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BattleTech raises the bar for storytelling in a turn-based strategy game

A hefty dose of intrigue, plus classic ’Mech combat that’s true to its tabletop roots

A still frame from an early cutscene in BattleTech Harebrained Schemes
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.

Turn-based strategy titles can suffer from a lack of heart. What little narrative players are given is, more often than not, just a pretense to get a bunch of units on screen and make stuff blow up. Not so with BattleTech, the latest title from Harebrained Schemes. That game, out today for Windows and Mac, is a step forward in terms of storytelling.

Shakespeare it ain’t, but BattleTech is nonetheless a surprisingly emotional journey, a tale filled with betrayal, revenge and redemption. It’s the kind of story that could only be told from inside the 30-year-old BattleTech universe, and it has the gameplay chops to back it up.

First, a bit of clarification. This isn’t the only video game set in the BattleTech universe that’s coming out this year. The other is called MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, which is being built by Piranha Games. It’s a first-person, simulation-style experience that will put players at the controls of the universe’s iconic BattleMechs, giant walking war machines. BattleTech is a completely different experience made by a different company. It’s a turn-based game, played from the third-person perspective, that puts players in command of an entire squad — called a lance — of four heavily armed ’Mechs at one time.

BattleTech - High Lady Kamea Arano in cutscene
High Lady Kamea Arano isn’t your average damsel in distress. She’s a MechWarrior in her own right, and at times she will deploy on the battlefield alongside your forces.
Harebrained Schemes

Developer Harebrained Schemes was founded in 2011 by BattleTech universe co-creator Jordan Weisman and game designer Mitch Gitelman. The pair worked together on the MechCommander series of real-time strategy games, and pitched the original BattleTech Kickstarter as a kind of spiritual successor to that series. Their campaign was fully funded in 2015 to the tune of nearly $2.8 million. Since then, the team has brought on Paradox Interactive to be its publishing partner.

BattleTech begins in the year 3025 in a backwater kingdom called the Aurigan Coalition. Players take the role of a fledgling MechWarrior tasked with escorting High Lady Kamea Arano to her coronation. But that mission, which also serves as the game’s tutorial, ends with a coup. Lady Arano goes missing, and the player is forced into the life of a mercenary on the fringe of the civilized galaxy.

You eventually get reunited with Lady Arano, but not before the game knocks you down a peg or two. Early missions stress the financial challenges of being the leader of a ragtag mercenary company. I spent hours fighting against enemy ’Mechs, but also against a crushing burden of debt that threatened to bankrupt the entire operation. In that way, BattleTech is as much a management game as it is a game of turn-based tactics.

What kept pulling me forward from mission to mission were the game’s characters. Between engagements, players are treated to a short, conversational interlude. That’s where BattleTech’s narrative begins to open up.

There’s Darius Oliveira, your prim and proper executive officer. He’s got a cool hand on the tiller, but he’s also eager to let you know in private just how close the whole enterprise is to complete disaster. Yang Virtanen is your feisty ’Mech engineer, and provides some of the game’s most amusing one-liners. There’s also Sumire Meyer, a pilot who doesn’t always speak her mind in the moment, which can lead to some fraught situations. Additional characters get added to the crew over time, and each one feels unique and fully realized.

Not only is it a remarkably well-written group of characters, they’re also a surprisingly multi-cultural group. BattleTech is filled with equal parts palace intrigue and grim heroism, and there’s a place in that vision of the future for everyone.

While the writing is top-notch, don’t expect traditional cinematic cutscenes. Characters are modeled in three dimensions, but they don’t really move around. They just sort of stand there running through the same animations over and over while the camera changes locations.

Major plot points are animated to an extent, all done in the style of the game’s introductory cinematic. It reminds me much of the graphic design that’s used to introduce each new episode of Syfy’s The Expanse. BattleTech uses a series of hand-painted images with lightly animated elements, or static images with animated overlays. It’s all very evocative and consistent, coupled with exceptional voice acting and a wonderful musical score.

I don’t miss the CGI one bit. The game’s overall presentation is gorgeous. Harebrained clearly put its time and treasure into BattleTech’s gameplay, eschewing things like AAA-quality cutscenes and performance capture. The gamble pays off.

Even better, though, is the game’s tactical gameplay. It’s flat-out phenomenal.

BattleTech’s elaborate terrain is an achievement. Not only is it extremely detailed, it’s also incredibly generous to the player, providing multiple avenues of approach in every mission I’ve played. Where some turn-based strategy games only stress the micro-decisions — which weapons to fire, which units to move and in what order — BattleTech gives players a lot of options with regard to macro-scale decisions as well. I felt like I had the opportunity to plan and execute two or more strategies each time I went into combat.

Engagements also benefit from extremely detailed units. Night missions in particular are spectacular. ’Mechs scan the terrain with their headlights, while laser and missile barrages light up the environment around them.

If I have one complaint, it’s the game’s death animations. Knocking out a ’Mech is a high point of each battle, but when they topple over, it usually looks kind of janky. There are no ragdoll physics to speak of, and it feels like the developers are hiding the game’s repetitive animations behind an overabundance of particle effects. Knocked-out ’Mechs also have a tendency to clip through terrain when they collapse.

Despite a few obvious faults, I think BattleTech could be the best interpretation of the classic tabletop game system ever made. I’m reserving judgement, though, until I finish the campaign, which clocks in at around 40 hours. I highly recommend it to fans of turn-based single-player games: If you loved the latest XCOM reboot from Firaxis you absolutely must play this game. There’s also an entire multiplayer skirmish mode that I haven’t even touched yet.

While BattleTech feels ambitious, it’s also been clearly designed with a certain level of restraint. For instance, I don’t see the lack of fully animated cutscenes as a deal-breaker. If anything, they prove how easy it would be to roll out additional narrative adventures as pieces of downloadable content. I’m already looking forward to the end of this storyline, and the beginning of the next.

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