The best part of almost any strategy game is always the combat.
Somewhere in there, between the planning and strategising of each move, there’s this moment of eureka. If you’re lucky, you end up feeling like a genius as you put your masterful strategy into action. Even if your strategy fails, those few moments where you had the upper hand are unmatched. The stories of these games, even if they are brilliant, never feel as powerful as the ones we create ourselves.
In Battletech, the latest game from Hairbrained Schemes, I’ve found the same to be true. Over the past few weeks I’ve been slowly dipping my toe in, steadily falling deeper and deeper in love. It’s punishing, for sure, but never does it feel out of my control. Provided I’m playing smartly, each loss is a lesson learned. Evocative of the later XCOM games, there’s something special about placing the mechs of Battletech in a strategy setting. Even though I’ve been enjoying the distinctly Shakespearean tale of its main narrative, I’ve found that it’s the mechs themselves that tell the tales of battle.
The personal touch to every mech
Like most mech games, Battletech offers a lot of customisation options. Each one helps a mech turn from a hulking piece of metal to a battle-scarred diary of war. Mechs in Battletech fall into four different classes: light, medium, heavy, and assault. A mech’s individual tonnage, or maximum carrying weight, is what determines its class. How much you can carry is important, but it will also affect your mech’s movement in the battlefield. Then, there’s how much space is available on your mech for equipment, as well as the game’s hardpoint distribution system.
A lot of this may seem like just a lot of word jargon; systems overcomplicating what should be an eloquently simple idea. Thankfully, Battletech does a great job at slowly introducing you to all these elements so as to not overwhelm you. More importantly, the game’s customisation options are representative of a core ethos within the genre of mecha; how even in the far distant future, war is still a plague that begs industry to capitalise upon it.
What mecha is all about
It was the anime Gundam Wing which first introduced me to the mecha genre. It’s tempting to write another thousand words on why I like the Gundam franchise so much but instead I’ll just note its profound impact on shaping my tastes. Yet while Gundam has always been less specific about its stance on war, mainly thanks to how sprawling the franchise has become, shows like Patlabor have made the connection between the military industrial complex and their use of mechs for combat clear.
Patlabor is a multimedia franchise from Japan, mainly consisting of the original anime and manga from 1988. It’s a unique property thanks to it being both a standard mecha and a police procedural. It follows the Tokyo Metropolitan Police as they tackle everything from level crimes to global terrorism, but at its core are the Labors, Patlabor’s version of mechs. Originally, the Labors were created to do heavy labour like construction work, but as the series progresses these machines are outfitted to perform more like war machines than anything else.
I’ve always loved the movie – Mobile Police Patlabor – the most for its cyberpunk infused ideas, but the series as a whole is probably the most unique representation of the ideas of mecha.
How the mechs of Battletech reflect mecha ideas
Much like Patlabor, the mechs of Battletech were originally meant to perform heavy labour. As war became ever present, these bipedal metal goliaths were retrofitted to become military hardware. Inside the game, however, they go beyond just transformed old construction machines.
Battletech gives you control of an entire team of soldiers, each with their own mechs. Each one plays their own role in a mission, forcing you to have to make decisions before you head out onto the battlefield. One of your mech pilots might have more of their Gunnery skill tree unlocked, so they’d be well-suited to a heavily-equipped mech. Or, maybe their Piloting skill is high, giving them more bonuses when on the move. It makes every individual on the team important, the same as it does their mechs.
It’s their fully-equipped mechs that return telling the stories of war, when missions are said and done. Pilots will live on and tell their tales however they feel fit but the machines they leave behind have stories of their own. Perhaps its still donning the heavy armour that was meant to protect it when meleeing enemy mechs. Or maybe its equipped with a pair of SRM rockets meant to deal heavy damage on unsuspecting enemies. Ever mech infers something on top of the personal grief war leaves on those it affects.
In the industrialised worlds of many mecha, the mechs stand as reminders of the all-encompassing effect of war. On those who fight in them, on those left back home, and even on the machines meant to build, now turned into ones that only destroy.