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A frame from the upcoming BattleTech story trailer.
Harebrained Schemes

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BattleTech’s turn-based PC game wants to be the next Firefly

An ensemble cast riding around in big, stompy robots

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.

Harebrained Schemes was founded in 2011 by BattleTech co-creator Jordan Weisman and game designer Mitch Gitelman, both veterans of the MechCommander series of real-time strategy games. After successfully rebooting the Shadowrun franchise, the pair have teamed up with game director Mike McCain for BattleTech, a turn-based take on the classic third-person ‘Mech combat genre.

BattleTech began life as a tremendously successful Kickstarter campaign, which earned more than $2.7 million dollars from backers in November 2015. Since then, the team pushed back the game’s release date slightly. To fill the gap, it’s brought on Paradox Interactive as a publishing partner.

Harebrained Schemes has also doubled down on what made isometric role-playing games Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun: Hong Kong so successful, by leaning into this new game’s story.

“I actually think there’s more than a little Firefly DNA in the game,” Gitelman told Polygon in a recent interview, invoking not only a fan-favorite science fiction franchise but one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled for a television show.

I told him, frankly speaking, that those were pretty bold words. But Gitelman stood behind them.

In BattleTech, players will take on the role of a fledgling mercenary company in the year 3025. For those familiar with the franchise’s lore, that puts it squarely in the midst of the Fourth Succession War. It’s a time when humanity has been spread thin by generations of bloody civil war, when some star systems are barely eking out an existence after humanity’s collapse into a new Dark Age.

“I think there's something really raw and gritty about this period of BattleTech history,” Gitelman said. “It's really the technological low point to the entire Inner Sphere and the resources really matter. Salvage is really important. ‘Mechs are very valuable.

“We created this kingdom called the Aurigan Coalition, in an area of space that doesn’t really have its own, existing storyline until 3060. This federation of planets is caught up in a kind of restoration movement. You’ll be helping High Lady Kamea Arano take back her throne from her uncle, who overthrew her in a bloody coup following the death of her father.”

Players will need to assemble a lance of kitted out BattleMechs, and train up enough MechWarriors to create a cohesive fighting force. Then, turn-by-turn, battle-by-battle players will help to regain the throne and bring peace to the Aurigan Reach.

“We were very cautious,” said McCain. “We decided, you know what? Let's start in the Periphery, outside of established lore. Let's create our own little cast of characters and a region in space that we can start telling stories in. The BattleTech universe is just so vast, sort of almost beyond ease of understanding at this point. It almost makes that universe feel bigger, I think, to start somewhere small.”

Darius Oliveira, a mercenary with Brazilian and Cuban ancestry, will be your executive officer and manage logistics. McCain said that he will also handle negotiations and sourcing of contracts with various clients, but he’ll also serve as your point of contact when you’re in the field. Yang Virtanen, another mercenary from the Capellan Confederation, is a giant of a man with Finnish and Chinese ancestry. He’s also got a mechanical arm and leg, casualties of his time spent as a MechTech the 2nd St. Ives Lancers. A veteran of the Succession Wars, he’ll be on hand as the voice of the proletariat.

Navigating your Leopard-class DropShip is Sumire Meyer, a merc from the Taurian Concordat whose ancestors were Dutch and Japanese. Originally from an aristocratic background, she’s a refugee from the Rasalhague region of the Inner Sphere. Early on she’ll be the one who will carry your motley crew into combat, but later on she’ll also pilot a larger, more unusual spaceship called the Argo.

“Fairly early into the game,” McCain said, “you come into possession of the Argo, which is this much bigger sort of early exploration prototype — an ancient Star League vessel — that serves as your base of operations for the remainder of the game. It will allow your mercenary company to really grow and expand. The Argo is something completely new that we created for specifically for BattleTech.”

Early on, Gitelman said, it will look more like Swiss cheese than a capable WarShip. One of your many jobs as commander will be to get it outfitted and into the fight.

“It's very old,” Gitelman said. “And it’s barely space-worthy and you, the player, can upgrade and repair it over the course of the campaign. That also gives the player some control in terms of what parts they want to build out, which in turn impacts some of your capabilities when you deploy.”

The final member of the crew is Dr. Farah Murad, a native of the Arano Restoration with Pakistani and Iranian heritage, who will serve as the Argo’s chief engineer. Of course, there’s also the client, Lady Kamea Arana, who has a mix of Maori and Hawaiian ancestry in her family.

“She was born to be the successor to the Aurigan Reach,” McCain said, “Her whole life, she's been groomed to lead her people, until that's all taken away from her. Over the course of the story, she gets in contact with your mercenary crew and you become swept up in the restoration of the throne which is not only an honorable cause but it pays quite well. She's really learning, I think, over the course of the story that how to really assume her birthright, how to grow up and how to really earn it and free her people and prove that she can rule, and rule justly.”

The team says BattleTech will include lots of voice acting as well as a full suite of cinematic cutscenes, some of which it’s excited to be able to share with fans soon.

All of the characters mentioned so far, Gitelman said, are safe in a way. They’re not going to be deployed into battle against hostile forces on the ground in the game’s turn-based combat. Your crew of MechWarriors, however, will. Players will have to guide their growth, tend to their wounds and keep them alive. Each one of them will be unique.

“There's a fundamental kind of backstory generator,” Gitelman said, “which has been inspired by the wonderful kind of character generator system from the tabletop role-playing game called Traveller. We kind of drafted on that, so when you hire a MechWarrior we've generated their entire previous career up to the point where you hire them, and that impacts both their skills but it also creates existing relationships which are in their data. Those can interact with our event system, even our contract system, to create emergent opportunities based on who's in your crew.”

“If they die, they're dead,” McCain said. “There's a saying in BattleTech: Meat is cheap, save the metal.”

Gitelman stressed that, unlike Piranha Games’ MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, the team at Harebrained Schemes isn’t being influenced by games in the Rogue-like genre. Players won’t be pressed against the edge of financial ruin at all times. Nevertheless, they’ll have to adapt to the situation and go to war with the weapons they have.

One of the most important parts of the process of making BattleTech, said McCain, has been the feedback that Harebrained has received from its community. A multiplayer version of the game, called the backer beta, was released in June.

“We have more than 20,000 people signed up to be part of the beta,” said Weisman, “and so there’s been a huge number of hours logged on the core combat game. The data that we've gotten from that has been very helpful in the tuning of the game.”

“The biggest takeaway that we got was when we launched our Kickstarter,” McCain said. “What we said to the BattleTech community was we were not attempting to faithfully recreate the board game onto the PC. Rather, what we were trying to do was give you the feel of BattleTech and make it feel like an authentic BattleTech experience.

“We're lucky in that the audience has responded.”

BattleTech is expected to be released in 2018. You can see a sample of a mission from the main campaign below.