Harebrained Schemes (HBS) arrived at GenCon with the latest update to their game, Battletech, which included the demo for the single player mode. Battletech, as a property, has a long and storied history. It’s only fitting that the man who created it, Jordan Weisman, is the one at the helm. Not only is the idea of a new entry in the Battletech pantheon of games exciting, it looks as if it’s development may be a perfect example of how to adapt a tabletop property to a computer screen.
At this year’s GenCon, in particular, video adaptations are in vogue. Between Upper Deck’s Legendary, North Star’s Evolution, and Paizo’s three adaptations of Pathfinder (Pathfinder Adventures, Pathfinder Online, and Pathfinder: Kingmaker) GenCon’s convention floor is filled with vendors trying to get you to demo their latest app. The one I noticed having to make a list due to the demand to try this game, was Battletech.
Battletech is an old game; It was first launched in 1984 by FASA Corporation (Weisman’s first of many companies), and as Weisman said at his Battletech panel, “It has a collection of pretty archaic ideas at its core. Modern tabletop has learned to do things more fluidly, and convey depth without complexity, in ways we simply didn’t know how to do 35 years ago. So, we had that additional challenge to make sure it was modern and accessible computer tactical game; starting with the basis of a tabletop [game] that, even today, isn’t considered modern or accessible.” I can echo this. For anyone who hasn’t tried to pick up Battletech and play it, the game is full of obtuse rules that are designed to make the gameplay more realistic, but in the end raise the bar of entry so high that only a small niche of people actually play it relative to other tabletop games. Anyone from my generation, however, will remember the Mechwarrior franchise of games, which were a gateway to the complex and deep lore of the series that backed the obtuse and arcane mechanics. The lore, and the incredible art design, are really what pushes the game forward.
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Weisman had moved away from his old FASA properties, until deciding to launch HBS and remake Shadowrun as video game. He managed to re-acquire the digital rights to Battletech and rolled out crowdfunding on Kickstarter and Backerkit for the game. They far surpassed the desired amounts.
I sat down to play the the single player mode against the AI during a twenty minute demo. It’s certainly not enough to get the depth and breadth of the game, but enough to wet the appetite and get a feel for the gameplay. Now, I did play some Battletech back in the day ( also, me and some of my friends actually modified some of the rules and ran our own Gundam models as mechs), and although I wouldn’t say I’m an expert by any means, I’m familiar with how the tabletop version plays, and how previous iterations have tried to translate that feel (specifically Mechcommander 2). Battletech nails the feel of the tabletop, without the insane complexity, in a way I never could imagine, and it does it while conveying the same gameplay depth.
To set the scene, much — if not all — of the combat revolves around a Mech Lance (a team of four mechs). You fight a series of conflicts on a topographical map that is filled with various terrain features from mountains, forests, canyons, rivers, and so on. Each one of these terrain features adds bonuses and negatives to your attacks. For instance, if I had a lighter mech that I wanted to stay out of the line of fire of a larger mech, I can move the lighter mech behind a mountain and block the line of sight. This, however, would not necessarily save it though, as mechs can have a vast array of armaments from rockets, to missles, to lasers, and gauss cannons, and even flamers. You have to take the map into consideration when deploying and moving your forces, as well as anticipating what the enemy may do to use the terrain to their own advantage. In this way, and in devising a interesting initiative system, the game has balanced out an issue that has persisted since the beginning — light mechs are useful.
For those who aren’t aware, there are three broad categories of mechs: light, medium, and heavy. There are variations within those, but lets stick with this for now. The heavier the mech, the more weapons you can add, meaning the more damage you can throw. Heavy mechs eat light mechs. However, you can now use light mechs to outmaneuver the larger one by dodging their firing arch, positioning themselves behind the heavier one (where the armor is weaker), or using them to scout for enemy forces, revealing them, and then painting them with your sensors buffing your teams’ attack. It’s genius because now they’re not a total waste of points, and it may be better to have a mix of units instead of just rolling with walking weapon’s batteries. All this goes to show that the team at HBS wasn’t just trying to reproduce the tabletop game to the screen, they wanted to make something fresh that was also true to the original.
“We set the agenda for ourselves of not reproducing the tabletop rules. Instead, we were reproducing the results of the tabletop rules,” Weisman said. “We wanted to make sure that it felt like the original game. We wanted to make sure that you could reproduce the tactics of the original game. We wanted to make sure that when you ran into [mechs from the original game] that they did what you expected them to do.”
Weisman, and his latest adaptation, nails down what has been hitting me this entire convention. Most studios are just trying to put their game on the screen. They’re taking something that traditionally has a specific, tactile experience, and boiling it down to a cold digital interface that doesn’t breath with you. Tabletop games are meant to be experienced with others, and when you cram that onto a screen you eliminate the human component, even if you have multiplayer. Rarely, if ever, does the multi in these games support couch co-op. In order for these adaptations to succeed they need to find a way to play to a digital screen’s strengths, and not try to force the medium into something it’s never been meant to do. Battletech lets itself be a video game. There are no phoney digital dice rolling across the screen when you attack. The game just does its thing under the hood when you press attack.
Overall, the game feels like other tactical turn based strategy games, like XCOM 2, and that’s a good thing. It also sounds like the single player campaign will be amazing. The story mode will involve you leading a team of mercenaries through a war for the fate of known space. You will have to take missions, and the actions you take during these missions, and whether you succeed for fail, will effect your overall reputation and your reputation with other houses. You’ll also have to balance your monetary needs between missions, like paying for your crew, ship and mech maintenance, and upgrading your gear. You’ll also manage various pilots and their abilities, and once the game’s story is over, you can keep going as the game will continue to generate content. I’m sure the game will be special … once it comes out. Currently the game is in closed beta, and available only to backers (which it appears you can still do by going to their website). The initial timeline of release had it coming out in 2017, but the HBS website now has it labeled for 2018. Check out the trailer above.