Like most wars involving serious armour tonnage, Battletech is a lot of waiting around punctured by moments of death and destruction. The turn-based tactics slugathon has the later down to a science, with the former lacking refinement.
Careful combat pacing and thoughtful placement of decisive random dice rolls have done wonders for turn-based strategy over the course of the last decade. Human tenacity in pecking at a red button in anticipation of a fairly capricious outcome, especially when satisfaction over a favourable outcome is closely tied to planning and preceding time investment, can be a solid core to build basic gameplay loops on. This is where Battletech has been polished to a gunmetal sheen.
Battletech's combat will be instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with rebooted XCOM games. Your lance of mechs, four strong, operates between individual movement and attack phases, with the odd pilot skill or ability thrown into the mix. There is a lot of variety available and consideration required, as movement, skills and attacks come in several flavours, each with different tactical impact depending on the situation.
Weapons are divided into ballistic, energy, missile and support categories, with each type covering various engagement ranges and providing different effects on both the target and the user. Individual body parts and armour components can be targeted separately, and the combat itself is heavily dependent on the mechs' relative position to each other and surrounding terrain.
Energy weapons require no ammo but tend to run hot. Ballistic armaments tend to loose accuracy with prolonged fire but pack a serious punch. Missile weapons may knock the enemy war machine on its face but are highly range dependant to be effective. Support weapons waste mech hardpoints and available tonnage while guaranteeing heavy repair costs, in case you were silly enough to consider a close combat playthrough.
Playstyle is important for Battletech, as picking your style and sticking to it is one of the few reliable ways of wrestling some measure of difficulty control away from the game. Calling the difficulty erratic would be on a mech-overheating level of understatement.
Battletech would routinely classify missions with a two and a half skull difficulty rating, in spite of deployments often being a walking nightmare of 60-ton long range missile tanks supported by a medium lance, while the same mission would present only two heavy mechs as opposition after some routine save-scumming.
And save-scum you will. Taking a loss, sucking it up and playing on is something Battletech really wants you to do, but it enforces this intent with overwhelming tedium tucked away in its meta.
Between missions you get to trade, travel the galaxy, pick and equip your mechs, manage personnel, upgrade your mothership and do all the little things necessary to keep an unscrupulous band of mercenaries in business while the ever looming threat of bankruptcy is breathing down your neck. In terms of actual play these actions amount to navigating a bunch of clumsy and overly click intensive menus.
Don't get me wrong here, throw a light mech chassis, some ammo and two AC/20's at Telxvi and tell him to engineer them together into a functional mech and he will be entertained for hours in spite of the obvious impossibility of the task. Playing grease-monkey with 100-ton walking doombringers is fun and engaging but everything else isn't.
You will wait for designs to be implemented by your engineers, you will wait for your pilots to recover from injury, you will wait for repairs, you will wait while travelling from system to system, you will wait for the money required for ship upgrades, you will wait and swim in an ocean of loading screens and timers. Managing downtime is simply not interesting unless you use it as quiet time between crescendos of action.
Sadly, the same misstep infests the battles as well. There is a lot of waiting around, not doing much of anything while every mech on the battlefield moves around, ponders, fires, scratches his ammo racks and ultimately destroys or is destroyed. There are sliders in the options menu that mitigate this from unbearable to I can live with this, but only for combat.
The interstellar mercenary part of Battletech feels almost as tacked on as the story. You will encounter the same FTL-style random events several times, often even showing you unavailable choices and dialogue options that require ship modules belonging to a ship you don't even have yet. These choices often impact only the amount of waiting you will have to do between missions and are inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. Unlike save-scumming which will get you far.
Taking a hit and loosing a crucial weapon, mech or pilot would in theory force the player to field his B lance for the next mission. That hypothetical Bravo lance would usually be an underpowered band consisting of survivors from the previous mission and whatever resources you had in reserve.
Now, considering that matchmaking is erratic at best, you would have to save-scum that Bravo lance battle or risk taking an even greater hit to your mercenary company, in terms of money, personnel and material.
If you do the honourable thing and in chance your Bravo lance take a serious beating as well, then the downward spiral becomes glaringly obvious. It wasn't obvious to Telxvi, as he cheerfully steered his first playthrough into a dead end, after hours of waiting for various timers to run out intersected with a multitude of choice.
The only actual choice here is save-scum or waste a lot of time waiting, because time well spent is time spent engaging with or being engaged by the actual game.
Story missions greatly work in Battletech's favour here, as they are far less random and appear to have been designed with the aim of presenting players with a tactical puzzle of sorts. They are somewhat hampered by the fact that Harebrained Schemes couldn't have known what sort of lance you will field, once you finally get around to doing a story mission.
A particular mission comes to mind, where not having a light mech in the stable capable of intercepting an escaping convoy swallowed up 8 hours worth of restarts. Turns out the convoy isn't mission critical, but you wouldn't know it from the way the voice actors kept stressing how vital it is that the arms shipment doesn't escape.
The narrative wrapped around those missions is delivered via walls of text, with fiercely stoic looking characters in the background. Same as with the open world campaign, it feels like an afterthought.
Someone made sure the cast was nice and diverse, but failed to come up with a story that goes beyond thoroughly unlikable, dethroned nobles' organising political support to regain power with the aid of long forgotten vaults of ancient technology.
The characters aren't characters, but thinly disguised tutorials. Thankfully, this lack of personality rarely ever seeps into the battle voice lines. This may be due to the fact that these don't drag on for too long, unlike the cinematics which use interesting visuals and music to shockingly little effect.
There's dialogue options too but I doubt they ever made any impact on the actual story, even after I've entirely stopped caring and clicked at whatever option would let me go back to giant robot battles the fastest. The game's character creation and dialogue systems seem to aim for a Mount & Blade flare, but never actually take the shot.
Battletech still feels like it could have spent more time on the anvil. While there are little regrets to be had over my 80 hours the game swallowed up, there is also a palpable air of 'not quite finished' that's felt in between battles. We fully expect to be drip fed additional mechs, the by now traditionally omitted Clan component of Battletech or maybe even air vehicles through post-launch content.
At ground level, Battletech is deep, addictive and demanding. Anyone at least flirting with the idea of diving into turn-based strategy or the Battletech franchise itself would be doing themselves a disservice by not at least giving it a chance.
As soon as you move past its core, the game starts fumbling and idling around with its quiet time, revealing massive issues in pacing and overall structure. Still, more often than not - the combat system is worth the hassle.
Battletech's ultimate value strongly depends on what Harebrained Schemes and Paradox Interactive have planned for the game's future. Luckily, most of the game's issues appear to be rooted in fine tuning and are in no way core design faults.
Lets hope that we don't have to wait too long for the inevitable Clan expansion, and that the promising title receives the extra push it needs to be the stratagem Battletech deserves.