Morning Stack: Big Robot Battles! Big Robot Battles! Big Robot Battles!

Hey if you've got suggestions for the best mech video games, I'm all ears.

BattleTech fucking rules. The 2018 mech tactics game by Harebrained Schemes, based on the 80s miniature game, I mean. I loved it at release and I finally got into a true Career Mode run recently — including all the bells and whistles a couple years of DLC provide. Stealth generators, electric shotguns, and more variety all make it a just plain better experience. Though there are still many missing pieces I hope one day make it into a sequel.

In 2018 BattleTech, particularly during the Career Mode that strips out story missions with huge payouts, you manage a ragtag bag of mercenaries moving through the stars. Fights are turn-based and tactical, but don’t play out like XCOM: Enemy Unknown. That’s interesting on its own. The Firaxis developed XCOM reboot reshaped the following decade of tactics games after it. Crouching behind cover makes you harder to hit, guns must be reloaded but have fundamentally infinite ammo, units develop unique abilities bordering on magic powers, etc. Even Harebrained Schemes other recent turn-based games, Shadowrun Returns and its sequels, used that framework.

Not so BattleTech. The game draws from a much older well. Every arm, leg, and head of every battlebot has its own health bar. Losing a limb is costly. When it blows, you lose whatever gear was custom loaded into it. Permanently. That goes both ways, of course. You can knock deadly missile launchers off opponents to reduce their damage output in battle — protecting your pilots and your investments. It’s a game about risk management as much as resource assessment. It’s a top-down Darkest Dungeon as much as a strategy game.

That slow, grueling grind toward better threat mitigation tickles the ultra-compulse part of my brain but good. I only wish there was more to do off the field. You zip through space in your company ship, the Argo, and get incredible story blips about your crew. But that’s all they are: blips. Maybe your sniper set up a bowling alley in a disused corridor. Maybe pirates shake you down. There are consequences to it all, but they funnel into, like, two different out-of-mission resources. There’s money, which lets you buy stuff and keep from going bankrupt. Then there’s morale, which lets you pull a couple cool tricks in battle.

I want more. I want granular. I’d love lasting scars and skills for my pilots. If only they could develop relationships, or rivalries, which are the stuff of the very best mech fiction. Ironically, XCOM 2 offered exactly all of that in its game-changing War of the Chosen expansion. But I want it alongside giant robots and the ramshackle little outfit wrapped around them.

Drastic urges call for drastic measures, so I checked on a couple other mech games. I was pretty disappointed to discover MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries hasn’t had any meaningful updates since its disappointing launch (an expansion was planned for early last year and delayed indefinitely). And developer updates on the state of the game seem scattershot at best.

phantom brigade early access

Phantom Brigade, which I previewed and really enjoyed at PAX East last year, is out in early access now. It seems just as promising now as it did then. Except for the barebones tutorial, which was so bad at explaining the most basic concepts of the game I almost gave up. I’m glad I didn’t. A second attempt (plus a YouTube tutorial and chatting with former Fanbyte intern Renata Price) made things much smoother. It hasn’t given me quite the “something from nothing” vibes I want yet. But it’s a damn fun tactics game in its own right.

Something about mechs just does it for me. I like the sense of control — of fine tuning and customizing a body that protects someone and gives them greater agency. The cockpits made to move around in feel cozy. A game about “risk management” feels perfect for that kind of mechanism. The world is always trying to kill us. We should be able to dismantle it right back.

I’ve been kicking ideas for my own stories on the subject for years. I just haven’t had the time to publish more than my usual shorts (under a pen name, sorry). If I can’t quite scratch this big robot battle itch of mine with games, though, maybe it’s finally time I follow through.