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The year of BattleTech

Four feature stories from three studios about one franchise’s epic year ahead

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

BattleTech, the grandfather of mech combat games, turns 34-years old next year. Since 1984, rights to that universe have traded hands several times, from the original creators at FASA Corporation to the current home with three different developers: Piranha Games, Catalyst Game Labs and Harebrained Schemes.

Next year, all three studios will launch new entries of the iconic franchise. For our latest cover story, Polygon talked with each of them, spending nearly a year piecing together four features about the BattleTech universe.

In part one, we traveled to an abandoned mall in Vancouver, British Columbia to lay hands on the first playable demo of MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries. It’s the first single-player, first-person action game to be published in the BattleTech universe in 15 years. You’ll hear from the team about their design goals, and watch the first 10 minutes of gameplay footage released to the public. Check it out below.

In part two, you’ll hear the latest on BattleTech, the third-person tactical strategy game from Harebrained Schemes. After a $2.8 million Kickstarter and a publishing deal with Paradox Interactive, the team of designers opened up about what they’ve learned from the community and how they plan to evoke the kind of ensemble storytelling that made Firefly a cult classic.

In part three, we talked to the BattleTech loremasters and cobbled together the definitive guide to the early history of that universe. It includes more than a millennium’s worth of alternate human history, filled with brilliant innovations and bloody civil wars. And it’s all been helpfully annotated with brand new art from illustrator Daniel Warren Johnson, as well as images culled from the archives at Catalyst Game Labs.

Finally, in part four, we tracked down and interviewed some of the principle creatives involved in the birth of the BattleTech universe. Our feature includes interviews with co-creators Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babcock, as well as the tabletop game’s current lead designer, Randall Bills.

2018 is shaping up to be the year of BattleTech, so here’s what every MechWarrior needs to know before they drop in.

Our first story starts below.

Update (Dec. 11, 2018): Piranha Games has announced that MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries will include four-player co-op and full mod support.

Update (June 22, 2018): Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries has been delayed into 2019.

An Atlas-class ‘Mech at rest, awaiting rearming and deployment inside a Leopard-class DropShip.
Piranha Games

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries

Back in the cockpit after 15 years

I’m sitting inside a small, soundproof room on the second floor of a shopping mall in Vancouver, British Columbia. Below me is an Asian-themed dollar store filled with more maneki-neko waving cat figurines than you can shake a stick at. Just down the hall, across from the food court, is a well-trafficked cat cafe with a modest $5 minimum. On the screen in front of me is a different kind of cat entirely.

It’s a Catapult-class BattleMech, a 65-ton monster sporting a particle projector cannon on each arm. Linked to fire together, they’re turning the entire left side of my Shadowhawk-class BattleMech into a scorched, smoking mess.

I’m inside the home of Piranha Games, here to test drive the first playable demo of MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries. It’s the first single-player, first-person action game set in the BattleTech universe in 15 years and, up until I met this “Cat,” my very own 31st century warmachine had been tearing it up.

Or, I should say, tearing it down.

The first playable mission from MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries. Video shows a work in progress. Also available on our YouTube channel.

With every blast of my Shadowhawk’s massive ballistic guns, huge chunks of the office building in front of me simply fell away. Four-storey tall sections of its facade turned to clouds of ash and glass only to fall, glittering, into the street below. Behind those windows a blinking indicator showed my target for this mission, a high-ranking official in one of the five Great Houses. After my initial salvo, that indicator winked out.

Mission accomplished.

But this Catapult that appears on the scene is actually putting up a fight, and from the look of the flashing red lights on my dash it’s time to beat a hasty retreat. Turning right, I plow the ‘Mech straight through a two-story tall armored barricade like it’s not even there. With a click of the mouse I knock out a Scorpion-class light tank, sending 20 tons of flaming steel careening into the lower floor of a warehouse down the street. Then, rounding the next corner, I come face-to-face with an eight-meter tall, 20-ton Locust-class ‘Mech. A flick of the wrist and I carve its left leg clean off with a sustained burst of green laser fire. As I walk over it, the smoking hulk ragdolls to one side.

That’s when the Catapult catches up with me, hitting me with both barrels in the rear of my center torso. With my armor stripped away, the Shadowhawk’s reactor blows and it’s game over.

Everything was going so well, until it wasn’t. I had been given the reins of a monstrously powerful machine and encouraged to do damage on a massive scale. But, in the end, the game only served to show me how fragile I really was.

And, when everything has gone to hell, it’ll be up to each player to pick up the pieces and soldier on.

How to make an apple pie

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries burst into the public consciousness one year ago when it was announced at Piranha’s MechCon in Vancouver. Now, on the eve of this year’s annual fan convention, the team is ready to let would-be ‘Warriors have a go at it for the first time.

Piranha Games’ president Russ Bullock is excited to finally show what his team has been working on.

“My whole life,” Bullock said in an interview with Polygon, “is just guided by this notion that I must give MechWarrior fans the things what they’ve always dreamed about.”

For Bullock, that begins with giving his players the kinds of experiences that haven’t been possible in BattleTech games that have come before.

BattleTech began as a tabletop wargame called BattleDroids, first published in 1984. It quickly made the leap to digital with BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception, a turn-based third-person game published by Infocom in 1988. Bullock, who was only 13-years old at the time, remembers playing it on his family’s 8086 PC in CGA, a four-color format that was top-of-the-line for its day.

It wouldn’t be until Activision’s MechWarrior, published the following year, that Bullock and other BattleTech fans could actually pilot their own ‘Mech from inside the cockpit.

“I’m 42,” Bullock said, “which means that MechWarrior was really perfectly in my wheelhouse. The original MechWarrior actually had EGA graphics, which was 16 colors. So I remember having to get a new monitor to play it.”

Bullock says that much of his team’s inspiration for MechWarrior 5 was drawn from these early games, as well as their experience as the developer and publisher of MechWarrior Online. Before development on MechWarrior 5 even began, the team had already recreated some 700 individual ‘Mechs for Online, all pulled from BattleTech’s well-established body of lore.

A CGA-color image from the cockpit of a BattleMech shows simple vector graphics used to create a pseudo three-dimensional effect.
The BattleTech universe has provided the source material for more than 20 digital games since 1988, but MechWarrior was the first to allow players to pilot a ‘Mech in first-person.
Moby Games/Activision

Building on that work, MechWarrior 5 will add an open-ended and expansive universe for players to explore. The game begins in the year 3015 when, according to BattleTech lore, nearly the entire human race is embroiled in the Third Succession War — a galaxy-wide conflict fought across hundreds of worlds. Players will take the role of an upstart band of mercenaries and have their pick of hotspots all around the Inner Sphere in which to begin their journey.

Over the course of a 34-year career, players will grow their scrappy company from a single pilot with a single beat-up ‘Mech to a full lance of seasoned MechWarriors riding into battle atop state-of-the-art fighting robots. In order to join the ranks of the elite mercenary units, players will have to manage their finances as well as a staff of technicians to service and repair their ‘Mechs between battles. Some of those techs will be regular grunts, while others will have more specialized skills like the ability to boost a ‘Mech’s speed or improve the cyclic rate of certain weapons.

But nothing in the world of BattleTech comes for free.

Signing on with one of the five Great Houses, or the smaller factions aligned against them, will earn players money. But, every mission takes time — time to travel through deep space, time to stage at the rendezvous point and time scouting the area in advance of a mission. In MechWarrior 5, the clock is always ticking.

An Atlas-class assault ‘Mech and a wing of VTOL attack ships block the player’s path to escape. You can see the outline of the Leopard-class DropShip behind the ridge on the left.
Piranha Games

“Time is a resource that you spend,” said designer Dave Forsey. “If you’re not earning money, you’re losing money.

The game ends in 3049 when, again according to BattleTech lore, the powerful human faction known as the Clans arrive in the Inner Sphere. Piranha isn’t ready to say if players will get the chance to fight against them, but suffice it to say that if you’re not one of the most powerful mercenary companies in the galaxy by the time the clock runs out, you won’t even get the chance to find out.

An entire career, Bullock said, will take players 40-plus hours of gameplay from start to finish. Replayability is key: Once players complete it, they can fire it up again and start a new career in a completely different corner of the galaxy.

Know when to walk away

The BattleTech tabletop game has been around for more than 30 years. In that time, the rules have expanded and contracted but, by and large, the experience published by Catalyst Game Labs today is the same as the one published by FASA Corporation in 1984.

The same cannot be said of the video games set in the BattleTech universe.

Each one is a different experience than the last, owing as much to changes in computer technology as to developer style and design goals. But, each one has contributed something different to how fans experience that fictional world. Bullock says that, for its part, MechWarrior Online has dramatically changed how players fight with BattleMechs.

For five long years, core dedicated players have been wailing away on each other in endless, vicious skirmishes. That community helped to create the MechWarrior Online World Championships, where last year players fought it out for a final prize pool of more than $143,000. Bullock says that the community has taught the team at Piranha a lot, and the team is pouring that knowledge into the new single-player campaign.

“I think MechWarrior Online is really responsible for creating a lot of brand new tactics in the MechWarrior universe, especially when it comes to how players play a PvP game,” Bullock said. Take the technique of “armor tanking.” Once almost a stunt, now many players regularly build their ‘Mechs so that one entire side acts like a shield to protect the delicate, powerful weapons on the other side.

But, since MechWarrior Online is a competitive game, Bullock says that Piranha has always had to be careful to keep the experience balanced between players. With Mechwarrior 5, the gloves are off. The new single-player game features an active economy, which will simulate things like scarcity, innovation and invention all in accordance with the official BattleTech lore. It will be possible for players to stumble upon a windfall of powerful technology, and just as possible for them to be starved for both money and for ‘Mechs in the early game. Every player’s experience will be different.

More importantly, players who choose to fight in the southern part of the Inner Sphere will have a much different set of ‘Mechs and armaments to choose from than those who fight in the north, and everything will change as the in-game years roll on.

The core gameplay loop that I played is much like that of a BattleTech simulator. Piranha has plans to support keyboard and mouse, of course, but also flight sticks and throttles and even Track IR. The team even said that it hasn’t ruled out virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. But, said Forsey, regardless of how you play the game, skill and tactics will always make the difference. And, while enemy ‘Mechs may have more skilled pilots in the cockpit, they will never have an artificial “level” that makes them behave like a massive pile of hit points.

Players will “level up” as they do in a roguelike; by getting better at the skills needed to pilot their ‘Mechs, and by obtaining certain weapons and equipment that will give them advantages. Thanks to those advantages, players will be able to take on more challenging assignments and raise their standing among competing mercenary outfits.

Rolling the dice

Running a business is all about staying profitable. In MechWarrior 5, that means knowing when to press your advantage and when to take your ball and go home.

“That’s going to be a choice that you’re going to be making in your head at all times,” said Forsey. “You could take what you think is an easy contract, and when you come into the mission say, ‘The intelligence reports were wrong. There is a big fucking Atlas there in the distance. I can’t do this. I’m not going to take this on.’

“Missions won’t come with a prepared set of solutions. There will be situations where you can accomplish your objectives and get paid, and there will be times when you can’t.”

Interpreting the heads-up display is one of the more complicated parts of learning to drive a BattleMech. Piranha’s system features a different crosshair for each arm, which will traverse at different rates when a limb takes damage. It also has indicators for the position of the torso relative to the legs.
Piranha Games

But cash-on-completion isn’t the only way that mercenaries are compensated in the world of BattleTech. Forsey said that in MechWarrior 5, players will be able to negotiate their contracts to include up-front payments as well as salvage rights to carry off disabled ‘Mechs from the battlefield.

For MechWarrior 5 to have the kind of replayability that Piranha wanted, the team had to create a diverse selection of missions. Forsey and his team settled on a blended approach that uses procedural generation alongside hand-designed missions and set piece encounters. Overseeing it all will be an intelligent “game director,” as Forsey called it, that will control pacing by making missions more or less challenging in real time.

It all begins when the player selects from one of the many star systems in the Inner Sphere where missions are available. Each one is drawn from established BattleTech lore, with canonical biomes all plotted out ahead of time. Every given planet will have an authentic mix of say arctic, heavily forested and desert land masses. Then, a tiered set of linked missions are created for each warring faction, again drawn from the established BattleTech lore. When players select an available mission set, they’ll receive an intelligence report along with details on the mercenary contract and options to renegotiate the terms.

After players accept a mission, MechWarrior 5 goes to work creating the map and placing the mission objectives. While players are walking around the hangar of their DropShip, arming their ‘Mechs and selecting their crews, Piranha’s intelligent system is building terrain based on a specific biome and then placing hand-made objectives — complete with enemies like infantry, tanks, VTOL flyers and other ‘Mechs — within those confines.

In motion, the system is impressively diverse.

In a demo, Piranha showed off a harsh Martian environment with long sightlines and deep, rocky canyons. There was a lush, forested biome where each tree could be knocked over simply by walking through it. There was even a snowy map with jagged, black rocks poking out through the drifts. My favorite by far was an environment designed to look like the surface of our Moon, complete with harsh, directional lighting that cast the entire map in shades of gray.

Forsey said the game will also include missions set at all times of the day and in multiple weather conditions, including rain and snow. Different optical filters will be available for players in situations like these, including night vision and even thermal solutions.

A mission’s difficulty will influence the level of resistance players run up against, as well as the size of the map and the challenges they’ll face along the way. MechWarrior 5 won’t have traditional difficulty settings at the outset. It will be up to players to take on the missions that they feel comfortable with.

Forsey compared the system to those of games like NetHack and Rogue.

“Every time you roll the dice and you go into Rogue, you go as far as you can and depending on what’s happening you win or you lose,” Forsey said. “You can think of every mission in MechWarrior 5 as a run of Darkest Dungeon or Dwarf Fortress or Rogue: Legacy. I go in there, I do the mission and when I come back out I’ve got some more stuff than when I went in. I’ve won or I’ve lost, and now I go in and I’m making another roll.

“But here you’ve got a bit of control over the difficulty, or of what kind of challenges you’re ready to take on. There will be a selection of levels of difficulty for each star system, and there will always be something in the background that you can do as a low-risk mission.”

One step at a time

As good as MechWarrior 5 feels right now, while playing it was clear to me that the game isn’t anywhere near done yet.

The demo that I played a few weeks ago didn’t look quite as good as the video included in this feature. The level and the objectives are largely the same, but the team at Piranha has made a lot of progress in just a few weeks.

When fans get their own hands on this playable demo at MechCon, Piranha tells me that even more will be on display. Multiple mission types on multiple maps, including Mars-like deserts and airless Moonscapes. The game’s AI will get tweaked up until the moment it hits the show floor. The game’s smaller enemies, like tanks and VTOL flyers, are still behaving erratically. You can see remnants of that behavior in the clip above, where one rotor-wing chopper is literally flying into the ground while upside down. But the team tells me that it’s par for the course.

The fact is that Piranha has a lot of time left to tweak and polish the final product. And, from what I’ve played, the end result should be well worth it for BattleTech fans who have waited 15 years for a game like it. The team tells me that it has even more surprises up their sleeve for fans at next week’s MechCon in Vancouver.

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is scheduled for a full release in late 2018.