But who gives a toss about BattleTech? If you ask the average man in the street what he knows about BattleTech you'll either get a blank look of incomprehension or, "Summit to do wiv big robots, innit?" Apparently, the BattleTech games never really attained the kind of mass-market popularity of, say, Star Wars or Byker Grove. Or did they? BattleTech exploded into life in 1984 as a fairly complex tabletop wargame, made from a few cardboard cut-outs atop a crudely drawn paper battlefield. Several years, a dozen or so expansion packs and a million dice rolls later, it had become a fully-fledged role-playing system.
The background story is one of futuristic warfare, man's colonisation of space and large robots blowing each other up. The year, roughly, is 3050 (although FASA, the game's creators, have an incredibly detailed timeline for events from 2005 onwards - see for yourself. Mankind has been split into dozens of separate factions, all intent on proving that, "My BattleMech is better than your BattleMech". To make things worse, the known universe has just been invaded by a group of 'Clans', all with superior hardware and technology and intent on being just as much of a pain to the humans as the humans are to each other.
The big thing about BattleTech is, of course, the Mechs - thirty-foot war robots piloted by the most elite human warriors. There are over thirty different kinds of BattleMech in the whole universe, all with different attributes and abilities. Imagine a tank on legs, armed with multiple weapon types, able to withstand huge amounts of damage, able to do even more damage - in fact, not much like a tank at all. Try imagining Transformers on steroids. That's more like it.
Big Is Best
We have been reliably informed that there are 'millions of BattleTech enthusiasts worldwide' playing in 'a rich and detailed game universe spanning dozens of computer games and over thirty novels.' Can this be true? Well, yes it is. BattleTech has been going strong for over fifteen years now and it exists in more forms than a piece of Disney merchandising. Boardgames, role-playing games, novels, animated cartoon shows, plastic figures, lead figurines, comic books, card games, biscuit games and finally of course, computer games.
BattleTech proved so popular with gamers that the company Virtual Worlds Entertainment was set up to provide, on a global basis, full-scale VR centres enabling you to experience the thrill of commanding a thirty-foot walking arsenal of painful death for yourselves.
It all indicates that BattleTech has built up a base of fans who have stuck with it through the years and slavered after each new incarnation - be it tabletop game, novel or computer simulation - with the excitement of a starved pit-bull in a school playground during National Dress Your Child Up As A Pork Chop Week.
Resistance Is Futile
So, to end on one of those 'full circle' doobries, we ask again -who gives a toss about BattleTech? The answer is an awful lot of Americans. And as with McDonald's. Jerry Springer and basketball, it's never long before popular American culture becomes popular British culture. BattleTech is growing in this country and with games like MechCommanderto help it along, it looks like being a steady growth. So why not give it a try? There's a wealth of material, all within the world of BattleTech.
By now the words BattleTech' and MechWarrior' should hold no fear for you (unless you skipped straight to this page from the cover in which case you're probably confused, upset and more than a little scared already. That'll teach you). MechCommander plunges you, metallic foot joints first, into the heady world of top-down, realtime strategy, putting you in command of an entire platoon of mechanical killing machines from the 31st century.
The storyline is taken from the Michael Stackpole BattleTech novel, Grave Covenant Basically, a force of warlike Clans are starting to invade the known galaxy and as Commander of the elite Zulu Company of the First Davion Guards (one of mankind's most skilled fighting forces), you are tasked with heading off one such clan, The Smoke Jaguar Clan no less (yes, I knew you'd be impressed), before their main invasion fleet arrives.
It's A Drag, Man
One of MechCommander's key features is the ability to totally customise your forces before each battle starts. The 'Mechs have been designed along 'modular' lines, meaning you can equip whatever combinations ot weapons, armour and field equipment you see fit The only thing to worry about is the weight ot your final 'Mech. Each mission starts with your troops being released from a dropship. However, each dropship can only carry a certain weight so you have to take this into account before you start. It's a balancing act combined with a juggling routine mixed with a piece of experimental street theatre. Er, except for the last bit.
The mission briefings take place at your headquarters from where you have full access to the latest military intelligence, equipment and repair bays and purchasing options (including weapons, new 'Mechs and mercenary warriors if your pilots are getting sparse). This might all sound pretty complex but it's presented in a straight-forward 'drag and drop' manner. Want to add a weapon? Just drag it to the 'Mech of your choice. Want to change pilots between that Centurion and the Cougar? Drag 'em over.
They've Got The Smarts
Start a mission and the first thing that will probably go through your mind is, "Oh for the love of Peter Andre, not another Commands, Conner clone. Is there no originality left in this godforsaken games industry? Pass me a poker, I want to gouge my eyes out in disgust." But while real-time strategy games may all be dancing to similar graphical tunes, it's what goes on behind the scenes that counts. MechCommander sports something called the Advanced Brain Language. What is it? How does it work? We asked technical lead programmer Frank Savage to explain. "It is an interpreted language, like Java, which can be changed without recompiling the entire game." Savage explains. "The end result is that the AI for the game can be put through many iterations without a large amount of programmer involvement This means that much of the mission design and enemy AI aspects of the game can improve quickly and, as such, are made to look far more intelligent then the average game in the genre."
The upshot is a game with an enemy that behaves more like a human player than we've ever seen before. At least that's the theory. "Players are going to have to work really hard in order to outsmart the enemy 'Mechs," boasts Savage. "For example, for the first time facing counts. Enemy 'Mechs will try their damnedest to prevent the player from getting behind them, where their armour is weakest. Our goal was to ensure players forgot they were playing against a machine and feel instead like they were playing against an enemy commander."
In The Game
The drag-and-drop theme carries over into the main game, with control of your 'Mechs travelling along the familiar and well-trod RTS route. There are plenty of subtle differences that developers FASA are hoping will really make MechCommander stand out from the crowd. For one thing your 'Mechs can target individual sections of their opponents. Remove an enemy's legs, for instance, and he'll be forced to sit there, stranded while you dance around him, toying with his very life as a cat toys with a mouse.
'Mechs also have three ranges of firepower. Long, medium and short range attacks all provide different strategic options, especially as some 'Mechs have better weapons in different positions. The Hunchback, for instance, has superb, heavy armour and can therefore afford to get in really close to opponents, with devastating effect. Luckily some 'Mechs can be equipped with jumpjets (albeit at the expense of weapons and armour) to help them to cover large distances in a single bound.
What FASA are really counting on though is the characterisations of the MechWarriors themselves. Each pilot has a different personality and their combat ratings will grow as the missions progress. Since you only start with a handful of pilots and have limited opportunities to replace them should they become chargrilled MechBurgers, you're expected to form an attachment to these brave souls and weep tears of bitterness should you lose one. Combining the right warrior and the right 'Mech in the right situation is also paramount to a successful mission.
Grow With It
Fortunately the missions have a sensible learning curve to them, so casualties are more down to your own negligence than unfair game balance. The story is set at the start of the Smoke Jaguar Clan's invasion, at a time when they're still setting up their advanced outposts and scouting the land ahead. Consequently at the start of MechCommander you have fairly simple tasks such as cutting oft communication routes or supply trains. With successful missions come rewards in the form of Resource Points. RPs can be spent on everything from repairs and replacement equipment to brand new 'Mechs and the recruiting of mercenary MechWarriors.
As the game progresses and the missions get harder, you'll find yourself facing bigger and better enemy divisions until, ultimately, you take to the field of battle controlling three divisions of 'Mechs in a decisive battle that will shape the history of mankind for ever more. No pressure.
The Real Fight
MechCommander is obviously going to go head first into a packed world of C&C-style strategy games. In its favour are the globally-popular BattleTech connections, the ambitious ABL system, the concept of actually caring about whether your troops live or die and the sheer thrill of watching thirty-foot tanks smacking the hell out of each other with gay abandon. FASA are confident enough that RTS and BattleTech fans alike will not be disappointed. "More than 60 realtime strategy games will release in 1998. As a result, the need for break-through innovation is greater than ever," explains FASA Interactive CEO Denny Thoriey. He believes the game has innovation in abundance. "No other game features MechCommander's unique logistical planning, true resource persistence and challenging tactical gameplay. Judging from the feedback we have received from real-time strategy players, we are offering a new experience. Also, I believe no game has been able to capture the inherent drama of the Battle-Tech universe as well as this."
PC compatible, P-100
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode