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I can’t speak to how faithful a replication BattleTech is of the franchise it’s based on. It was made by one of the original board game’s creators, Jordan Weisman, heading up a dedicated crew of long-time fans; it’s packed with classic mechs and series shout-outs (I grew up in Chicago in the ’90s, so it’s a trip to see the old BattleTech VR pods from Navy Pier replicated here as the in-game training simulators); and it’s got a firm place in the surprisingly deep history of the BattleTech universe.

I got all that secondhand, though.

This was never my genre, so if you’re looking for somebody who’s gonna mark out about how they got the paint job on the Atlas precisely as it was in some obscure comic book from 1989, that’s not this review. Sorry.

What I can tell you is that the 2018 BattleTech is a punishingly difficult turn-based strategy game with slightly wonky controls, a steep learning curve, and a truly vicious streak, where a single unlucky critical hit can mean the difference between winning and losing a mission. I actually find it more stressful than anything else, because the game is maybe one-half financial simulator — I keep wanting to call it something like Sid Meier‘s MechWarrior Tycoon — and one-half brutal war game.

Seattle-based indie studio Harebrained Schemes teamed with Stockholm’s Paradox Interactive on BattleTech — and Tuesday they announced intentions to pair up again as Paradox acquired Harebrained for $7.5 million. BattleTech is a PC game available for $39.99 on Steam.

In BattleTech, it’s around the year 3022, and your user-created MechWarrior is a rookie working in the royal guard of Kamea Arano, heir to the throne of the Aurigan Coalition of planets. Unfortunately, Kamea and her uncle Santiago have a difference of opinion, so the day of her coronation also marks the start of a short-lived civil war. You barely survive and end up leading a penny-ante mercenary company for the next three years, until Kamea resurfaces to hire you and your crew.

(Harebrained Schemes)

Kamea is planning to take her old job back from her uncle, and needs mercenaries like you to get the job done. In between battles in Kamea’s war, you and your mercenaries can engage in whatever contracts you can find, sharpening your teeth and earning small fortunes, in order to repair and upgrade both your mechs and your dropship.

The thing that impressed me right out of the gate with BattleTech is that it’s a deliberate throwback to an older era of strategy games. This isn’t a game you can really pick up and play; it’s designed to be a ruthless time sink that’s constantly testing your knowledge of its systems, where a casual throwaway mission that you’re doing strictly for the cash reward can still cost you dearly and eat up most of your evening.

By the time you’ve reached the third chapter of the story or so, the game virtually requires that you’ve put in a lot of time learning the intricacies and uses of the various types of mech, customized them all with proper loadouts, and figured out how to maximize your damage output. Just trying to learn as you go has a very hard ceiling here. Sooner or later, you need to do your homework and figure out how to really play the game.

This has a lot to do with the sheer risks of any combat encounter. A lucky critical hit can kill or injure your best pilots, taking them off the roster for months of in-game time, if not permanently. Even a successful mission can leave you with a repair bill that’s equal to or slightly more than the reward you got for completing it. Every time an enemy unit gets a turn in BattleTech, I’m at least at risk of taking a good solid hit to my bottom line. Running a mercenary company is expensive, and the game tracks every incidental cost. A lot of strategy games would automate or ignore much of this, but in BattleTech, a big part of the game is being able to afford to pay for the repairs and expenses you incur after a mission.

As such, BattleTech seems to be made to appeal to two specific audiences: those who grew up playing the tabletop games, and people who really want a ’90s-style, detail-oriented, spirit-crusher of a tactical strategy experience. It reminds me of a lot of the self-consciously complex PC games of the ’80s and ’90s; BattleTech asks you to track team morale, your facing, your target’s facing, terrain modifiers, weapon loadouts, armor strength, elevation, specific target zones, limb damage and destruction, the biome you’re fighting in, and your units’ waste heat — and screwing even one of those up can cost you dearly.

BattleTech is one of the most detail-oriented strategy games I’ve ever played, and for the first few hours, it was distinctly overwhelming. Then it became only slightly less so.

(Harebrained Schemes)

It’s difficult to make a critical call here, because this is pretty far outside my lane. BattleTech is the sort of game that provokes a binary reaction; it is either exactly your sort of jam and is already your game of the year for 2018, or it’ll crush you underfoot halfway through the tutorial and you’ll immediately uninstall. I’m having a hard time with the game’s learning curve, and I find it difficult to relax while playing it because every enemy turn is a greater or lesser step in an ongoing disaster. It feels like enemies are specifically trying to bleed me out through financial damage, because everything in BattleTech is a giant wall of hit points and nothing dies easily.

That being said, I still appreciate the sheer craft and love on display here. It’s deftly written, mindful of the setting’s decades of lore, and tells a lot of its story through some really nice hand-made art, including a montage of BattleTech‘s timeline that neatly sets the stage for the larger game.

The personalities of your crew are well-realized, especially through the random events that can show up while you’re passing time aboard your dropship, and in general, BattleTech does a lot with very little to capture the feel of its setting. It’s the little things, like two of your pilots feuding over the last cup of coffee, or the frequently goofy PA messages aboard your ship. I still have a few issues with technical performance, as the game loves to hang dangerously while it’s animating battle scenes, but recent patches seem to have gotten rid of the problems I was having with sudden post-battle crashes.

If you like tactical games and you’re nostalgic for a day and age when a new PC game was basically a lifestyle choice — because nothing short of near-total dedication was going to get you past its learning curve — BattleTech is exactly what you want. If you grew up playing the tabletop game, reading the novels, and editing wiki articles on Sarna.net, BattleTech was made for you by your people and I’m not sure why you’re reading this because you’ve already bought six copies.

If you don’t fit into either of those two camps, then it’s going to come down to how much patience you have, how much you enjoy strategy games, and how much you like the idea of constantly balancing your space pocketbook. The game’s built on niche appeal, and frankly, it’s too crunchy for me, but I respect it and don’t have a problem giving it a qualified recommendation.

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