Battletech KickStarter

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During my teenage years I was a considerable fan of the Battletech universe. To this day, I still have several books including technical readouts and novels by Michael A. Stackpole, William H. Keith Jr and Robert Thurston, as well as a small collection of the tabletop miniatures. If I dig, I might even find several hard copies of the MechWarrior game series.

So when I heard the news about Harebrained Schemes putting together a new KickStarter for a fresh Battletech title, I wanted to take some time to dissect the news. Truth be, this seems to be a situation where KickStarter is the absolute safest approach to gauging consumer interest. More on this in a moment.

For newcomers, Battletech is a war game that puts players on the 31st century battlefield, filled with walking tanks known as Battlemechs. The background goes that a star-settled humanity was united by the Star League, and held together by five Great Houses in the territory around Terra known as the “Inner Sphere.” When the ruling Star Lord (not Peter Quill) and his family were assassinated, the Star League army slew his usurper and disappeared into the unexplored Periphery territories. Left with their private armies, the five Great Houses each declared themselves the new Star Lord and sought to claim the Inner Sphere as their own.

techreadoutThis began a series of conflicts known as the Succession Wars. Several centuries later, the first couple of wars have knocked humanity down a peg or two and have truly desensitized our species to the violence.

Liberal use of nuclear weapons and heavy targeting of science and production centers has sent our technology backwards. As a result, several technology preserved agreements even as the battles and raids continue.

Eventually the Star League army returns, reformed as the Clans. A more technologically advanced and warrior-derived society, they move to seize control of the Inner Sphere. This results in a massive, fragile alliance between the Houses, the effects of which change the political landscape forever.

In the games, players join a side and engage in a variety of machines such as assassinations, protecting or invading territory, scouting or escaping. Depending on the nature of the title, players can pilot the machines themselves simulator style, command lances or companies and/or order them about much like a real time strategy game with very limited resources. The titles with the “mercenaries” suffix also feature a great deal of economic management, giving incentive to avoid damage and minimize ammunition expenditures to keep the C-bill revenues in the black.

Originally created and owned by FASA Corporation, Battletech has faced hardships from its very conception. The earliest fourteen designs were heavily based off of several anime series, and the legal rights came under challenge from Harmony Gold. These now “unseen” designs are gone, but in their place are hundreds of new, original mech designs.

The problems didn’t end there though. FASA Corporation closed its doors in 2001, and the rights to various projects shuffled about for sometime. The franchise was acquired by WizKids, and then by Topps only three years later. The video games have gone through several publishers, including MicroProse and Microsoft. Recently two new games were released, the free-to-play MechWarrior Online from Piranha Games and MechWarrior Tactics whose publisher has filed for bankruptcy.

successionwarsFor better or worse, Battletech separates itself from many similar board top properties with its detailed history, that has been expanded upon for more than two decades. This on-going history can be an impressive barrier-to-entry for potential new fans. While Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 thrive in a universe of ignorance, doubt, deniability and massiveness, no historic event happens in Battletech that isn’t somehow recorded and important.

Clans and factions too have been and will be destroyed, such as the enigmatic Clan Wolverine who may have become the Minnesota Tribe, and Clan Smoke Jaguar who was the victim of the massive The Twilight of the Clans book series. Major political figures have been born, raised and die, though the reasons range from battles and assassinations to old fashioned age and cancer. 

My faith in the series has long died away since my favorite authors have moved on and the ever changing hands weakened the brand. But if there’s anyone out there who can get it right, it’s going to be series creator Jordon Weisman. After his company’s incredible work with the Shadowrun franchise, his name alone justifies tossing a few dollars into the hat.

Look for the Battletech Kickstarter this fall.

MechWarrior Resurgence

Sometimes, a game series or universe just tries and tries and fails. Maybe it just fell into the hands of the wrong developers. Maybe there’s franchise fatigue. Who knows. But that’s what happened to the MechWarrior series years back. And we stopped getting new games for it.

But now there’s not just one, but two MechWarrior games on the horizon. MechWarrior Online and MechWarrior Tactics. Both these games will be free to play, the first being a combat simulator and the second being a tactical strategy game. After years of pretending to be apathetic, I can’t help but be excited again.

MechWarrior is the video game extension of the BattleTech universe, a gaming universe I was involved with before the Black Library made me their unholy convert. Unlike Warhammer 40k, BattleTech is 100% sci-fi. Political intrigue, space travel and lots and lots of micro-wars.

The story goes that mankind achieved some unified government called the Star League, that pushed for an age of peace. When Stefan Amaris befriended and betrayed the heir to the Star League throne, he set a chain of events that shattered the league into five warring houses, collectively called the Inner Sphere. The five great houses made use of BattleMechs, large, often-bipedal battle tanks, to wage the majority of their wars.

Meanwhile the Star League army disappeared into the periphery, the area of unknown and barely explored space surrounding the Inner Sphere. They would return later as the Clans and try to violently reform the Star League. This event has yet to occur in MechWarrior Online. Given that the Clans are superior warriors by their genetic breeding, training, significantly better technology and are honor bound to use as few resources as possible to wage war, it’s going to be a point of contention between players who want to be Clanners.

The are two reasons I fell out of the BattleTech fandom. First was that the politics started to get convoluted. The universe cannot really “stand still” like Warhammer 40k can. Change drives it. The second was that I had an argument with BattleTech author Blaine Lee Pardoe and was left sour by the incident. What can I say? I was a teenager.

Still, I’ve gotten over it. And MechWarrior Online returns the fighting to my favorite era: When it was just the Inner Sphere smashing itself during the Succession Wars. Although players will be invited to join one of the five major houses, they can also do their own thing and work as mercenaries. Scuttlebutt says that they can even form their own mercenary corporations.

The old BattleMech designs have been dusted off, detailed and streamlined. Instead of looking like boxy robot toys, they look more like genuine robots now, but they maintain their signature traits. The Atlas still sports a skull shaped head. The Jenner kinda looks like the U.S.S. Enterprise on two legs. You don’t need to even know what the original Hunchback looked like to fear that giant, over the shoulder cannon.

Although streamlined and detailed, the new designs keep the feel of the old ones intact.

Although streamlined and detailed, the new designs keep the feel of the old ones intact.

What originally made the MechWarrior games so great? A few things.

First, they were often objective based. Destroying your enemies is nice, but you often had more victory-oriented things to do. Defend this, scout that, support this, escort that and assassinate this guy. Some crazy missions focused on escaping a dangerous situation, like when that too-good-to-be-true 6 million credit contract is actually a set-up that almost gets you killed. Combine this with a variety of terrain from jungles to deserts, beneath the ocean to cities to space itself, and you have all kinds of crazy surprises waiting to be thrown at you.

The different missions helped balance out the available Mechs too. Light Mechs, 20 to 35 tons, usually don’t stand much of a chance against 100 ton Assault Mechs. But when your mission was to scout an area or escape a situation, sometimes that speed lets you pull off  objectives you couldn’t otherwise do.

Second was the game’s customizability and rewards system. You didn’t have to stick with just a Mech’s default configuration, you could customize it if there was something you didn’t like. The mercenary games from several years back took this further, offering all kinds of black market operations and trade systems that let you swap out parts and mechs. The best thing of all was the salvage system. Destroy an enemy mech and you often got first dibs on surviving parts. And if you took out just the cockpit, you could sometimes salvage the entire machine!

This system sometimes came with some intriguing downsides, which added to the uniqueness of the challenge. In MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries, destroyed parts could only be replaced if you brought replacements, or returned to the mercenary planet (not always an option). If your mech was destroyed but you ejected, you can keep going if you have a replacement mech or can afford the cheapest machine. Otherwise, game over.

This means that during multi-mission campaigns, your victories could be quite Pyrrhic. You had to manage your company finances as well as win your battles. I loved that.

After MechWarrior 3, there was a loss in quality in the coming games. Some innovative attempts revived my interest, such as MechCommander. But after college I walked away from the MechWarrior culture.

That was seven years ago. And hell, their new games are free to play. I think it’s time to see if this reboot will sink or swim.

There are still things I don’t know. Is the music on par with MechWarrior 2? Will there be contracts, looting and finance management components like Mercenaries? Since I can build my own mercenary company, will the social elements be inviting? That’s an aspect that has never existed before in the MechWarrior games. Will I need to take care of my pilots?

Guess we’ll find out before the year’s up.