Tuesday, May 8, 2018

There and Back Again: A Battletech Tale

When a lot of people think back on their Battletech video game experiences (assuming they have any) they're probably reminded of MechAssault for the original Xbox, or maybe even  as far back as Mechwarrior II on the PC.  For me though, the story begins with the first Mechwarrior designed to work with the DOS operating systems.  After that I did some backtracking to The Crescent Hawk's Inception.  The first Battletech video game was, in fact, a 1988 SRPG wherein the player takes the role of Jason Youngblood, a mech pilot who, as far as gameplay is concerned, spends a lot more time outside battlemechs than in them.  The actual mechanics are fairly similar to the wargame and it's tabletop RPG expansion.  However, typical for the time in which it was released, Crescent Hawk's Inception does a poor job of introducing the player to the setting.  What a vibroblade or gyrojet gun?  SRM?  AC?  PPC?  What do all these acronyms stand for?  Better look through the instructions manual.  Ultimately I never finished the game because of a rather difficult combat section involving Jason getting into a fight outside of his mech...hmmm...thinking back on it, that might be a lesson in humility that all mechwarriors should take to heart.

The sequel, Crescent Hawk's Revenge, was a very different kind of game.  Instead of the player directly controlling one character, and by extension a single mech, the player was instead given overall command of multiple mechs.  Unlike the newest entry in the franchise, the player had little say-so as to what each mech did beyond designating targets.  Even the weapon loadout of each mech was abstracted into general levels of firepower at short, medium and long ranges.  The storyline was actually kind of interesting, but the hands-off approach made it difficult to enjoy the battles despite nearly being an RTS in terms of gameplay mechanics.

Between the two Crescent Hawk games there was also another game released, a pseudo-sim called Mechwarrior that put the player in the cockpit of one of these towering warmachines.  Aside from the first-person viewpoint, Mechwarrior was also innovative in that it allowed the player to take a much more open-world approach.  It was, in fact, possible to ignore the storyline entirely and simply travel the Inner Sphere as a mercenary.  The game always started with the player only having a lone Jenner to their name.  After slowly accumulating C-bills (money) though from mission payments and a cut of the salvage (paid in cash) the player could expand out their roster.  One way I used to speed up the early game was to take a base defense mission against a lone enemy mech (the bigger the better).  I'd waive the standard payment in lieu of a larger cut of the salvage.  Then, during the mission, I'd hide out near where I knew the enemy mech would have to pass through to get to my base.  Right after the mech would go by me I'd come out on its tail and blast a leg off.  In the original Mechwarrior losing just one leg meant that the mech was out of action.  No risk and hundreds of thousands of C-bills in salvage.  What's there to complain about?  Well...there were only eight mech types available in the game; Locusts, Jenners, Phoenix Hawks, Shadow Hawks, Marauders, Riflemen, Warhammers, and Battlemasters.  Sadly, there were no variants or customization options either.  Maximum team size was a standard lance of four mechs.  The player would have to buy and maintain each machine along with having to hire pilots for each of them.  Usually the first real landmark would be getting a buddy in a Locust to help you in missions, but eventually your team would expand and upgrade to the ultimate goal of a Battlemaster quartet.

It would be six years before a sequel was released.  Mechwarrior II had the same kind of in-cockpit combat as the original, but the gun-for-hire trappings were ditched in favor of being part of the Clans.  I've never been a fan of these eugenics obsessed, over-gunned mech driving, totem animal tribalist invaders from beyond the Inner Sphere.  That said, the game did have a nice variety of pre-determined missions in addition to a killer soundtrack.  It also allowed full mech customization which, in turn, led to me creating some hilarious designs.  I had a Mad Dog armed with nothing but two-dozen machine guns, as well as a Timber Wolf with so many PPCs it would blow up if I did an alpha strike due to overheating.  The only other Battletech video game I really played was Mechwarrior 3, although I can't say it made much of an impression on me since the only two things I remember about it were fighting the Clans and getting aid from a trio of support vehicles that could patch-up and rearm the player's mech while in the field.

Obviously there are many more Battletech games that I haven't even mentioned yet; the isometric one for the Sega Genesis (that has a spiritual sequel of sorts in the form of Brigador).  Then there is the proper RTS title MechCommander and of course, more recently, Mechwarrior Online.  One other noteworthy is Megamek, a free fan-made piece of software that basically acts as an emulator for the the tabletop wargame.  While incredibly cool, I could never get into it due to the simplistic presentation.

So which game is my favorite (curious readers of the this blog might ask)?  Actually, it's the Kickstarter version by Harebrained Studios.  In some ways it feels like the history of Battletech video games has come full circle.  We're now back where it all started though not entirely...I will get into the new game in the next post I make, but for the time being I'll simply say this - Like its predecessors, it's a game about 31st century combat, but it has a decidedly 21st century design aesthetic.         

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