I love Battletech. I played it like crazy back in school and college with friends, and I’ve loved every video game and mod released since those days. I even played the browser-based Neveron years ago and enjoyed the heck out of it. When Hairbrained Schemes launched their kickstart campaign, I jumped on board immediately. I can tell you today that I have not been disappointed.
In so many ways, the HBS offering brings back all the great things I remember and loved about playing the tabletop game all those years ago. The games weren’t just a setup of mechs and ground assets, it was a continuation of another larger story. The battles had a sense of far reaching context that was there in the MechCommander games, but as an echo only. HBS has included a story to tie together the single-player campaign in BATTLETECH that adds a great deal of depth to the game. In large part, I think their successful story is because they steered away from setting the game in a major house like all the others tend to do. It lends a sense of believability that I think other games tend to miss, and I suspect freed them to tell a better story.
One unbelievably intelligent choice was the art style of the cut scenes. Rather than waste time trying to model, texture, and rig 3D assets to make a traditional cut scene, HBS decided to go for the approach of using still frames. To me, it evokes thoughts of old war sketches or court room drawings that leaves room for the imagination to fill the frames between. CD Projekt Red took a similar approach with the Witcher loading screens, and I think HBS picked up on the idea and executed it equally as successfully with BATTLETECH.
The technique requires one other element in order to be pulled off this successfully, though. That element is a killer score, and BATTLETECH has knocked that one out of the park, as well. Jon Everist managed to pick out the perfect blend of heroism and disjointed fear, with subtle under-currents of industrial electronics, to put just the right mood to each scene. All that, and he still had time to throw in references to earlier works in the franchise, like his “Ochre Wall,” which subtly hints at and borrows from “Umber Wall” from the MechWarrior 2 soundtrack, by Gregory Alper and Jeehun Hwanj.
Music is emotion in a can and the best developers know just how to use it to maximum effect. The BATTLETECH score perfectly opens the soul to each scene in the game, no matter how insignificant. From the intro movie, where the music builds a sense of hope through overcoming adversity, then builds in a swell of pride at the achievement of our fictional forebearers, and finally falls into the sadness of a lost destiny, Jon Everist tells the story with serious emotion.
There happens to be another unsung hero of the new BATTLETECH game that I don’t think enough people have seemed to notice. Physical attacks were always a big part of the tabletop game, with some mechs like the HCT-3F Hatchetman being specifically designed to engage in melee. Even though physical attacks made their way into the digital medium, I certainly enjoyed ramming the legs off larger mechs in my seriously overclocked Fire Moth back in MW2 days, the physical attacks up to now have felt more like after thoughts.
BATTLETECH introduces a specific physical attack mechanic that opens the doors for a whole lot of expansion down the road. Though, it’s already become a seriously important part of some of my mech designs. When you overheat a mech shooting at one guy, you just step up next to his buddy and take a swing. The high amount of instant damage to a single location makes it more than an afterthought. It’s actually a very functional maneuver to disable weapons, finish off a side torso, or strip some armor and go for a crit with a batch of machine guns.
It’s hands down the best way to kill vehicles in the game. The first time I ran up to an SRM Carrier and punted it like I was resetting the opposing team to their own goal line, I fist pumped and cheered like a total goof. The tactic has increasingly become a part of my strategy, especially for dealing with armor. That’s not something I’ve been able to say about any game to this point, and more than anything it sets this one apart from all the others as being as true of a recreation of the tabletop experience in the digital medium as any have come.
Quarterbacks get all the glory and defense get all the credit, but it’s the special teams that win games. I think the folks at Harebrained Schemes knew that, and thus made very specific and intentional effort to focus on those subtle things that take a solid game to the level of being a definitive moment in the franchise history.
Development budgets are finite resources and taking money from backers just creates additional weight on the need to make smart design choices. All the right corners were trimmed when making BATTLETECH and the result is an incredibly well built next chapter for the IP. Piranha Games better be feeling some pressure and MechWarrior 5 better bring the awesome, because this is a serious contender for best game yet in the franchise.
In the meantime… Hey, HBS. So, about that Hatchetman?