Note: Excerpted from my Games of 2018 list, along with the rest of my top 4 games of the year.
BATTLETECH (Harebrained Schemes, 2018): If you were to look at any given review of BATTLETECH, at any analysis or write-up, you would see one word, every time: Attrition. And it’s apt — the game endeavors to model a world in which war is brutal, slow, with an intermittent staccato of action punctuating what is otherwise the pound, pound, pounding of death machines. Thus, it is a game about giant robots, which you send into battle in mercenary desperation, as well as a picture of war and pain that avoids the sugarcoating and glamorizing that so often permeates video games (and depictions of fictional violence in general). In doing so, it captures the spirit of the original BattleTech tabletop games that preceded it, and functions as a check against the floatier, quicker, more instantly gratifying formulation for tactics games often seen.
But also? The game is just fun. Combining a surprisingly diverse, full-throated, and well-told (if simplistic) story campaign with deep but largely accessible mechanics that invite you to keep digging deeper, it always seems to reward more playtime. BATTLETECH creates an ecosystem where it’s easy to spend your time, tinkering with your mechs for maximum effect and wonky strategies (what if I gave this 95 ton mech only machine guns?), telling yourself stories about the cast of colorful pilots who come and go from your mobile base of operations, and, of course, wading through fights to the death against numerically superior foes in icy tundras and martian wastelands. After over 150 hours, I’m still thoroughly excited for more, and it’s among the few games I’ve played recently where I’m truly eager for new content. In fact, one of my few caveats with this game — which does have some technical troubles and a couple of other minor hiccups — is that it’s too easy to play too much of, and buyer beware spending hours you should dedicate to other things building mechs or blasting them apart.
I’ll conclude my thoughts on this with an anecdote (skip the next few paragraphs if you’ve heard enough). I’ve dropped my squad of four into a windy, moonlit night in a backwater desert. I advance towards a long canyon, knowing that my enemy waits on the other side. Trying to avoid taking them head-on, I order my soldiers to the right, wending their way over plateaus and through gorges towards a large, multi-tiered mesa standing on its own. My enemy has yet to detect my presence — I might be able to get the drop on them, or as much as you ever do in this game.
And then — as soon as I round that mesa, as soon as I really reach my destination — the penny drops. Sensor contacts, to my right. The enemy reinforcements are here, and they’re coming in directly on my flank, on top of me the second they enter the field. I scramble to turn my squad around, bracing myself. I barely manage before I discover it with horror: The enemy reinforcements are almost exclusively composed of the heaviest, toughest, deadliest mechs in the game, and they’re already in range.
What follows is probably one of the toughest, and most rewarding, gaming experiences I’ve ever had, as I slug it out frantically with the reinforcements, the mesa screening my back as my original enemies close in, knocking enemies down with missile salvos and taking desperate headshots with manic fervor. As one by one my troops fall back to avoid annihilation, mechs burning and missing limbs, pilots driving through blood haze, I find myself face to face with my last opponent, a relatively nonthreatening medium-sized mech with a few lasers, perched on the mesa that had been my salvation. I send in my own medium mech, ordinarily my long range missile platform, relatively undamaged but out of ammunition, to punch the thing to death. I reach its perch. I go to make my move. And discover, to my horror, that the game has somehow found the only spot on the mesa to which there is no adjacent space. Any melee is completely impossible. Most of my mechs are held together by hope and determination, and most of my weapons are out of ammo anyway. Only one mech, a heavy that barely deserves the name which serves ordinarily as a sort of melee-focused scout, has working weaponry, and it’s barely holding together.
I make one last desperate gambit. The heavy, with its two lasers, jump-jets its way to the top of the mesa as the enemy continues to focus on my missile boat mech, which is now in tatters. I drop down directly in front of the enemy, staring it in the face. I call my shot, what arsenal I have aimed directly at its seductively vulnerable cockpit, the 17% hit chance icon burned into my retinas. I pull the trigger. The mech goes down. I yell in triumph, then relax for the first time in three hours. And moments like this — not canned, not repeatable, for you and you alone — are exactly what makes BATTLETECH so, so wonderful.