Published by MicroProse and released in June of 1998, MechCommander is an isometric real-time tactical video game set within the BattleTech universe; it was developed by FASA Interactive (later known as FASA Studio), a game development company formed by the creators and former proprietors of the BattleTech franchise, FASA Corporation, in 1995. The game challenges players to properly direct one or more lances of MechWarriors across a variety of mission types, while also managing several peripheral concerns such as 'Mech repairs, salvage, and hardware acquisition, development and recruitment of 'Mech pilots, and proper 'Mech customization. While MechCommander's cover art prominently asserts that it is "The First MechWarrior Game of Tactical Command," this claim is not entirely accurate, as the 1990 Westwood Studios title BattleTech: The Crescent Hawks' Revenge, one of the earliest entrants into what would later be referred to as the real-time strategy genre, adheres to a very similar premise, making it somewhat more deserving of this distinction.
MechCommander was deemed successful enough that an enhanced version called MechCommander Gold was released the following year, which consisted of not only the original campaign, but also new difficulty settings, new 'Mechs, and an entirely new campaign entitled Desperate Measures, which was only available through the expanded release. In 2001, Microsoft, who had since acquired FASA Interactive, published an additional title within the BattleTech sub-franchise entitled MechCommander 2, which traded the isometric 2D graphics of MechCommander for a new polygonal 3D engine, while otherwise keeping the framework of its predecessor intact.
The storyline of MechCommander, like many previous games within the BattleTech franchise, takes place during the Clan Invasion Era, and more specifically in this case it is set after the Truce of Tukayyid occurred, which forced the invading Clans to come no closer to Terra than Tukayyid for a period of fifteen years. After winning this reprieve, the Inner Sphere chooses to unite themselves in order to go on the offensive against the Clans, and it was as part of this initiative that in 3059 Operation Bulldog commenced, with the explicit objective of liberating occupied areas of the Inner Sphere from Clan Smoke Jaguar. As part of a precursory strike team intended to soften the Jaguars for the main offensive, the player assumes the role of the Commander of Zulu Company of the First Davion Guards, an outfit that has been tasked with paving the way for the retaking of Port Arthur.
Though only modest resistance is expected prior to their arrival on Port Arthur, the First Davion Guards are unexpectedly met with the full might of the 168th Garrison Cluster when they make planetfall, and what follows is a brutal two-week period of fighting between the two groups. Faced with much greater numbers than were initially foreseen, the First Davion Guards are forced to adapt in order to survive until reinforcements arrive, and as such the specifics of their mission change significantly. Rather than waging a guerrilla campaign, the Davion Guards must instead adopt a more aggressive stance in order to destabilize the Jaguar's forces. If successful, the player's activities during the campaign weaken the Jaguar Clan's foothold on Port Arthur significantly, enough so that the when Inner Sphere reinforcements finally arrive Smoke Jaguar is forced into a full retreat.
MechCommander consists of a series of thirty missions that are further subdivided into five operations, with each being composed of six missions with an overarching objective. Each mission can itself have multiple objectives, and it is up to the player to determine how best to allocate resources to accomplish these goals. Each scenario has a preset weight and vehicle limit for the player's forces which cannot be exceeded, although players are also rewarded with additional Resource Points (or RP) for completing missions without hitting their weight limit. Far more importantly, however, players must ensure that they are entering battle with the optimal loadout for their MechWarriors, as the cost of replacing destroyed 'Mechs or deceased pilots far outweighs any potential benefits of additional RP gained for low tonnage. Preceding each engagement, the player receives a detailed outline of their next mission's parameters, including detailed information about expected opposition and a full map of the combat zone complete with markers indicating important locations as they pertain to the mission.
Once the mission commences, the player is in full control of the forces they have assigned for the scenario, and may guide them in real time through their objectives. Though the management and action phases of MechCommander are handled separately, players must still be mindful of potential resources that may aid them while carrying out their current goals. Perhaps the most important example of this is the concept of salvage. While it is possible to simply destroy enemy 'Mechs that impede the completion of the player's mission, it is far more lucrative in many cases to disable them. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, such as targeting specific parts of a 'Mech (the cockpit or legs, for instance) which will disable it without rendering it completely unsalvageable. The importance of salvage is driven home by the fact that Inner Sphere 'Mechs are inferior overall when compared to the Clan counterparts the player encounters in the campaign. Salvage is the primary way to gain access to Clan technology, and it is also possible to obtain Clan weaponry by capturing certain structures, allowing them to be incorporated into existing 'Mechs at a later time.
Another commodity the player must be mindful of is the status of their MechWarriors. The player starts with only a small number of 'Mech pilots under their command, but can acquire new ones over the course of the game both through missions and by hiring them outside of missions. MechWarriors are independently rated by gunnery, piloting, jump jet, and sensor skills, and are furthermore signed an overall rank from "green" to "elite," indicating their overall effectiveness. Over time players can develop the skills of their pilots simply by allowing them to successfully partake in missions, and by the end of the game it is possible for even the most inexperienced pilots to become very deadly. Relying too heavily on any one pilot can have rather severe consequences, though, as it is possible for MechWarriors to be injured or even killed over the course of a mission.
In addition to growing and maintaining Zulu Company's stable of 'Mechs and pilots, the player is also able to purchase several non-'Mech vehicles to support their lances in combat. This can take a number of forms, from direct assault craft that lend additional lethality to their lance, to mine layers that specialize in laying deadly traps for enemy 'Mechs, to in-field repair craft that can directly extend the longevity of the player's squad. One of the biggest advantages of these support vehicles is their relative inexpensiveness, as in most cases they are cheaper to purchase than a 'Mech, and can help to shore up any weaknesses the squad might have. Finally, the player may also purchase individual weapons and components between missions, which are essential for bringing damaged or salvaged 'Mechs back to spec or upgrading existing chassis.
Because the game takes place from the perspective of an Inner Sphere unit, this puts the player at a disadvantage when facing off against Clan Smoke Jaguar, as Clan technology outstrips anything available within the Inner Sphere. Since only Inner Sphere designs can be purchased with RP, this also places a premium on salvaged Clan 'Mechs, as they present the best chance to be able to confront the enemy on equal footing. Even if the player is quite successful in commandeering Clan technology, however, they will still encounter situations with some frequency where they are outmatched by their opponents, so it is just as important that the composition of a lance be complementary and that players exercise sound tactical thinking when engaging the enemy.
There are eighteen 'Mechs featured in MechCommander (ten Inner Sphere, eight Clan), and each 'Mech is signified as either an armor, weapon, or jump variant, which is delineated in-game by suffixes of "-A," "-W," or "-J" attached to the name of the chassis. 'Mechs can of course be further customized regardless of which type is purchased, but these variant classes allow the player to determine the base armor values, jump jet capabilities, and weapon loadouts to a degree when purchasing a new 'Mech, and can also be helpful in gauging the overall strength of a foe before attacking, as enemy 'Mechs' variant types can be ascertained as long as they are within sensor range.
MechCommander was received favorably in general upon its release, although a number of criticisms were leveled against it in reviews. The game was noted as being fairly difficult, and while this was not seen as a problem in and of itself, many reviewers mentioned that, when combined with other design decisions, the difficulty could be fairly frustrating. The lack of ability to save during missions, for instance, was a common point of contention, as the best course of action after a tactical error was often to simply replay the entire scenario. Others felt that features one might expect from a tactical game, such as the ability to select unit formations, were conspicuously absent in MechCommander, and this feeling of limited control over one's units extended to the combat as well, where many commented that ensuring each unit was performing well during the game's frantic firefights was harder than it should be, and that having an option to slow down time or pause the game to issue commands would have been a welcome addition.
Despite the flaws that were perceived by reviewers, most ultimately recommended the game to those who felt they could handle its more frustrating elements. The satisfaction of steadily building a small army of 'Mechs and competent MechWarriors was often perceived as the game's greatest strength, and its presentation was likewise noted as a significant positive. Stephen Poole summed up the sentiments of many reviewers in his PC Gamer review when he said of MechCommander that it "succeeds in spite of itself." Perhaps to address concerns, the developer later released an optional patch for the game which allows players to commandeer the Mad Cat seen being disabled in the game's intro, making the early goings significantly easier. Difficulty concerns also seemed to have factored into the later release of MechCommander, which included an easier difficulty setting.