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BattleTech takes the joy out of losing

You’re always just one button press away from getting out of a bad situation

A lance of BattleMechs squares up in the opening rounds of a mission in BattleTech, from Harebrained Schemes. Harebrained Schemes via Polygon
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 turn-based strategy title from Harebrained Schemes, came out just last week. Since then it’s been a fixture at the top of Steam’s best-sellers list where it’s traded the first place position back and forth with Frostpunk, the post-apocalyptic colony simulation, over the last couple of days.

After playing through the first third of the game I was absolutely smitten with BattleTech. But, after spending more time with the game, I’ve stumbled on what I consider to be a pretty big flaw: Losing missions in BattleTech isn’t any fun.

I know that sounds weird, but let’s start with an example from a series that BattleTech clearly emulates, from its turn-based structure to its focus on building out your troops. That would be Firaxis’ reboot of the XCOM franchise.

In 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as well as the downloadable add-ons and the sequel that followed, there was always the chance that you could lose a mission. Rather than suffer a total party kill, sometimes you got a decent chance to escape. Later, in XCOM 2 and XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, those escapes, referred to as evacuations or “evacs,” became an integral part of the campaign. Picking up the bodies of your fallen soldiers and fighting your way back to the chopper could be just as tense and dramatic as actually accomplishing the mission at hand.

Harebrained Schemes via Polygon

In one particularly tough mission a full lance of heavy ‘Mechs showed up to protect an already heavily armed group of vehicles. All I’m saying is that if you come over a rise and find yourself face-to-face with these three vehicles, head right back the way you came and bug out.

That’s simply not the case in BattleTech. Allow me to set the scene.

Up until about 20 hours into the game I was steamrolling right through. Occasionally I took some serious damage to my BattleMechs, sometimes a pilot would be injured and have to convalesce for a month or more. But then I hit one particular mission where I was overwhelmed. Too many guns from too many enemy vehicles were brought to bear and, after two horrible rounds of play, I had lost one pilot and had two more units lying on the ground.

So I hit the withdrawal button and ... the mission just ended. No fighting retreat toward a contested landing zone. No final push to rescue my fallen comrades before turning tail to run. I just hit a button and the shooting stopped.

It was a big letdown. Sure, withdrawal stopped the bleeding, as it were, cutting my losses and taking me back to my base to lick my wounds. I lost some faction credit and I didn’t get paid. But that was it.

You can eject from a badly damaged ‘Mech, but often it’s much easier to hit the withdraw button and quit while you’re ... a head.
Harebrained Schemes via Polygon

That’s too bad.

BattleTech makes excellent use of fog of war, both at a macro and a micro scale. Not only do you need to reveal certain parts of the map to find your enemy during turn-based battles, but sometimes the intel given out before a mission even starts can be wrong. The challenge rating might be inaccurate, as it was in my case. The forces assembled against me were simply more than I could handle. And, according to the in-game instruction that players are given, that’s a feature not a bug. But there was no tension, no difference at all in the gameplay once I’d decide that I’d had enough.

In my opinion, that’s a lost opportunity.

Going forward with the game, I’m going to continue to explore what it means to quit out of a mission. Maybe there’s a difference to be found when you fail at a critical moment in the storyline. But here’s hoping that, as Harebrained Schemes continues to support the game, they put some more effort into what happens when things go wrong. Losing a mission in BattleTech could be a lot more meaningful, and a lot more fun, than it is right now.

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