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Playing BattleTech

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BattleTech 2018: My thoughts on the campaign after watching streams for the past week, and ideas for the future

Ya know, when I first played XCOM back in 2012 (definitely the GOTY for me), I was marveling at the incredible gameplay, both at the micro and macro level, and thinking in the back of my mind "Man, wouldn't it be neat if this sort of game was made with BattleTech? Wouldn't that just be the most amazing thing?" But of course, it seemed like one of those pipe dreams. MechCommander 2 was ages ago and MWO hadn't come out yet. The license just seemed dead and buried.

And then when the kickstarter was announced with HBS, I was excited, but still in a somewhat reserved manner. I had picked up and played their Shadowrun game, with expectations of getting another amazing XCOM-like experience, but (and I apologize to any HBS employees reading this) it really didn't connect with me. I found it overall pretty dull and unexciting compared to XCOM's combat. So I just shrugged and moved on with my life. It was something that would hopefully turn out well, but I wasn't impressed with their track record.

Then I started to hear excitement brewing up with the backer beta that was coming out, and watched a couple youtube videos of gameplay, got excited for BattleTech again, started buying new sourcebooks and BattleCorps books (I'd stopped my involvement with tabletop after the Jihad arrived), and bought the backer kit. And I played the skirmish mode quite a bit, but the simplistic nature of it all, 4v4 Mechs clashing over and over again in these limited maps, soon got boring. And the way that the heat scale had been completely changed, and the very limited sight distance, also dampened my enthusiasm. I found myself thinking "Man, if the campaign is just gonna be this sorta skirmish combat thing, over and over again, but with some slightly added story... I'm gonna be so let down." The beta's skirmish mode was this very bare bones thing, and I was really setting my expectations low, because I really didn't know how much more they were going to do. They certainly hadn't shown anything in promos to indicate the campaign would be what it is today.

But now here we are today, watching Cohh's stream, seeing how it's all come together with this campaign that has seemingly taken the best of previous MechCommander campaigns, XCOM1/2's campaigns, and also a bit of roleplaying from Shadowrun, and made something so wonderfully BattleTech and cohesive and detailed and awesome... it's just an incredible surprise and delight. I was watching Cohh go through the contract system and Mechlab and management of the DropShip, and there's that feeling that said "Yes, the devs behind this game also had that exact same feeling that I had when they played through XCOM back in 2012!" It's like this instant connection across time and space. And again, in hindsight... maybe I was really foolish to look at the beta's Skirmish mode and think that the campaign would just be some shoddy thing thrown together on top of that. But at the same time, let's be honest here... HBS is a small studio, they are not a Firaxis. Firaxis is so much bigger and more established and so... I just wasn't expecting HBS to be able to pull off an XCOM-like campaign because of that. They were working off of a Kickstarter campaign, and not a huge publisher's funding like Firaxis. And I hadn't had a great time with their previous game Shadowrun.

Really just incredibly impressed with how it's all turned out.

Now, the one big worry that I do have after watching the stream is simply the starmap. To be short and simple: it's huge. There's probably something like a hundred or more planetary systems on that map that you can take missions from. Each with their own unique details like biome conditions and tech level and atmospheric conditions and whatnot. While that might sound great at first, it very quickly made my heart sink when I realized that there's simply no way that there could be enough premade maps in the game to support a hundred or more different planets. It's simply out of the realm of possibility, even though I know HBS is full of hardworking people. Firaxis made more than a hundred maps for XCOM1 and it still wasn't enough to keep people from getting tired of reused maps. I just fear that this same situation will arise in this game, when you go to your 56th new planet, with its detailed biome and environmental conditions and all plotted out on that starmap, and then drop down with your lance and realize that it's the same swampland map with the waterfalls that you've played 5 times already. That's just something that'll sting, I think. The starmap is so hugely ambitious and grand that I just feel like the limited mapset will let it down.

Now as to the future of the game: Well, I think the most obvious expansion ideas would be a singleplayer Solaris campaign, and the Clan Invasion. That's just the obvious thing that comes to mind. Going over to Solaris and eventually grinding your way to the top and becoming the Champion would be amazing (it was in MW4 Mercs). And you know that they wouldn't have to create too many map assets, since Solaris only has those five big Arenas. It'd really be more about the specific dueling mechanics and introducing environmental effects for the Arena, in order to make a single one vs one fight tactically interesting. Which I think they can do.

And then with the Clan Invasion, that's just a whole huge task to do right. Whether it's a standard Inner Sphere player vs Clans setup like we're used to, or if they choose to have the player as the Clan warrior invading the Inner Sphere, which would require intricate and well-designed bidding mechanics. There wouldn't really be that emphasis on contract payments and salvage like there is with the Merc gameplay (Cause I don't see Clans salvaging and using inferior IS tech), but I think there's definitely logistical requirements that the Clans have that could make for good macro-level mechanics for the campaign. Maybe you have to go back and fight off guerrilla forces on conquered planets every so often, just to put down insurgents and protect your logistical train. Things like that.

But those two are really big expansion ideas that will require a lot of effort and many new mechanics. I think if we're talking about an immediate new expansion pack for the game, it's gonna be something adding onto the vanilla Merc campaign. And what I would hope is for HBS to really lean in and leverage the Deep Periphery setting of the game. There are so many possibilities for strange and kooky things to encounter out there, because it is the Periphery. Something like the Vanishing Battleship of Merope... that's just weird. Have stuff like that happen ingame. Or a long lost Star League naval fortress, similar to Camelot Command from the BT animated series. It could be infested with pirates now. Really cool and out of the way gems like that, which will help break up the other 90% of the campaign where you're just landing on the usual planets and fighting Mech forces. Allow for that special and sporadic break in the action for something new. Other examples off the top of my head: long lost Castles Brian, filled with strange and wondrous sights and SLDF self-defense systems that have been corrupted by centuries of neglect. And then maybe encounters with a splintered off group of the Minnesota Tribe that has now turned to piracy, where you get inklings here and there of what they're about, but never fully find out the truth. That's the sort of stuff that will really appeal to us hardcore BT fans. We don't want the mystery solved, but just getting tantalizing hints of a deeper truth.

And another thing that this expansion could use: introducing new and more extreme environmental conditions. Just think about the really memorable hostile environs of BattleTech. I'm thinking about stuff like The Great Gash on Twycross. Or the Devil's Bath on Tukayyid. Stuff that's really amped up and challenging to fight through. I'm not suggesting that the maps be filled with them, because that'd get annoying real quick, but just sprinkle them in every now and then to shake things up. Kinda like how they did it with Volition's FreeSpace 2 (the finest space sim ever made) back in the day, where you'd get nebula missions every so often that would wreak havoc on your UI and targeting. Again, the goal is to leverage the amazing universe that BattleTech has and show new sights and sounds off for players.

Maybe even have hostile wildlife for certain random missions. I mean, there's an actual planet with real life dinosaurs (Megasaurs). Can you imagine a fun mission where they break out of their enclosures and you have to put them down? It wouldn't be terribly challenging of course, but it would serve as a nice easy break between tough missions, right?

Now, for something a little out there and more extreme... I was thinking the other day that if they wanted a really unique expansion pack, they could do one where the player plays as a member of ComStar's elite ROM covert ops. I remembered that there was that one time ROM disguised themselves as the Death Commandos and went on a failed raid on Hanse Davion's NAIS during the Fourth Succession War. That incident got me thinking about ROM's covert ops teams that would take on challenging missions like this. Why not have a whole expansion pack that allowed you to lead one of these and change the entire complexion of the game? Just like TIE Fighter back in the day, this would allow you to play as the "bad guys" and maybe get weird ComStar tattoos on your arm or something. Real sinister stuff, but in a really fun and creative way. It was always more fun to play TIE Fighter then X-Wing, because you were getting that new perspective of playing as the bad guys. And instead of doing things openly as a Merc, it would allow for new stealthy mechanics and gameplay, since you'd need to as ROM. Again, a lot of work for HBS, but I think it could be really cool if pulled off.

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