website tracking
In a Successor State on Game and Player

In a Successor State

Michael Ubaldi  //  July 23, 2009

On BattleTech and the reinvention of MechWarrior.


was not impressed by the teaser for Smith & Tinker's lately announced MechWarrior title. Featuring the single, colossal footfall of a mech in a city street, the video approached the length and substance of Bambi Meets Godzilla.

A second release, a trailer, is what started conversations — and owing nothing to fine production quality. In less than ninety seconds, that animated sequence produced a narrative string of nearly every single one of the BattleTech franchise's peculiar distinguishing characteristics.

Nameless men fought in deserted downtown streets astride gigantic, imaginatively designed, unlikely varied, humanoid armored fighting vehicles. Weapons, believable or plucked from science fiction, crossed with intent to overwhelm; not to be precise. Missiles flew in reckless blossoms, particle cannons went wide at minimum range. The trailer's protagonist, his cockpit decorated like an underclassman's dorm room, saw the tables turn on him twice — he engaged only to be outmatched, and ejected from a stricken craft only to be swallowed by an iconic nuclear detonation.

Oh, BattleTech.

My acquaintance with the franchise was made in 1990 with The Crescent Hawks' Inception, a PC title from Infocom grafting FASA Corporation's tabletop game BattleTech to its pencil-and-paper RPG MechWarrior. A faithful, stylish adaptation, Inception enthralled me, leading to a wrapped box of BattleTech appearing next to the cake on my next birthday — and the catalog inside commenced three years of purchases that now fill a Rubbermaid tub in my closet.

That trailer showed every single one of the BattleTech franchise's peculiar distinguishing characteristics.Mecha warfare is an abiding favorite. I own the early arc of computer games, including the namesake release MechWarrior. Toward the end of my five-year hiatus from video gaming, I spent a few months toying with Metal Fatigue, then purchased two recent extensions of the BattleTech property, MechAssault and its sequel. The Armored Core series has my admiration, if not my investment of skill; and the lonely, first-wave Xbox 360 title Chromehounds rotated in my schedule for the balance of three years.

If the trailer is any portent, there is a lot of promise in MechWarrior. In the interests of seeing — and enjoying — Smith & Tinker's and Piranha Games' success, acknowledging whatever stage to which development has advanced, I offer suggestions.

Embrace the Original Spirit of BattleTech

The teaser's antedate of 3015 returns MechWarrior to where the franchise begins. In the Third Succession War, five intergalactic states and a gaggle of lesser houses struggle for intergalactic supremacy as a kind of futuristic, dark-age heptarchy. Two centuries of war have reduced spacefaring humanity to decadent, warring perpetuity, the privileged climbing into mass-produced mecha and the unfortunate perishing by the million. Mercenaries profit from noble families arranging star systems as pawns. How urban planners and assembly lines can keep up with the devastation, no one can say, but BattleTech's milieu, at once coarse and state-of-the-art, has remained unique after 25 years.

There's enough for ten games set on the same fictional date. Stick to the old, rich script.As time in the real world passed, the game's world progressed. The Clan invasion — a return of martial elites from exile — was interesting peripety, as if the Romans had returned to take back Britannia. BattleTech's story petered out after that, possibly accompanied by a decline in sales of tabletop products, though surely burdened by the furrow-browed Clans and their dignified blandness. A few years later, the MechAssault series jumbled history and culture and front lines, leaving fans annoyed and new players nonplussed.

If Smith & Tinker has confidence in the strength of the property, it can release ten games set on the same fictional date. Stick to the old, rich script. No Steiner-Davion alliance, no ComGuards, no asking anyone to translate whatever the hell "Stravag" means.

Offer Players a Variety of Mechs

The Technical Readout: 3025 is BattleTech's seminal sourcebook, adding 43 mechs to the dozen units introduced in the first boxed set. Ordered by weight class — light, medium, heavy and assault — and personified by distinctive shapes and sizes, these mechs accommodated every tactical role, play style and military fashion statement.

Reconnaissance? Try a Locust, Commando or Assassin. Small-force hit-and-run? A Jenner, Enforcer or Shadow Hawk. Fire support? Meet the Rifleman and Archer. At the vanguard? A Thunderbolt, Crusader, or the model piloted by the trailer's would-be hero — the Warhammer. King of the battlefield? The Atlas, of course.

Last month's announcement of the resolution of a lawsuit that had resulted in the retraction of BattleTech's original twelve mechs means the original cast is available — and once Piranha translates gameplay mechanics, so very many possibilities are only a matter of modeling and mapping.

Make Every Class Viable to Players

Two weeks ago, Smith & Tinker's Jordan Weisman and Piranha's Russ Bullock told IGN what a lot of us are thinking: heretofore, lighter mechs have fulfilled needs of the plot, insofar as they are cheap, selectively effective and expendable. But players are driven by self-interest and analysis. Before long, in any game, they will choose designs with the fewest liabilities — and inflexible games will fail. Armored Core allows slight mecha the advantages of speed and close-range damage; whereas Chromehounds long-ago succumbed to unremedied, unbalanced play elements inspiring serious players to choose about ten mech combinations out of potential millions. And MechAssault may as well have been called MadCat.

Be cautious: players will choose designs with the fewest liabilities — and inflexible games will fail.Risking a Piranha designer rolling his eyes, having already considered this, I suggest speed and maneuverability of light and medium mechs be accentuated — perhaps two to three times as what is even in the tabletop game. According to BattleTech's rules, neither armor nor firepower can be much had at those tonnages — but if flyweights can not only endure an engagement but win through evasion, players won't mind.

Organize Multiplayer as Team Activity

Speaking to IGN, Weisman and Bullock are long on ideas for cooperative play and preferential rewards for multiplayer, but what about an imperative for players to assemble in four-mech lances or even twelve-mech companies? Joining a group is prerequisite to playing a single multiplayer match on Chromehounds, and in the game's earlier days, Chromehounds was a hangout for online friends; some would tinker and chat while others deployed for another sortie. Advances in matchmaking technologies render that model partly obsolete, but the principle stands. With Xbox Live's Battlefield: 1943 release plainly rewarding friends for playing together, will the group dynamics sought by Bullock and Weisman constitute authentic team play or mere collections of gamers?

In their interview, Weisman and Bullock offer a caveat four or five times — they have rarely been so excited, or in possession of such technology to complete a creative vision, but-but-but, MechWarrior will be amenable to its publisher. My final word of advice is directed to that company: listen closely to these two men.

Mech Fan // February 8, 2010 // 12:36 AM

Big fan of the rich history and excited to see if Smith and Tinker adapt the story as you mention.
For now, one of the big thrills is to play the BattleTech networked Virtual Reality Cockpit Simulators. (See Virtual
We can only hope that the new game will find its way to the simulators.

Michael Ubaldi // February 8, 2010 // 12:46 AM

Virtual reality battlemechs? Now that sounds like fun!

Join the Discussion

Articles by Michael Ubaldi

July 1, 2011

February 12, 2011

G&P Latest

July 1, 2011

June 28, 2011

About  //  Editors  //  Contributors  //  Terms of Use