"You can't take the AI to school at this point," Harebrained Schemes' co-founder Mitch Gitelman tells me when I ask how Battletech's AI has evolved throughout its beta phase. "Now the AI takes you to school."
Two minutes later and one woefully misjudged siege sees me not only blowing my chance of taking down a hostile Panther PNT-9R, but also has me stranded and outnumbered behind enemy lines. Two minutes after that and my Shadow Hawk, piloted by my interminably reckless and renegade soldier Kraken, has its left arm torn off.
In response, I unleash a volley of close-range rockets and missiles that deal some pretty hefty damage to my aggressor's torso. But, as the setting sun envelopes the sandswept Mars-like 'Red City' battlefield in a fiery orange glow, the enemy's formidable Awesome AWS-8T mech steps in and swats me aside. I'm down and Gitelman is right: I've been schooled.
Battletech, for those uninitiated, is a 33-year-old military strategy tabletop board game that's since been treated to several videogame interpretations in the intervening period. Most of the latter have fallen under MechWarrior's canopy which, despite taking place within the overarching Battletech universe, have historically tended towards action in the face of their source material's turn-based strategy.
Battletech as we know it here pays closer deference to the original tabletop. It was successfully crowdfunded to the tune of $2,785,537 in 2015, having asked for just $250,000.
Gitelman's allusions to educating yourself by way of defeat in Battletech are important. During my brief foray into its single player Skirmish mode, I admittedly leaned on luck as much as I did considered strategy—yet there was always something to be gleaned from failure.
Perhaps I hadn't paid enough attention to my odds of landing a ranged attack, or maybe I hadn't considered pulling out wide so as to take advantage of peripheral cover. Was it the case that sprinting further into the fight would've improved my chances of maintaining line of sight—or should I have hung back and let the enemy come to me? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in Battletech understanding where you go wrong, and you will go wrong, is key to improving.
Despite the bout of ill-conceived misadventure outlined above, Gitelman encourages me to throw caution to the wind in Skirmish mode, as this is the safest place to crash and burn, away from the game's less-forgiving multiplayer forums. The margin for error is just as slim here, granted, however losing a pilot, or worse, a mech within the relatively consequence-less confines of single player is far preferable than falling to anonymous fighters online. Gitelman tells me that repairs and pilot reassignment cost money in the game's multiplayer, so I'm relieved to be off the hook scot-free in this instance.
During my second run, I discover that individual positions in my staggered four-slotted attack can be held back so as to leverage certain mechs back-to-back. I find this allows my lighter machine to flank and draw out heavier offenders, in turn leaving them exposed to my harder-hitters. I then charge down the central thoroughfare with flamethrowers, rockets and rail guns as I proceed to throw just about everything I have at my foes. The drawback to my most powerful offence, though, is limited ammo. It's at this point that Gitelman mentions 'Death From Above'.
As Fraser outlined in his impressions earlier this year, Battletech allows players to pit mechs against one another with their fists in close proximity—however, Death From Above lets you leap into the air before crashing down upon nearby enemies below. Beyond the overwhelming damage this causes your adversaries, watching a mech propel itself skyward by virtue of its boosters jets before executing such an overwhelming maneuver is a sight to behold.
The trade off for doing so sees you destabilised and overheated—the latter of which temporarily paralises your mech. Lingering too long in the former status is even more threatening, however, as you then run the risk of being toppled. This in turn allows enemies to "call a shot" on you, which is as devastating in practice as it sounds. Gitelman moreover stresses that Death From Above might be best suited as a last resort, given the fact it damages the internal structure of your mech's legs in the process.
With this, and from what we've seen from its backer beta, Battletech is in great shape. It's come on leaps and bounds since what Fraser reported on in May, and has seen its interface frequently tweaked and adjusted to help players understand the layout of the battlefield along the way. It's also added breathtaking attacks such as Death From Above.
Battletech is still without a hard release date, having been recently delayed into 2018. That said, I'm nevertheless confident Gitelman and his Hairbrained team know what they're doing. With new planets, new weapons, and new mechs planned down the line, fans and newcomers to the series alike have got plenty to look forward to.