. Which was… uh, a graphical RPG made by Infocom, somehow. It was sort of a weird mash up of Ultima and Wizardry UI tropes combined with giant robots. I have no idea how I forgot that this existed, because it sounds amazing.

Pete: Crescent Hawk’s Inception might be a better game than Mechwarrior 2 and I’m willing to fight people over that. I think that game (which I played on PC, not the Apple ][) is in fact why I know the name “Katrina Steiner”. Some years after playing it I tracked down a copy of the sequel, Crescent Hawk’s Revenge, and it was so bad that I can taste the disappointment to this day. Inception was a turn-based game, and Revenge was a real-time game, and it’s clear to me that because this game is turn-based it’s fantastic as well. Q.E.D.

Eric: Whoah, I had no idea there was a sequel. And also that there’s apparently a direct line between these games and the existence of RTS games and therefore World of Warcraft. It’s all coming full circle-strafe.

Pete: I felt like naming the game just BattleTech was maybe going to hurt them from a search optimization standpoint - “How will people find this game among all the other BattleTech games?” But it’s number one on the Google search for “BattleTech video game” so I guess they’re doing fine.

Let’s talk about the actual combat. I’ve already shown my hand and said that it’s all I ever wanted. How do you feel about it?

Eric: I’m down with the mechanics of “pick a robot to go, move, pick facing, shoot!” I like how the game shows me who I can hit after moving, but it took me a while to also figure out that you could also see the hit percentage for each weapon — but only once you were in the “facing” part of movement selection. I also like that there’s some tactical choice around movement—if you move full out, you get “evasion” which makes sense as a way to represent motion in a fundamentally turned based game.

Pete: There are many, many things I don’t understand about the game systems so far - but, I also haven’t cracked the manual. And if the game was popping up tooltips every 3 seconds I’d probably complain about that instead. But a short list would include not understanding what the rules are about when I can change my facing(*), how to determine weapon ranges when I have multiple weapons selected(**), how multi-attacks work at all(***), why one can’t fire on enemies who are knocked down(****), and whether it’s even possible to do something like “Fire 1 weapon, move, fire a second weapon.”(*****) I just have no idea.

Editorial note: After more time playing the answers seem to be (*) The more movement you have left, the more you can adjust your facing, (**) Look for the concentric rings of different opacities when adjusting your facing, (***) Click each enemy you want to multi-attack, then click individual weapons to toggle the target, (****) You can, I have no idea why this wasn’t working for me when I wrote it, and (*****) Seemingly no.)

Eric: Yeah, the game kind of fell off fast on explaining stuff. I have tried 2-3 times now to do a multi-attack and I’m pretty sure I’m just hitting one enemy badly. And sometimes I get hover tooltips about the implications of moving to a certain kind of terrain, but then later… I don’t?

Pete: The multi-attack UI completely defeated me, until you explained it to me.

Eric: There’s something that doesn’t quite make sense about the common interaction path. The first two steps are fine: select a mech, then select an action. But I would have had no clue that I had to tab through targets if the tutorial hadn’t told me, because there isn’t a similar lineup of target icons to pick from. These are little details, but in a complicated game like this they feel important. I hope they revisit polish on the combat UI in a patch. There’s a ton of stuff I understand now after playing for a few days that seemed mysterious to me up front, and I feel like they kind of threw up their hands after a little bit of tutorial and buried the rest of it in some dialogue trees I’m never going to read.

For what it’s worth I restarted after playing the first few missions because I decided I really didn’t like my avatar, and it was becoming clear I was gonna be staring at that face for a while. The second time through that first mission was like night and day, because this time I actually understood the game’s systems (more).

Pete: Our multiplayer skirmish was a real nail-biter. I totally thought you had me right up until the last couple of turns. Then you jumped on me with a “Death From Above” attack and badly damaged one of your own mechs, and I somehow pulled it out.

I know I am being a hyper-entitled gamer here but holy heck do I want this game to have cooperative play.

Eric: Me too, Pete, me too.

Let’s talk more about the X-Com comparison. My (and your) first reaction was “I want overwatch!” I’ve come to appreciate the lack of it, though. The evasion mechanics seem like they are in direct counter to a game about running to cover. Instead, this is a game about moving, and needing to be pinned down by focusing fire. And that works for me! Because really, these aren’t guys in body armor hoping to not get hit by a bullet. The mechs ARE the cover.

Pete: Yes. If this game had overwatch it would be a very different experience. At a high level the ideal tactic here seems to be “line up a shot on the rear armor”, so that (along with the lack of overwatch) discourages “stand still and slug it out.” One thing I haven’t figured out yet is how to translate the damage numbers for weapons (“25”, “40”, and so on) into “Here’s how close to death your enemy will be if everything hits.” This is something X-Com did extremely well. Maybe I’m just missing the right clue in the UI?

Eric: Yes – there’s aggregate and location specific hit point values for armor & structure in the UI at the top of the screen when you target something. you have to add it all up though, and feels weird – I’d like to see the kind of damage you’re likely to make as a blinking portion of the health bar, just like you see with the heat impact.

Pete: Here’s something I loved that I didn’t notice until a few missions in: the heat profile of your weapons changes depending on the environment you’re fighting in. If you’re in vacuum, heat dissipation is slow, but fight in snow and you can be a lot more aggressive. I don’t remember this being modeled in Mechwarrior 2 beyond “standing in water helps you cool down faster”.

OK, moment of truth. Thumbs up or thumbs down for you? I’m thumbs up, upgraded to a strong thumbs up if you already know you like turn-based games .

Eric: Thumbs up for me too. I think the game may be hard to approach because it doesn’t quite nail the balance between explaining systems and making you figure them out for yourself, but it’s a fun, well paced giant robot game with a combination of ridiculous space opera and procedural content. What’s not to love?

Battletech by Harebrained Schemes releases April 24, 2018 on Steam for $39.99.

Disclosure statement: the publishers generously provided Tea Leaves with two review copies of this game.