Wrecking mechs on BattleTech's tactical battlefields

In BattleTech, a band of mercenaries travel the galaxy, fighting for the highest-bidding noble house. More importantly, these fights are full of mechs battering each other with oversized fists and missile barrages.

Between the tabletop original, MechWarrior and other spin-offs, the BattleTech universe has kept us watching mechs fight for 35 years. Digital adaptations have run the gamut from roleplaying games to real-time strategy romps, and most recently a free-to-play shooter. “What we haven’t done is really return to the roots of the franchise,” says Jordan Weisman, Harebrained Schemes co-founder and BattleTech creator. “So we’re very excited to do that.”

Two steel brutes, chassis glowing red from the heat, duke it out on a mountainside. Both are missing limbs, damage inflicted from earlier brawls, but that doesn’t seem to slow them down. Aside from a single fist each, they’ve lost almost all of their weapons. Sparks and smoke spew out of them, and then one goes for the killing blow. Another limb explodes, then a laser blast to the head finishes the mech off.

Despite a victory worthy of song, things start off less than auspiciously. There’s a lot going on in BattleTech’s turn-based, tactical fights, and that means a lot of ways to mess up. There’s the environment itself, like trees that slow mechs down while providing cover and hills that offer superior firing positions; a heat system to worry about, where mechs shut down when their pilots start getting roasted alive; and a separate stability system, determining how close they are to comically falling over. 

I consider myself more of a chef than a commander, slowly cooking my pilots inside their mechs. I lose two of my group early on thanks to this recklessness. There are, however, ways to manage the heat—spending a turn bracing for an attack instead of unleashing laser blast after laser blast, for instance. Selecting only low-heat weapons when attacking is a good call, too. Even the planet’s temperature factors into it. Overheating can sometimes be worth the risk, if it means taking out an enemy mech. Shutting down just means you have to waste a turn rebooting—it’s not the end.

The mechs are also highly customisable. “You have a chassis,” explains Weisman. “And each chassis has been wired for different types of weaponry, but you can customise any of the weapons. And you can customise the heatsinks, the armour, the jump jets, all those kinda things, to get different performance out of your mechs.” Expect at least 30 chassis, ranging from ones perfect for light scouts, to behemoths designed for walking weapons platforms.

With all these tactical considerations and customisation options, BattleTech seems pretty clever, but nothing is as satisfying as the simple pleasure of watching two mechs box. “In the 25 years we’ve been doing computer versions of BattleTech and MechWarrior, we’ve never been able to have a mech throw a punch before,” says Weisman, grinning. “Now we can.”

I look over at another skirmish playing out next to me. A mech with no arms does the only thing it can, headbutting its opponent, which then explodes. Most of the game is spent looking at these machines from a distance, but occasionally the camera zooms in with a bit of cinematic flair during an attack, capturing the explosions and machines locked in deadly duels. It’s striking and appropriately over-the-top.