So it’s been a few years since I wrote an article that compared BattleTech’s autocannon rounds to high explosive pancakes, and while it was a fun piece to write, something has always bothered me about it. There were a lot of responses, all of them from folks much more knowledgeable than myself about military ballistics I’m sure, and they all seemed to make valid points on why a gun’s bore size doesn’t necessarily mean anything when it comes to effective range.
Notably, none of the comments really went over my math to disprove that BattleTech’s cannon munitions are not actually flat discs, so I’m pretty confident that I can convince CGL to one day accept my article as irrefutable truth.
But the range thing--that’s stuck with me. Of course, writing for Sarna is a busy job what with all the BattleTech news that never seems to end (go read Sarna’s recent March news blast to find out what’s going on with MechWarrior 5 and MechWarrior Online, by the way), so I never got the chance to actually go through all those comments to see just what the heck they were talking about.
Until now. Yes, four years later, I’m taking a dive into the deep end of artillery to see just how a larger gun can shoot a bigger bullet not as far as a smaller gun firing a tinier shell.
And my journey starts with, of all people, Tex of the Black Pants Legion.
From my previous interview and listening to the Black Pants Legion podcast, I knew that Tex was a gun nut and also a military historian, so I figured if anybody knew a thing or two about guns, it’d be him. Sadly, Tex is a busy guy and I wasn’t able to get a full interview, but he was able to point me in the right direction while desperately defending his homestead from COVID zombies.
“Sean, you fuckwit,” I can clearly recall him telling me over a brief Discord call. “Barrel size doesn’t mean jack shit. There’s way more that goes into making a shell go zoom, like stabilization, recoil reduction, heat dissipation, and propellant. Look, you’re a smart guy, just check out this Italian naval cannon and you’ll figure it out.”
Then he hung up after several loud gunshots. I assume he’s fine.
That Italian naval cannon, by the by, was the Oto Melara 76mm autocannon, perhaps one of the best examples you can find today of what an autocannon from the year 3025 might look like. And as I researched the Oto Melara, I was surprised to find that it possessed qualities that seemed to belie its diminutive bore size.
For those unaware, bore size refers to the diameter of the barrel and is often used as a rough measurement to describe a gun’s overall size. However, it is but one measurement of many, and it can often obscure a cannon’s true power.
If you’ll remember from my previous article, the general rule with guns is that the bigger they are the farther they’ll shoot; an M1911 semi-automatic pistol will never be able to shoot as far as an M119 howitzer no matter how much you rearrange the numbers one and nine. But once you get into the artillery range of cannon sizes, things get a lot more… complicated.
The problem with ballistics is that there are way too many factors that’ll determine a gun’s maximum range. That said, we can narrow things down to a few topics and then discuss how those factors could contribute to BattleTech‘s inverse relationship when it comes to bigger guns firing over shorter distances.
The Bigger The Boom, The Bigger The Boomstick
The factors leading to a projectile traveling as far as it can are numerous, but they always start with the same thing: a really big explosion. That explosion then needs to be contained and directed down a barrel that won’t also explode along with the shell that the explosion is pushing. Then there needs to be recoil dampening, exhaust evacuation, and a loading mechanism, all of which need to be appropriately balanced in order to maximize performance.
And that’s what I think Tex was alluding to when he pointed me at that Italian naval cannon. In order for BattleTech’s autocannons to be mounted on a ‘Mech at all, they need to sacrifice some of the factors that allow a cannon to fire with longer range.
Let’s take the Oto Melara 76 mm as a starting point and compare it to the M119 105 mm howitzer. The Oto Melara has a maximum firing range of 20 km, while the howitzer has a maximum range of 17.5 km. The Howitzer fires a larger shell (105 mm), but the smaller shell of the Oto Melara not only flies further, but it also has a lot of friends with a fire rate of about 80 rounds per minute. The M119, on the other hand, struggles to fire 3 rounds per minute with a well-trained crew.
One is a manned field artillery piece designed to be carried on the back of a truck. The other is installed in a naval turret with an automated loader mechanism and radar-assisted fire control. There’s a lot more going on with the Oto Melara to allow its shells to exceed that of the field howitzer, but the point is that a big shell doesn’t always mean one that’ll go far when the cannon goes boom.
Are you my daddy?
We can see an even better example of this by heading back to the final days of World War 2. The Sturmtiger has a gaping 380 mm barrel that’s barely a few feet long--sort of like how you see on certain ‘Mechs such as the Cauldron Born-B, Thunder, and Emperor. Because the German designers tried to shoehorn an enormous gun onto what was essentially a mobile bunker, enormous sacrifices were made to range and fire rate, such that the rounds fired from the Sturmtiger were more like mortar shots with a range of roughly 5 km.
Compare that to something like the 16-inch (406 mm) naval guns on most US battleships of the same era, which had a range of over 40 km, and you see just how meaningless a gun’s bore size can be.
You Need Space To Shine
So what does a cannon need to lob a round as far as it can? Well, as the guns of the Mighty Mo prove, you need a big-ass barrel, a ton of propellant, and something for that propellant to explode against that won’t shatter into a million pieces (and also probably sink the ship that’s firing the round).
Let’s maintain our comparison between the 16-inch guns of the USS Missouri and the Sturmtiger to further prove this point. To get that 43km range, Mighty Mo used six propellant bags that weighed roughly 100 lbs each. The barrel was about 67 feet long, and the whole gun including the breach weighed roughly 134 tons.
Now the Sturmtiger. To ensure that it didn’t blow up every time it fired, the Sturmtiger’s rounds were technically rockets that were integrated into the 830 lb projectile. The barrel was only about 8-feet long, which wasn’t even that much more than the 5-foot long shell itself. And in order to be mobile at all, the gun itself had to be relatively light in order to fit onto the Sturmtiger’s chassis, which topped out at 75 tons.
The Sturmtiger is just like an AC/20 in BattleTech. It had to sacrifice so much in terms of barrel length and gun mass just to fit onto a mobile chassis like a ‘Mech that it lost all the important bits that let a cannon fire like it was Iwo Jima in 1945.
Expand this concept to the rest of BattleTech‘s autocannon line and it doesn’t sound all that unbelievable that the smaller a gun gets the longer its range. To help drive this concept home, I’ve made a series of charts that compare historical weapons and autocannons. Note that the axes are not to any particular scale.
Here we have historical cannons. Note the trend that as a cannon gets larger its attendant vehicle needs to also get larger to maintain that gun’s performance.
Now check out the same chart I made for ‘Mechs and autocannons. Note that ‘Mechs don’t vary nearly as widely as historical military vehicles, so bigger autocannons sacrifice range to stay viable on the platform.
And there you have it. Big guns need big vehicles, and if you don’t get bigger, then those guns have to lose explosive power resulting in less range. BattleTech’s autocannons are not stupid at all and are in fact a clever recreation of what would actually happen if you tried to stick giant cannons onto a giant robot.
Of course, this completely ignores the fact that not all autocannons have the same caliber, even amongst the same class. An AC/20 could be a rapid-firing 120mm cannon or a giant mortar-style 300mm cannon (or anywhere in between) with damage values merely representing their destructive capacity and nothing else.
Way back in the ‘90s, collectible card games (or CCGs) were a big deal. Wizards Of The Coast had hit it big with Magic: The Gathering and they were hoping they could get lightning to strike twice with a brand new game. Or several new games, like Xena: Warrior Princess, Netrunner, C-23, and many, many more.
But It turns out it’s really hard to get lightning to strike on command. While Wizards was frantically creating as many CCGs as possible, they eventually reached out to FASA to make a BattleTech card game. And so, in 1996, the BattleTech CCG was born.
I’d like to say that it was just as big as Magic was; that it was just as creative, just as colorful, and just as successful, but it wasn’t. The game lasted through about 5 years of official support from the manufacturer, and then like so many unsuccessful card games from the era, it sort of just disappeared.
But not entirely. The BattleTech CCG is still around, and people still play it in their socially distant way. There are even people making unofficial expansions and suggesting that BattleTech (the CCG) could become a living game just from fan support alone.
I guess I should say right off the bat that I really hope this happens. I loved the BattleTech CCG when I was a kid perhaps even more than I loved the tabletop and Clix-based games combined. There’s just a certain magic to trading cards that’s hard to describe--it’s like holding something that’s part playing figure and part tiny TRO. I sometimes still find myself going through my old collection just to see the art one more time.
So today on Did You Know, I bring you my ode to the BattleTech CCG. A retrospective look at where it came from, where it went, and where it might go from here.
Making The BattleTech CCG
There’s really no way to discuss BattleTech without first touching on Magic: The Gathering. Magic, as it’s often shortened, was a phenomenon that put Wizards Of The Coast on the map. It became so massive that almost 30 years later, Magic is still being played both online and on tables all over the world.
Rather than pour all their resources into making Magic: The Gathering as good as it could be, Wizards set their sites even larger. They wanted collectible card games targeting genres beyond just the high fantasy tropes that Magic relied upon, and science fiction was one of those genres that Wizards definitely wanted to branch into.
Wizards reached out to two companies to make their sci-fi card game a reality. The first was Talsorian Games, makers of Cyberpunk 2020 (which will soon be adapted into the massive video game, Cyberpunk 2077), while the other was FASA. Noting the wild success of Magic and always up for another game product, FASA was quick to agree and a partnership was formed. Cyberpunk 2020 was adapted into Netrunner, while FASA got a collectible card version of BattleTech.
This is where things got handed over to Richard Garfield, prodigious card game maker and original creator of Magic, BattleTech, and many other tradeable/collectible card games. Garfield was certainly proud of Magic and its monumental success, but he never thought it was perfect. Deciding to do things entirely differently with his next game, Netrunner had virtually nothing in common with Magic and was, therefore, a complete flop upon release in 1996. This is mostly attributed to people coming from Magic who were expecting some similarities in the rules but were surprised to find none.
Having learned his lesson, Garfield decided to make BattleTech in a Magic-like mold but with some key differences. “With BattleTech,” Garfield said in an interview with the BattleTech CCG Facebook Group’s Michael Cohen, “we were starting to get pretty good with choosing what standards to break in order to generate the most play interest and flavor accommodation.”
Magic players found a lot in common with BattleTech. The tap mechanic reappeared to designate when a card had been used for that turn; resources subbed in for Magic’s lands while “assets” replaced Magic’s color wheel; the turn order followed a familiar sequence of events like untap, upkeep, draw, and attack; and of course, ‘Mechs were used in place of summoned creatures to attack your opponent.
However, BattleTech differed from Magic in a number of ways. Rather than attacking an opponent’s “life total,” players could send ‘Mechs to attack anything on the board from opposing ‘Mechs to resources (or “sites,” as they were referred to in-game). The ultimate goal was to run your opponent out of cards by attacking their “stockpile” (ie. their deck), meaning that every game had a built-in timer as each player draws two cards per turn--double the number of Magic.
There was one other major factor that set BattleTech apart from Magic. As a licensed property, Garfield and his developers had to work with FASA to create the game, and this caused quite a bit of tension during the development process.
“I worked with some folk at FASA and had dicey relationships with them,” Garfield recalls in that same interview. “In my opinion, they were not respectful of the needs of CCGs and wanted to make decisions which would make the game worse but fit their idea of the flavor. I am sure from their perspective I was not as thoughtful about the world and was willing to sacrifice the story to make what I thought was the best game.
“An illustration of that was the Clans: they wanted all the decks to be one Clan, and that simply doesn’t make sense for a CCG and it was like pulling teeth to get compromises made to make the game playable. Our eventual compromise was a larger number of neutral cards than they otherwise would have liked and framing of the Clan rules as an alternative way to play.”
Wizards and FASA eventually settled on the five Great Houses and the invading Clans as the initial factions available, along with keywords for certain mercenary groups such as Wolf’s Dragoons and the Kell Hounds, and another for ComStar. The initial rules didn’t even require decks to stick with a single faction other than House or Clan, and it wasn’t until much later in BattleTech‘s development did enough cards even exist to allow players to make competitive decks with only a single faction represented.
Richard never got to see that eventuality. As Wizard’s chief game designer, he and his primary development team had already moved on to the next project after the first core set of 283 BattleTech cards was released in 1996. In Garfield’s view, it became clear that “our development team after the first set didn’t have nearly the support they needed” to keep up with the problems that soon appeared as BattleTech hit store shelves.
BattleTech: The Early Years
Problems with BattleTech started appearing almost immediately. It became clear that the game was designed only with casual collectors in mind and as soon as enthusiasts started organizing tournaments and battling it out with 60-card decks, BattleTech had serious flaws that could be exploited for a competitive advantage.
In the initial rules, there was no limit to the number of any particular card that could be placed in a player’s deck. This likely would have been a minor issue had the Counterstrike expansion not arrived with a completely free ‘Mech (the Sentinel STL-3L) that required absolutely no resources to play. This meant any player could have had an entire deck made up of 60 Sentinels, played two per turn, and simply overwhelmed their opponent.
By the time Wizards Of The Coast held BattleTech‘s first official tournaments in 1997, the rules had been updated to limit decks to only six of any given card, but the strategy of swarming opponents with low-cost units remains popular in BattleTech even to this day.
However, we don’t even need to get to BattleTech‘s first World Championship tournament to see another flaw in the game, and that’s the inherent advantage that fast ‘Mechs have over moderate and slow ‘Mechs.
Because fast ‘Mechs can attack anything slower than they are (ie. moderate and slow ‘Mechs), a pack of cheap, fast ‘Mechs can pick off moderate and slow ‘Mechs, denuding an opponent of defenses should they lack their own fast ‘Mechs to counter. This wouldn’t be a problem if each faction had an equal distribution of ‘Mech speeds, but because BattleTech is set essentially during the Clan Invasion, the vast majority of efficient fast ‘Mechs were Clan, while Inner Sphere ‘Mechs were moderate or slow.
Fast Clan quickly formed as a winning strategy that allowed decks full of fast clan ‘Mechs to pick apart Inner Sphere opponents who were virtually defenseless. Cards like Effective Groundwork and Elite MechWarrior supercharged this strategy to the point where no other deck was even competitive, resulting in those cards being banned along with the infamous Dasher D.
Even still, Peter Sundholm’s Fast Wolf deck, filled with Dasher and Fenris Primes, was BattleTech‘s first-ever World Championship-winning deck, and it would go on to define the Fast Clan deck archetype from that point onward.
If 1997 was the year of Fast Clan, 1998 was the year of Inner Sphere Swarm. While swarm decks had always been a popular option in BattleTech, the arrival of the Arsenal expansion brought ultra-cheap, fast VTOL and hovertanks. Cards like the Cavalry, Cyrano, and Saladin finally gave Inner Sphere factions a fast unit that could be deployed before Fast Clan could send in their own fast ‘Mechs like the Dasher and Fenris, giving the Inner Sphere a distinct edge.
However, the BattleTech designers made the mistake of pricing these units too cheaply. Many of them could be deployed for free without even taking up one of the player’s precious two deployments, making the Vehicle Swarm Deck an insurmountable force. Wizards Of The Coast quickly changed the rules again to limit decks to just 10 non-‘Mech units to keep competitive play even remotely fair.
Ten non-‘Mech cards were more than enough to crush Fast Clan when they were combined with the ludicrously cost-efficient Nightsky NGS-4S and the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. Davion Sandhurst Royal Military Academy Swarm, as the deck would come to be known, swept the 1998 BattleTech World Championships taking both first and second place. In fact, the championship game was a mirror match-up with both Terry Border and Shiu-Yik Au playing the exact same deck.
BattleTech: Those Troubled Middle Years
It’s around 1998 that we can’t really talk about the evolution of card games without discussing the Internet. Suddenly, strategies, tactics, and above all, decklists could be publicly shared for everyone to learn, iterate, and in many cases, outright copy. Alpha Strike became the number one website for net-decking in BattleTech, with articles and tournament-winning decklists posted there for every BattleTech fan to see.
That’s not to say that all unique ideas immediately disappeared from BattleTech starting in 1998. Zvi Mowshowitz’s famous ‘Mechless deck made headlines by relying on subterfuge and BattleTech‘s few direct damage cards to eliminate opponents in a single, massive airstrike. Wizards Of The Coast also continuously pushed BattleTech fans on their own website to discover new strategies, such as the Quasimodo Deck that featured the mildly insane Hunchback IIC and its enormous Alpha Strikes.
But the internet meant that ideas traveled fast. Winning strategies were copied, tested, and then perfected soon after the release of each new set. And one of the things that became increasingly clear was that there wasn’t a lot of variation when it came to BattleTech’s best ideas.
Once again, we start 1998 off with several bans and errata. After the phenomenal performance of Sandhurst Royal Military Academy at Worlds, ComStar became its own faction so that it couldn’t be combined with efficient Davion medium ‘Mechs and overwhelm all opposition. Later errata would further clip Sandhurst’s power down to a level where an outright ban was deemed unnecessary, although it was still considered a powerful card.
And Sandhurst was hardly alone. Disguised Coordinates was a card so oppressively un-fun to play against that Wizards decided to outright ban it instead of issuing errata. Ditto the original NGS-4S Nightsky which was deemed so under-costed that it was banned in favor of a revised version with twice the resource price.
However, the original Nightsky wasn’t banned at first. This brings us to the mass confusion of Commander’s Edition, released in the summer of 1998. A sweeping revision of the game, not only did Commander’s Edition change BattleTech‘s card design to be more distinctive amongst Wizards’ other products, but it also attempted to correct some of the mistakes made in the initial printing. This resulted in a number of “revised” cards with adjusted resource costs, modified attack values, added keywords, or in some cases, entirely different rules text.
Not wanting to completely invalidate a player’s collection up to that point, Wizards ruled that both revised and un-revised cards were legal to play. This somewhat got around the six-card maximum rule in that it allowed players to play both versions of the card in the same deck. It also resulted in the somewhat hilarious possibility of playing a deck of 24 Owens despite the fact only two variants of the OmniMech were ever made into BattleTech cards.
Wizards would eventually see the lunacy of this compromise and declared that all older cards could only be played using the revised text. That said, competitive BattleTech was filled with confusion right up until the 1999 World Championship.
The 1999 BattleTech World Championship saw the rise of Marik GorgeMaster. A deck designed specifically to combat against Fast Clan and early swarm strategies, it used C3-equipped ‘Mechs to present an extremely tough defense that was further augmented by a sideboard filled with Rocky Gorge and Falsified Maps.
Falsified Maps allowed GorgeMaster to search for Rocky Gorge almost at will, while the Rocky Gorge itself would deal two damage to each attacking ‘Mech. This was enough to outright destroy Dashers and other free-deploy units common in Sandhurst Swarm decks while also severely weakening larger units, often to the point that they’d be forced to sacrifice themselves in a second attack.
What made GorgeMaster such a powerful deck at the time was how it specifically countered BattleTech’s best strategies but was adaptable enough to deal with others as well. However, it was an extremely difficult deck to play requiring immense knowledge of other decks and playstyles. GorgeMaster was the height of the BattleTech tournament scene. After that, it was all downhill from there.
The End Of BattleTech
The last expansion to arrive in BattleTech was Crusade, which took the collectible card game right up to the era of the reborn Star League and the Inner Sphere’s counter-invasion of Clan Smoke Jaguar. It saw the addition of a new clan, the Steel Vipers, as well as powerful Alliance cards that allowed players to use multiple factions in a single deck.
These Alliance cards dramatically enhanced the quality of existing strategies by not forcing decks to sacrifice quality in order to remain within the bounds of their faction. Now, Fast Clan had access to the best fast ‘Mechs from every Clan, whereas Solaris Contacts and swarm decks didn’t need to limit themselves to a single House.
Alliances were found in several top-placing decks in the 1999 World Championships. At the final Worlds tournament in 2000, Chad Edwards’ Invading Clans deck took first place using a mix of Crossbows and fast Clan Wolf ‘Mechs as well as Hidden Reserves and Improved Construction Facilities to simply out-pace his opponent both economically and tactically.
After that, the BattleTech card game was over. Wizards announced their intention to stop supporting the game with expansions after Crusade, and while they supported BattleTech‘s professional scene for a year or two, without new cards to keep the game fresh, both professional and casual players abandoned BattleTech for greener pastures (which was usually Magic: The Gathering).
And so the world moved on. Alpha Strike continued to operate for a couple of years before eventually closing up shop. The secondary market thrived for some time before dwindling to a trickle, although you can still find unopened boxes of BattleTech on sites like eBay and Craigslist.
But much like the tabletop game, BattleTech has a way of creating die-hard fans. The BattleTech CCG Yahoo Group maintained the largest depository of BattleTech articles, rulings, and card lists for over a decade before moving on to the BattleTech CCG Facebook Group. They’re still in operation today, where you can not only discuss the old BattleTech card game in whatever detail you want but also peruse an even larger depository of resources, including FAQs and starter decklists to bring new players into this very old game.
Not Quite As Dead As You Think
You’d think that a game that has been out of print for over 20 years would be extremely difficult to play. You’d also be mistaken.
To start, there are still unopened boxes of cards out there. If you’re not willing to pay the price for a dwindling resource, all the cards have been individually scanned and placed online in a number of locations, including here at Sarna. The legality of printing those scans onto new cardstock is questionable, but there are a number of sites online where you can print custom playing cards to bring BattleTech back from the dead.
But why bother with printing old cards when you can print brand new ones? Besides getting around the whole copyright issue, these unofficial expansions bring far more of the BattleTech universe into the trading card game than ever before.
You might remember Michael Todd from such glorious fan creations as the unofficial TRO 3028 and TRO 3049. Well, he’s also devoted a not inconsiderable amount of his life to making a fan-made BattleTech CCG expansion, and one that I absolutely adore. Mostly because it includes all of Unseen ‘Mechs, but also because there are several Locust variants that would make a Logistics-based Inner Sphere swarm deck absolutely busted.
Next, we have Michael Cohen and Chester Hendrix of the BattleTech CCG Facebook group. They jointly made an even more comprehensive fan expansion that includes not just the Unseen, but also Aerospace, ProtoMechs, tanks, and more Missions and Command cards than I can count. This is easily the largest fan expansion I’ve encountered, and one that’s definitely worth considering adding to your collection.
Renegade HPG’s Travis Gardner has also been hard at work creating custom cards over on his YouTube channel. Instead of focusing on entirely new cards, Travis seems to fall into a different camp within the BattleTech CCG community that believes BattleTech’s in-game resource pricing is fundamentally flawed and requires correcting in order to end the utter dominance of Fast Clan and Inner Sphere Swarm. To do that, he’s devotedseveralvideos to creating ‘Mechs that are priced based on a formula developed by the community to ensure a fair playing field.
Unfortunately, Tabletop Simulator can be oppressively cumbersome to play virtual card games. Instead, the BattleTech CCG Facebook community recommends using Lackey, a free-to-play card game app that lets you play almost any old card game, so long as someone has the scans for it. You’ll need to spend some time getting the BattleTech plug-in for Lackey set up, but as always, Michael Cohen at the BattleTech CCG Facebook Group has got you covered.
Battletech CCG | Building a Custom Card (Episode 9) Black Knight
Unlike most of my articles, this one wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a few notable individuals and one group as a whole.
First off, I’d like to thank the BattleTech CCG Facebook Group for keeping this game alive long past its expiration date. I’d also like to thank Mark Roberts for maintaining a collection of scanned BattleTech memorabilia, including full-page magazine ads that have really added a nice touch of color to what would have otherwise been a pretty drab jaunt down memory lane. Kudos to Travis for putting me in touch.
And an even bigger thanks to Michael Cohen for interviewing Richard Garfield so I didn’t have to. You can read the whole interview over on the BattleTech CCG Facebook Group, but just be aware that he’s a guy who has spent more decades designing card games than I have spent breathing and he can’t really remember much of the nitty-gritty details of BattleTech anymore.
Also, literally any of the subjects I touched on over the past 3000 words or so could have their own 3000-word article, so I apologize if it seems like I glossed over some of the grittier topics covered here.
It’s probably safe to say that without the BattleTech CCG I would never have gotten into the BattleTech fiction, and without that, the BattleTech video games likely wouldn’t have resonated with me nearly as much as they did. I really do hope that this game sees a resurgence, either with more expansions or with a completely revamped pricing formula that makes it a little fairer for every faction.
I’ve got a question for you, my fellow BattleTech aficionados. Why doesn’t everyone just scrap their LRM-20s and use a bunch of LRM-5s in their place? This is a question that has dogged me ever since I got into BattleTech and one that I’ve decided to answer once and for all.
For me, this all started way back with MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries when I discovered than an LRM-5 weighs just 2 tons, meaning I could boat-up four of those suckers and get the equivalent firepower of an LRM-20 but at just 80% of the tonnage requirement. Then I got into the tabletop game and saw that the LRM-5 was still just 2 tons, and it made me wonder why didn’t everybody scrap all their LRM-20s and duct-tape together a bunch of LRM-5s? Is every ‘Mech jock in the entire universe stupid or what?!
It turns out there’s a reason for that, and that reason has changed with every new generation of BattleTech games. But for much of BattleTech video game history, there was little reason to keep those big LRM launchers instead of swapping them for an equivalent number of LRM-5s, and that made me wonder just how the heck this innocuous weapon system can be so weird across so much of BattleTech’s games.
So today, we’re going to take a deep dive into the many intricacies of perhaps one of BattleTech’s most boring weapon system: the LRM-5.
LRM-5, According To The Table
Starting where it all began, of course. My introduction to the LRM-5 might have come in the form of a video game, but to understand the LRM-5 we have to go back to the beginning, and that means tabletop rules. Even here the LRM-5 can seem like a questionable choice, so let’s break this weapon down.
The LRM-5 weighs 2 tons, takes 1 crit, and can fire a packet of five measly long-range missiles at a target up to 21 hexes away (Inner Sphere stats, of course). One look at Sarna’s vast repository of BattleTech knowledge reveals that this is a significant weight savings when compared to larger missile launchers such as the LRM-10 (5 tons, 2 crits), LRM-15 (7 tons, 3 crits), and LRM-20 (10 tons, 5 crits), so why would you ever want to use any of those larger launchers?
The answer is hiding in the damage tables. To determine damage, you roll 2D6 and then consult the table. For most of the possible rolls, the damage between four LRM-5s and a single LRM-20 is equivalent, except for two results: a 2 and a 4. If you roll a 2 on an LRM-5 shot, then you’re only dealing 1 damage, whereas an LRM-20 is dealing 6 damage. That’s a 50% bonus over four LRM-5s firing simultaneously.
A similar story happens if you roll a 4, which causes an LRM-5 to deal 2 damage and an LRM-20 to deal 9. A single extra point of damage isn’t quite as pronounced as the snake-eyes situation, but it’s still more damage on low rolls.
There’s also heat to consider. An LRM-20 produces just 6 points of heat, but four LRM-5s firing together produce 8 points. On the other hand, you can manage your heat better by just firing a few of those LRM-5s at a time rather than all four at once, but in terms of average damage per round, the LRM-20 is clearly beating our cludged 4xLRM-5.
Whether you think a little less heat and a little more consistent damage is worth the extra two tons and one critical slot is a matter of personal opinion, but the math checks out--at least, for the tabletop. That story changes dramatically once we get into the video games.
Off The Table And Into The Silicon Wafer
While things were just fine and dandy for the LRM-5 in the tabletop version of BattleTech, as soon as things went digital, shit got weird. Really weird.
First, LRMs in the old MechWarrior 2 days didn’t use damage tables to randomly calculate the amount of mayhem a flight of LRMs will produce. In MechWarrior 2, every missile was its own object with its own specific trajectory. However, LRMs had such good homing in those days that a missile lock often meant that every single one of those missiles would hit its target--many of them in the same location. Worse, the splash damage of the explosion essentially doubled the firepower of LRMs, meaning you were dealing 2 damage per missile instead of one.
So in MechWarrior 2, it absolutely made sense to replace all your LRM-20s with LRM-5s, but only if you had space for them. MechWarrior 2 limited players to just 10 total weapons systems, so this would work on some ‘Mechs like the Vulture, but not on more heavily-laden machines like the Mad Cat.
The only downside to this strategy was heat. LRM-5s still produced more heat than the equivalent LRM-20, so that extra ton is likely to be used up with a heat sink to offset the extra heat produced.
MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries still had inexplicable Streak LRMs, but at least the splash damage bug had been fixed so that each individual missile only did 1 damage. However, the same situation remained: all missiles fired hit their mark, and that meant random damage tables couldn’t account for the extra 2 tons and 1 crit that an LRM-20 has over four LRM-5s. Once again, it absolutely made more sense to toss your heavier LRM units for group-fired LRM-5s.
This situation continued into MechWarrior 3, but finally changed in MechWarrior 4 when LRMs got a complete overhaul. Rather than fire streak-style homing missiles directly at whatever you had a lock on, LRMs in MechWarrior 4 would take an arcing path over obstacles if fired at great distances. Missiles were also grouped into “packets” of 5, just like in the tabletop game, and it was certainyl possible for those packets to miss a fast-moving target.
However, this isn’t quite the same as the tabletop’s damage. Those packets of 5 missiles either struck home for 5 damage (actually 4--MechWarrior 4 used weird damage values) or they missed and did nothing. There’s no in-between. So, boating LRM-5’s once again appears to make sense.
Only MechWarrior 4 did something different that finally gave players a good reason to use a larger missile system over a smaller one. MechWarrior 4 added fixed hardpoints to the MechWarrior series that prevented a player from simply swapping out whatever weapon systems they wanted. Although the tonnage of each weapon remained the same, critical slots had been replaced by weapon hardpoints that would allow only a certain amount of energy, missile, or ballistic weaponry.
An Inner Sphere LRM-20 still weighed 10 tons, but now it took up two “missile” slots in a hardpoint. This meant that a single LRM-20 could only ever be replaced by two LRM-5s, albeit with significant weight savings and with only 8 possible damage (again, MechWarrior 4 used different damage values than pretty much every other MechWarrior game).
For me, MechWarrior 4 was where LRMs started to make sense again. Yes, larger LRM packs were less efficient in terms of weight, but they were more efficient in terms of damage per missile hardpoint slot. The key here is that MechWarrior 4 changed the relationship between damage, tonnage, and space. Instead of tonnage being the key limiter to damage, hardpoint slots were often the limiting factor. This meant that it made sense for larger ‘Mechs to have larger LRM packs, while smaller ‘Mechs made do with LRM-5s.
The Modern Solution To The LRM Problem
In modern games like MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries and BATTLETECH, the solution to the LRM problem has become a hybrid of MechWarrior 4’s hardpoints and more classic tabletop ‘Mech construction. In both titles, ‘Mechs are limited in the number of specific energy, ballistic, and missile-based weapons they can mount in any given section of the chassis, but the more traditional critical slot layout is also retained from the tabletop game.
MechWarrior 5 goes one step further. Instead of just having missile, ballistic, and energy hardpoints, it also subdivides those weapons into small, medium, and large categories. A small weapon can fit into any sized hardpoint, but it occupies the entire hardpoint and prevents any additional weapons from slotting in. A large weapon can only occupy a large weapon hardpoint, so an LRM-5 can replace a single LRM-20, but an LRM-20 can’t replace an LRM-5. And, crucially, four LRM-5s cannot replace an LRM-20 unless the chassis has four total available missile hardpoints.
You’d think that would be enough for MechWarrior 5, but no. PGI REALLY wanted to differentiate between small and large launchers, so they added a very interesting quirk to LRMs.
Lock-on Weapons (LRMs) in Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries | Full Mission Gameplay
In MechWarrior 5 there are actually two styles of LRM launcher: stream launchers and regular launchers. Stream launchers fire their missiles one after the other so that each missile’s launch doesn’t affect the one behind it. This causes stream launchers to be somewhat more accurate and have a tighter grouping than regular launchers.
Regular LRM launchers fire all their missiles at once, creating a sort of “cloud” of missiles that home in on their target. The orientation of that cloud is random every time it’s fired, and that randomizes how damage is applied when missiles strike their target.
If they strike their target. In MechWarrior 5, the larger the launcher, the larger the cloud of missiles. Unlike in previous MechWarrior games, missiles don’t converge when they approach their victim, so if the target is significantly smaller than the cloud of LRMs fired--like in the case of an LRM-20 fired at a Locust--then the vast majority of those missiles will just hit the ground and deal no damage.
Suddenly the LRM-5 is more than just a smaller version of larger launchers. Since the cloud fired from an LRM-5 is small, it can be used against smaller targets like light ‘Mechs and armored vehicles. LRM-20s, on the other hand, are only really useful against larger targets that will get struck by the majority of the missile cloud--otherwise you’re just wasting most of your ammo.
MechWarrior 5 is smart too. If you manage to group together four LRM-5s, firing them all at once essentially creates the same cloud as firing a single LRM-20. You do have the option of firing them one at a time, however, which will keep the cloud to a smaller size that’s more appropriate to dealing with smaller targets and adds a measure of flexibility.
I gotta give PGI credit, this is probably the most innovative and effective iteration of LRMs in any MechWarrior game. Boating is discouraged, but having an LRM-5 or two is still an effective way of dealing with pesky light ‘Mechs at extreme ranges. LRM-20s are better for heavy and assault ‘Mechs or heavily armored structures. The difference in weight efficiency is overshadowed by the importance of using the right weapon for the right job.
Now let’s take a look at Hairbrained’s BATTLETECH, the game that perhaps mirrors the tabletop experience more than any other BATTLETECH game ever produced. On the surface, BATTLETECH appears to handle things very similar to the tabletop, which means we’re back to maximizing damage per ton with our cludged 4xLRM-5 launchers again, but it’s not immediately obvious what’s going on when the computer is the one rolling digital dice. To find out, I actually reached out to Harebrained Studios to get the inside scoop on what’s happening when you light off a flight of missiles at some schmuck in a Thunderbolt.
“LRMs roll a separate to-hit for each missile in the rack,” BATTLETECH engineer Connor Monahan told me via email. “The first to-hit is rolled on a normal hit table (respective of facing) and that first hit determines the ‘center’ of the LRMs clustering, then all subsequent location rolls for successful hits from that missile rack roll on that influenced/clustered table.”
So, does that mean there’s really no real damage advantage between four LRM-5s and a single LRM-20? Monohan explained essentially “yes,” but that’s not the whole story in BATTLETECH.
First, there’s still heat to consider. Four LRM-5s are a lot hotter than an LRM-20, and that will seriously reduce a ‘Mech’s average damage per round. Second, since every missile rolls separately, missile weapons are some of the best weapons in the game to take against smaller, more evasive targets. A medium laser with 40% to-hit is most likely going to miss and deal no damage at all, whereas an LRM-20 with a 40% hit chance is likely to still deal 8 total damage with 8 missile hits. This is in stark contrast with MechWarrior 5 where larger launchers are actually no better than smaller ones against small targets.
And third, you can split your fire with four LRM-5s. This is especially useful when a pilot has Multi-Target, which enhances your accuracy when firing at multiple opponents.
The Evolution Of A Tiny Missile Launcher
So, are we done? Is MechWarrior 5 the pinnacle of long-range missile technology? Or is BATTLETECH and its faithful adherence to the original tabletop rules the best that an LRM can be?
Honestly, I think MechWarrior 5 has gotten the formula right. You can still boat those LRM-5s to replace heavier LRM-20s and wind up with weight savings, but there are appropriate tradeoffs. You lose the option of mounting other missile launchers (most likely, as few ‘Mechs have more than four missile hardpoints), but you gain extra tons to devote to other weapon systems. Each LRM launcher is best suited to increasingly larger enemies, and if you do decide to mount multiple LRM-5s, you’re given maximum flexibility in being able to engage both large and small targets without wasting ammunition.
But I don’t think the evolution of the LRM is over. We started out with ludicrously broken and overpowered missiles in MechWarrior 2, and each iteration of BattleTech brought them first towards balance, and then to something better: justification.
Is MechWarrior 5 where the evolution of the LRM launcher ends? Or will long-range missile launchers of the future take a more retro-inspired approach like BATTLETECH?
Right now it’s hard to say since we’re sort of in-between generations at the moment. All I can say is that I will always hot-swap my LRM-20s for LRM-5s until I’m convinced to do otherwise. And even then, I’ll probably still swap for those two extra tons. It’s just how I’ve been taught.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.
(Edit: Yes, I know I’m omitting quite a few games, including the first MechWarrior, MechCommander, and MechWarrior Online. But I think this article is long enough.)
As is sometimes the case here on Sarna.net, I must begin this article with an apology. I had heard of MechWarrior: Living Legends many years ago, before my stint on MechWarrior Online and even while I was still replaying MechWarrior 4 for the gazillionth time, but I’d never really considered it as something I’d like to get into. Firstly because it was initially built on Crysis, a game famous for taking modest gaming PCs and turning them into shambling corpses unable to render a single frame, and secondly because it was an online multiplayer shooter of the kind that I just had little interest in.
Fast forward many years later and I would still occasionally see news about MechWarrior: Living Legends on social media, but I always passed it off as such a tiny corner of the wider BattleTech community that it was hardly worth mentioning. I hope this article–and perhaps more like it–will make amends for my transgression.
And as I’ve found out over the years, I was wrong about many things, and certainly wrong about MechWarrior: Living Legends. It is a game worthy of my attention and the attention of any BattleTech fan looking for a different kind of BattleTech experience.
Although I wasn’t wrong about it having a very small community, I’ve discovered that small doesn’t mean disorganized. They even have a PR guy, whom I will give full credit for sending me on this journey into yet another weird and wonderful corner of the BattleTech universe (and also being a great historian for MechWarrior: Living Legends–shout out to you, Bird_Thing).
Apologies out of the way, let’s get this party started. This week on Did You Know?, we’re looking at an older MechWarrior title with an interesting origin story and gameplay unlike any other game in the franchise. Mostly because it’s not an officially licensed product and so it never had to conform to the rules. Welcome to MechWarrior: Living Legends.
How To Be A Living Legend
As I mentioned before, MechWarrior: Living Legends has a small community both developing and playing it, so you might not have even heard of this game. Allow me to illuminate.
MechWarrior: Living Legends started life as a Crysis total conversion mod that has since become a game unto itself. Although it still prefers to call itself a Crysis total conversion mod, Living Legends has its own stand-alone installer and has virtually nothing in common with the original game from which it’s based on.
If I had to describe Living Legends in a single sentence, I’d say it’s Battlefield, but BattleTech. Unlike most MechWarrior games that focus on the ‘Mechs, Living Legends provides players with several different options of vehicles to play as well, including Aerospace fighters, tanks, VTOLs, and even battle armor.
Although there are several different game modes available, the most common (at least, from my short time playing in it) is Terrain Control, where each team attempts to capture control points in order to drain the opposing team of tickets. Once a team’s tickets are exhausted, that team loses unless they can also exhaust their opponent of tickets within a short period of time in a sort of sudden-death showdown.
While this might sound similar to MechWarrior Online’s Conquest mode, the two are starkly different. For starters, MechWarrior: Living Legends games can go on for much longer than a single round in MechWarrior Online, with games sometimes taking over an hour to conclude. Players also respawn after death and must purchase new machines to fight with each time using a pool of accrued credits based on their performance.
But perhaps the single largest difference between the two games is pacing. Yes, you can respawn in Living Legends so you never need to wait more than a few moments to get back to the action, but simply running to the battlefield any dying to enemy fire over and over again won’t actually get you anywhere. You gain credits based on how long you survive, and so it’s important for you to play strategically (I’d even go as far as saying “carefully”) in order to preserve your machine. Falling back to repair and rearm is far more beneficial than dying and respawning.
Understanding that your survival has meaning beyond merely staying alive is fundamental to a player’s success in MechWarrior: Living Legends. If all you do is run in with an Osiris and die repeatedly, you’ll never be able to afford heavier, more impactful units that can truly sway the tide of battle.
And I’ll admit that it took me at least three games before I understood this concept. RIP my Osiris.
But Is It BattleTech?
MechWarrior: Living Legends takes an approach to balancing itself that is similar to MechWarrior Online. Yes, there are Clan and Inner Sphere units, but their respective stats have been tweaked to resemble a fair playing field. And while it seems that the developers have tried to stick with cannon designs as much as possible, there are a lot of differences between classic BattleTech and Living Legends.
For starters, Inner Sphere ‘Mechs have lettered variants for every chassis similar to the Clans, and those variants don’t have a lot in common with their tabletop counterparts. Even some “prime” variants like the Marauder have two AC/5s instead of one and can run at 86 kph instead of 64 kph. Again, this is all in the name of parity between Inner Sphere and Clan factions so that each game is fair and balanced.
There’s no ‘Mechlab and no customization of any kind. You can change your paint job for some appropriate camouflage, but that’s it. Some BattleTech purists might lament the loss of such an iconic part of the BattleTech experience, but you can understand how quickly players will become irate at a teammate that takes 10 minutes to design their perfect custom machine only to lose every control point on the map and cost their team the game.
A more interesting aspect of Living Legends is the ability to pilot vehicles. You start the game equipped with battle armor (Elementals for the Clans, Longinus for the Inner Sphere), but they’re generally ineffective on their own with only a single-shotSRM-2 and a small laser to work with (although I am told there are some legendary battle armor players that will ruin your day with a man-portable PPC). Tanks such as the Harasser or Goblin can provide additional firepower at a premium price, while Aerospace assets like Corsair or Visigoth can provide extreme mobility and take advantage of an enemy lacking in anti-aircraft weaponry. You can even take a Long Tom to lob artillery at opponents.
This move away from ‘Mech-centricity and towards combined-arms combat is MechWarrior: Living Legends‘ greatest strength, although I recommend that only experienced pilots take the wheel of a hovercraft or Aerospace fighter. In the one game I decided to play a Harasser, I flipped my hovertank in the first five minutes of battle and couldn’t get it righted. At least ‘Mechs don’t have to worry about falling on their backs like an upended turtle.
It also means that games can become truly chaotic. Some maps can have up to 14 players on each side, and with that many people all swapping their gear to gain an advantage on their opponents, you might be dealing with a wave of Aerospace fighters one second and a team of LRM-equipped high-speed harassers the next. Staying alive and capturing resource points should be your primary concern in the early game, and only later in the match should you even consider moving to larger, more formidable units.
After charging in and dying repeatedly for my second game–which relegated me to light ‘Mechs for the entire 30-minute match–I finally decided to change tactics on my third game. I picked an Owens equipped with LRMs and stayed well back from the fight, lobbing missiles at targets of opportunity and retreating whenever the enemy got too close. I managed to survive (and even get a few kills) for long enough that I was able to swap my Owens for a Marauder on my next return for ammo and repairs, and then I was able to truly anchor the line in my team’s next big firefight.
It was a totally new way of playing MechWarrior that I’d never experience before and I’m embarrassed it took me so long to understand the flow of MechWarrior: Living Legends. But then, the folks behind Living Legends started with a totally different mindset for this game than any other MechWarrior game ever made.
Genesis Of Living Legends
Living Legends got its start way back in 2006 under a development team called Wandering Samurai Studios (WSS). They initially started working on the game using the Quake engine, but then decided to change course with the arrival of Crysis in 2007. From the beginning, the idea was to make Crysis into a game like Battlefield 2142, using BattleTech as the inspiration for all the sci-fi tanks, space fighters, and giant stompy robots.
Wandering Samurai Studios succeeded spectacularly. The initial beta release of MechWarrior: Living Legends released in December 2009 and received its first patch in January of 2010. It then went on to win 2010’s Mod of the Year from ModDB, the massive modding community site that also hosted MechWarrior: Living Legends. It would also get an honorable mention in 2011’s Mod of the Year awards after the mod achieved a second year of high votes, but wasn’t allowed to win the award two years in a row.
This was the golden age of MechWarrior: Living Legends. There was even talk within the community of packaging up Living Legends and selling it as its own game.
Then two things happened. The first was MechWarrior Online. This portion of Living Legends legacy is shrouded in some controversy, so I’ll just provide key points. Both Living Legends and MechWarrior Online used the same engine: Crysis. Living Legends had a non-commercial license to use the engine, while MechWarrior Online had every intention of making as much money as humanly possible. PGI felt that Living Legends might split their target audience and exerted some pressure to have Wandering Samurai Studios cease production.
That last bit is where lies the controversy. Neither PGI nor WSS state that there was ever a cease and desist letter sent, but that might not have been necessary. Several WSS members worked at Crytek, the company that made Crysis and the Crytek engine, and having some of your employees trying to make a free game that sucks players from one of your customers is certainly a bad look.
According to Mandalore Gaming, a YouTuber that covered a bit of Living Legends in his review of MechWarrior Online, PGI met WSS at the 2012 Game Developers Conference and politely asked them to cease development of Living Legends. Which they did after the final 0.70 update released on January 16, 2013, simultaneously announcing that they’d move on to other projects.
The second was the death of Gamespy in 2014. MechWarrior: Living Legends relied on Gamespy’s servers for matchmaking, and without them, nobody could actually play Living Legends. At the time, this seemed to be the final nail in Living Legends’ coffin, and there was widespread belief that this would be the end of this beautiful little game.
Living Legends Lazarus
I may have forgotten to mention something earlier: MechWarrior: Living Legends has a small and highly dedicated community. They wouldn’t let a tiny thing like the departure of the entire development team and the destruction of the fundamental backbone of the MW:LL‘s online matchmaking prevent them from keeping their beloved game alive.
In 2013, the MW:LL community released a universal installer for the game that no longer required Crysis (or Crysis Wars) to run. It still used the same engine, but for all intents and purposes, MechWarrior: Living Legends was its own game.
Throughout 2015, the MW:LL forums are used to assemble, document, and just fucking cludge together workarounds to the total lack of Gamespy servers. This allowed the community to keep playing as a more long-term solution was sought.
That solution happened at the end of 2015 with a brand new launcher that would search for active game servers and provide them to the user. This came after the better part of a year trying to track down the source code and many more months of trying to get it to compile. MechWarrior: Living Legends had officially returned from the dead.
Thus began a new era for MechWarrior: Living Legends, one we can consider a sort of community-driven renaissance. WSS gave their blessings to a new development team, with Living Legends co-founder Kamikaze making that announcement in January of 2017. Since then, iterative updates have continued to add content to Living Legends in the form of new maps, units, and a new login service that made MW:LL completely independent of third-party services.
That team continues to work on Living Legends to this day. The most recent major update, 0.12.0, added the Sunder and Kodiak ‘Mechs to the game, along with a slew of balance and bug fixes. The team plans to add the Mars and Behemoth tanks for the next major update as well as adding the C3 Master equipment.
Of all the BattleTech fan projects I’ve played, MechWarrior: Living Legends is easily the most polished. There’s a lot of love in this game, and it’s that love that keeps the game going. Not at all unlike BattleTech itself.
If you do download the client (which again, is totally free and doesn’t require Crysis to play anymore) I recommend perusing the new player guides first and familiarizing yourself with the controls. Head to an empty server to test things out (“Free Testing Practice” on the 12th VR game server network has one with unlimited credits for new players to test things out) and get yourself situated with some early-game units. Then it’s time to dive into an actual game.
My biggest takeaway with Living Legends is: survive. If you take damage that puts you close to death, retreat and get repaired at a ‘Mech bay. If you run out of ammo, retreat to reload. The longer you live, the more money you make, and the bigger the ‘Mech you’ll be able to purchase.
After that, your old MechWarrior reflexes should be just fine to mix it up. At least, it was for me.
Hey, it’s May, and BattleTech is pretty okay! Sorry, that’s the best I could do to complete the rhyme.
Today, we’re going to completely ignore coronavirus just like an anti-lockdown protester and instead focus on all that’s still good in this world. And as we all know, the only things that are good are giant stompy robots.
Welcome to your BattleTech news roundup for the month of May. Let’s get this party started.
As some of you know, PGI is also the development studio behind MechWarrior Online, but these positions are all calling for Unreal 4 Engine experience, and that means MechWarrior 5. MechWarrior Online runs on Crytek, an engine that’s both much older and much worse than Unreal 4. Think of Crytek as the Java of game engines--inefficient and nobody really uses it anymore.
I kid! Please don’t send me angry emails filled with Java code that will ruin my computer if I ever accidentally click the attached files.
Anyway, the fact that these are very key positions that are looking to be filled sort of implies that PGI might have lost a few people after the launch of MechWarrior 5. There’s no way you can make a game like MW5 without an Animation Lead or a Level Designer, so I’m thinking that those folks peaced-out after the game launched last year.
As we found out last month, PGI is delaying the release of MechWarrior 5‘s first DLC pack, and these empty positions might have something to do with it. That and the sudden shift to working from home and the up-ending of the global economy.
Benefits of working at PGI include flexible schedules, comprehensive benefits, and beer Fridays. Although, with everyone working from home, every day could be beer Friday. I’m having a beer Friday right now!
We Got Two New BattleTech Books!
May is turning out to be the month of BattleTech fiction for 2020. We’ve got two new novellas to tide us over until the release of IlClan, and both of them deal with events leading up to the ascendancy of Clan Wolf (I’m guessing--I don’t actually have any inside leads with Catalyst on plot development).
Speaking of Pardoe, he’s got his own book out now that also deals with Dark Age-era events. This time the focus is on Wolf’s Dragoons, the storied mercenary company that we all thought was done for after Outreach got nuked during the Jihad. They’re actually still around, and they even have a few regiments operating by the time the Fortress Wall fell.
In Divided We Fall, Alaric Wolf tries to convince Wolf’s Dragoons to return to the Clan that spawned them by sending an envoy: Marotta Kerensky. Will the Dragoons once again become Wolves, or will they keep fighting for the freedom of the Inner Sphere against Clan aggression?
Pardoe gave us a teaser earlier this month, treating us to a brand new ‘Mech on the cover of his book. It’s called the Dominator, apparently the brainchild of Pardoe with a few tweaks by BattleTech art director Brent Evans. Speculating based on its appearance, its armament consists of an SRM-6, a PPC, either a Large or Medium laser in the right shoulder, and a rear-facing Small laser (which Pardoe confirmed in the teaser). Class, weight, and movement profile are unknown, but given the Linebacker right beside it, I’m guessing it’s on the heavier side of Medium-class.
Both Shell Games and Divided We Fall are available now wherever fine e-books are sold. Or you can just follow theselinks.
Pardoe Also Did A Fun Jihad And Dark Age Summary
Not every BattleTech fan has kept up to date with current events. Some of them don’t know their Reaving from their Jihad from their Dark Age. That’s fine; Blaine is here with a fantastic way of getting lapsed BattleTech fans up to date.
“Almost all of the major characters, mercenary units, and a few billion passersby are killed in a fate worse than death: killed ala sourcebook footnote,” writes Pardoe, followed up by this gem about Inner Sphere savior Devlin Stone: “Stone wears a ball cap that says, ‘Make the Inner Sphere Great Again!’ – true story!”
You should read the whole thing over on his website, and also direct any BattleTech fan you know to bookmark it for future reference. And even if you already know the full series of events, it’s still well worth a read.
New Night Vision Mod Greatly Enhances Your Ability To See In The Dark In MechWarrior 5
Consider this a little preview for an article I’ve been pondering on just what mods you should get for MechWarrior 5. Mod support is perhaps the best thing about the latest MechWarrior game, and mods vastly improve MechWarrior 5 over the vanilla experience.
For example, night vision. The base game’s night vision is pathetic--you can barely see past your Atlas‘s big toe. With the Clear Night Vision mod on, you can see everything through two different choices of night vision. You can set your ‘Mech’s HUD to produce that typical green glow that society has come to readily associate with night vision since the Gulf War, or you can get a full-colored version that more readily approximates current technologies.
Phil at No Guts No Galaxy recently reviewed the mod, and I gotta say, the difference is night and day. I’ll show myself out…
Check out the mod in the video above, and stay tuned for a list of essential MechWarrior 5 mods.
Part 2 Of Tex Talks BattleTech’s Primer On The Clans Is Out Now
Battletech/Mechwarrior Lore : Exodus to Elementals - A Primer on the Clans [Part 2]
I’ve talked to Tex before about his video series which has only grown in popularity since then (not saying I might’ve had something to do with it or anything; his work stands for itself). His Clans Primer is probably the best work produced by the Black Pants Legion to date, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Part 2 ever since. It’s only fitting that it was released on May 20, just in time for the anniversary of the Battle of Tukayyid.
It’s hard to give spoilers for a story that you already know the ending to, but if you watch any Tex Talks BattleTech, watch this one. And then go back and watch the rest.
And speaking of Tukayyid…
Metal Core Collectibles Is Hosting An Anniversary Sale
I’ve seen this guy post on the BattleTech subreddit a few times and have always been impressed by his work. If you’re not aware, Metal Core Collectibles is a series of not-quite BattleTech figures that are sort of like Mech Merc Commander from last week--BattleTech-inspired without actually having the license. They’re definitely made by a BattleTech fan though, and that shines through in the designs. I mean, there’s even a hex map in the background of most of the site’s images.
As far as I can tell, Metal Core Collectibles’ two designs--the Hammerhead and the Tyrant--are basically fan designs that somehow grew into their very own custom figurines. Both the Tyrant and the Hammerhead come in multiple variants so that you can get one with the weapons you want, and there’s a whole bunch of tanks, APCs, and choppers to buy too.
Personally, I really like the Tyrant. It looks like a Centurion-style medium ‘Mech, and I’ve always appreciated workhorse designs like that. I’m not sure if BattleTech-appropriate specs even exist for it, but it still tickles my love for giant robots.
And since Metal Core is owned by a BattleTech fan, they’re also hosting a sale in honor of both their first anniversary in operation and the Battle of Tukayyid. That’s 25% off anything in-store from now until May 27 using the code “Tukayyid2020”. Go check ‘em out.
That’s it for May! Join me next time as we explore what fresh hell June has in store for us.
I know I say that about most of this particular generation of video games, but this time I really mean it!
But first, we gotta go back to MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat. That game was a huge freakin’ success for Activision, and like all major game developers/publishers, they want to keep making money. So after MechWarrior 2 came MechWarrior 2: Ghost Bear’s Legacy, an expansion pack that added a brand new Ghost Bear-focused campaign, several new ‘Mechs, and a bunch of different weapons systems that should have been in MechWarrior 2 but were cut for time.
Ghost Bear’s Legacy was great and really added a lot to MechWarrior 2, but it was really just an appetizer. The main course was MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries.
At this point in Activision’s history, and specifically for the MechWarrior 2 team, it was a time of near-constant crunch. MechWarrior 2 first came out for MS-DOS in July of 1995, then for Windows in December of 1995. Ghost Bear’s Legacy was developed concurrently with the Windows 95 version of the game and came out in November.
Which leads us to MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries. For this latest iteration of MechWarrior 2, Activision decided to take everything they’d learned from Ghost Bear’s Legacy and the Win95 version of Mechwarrior 2 and make a “stand-alone expansion,” which is really just a fancy way of saying they’re making a brand new game using the same engine.
Mercenaries had several enormous technical improvements over its predecessors. It was one of the first games to feature texture-mapped surfaces rather than mere colored polygons, making terrain and ‘Mechs actually stand out from their surroundings. Multiple light sources were finally possible, meaning laser blasts and PPCs generated their own glow that shined off surfaces. Smoke contrails were added to missiles that obscured your screen when they leaped off their launch rails. And for the first time ever, taking out an opponent’s leg didn’t cause them to stand there like a stunned flamingo--they actually fell over and were unable to right themselves without the use of jump jets.
All of this was pretty ground-breaking, but this wasn’t just some tacked-on improvements to the source. Mercenaries was its own game, with its own incredibly unique campaign that puts pilots right in the thick of the Clan Invasion. There were added vehicles, tons of all-new ‘Mechs (at least, new to the MechWarrior series of games), voice acting, music, and more.
And all of it was done in just 9. Freakin’. Months. Think about how long it takes to make a modern game with cutting-edge everything, and imagine doing all that in just 9 months. It wasn’t easy, as the dev team revealed in hidden thank you messages buried inside MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries‘ code.
“Most of these people haven’t left their cubicles in months, so if they sound a little crazy, forgive them,” wrote Game Director Jack Mamais in his passage. His tone might sound jocular, but everyone on this page (courtesy of The Cutting Room Floor) said something about working “a ton of long hours.”
3D Artist J.J. Franzen called it “4 months of non-stop hectic craziness.” That’s a long time to be working 12-hour days. It’s several years late (or more like several decades), but let me at least express my appreciation for all the blood, sweat, and tears put into Mercenaries. It might not have had the crazy employee turnover that MechWarrior 2 did, but there was certainly a lot of suffering to go around because of corporate deadlines.
Back To The Inner Sphere
How to start your career as a mercenary ‘Mech jock.
One of the interesting aspects of Mercenaries‘ development was not just when the game takes place in the BattleTech universe, but also when the game was developed in FASA‘s history. At the time, FASA hadn’t even written the sourcebooks to the FedCom Civil War and all the things that would happen following the Clan Invasion, and they forbid Activision from using any parts of BattleTech that hadn’t yet been officially published.
Without any path forward in time following Ghost Bear’s Legacy, they instead went back to perhaps the most exciting period in BattleTech’s history.
“The problem with FASA’s BattleTech universe is that it ends roughly where Ghost Bear ends, and FASA won’t let us go beyond that,” said Mamais in an interview with NextGen Magazine way back in 1996. “Just covering another Clan wasn’t the way to go, since that wouldn’t add much that was new. So we looked at the entire BattleTech universe and decided that the most interesting time really was in the Inner Sphere when the Clans were just coming back.”
Mercenaries starts with you, a lowly ‘Mech jock in an old Commando COM-7X fighting for Team Venom, a mercenary unit of unknown size and headed by Colonel Holly Harris. When Harris’ Zeus gets left behind on a recon raid mission in the Draconis Combine, she bequeaths the unit and Commando to you in a rare display of generosity, posthumously saying you need to figure things out on your own from now on.
Gotta pay those bills, mercenary.
You’ve got two options: go solo as your very own merc outfit, or you can sign on with Hansen’s Roughriders. Signing on with the Roughriders turns Mercenaries into a very linear game much like MechWarrior 2 without any of the business management aspects that come with owning your own mercenary command. This was suitable for new players and ensured that even the worst MechWarrior always had a working ‘Mech to fight with.
But the real game is found by selecting “Mercenary Commander” on the menu screen. This puts you in command; you buy and sell ‘Mechs, MechWarriors, components, and everything else. It’s much like the original MechWarrior game, only you don’t have to worry about travel time or travel costs like you do in more modern titles like BATTLETECH or MechWarrior 5.
You do, however, need to worry about armor, ammo, weapons, and everything else that a mercenary lance needs to stay afloat.
From MechWarrior To Mercenary Commander
Although you start out in a Commando, you likely won’t stay there for long. Mercenaries adds a whopping 37 Inner Sphere ‘Mechs that weren’t already present in previous iterations of MechWarrior 2 (Ghost Bear’s Legacy already had the Atlas, Annihilator, Victor, Hatamoto-Chi, and Raven) along with the 19 Clan ‘Mechs ported from other games for a total of 61 ‘Mechs--more than any other MechWarrior game at the time (although some of those ‘Mechs aren’t available in the main campaign, and a few can only be obtained as salvage from later versions of Mercenaries that added dynamic salvage rules).
That’s a lot of ‘Mechs. For the first time, you’ve got your choice at every weight class on whether you want speed or armor, weapons or defensibility. It was this unparalleled choice that made Mercenaries the best in the series, at least to my eyes.
You also had an unparalleled level of customization. Mercenaries allowed up to 16 different weapon systems, meaning you didn’t have to stifle your Medium Laser boat Atlas just for the sake of mounting a heavy autocannon. You could do both.
Although I loved the Commando you started the game with, the Jenner or Panther were quick upgrades, depending on which archetype you preferred. From there it could lead to a Sentinel, Crab, Centurion, Vindicator, or Hunchback, and then to whatever heavier designs you wished. Notably absent were any of the Unseen designs, which were the subject of ongoing litigation at the time.
“Shoot me even once, and I’ll tear that beer can you call a ‘Mech into scrap.”
You don’t get launched right into the Clan Invasion, of course. You start with an optional training contract with Hansen’s Roughriders, where the gloriously rugged voice of Sgt. “Deadeye” Unther threatens you through a series of simple missions designed to get you in touch with your ‘Mech. After that come a series of progressively more difficult campaigns that take you all around the Inner Sphere, from hotspots in the Draconis Combine to the great halls of Solaris VII. While you smash rebels for the DCMS or put down pirates for the Free Worlds League, Comstar provides detailed news about what’s going on in the wider BattleTech universe that really made it seem like you were in the middle of the Inner Sphere.
Unlike in MechWarrior 2, mission outcomes aren’t set in stone. You could fail a mission and get a dock in pay but have it lead to a different mission that would otherwise never have been available. These differing outcomes added an element of replayability to Mercenaries the previous MechWarrior 2 titles never had. Failure wasn’t just the end but a new path to explore.
While I enjoyed MechWarrior 2‘s short stories before and after every mission, Mercenaries‘ added news reports were just a much better fit for a game that’s trying to draw the player into the universe. But if you still preferred the stories, your personal journal likely provided more than enough backstory.
I won’t go into the ‘Mech piloting too much as it’s mostly the same as previous games. The added management components of Mercenaries were far more interesting, although somewhat cumbersome compared to more modern titles. Still, no other ‘Mech game provided a more tabletop BattleTech-accurate ‘Mech customization bay than MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries, for better or for worse.
How did the rebels get access to a Star League ‘Mech?!
One thing I will go into is the weapons. After MechWarrior 2, BattleTech fans wrote in to petition the next game to have weapons that were more accurate to the tabletop game. This meant that LRMs and PPCs were far less effective (Activision had managed to fix the splash damage bug that was causing both weapons to hit far harder than they should in MechWarrior 2), but also meant that autocannons were just generally bad. If an AC/5 did as much damage as a Medium Laser and had only 20 shots per ton of ammo, you’re far better off with a few Medium Lasters and accompanying heat sinks than even a single AC/5.
For this reason, the most effective loadouts in Mercenaries often involved mounting multiple Medium Lasers as your main armament and then having some support weapons to take out Elementals or other small targets.
The Invasion Begins
I’ll never forget the first time playing through and getting to the mission that required you to hunt down the Oberon Confederation in the Free Rasalhague Republic. Things start off as you’d expect, but then “unidentified” ‘Mechs barge in and start wrecking both you and the pirates alike. The second mission where you have to escape in a stolen Pegasus hovertank was one of the most frustrating experiences in a MechWarrior game, but that feeling of helplessness against even light Clan ‘Mechs really pressed home how ‘Mechs were the kings of the battlefield.
Afterward, you read how the KungsArmé murders the escaped pirates so nobody can confirm your story that the Clans have invaded. It was a nice touch.
It was also rendered almost immediately irrelevant as your next mission takes you to Wolcott to fight off the Smoke Jaguars and hand the clans their first-ever defeat. You’ll later take on the Ghost Bears to capture a fully intact Kodiak so that the DCMS can examine it, or you could decide to just blow away the Dracs and keep the 100-ton ‘Mech for yourself.
The campaign eventually leads to Luthien, where you and other mercenary commands heroically fend off the Jaguars and prevent the capture of the Draconis Combines’ home planet. The last mission where you hold the line against wave after wave of Jaguar ‘Mechs is chilling both for how desperate the player tries to keep their ‘Mech from crumbling around them and the epic music that plays in the background.
Perfect, But Imperfect
Who needs enhanced imaging when you’ve got thermal sensors?
As great as Mercenaries was, it’s still far from perfect. The rushed development cycle meant that the DOS version of the game didn’t launch with dynamic salvage and instead had scripted salvage at the end of each mission. Only the Windows 95 version of Mercenaries got dynamic salvage after a patch (which also made it one of the first games to use “patching” in order to add intended features).
There were also a ton of bugs. One was a “phantom weight” bug that kept adding extra un-specified weight to a ‘Mech every time it was repaired until it eventually became so overburdened that you couldn’t even equip a Small Laser. The only solution was to sell the ‘Mech and buy a new one--something I did a few times when my Atlas suddenly became unable to equip its full complement of AC/20 rounds.
While Aerospace fighters were a fun addition to your mercenary command, the pilot AI was so useless that you might as well not bother. Fighters would often get lost, stuck on buildings, or take so long to arrive at the battlefield that the fight was already over by the time they got there. They were occasionally useful to delay enemy forces in defensive actions, but that was about it.
And of course, there was the usual collection of freezes and crashes that were typical of games from the era. The Windows 95 version of Mercenaries was especially prone to crashes, as was the 3DFX-enhanced and Titanium Editions.
This one is coming home with me.
But did the bugs really matter? Not really. Not when there were so many ‘Mechs to play with, and not when there was so much replayability in Mercenaries. Taking different contracts, using different ‘Mechs, and making different decisions meant that I got way more out of Mercenaries than I ever did out of MechWarrior 2, and I suspect I’m not alone in that opinion.
A Mercenary Legacy
What Mercenaries did for MechWarrior was truly remarkable in that it showed us what a MechWarrior game could be--a non-linear campaign where decisions mattered, from choosing what parts of your opponent to destroy in the hopes of salvaging components later to choosing whether or not it’s worth holding the line for that sweet bonus at the end of your contract. These choices have since become standard features for both BATTLETECH and MechWarrior 5, and they both owe Mercenaries for their creation.
It also proved that the time before and leading up to the Clan Invasion was just a better era to play in. The rules were simpler, the factions were clearer, there were more ‘Mechs, and you could slowly add technology to the game as it was discovered (or rediscovered). Fighting before 3049 made it so that Clan or Star League technology was something truly special and equipping it meant you were on the cutting edge of technology.
And there was a sense of freedom to Mercenaries. You weren’t railroaded to anything. You could take missions you wanted or ignore them (outside of the mandatory story missions, of course). You could use whatever ‘Mech using whatever weapons you wanted. You could customize your lancemates and their machines to perfectly match your fighting style.
There’s a reason why today’s BattleTech games use MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries as their template. While the graphics might not hold up quite as well as MechWarrior 2 due to the very basic texture maps, I recommend any BattleTech fan pick up MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries and give it a shot. You’ll be glad you did.
First, a big thanks to Reddit user a_false_vacuum who posted over on r/OutreachHPG that this thing exists. Kudos to you! For the rest of us, gaze in wonder at what is probably the easiest way to play older MechWarrior games.
Well, sort of. We’ll get to the big caveats in a sec. First, how does this whole thing work? Basically, the Internet Archive has an image of the CDs and an applet that runs a DOS emulator through your browser. You download the emulator and the CD, which means a 740 MB download. That might take a few minutes, depending on your internet speed.
After that, the whole freakin’ think loads in your PC’s RAM and runs from there. This has a few problems, most notably that you can’t save your game; as soon as the browser closes, everything gets wiped and you have to re-download the game all over again. You CAN save your game in a far less meaningful way by simply returning to the title screen, but once you close the window it’s game over for good.
Another problem is that since everything is done through the browser it’s a bit of a resource hog. And by hog I mean a voracious CPU-eating apocalypse. The menus and intro videos play just fine, but when you actually get into a ‘Mech the whole thing slows to a crawl.
I got about 1 frame every 2 seconds on my laptop. Things didn’t improve much when I moved to my desktop, and my desktop PC is a fairly beefy machine running most games on high graphical settings. But then again, I was using Google Chrome. Perhaps a slimmer, more streamlined browser will actually be able to get this game to run a bit better.
It’s a real shame too since I’d love to have an easier way to play some of these older games. Browser-based ‘Mech-bashing just sounds super cool and perfect for the 21st century. If someone could get this to work and tell me how you did it, I’d be awfully grateful.
I’m told thanks to the Reddit comments that the MechWarrior 2 version of the game actually allows you to download the ROM, so in theory, you can just download your own DOS emulator to play it that way instead. That’s one step more than being a browser-based game and is thus inferior, but would likely provide a far superior gameplay experience in being able to actually save your progress.
For those unfamiliar with MechWarrior 2, I did a pretty big write-up on it a little while ago. We’ll get to MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries in due time.
As much I loved stomping around in polygonal representations of giant robots armed to the teeth with lasers and PPCs, MechWarrior 2 wouldn’t be half the game it was without that bitchin’ set of tunes guiding me every inch of the way. This was the first game I played that actually had a soundtrack worth mentioning. Sure, there were other games with some great music at the time, but none of them had the polish, the fidelity, or the sheer quality as MechWarrior 2’s soundtrack.
A lot of that quality can be traced back directly to the game’s composer, Jeehun Hwang (with the help of Gregory Alper and Kelly Walker Rogers, but we’re going to focus on Hwang for this article). This guy has done a ton of work in video games, contributing music to Quake, Heavy Gear, and Battlezone. Amazingly, Hwang’s first ever video game soundtrack was MechWarrior 2, and he hit it out of the park on the first try.
In an interview with Indie Game Reviewer.com, Hwang recounts how he landed the gig. He first started out as a production assistant at Activision just to make some cash. After moving to Los Angeles, he sold his car and purchased his first synthesizer--a Korg X2 sequencer--and worked on his music career in his spare time.
“At first, I was asked to help with the composer selection process, but then I brought in a few tracks that I’d written for the game on my Korg X2 internal sequencer, and shortly after, I was asked to stay home and write music full time,” Hwang recalls. “I got a lucky break since the game was such a big success, and my music reached a big audience and got a lot of recognition. The rest is history.”
Another interview with SoundOnSound (courtesy of a NeoGAF thread) went into a bit more detail on how that initial interview went. “After I’d written a few songs I took them in and there was this big meeting with everyone, including the head of the company, where first they played all the music the other guy had done and then they played my music. To my surprise, I got a standing ovation!
“I was literally learning as they were paying me,” he continued. “It was the very first time I’d used a computer sequencer: prior to that, I didn’t even know they existed! They also wanted me to score the movies--the intro and outro--so I got an old VCR with timecode and pretty much scored everything in real time and then went back over them. It wasn’t really the conventional way of doing things and it took a long time, but I worked very hard on it.”
All that hard work paid off. MechWarrior 2 won a slew of awards from gaming publications, and many of them were specifically for Hwang’s incredible music.
It’s hard to pin down a single genre to describe MechWarrior 2’s soundtrack. Parts of it are filled with orchestral grandeur, others with a sort of jungle bongo rhythm, and still others with an electronic futurism that holds up even today.
Besides the music itself, there were a few other things that really made the MechWarrior 2 soundtrack stand out, and the first was the disk it was recorded on. For most games of the era, music was encoded into MIDI files and installed on the computer’s hard drive. Now, I’m not knocking MIDI music, but a lot of early PC game soundtracks were just plain bad and it had a lot to do with the fact that MIDI music files were designed to be as small as possible. There just wasn’t a lot of physical memory available for more complex sounds, and it showed.
MechWarrior 2 did things differently. The game’s soundtrack was actually encoded directly onto the game disc itself using a relatively new technology called Compact Disc Digital Audio (CDDA or CD-DA), also known simply as Red Book Audio CD. The technology was essentially just a set of standards used to encode music onto the digital compact disc format. It had been used for years in the music industry so that Sony Walkmans could navigate from one track to the next, but it was still relatively new to PC gaming in 1995.
MechWarrior 2 was one of the first games in the world to use this format to encode its soundtrack. This meant that the PC’s sound card would read the disk and play the disc’s music while the rest of the computer concerned itself with running the game. It also meant you could take MechWarrior 2’s disc, put it in a regular old CD player, and listen to the soundtrack wherever and whenever you wanted.
It was also one of the few ways to listen to MechWarrior 2’s entire soundtrack. A bug in earlier versions of the game caused certain songs to never play for the mission they were intended and instead repeated the tracks from other missions.
I can’t tell you how many walks home from school were spent listening to the MechWarrior 2 soundtrack. And from the looks of things, I wasn’t the only one. In fact, some very talented people have taken the MechWarrior 2 soundtrack and used it as the inspiration for their own musical endeavors.
The one person I’d like to mention is Timothy Seals, an Australian artist who took eight songs from MechWarrior 2 and remixed them into something that’s both very modern and very awesome. His album is called New Dawn, which you can listen to and download for free on his Bandcamp site (although as a “pay what you want” download, he’d certainly appreciate it if you’d toss him a few bucks).
These are some very faithful recreations of MechWarrior 2 music using modern software and not some ancient Korg sequencer. I think the kids these days would call it a “cover”, but I’m not a music writer, so I have no idea.
And before I leave you, I just wanted to note how the song Pyre Light has a very special place in my heart. Way back in the day when I was first being introduced to the world of the internet and was suddenly confronted with the necessity of an online handle, I chose “Pyre Light” in honor of MechWarrior 2.
I’ve long since abandoned that name, but the song still hits me in the feels every time I hear it.
The time has finally come. We’re taking a look at MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat in this week’s retrospective look at the BattleTech video games that made the franchise. And for me at least, there was no more formative experience in BattleTech than MechWarrior 2.
But before we get into the game, let’s head back to our last retrospective on MechWarrior 2: The Clans. If you recall, the original MechWarrior PC game was made by Dynamix, but then they got purchased by Sierra On-Line and took MechWarrior’s engine with them. That meant Activision had to start over from scratch back in 1992.
As is often the case with Activision, development did not go smoothly.
You can read up on the details in our previous post. Suffice to say, the entire production staff either quit or left for other projects, and MechWarrior 2 would have died entirely were it not for Tim Morten. Credited as an associate producer, Tim took the engine being worked on for The Clans and refined it until there was something resembling a game. Morten was also instrumental in convincing Activision’s leadership to keep the project going with a team of about two dozen people.
Finally, two development teams and one scrapped game later, MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat released on PC for MS-DOS in 1995.
MechWarrior 2 would go on to win dozens of awards from various game publications and sell 500,000 copies in the first three months of sales. For the mid-’90s, that’s basically a blockbuster. Overall sales were a lot more than that, but getting specific figures is a bit tricky. Let’s just say it’s well into the millions and leave it at that.
I came across MechWarrior 2 back when games were still being handed around via shareware discs. The internet was still in its infancy and my home still didn’t even have a dial-up modem. My gaming was done entirely solo, and MechWarrior 2 was easily the best DOS game I’d ever played.
Depending which team you play for, either the Jade Falcons crush the Wolves and go on to take Terra, or the Wolves defeat the Jade Falcons and defend the Inner Sphere against Clan incursions for the foreseeable future. Obviously, MechWarrior 2 doesn’t take place in traditional BattleTech canon, so these outcomes are entirely apocryphal.
Also, you wind up as Khan of either Clan after the final Trial, which is technically an elected position and not one you can achieve strictly through combat. But whatever--you’re also destroying dozens of ‘Mechs completely by yourself in some missions. ‘Mech games sell based on hero fantasies and not realistic depictions of a single person’s ability to sway history, after all.
Choose Your Weapon
Both sides feature the same arsenal of 14 ‘Mechs and both sides lacked some of the newer designs introduced in 3057 (some would be added later in the Ghost Bear’s Legacy expansion, but it’s still a notable slip). You do get several IIC variants, including the some unseen ‘Mechs such as the Rifleman, the Warhammer, and Marauder, but otherwise, you’re limited to Clan ‘Mechs that were present during the start of the Inner Sphere invasion.
MechWarrior 2 also didn’t ship with certain technologies that were present in 3057. Anti-missile systems, ECM, active probes, and basically anything that wasn’t a standard Clan weapon was just too complex for the developers to handle and still actually ship a completed game. To that end, many of the ‘Mechs featured in MechWarrior 2 didn’t arrive with their historically correct loadouts. Basically all the Firemothalternate configurations were modified in some way, as was the primary config Hellbringer, several Kitfoxvariants, the Warhawk, and the GargoyleAlt Config C and D.
Another limitation in MechWarrior 2 was that each ‘Mech could only carry a maximum of 10 weapon systems, which meant several weapons-heavy ‘Mechs also needed to be changed. The primary configuration of the Nova, famously comprised of 6 ER Medium Lasers in either fist, was instead changed to just 7 ER Medium Lasers, 2 Medium Pulse Lasers, and 1 ER Small Laser.
Strangely, Activision didn’t stop at just altering the Nova’s weapon loadout. They also gave the ‘Mech an Endo Steel chassis and a 300 XL engine to give it a running speed on par with that of the Storm Crow. Nobody is quite sure why they did that, and we can only assume it was to ensure the Nova stayed roughly on par with the Storm Crow in terms of performance.
The Timber Wolfand Dire Wolfalso had minor changes to their primary configurations due to possessing too many weapon systems.
Unlike modern BattleTech games that limit the types of weapons that can be taken on an OmniMech, MechWarrior 2 allowed anything and everything on any given chassis. If you wanted to rip out the missiles and lasers on a Mad Dog and replace them with autocannons, that’s just fine. This would do nothing to the overall appearance of your ‘Mech, mind you, but you could do it. It wouldn’t be until MechWarrior 3 that dynamic loadouts were considered in a Mech’s model.
Piloting your multi-ton beast was done entirely via keyboard unless you were one of the lucky few who purchased MechWarrior 2 packaged with Microsoft’s Sidewinder joystick. The Sidewinder allowed you to control your ‘Mech’s torso by twisting the stick, making it a lot easier to maneuver your machine while maintaining weapons on your opponents. Otherwise, one hand was on the arrow keys while the other was busily hitting the “<>” keys to keep your torso pointed in the right direction.
The Prettiest Death Machines
But what truly set MechWarrior 2 above most PC games of the era was its graphics. MechWarrior 2 used dynamic lighting and color shading to really add depth to every world you encountered. Textures were entirely basic--you would see some bitmaps on each machine, but otherwise, every surface was just a flat color interrupted by the occasional sprite of a bush or piece of rubble.
And yet, somehow, it still holds up. Take a look at the video below to see for yourself.
MechWarrior 2 remained on the cutting edge of graphics technology for quite a few years following its initial release. As Digital Foundry calls it, the mid-’90s was a Wild West-era for PC gaming where there were multiple video card manufacturers and each one required their own special game release in order to take full advantage of what that manufacturer’s card could do. Activision catered to pretty much all of them, which meant that MechWarrior 2 was released in no less than 38 different versions over three years.
And frankly, a lot of them sucked. Sure, it was neat to see ground that was something other than a flat-shaded polygon, but in order to make the textures work, Activision had to remove a lot of the dynamic lighting that made the original DOS version look so great. They often also removed textures from the ‘Mechs themselves making them look drab and utterly boring.
I managed to avoid those special editions. By the time I got my first PC upgrade, MechWarrior 3 and MechCommanderwere out, and they did a much better job of making things look pretty. But these graphically enhanced editions and expansions like Ghost Bear’s Legacy and the stand-alone MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries--packaged together as the Titanium Trilogy--kept the MechWarrior series relevant for years and were widely considered the golden age in ‘Mech simulator games.
The Little Things
Another thing that set MechWarrior 2 apart from games of the era was the music. Even today, MechWarrior 2’s soundtrack holds up extremely well, combining orchestral and digital sounds in a way that was both unique and cutting-edge for that era of PC gaming. It was also one of the first PC games to burn the music directly to the CD rather than encode it as MIDI files, meaning you could take the CD, put it in a Walkman, and listen to the entire score whenever you wanted.
There were way more little gems that set MechWarrior 2 apart. The manual came with its own Technical Readout section that basically took part of the actual Technical Readout: 3050 for the relevant ‘Mechs. There were little notes added in the margins to make it look like a pilot had been scribbling notes to provide cadets hints on how to succeed. And between every mission, there was a short story that provided you with a bigger picture of all the battles that were happening at that time in the Refusal War.
I could say without a doubt that it was these little things that gave MechWarrior 2 a certain magic that no other game of the era possessed. The music, the lore--they all made it seem like MechWarrior 2 was bigger than it actually was, which if we’re being honest, wasn’t all that big. You could crunch out both campaigns in a single afternoon if you were really rushing it. But then you’d miss out on reading the stories that came before and after each mission, or on tweaking your ‘Mech so it was armed and armored exactly the way you wanted it.
That’s not to say MechWarrior 2 was perfect. The Windows 95 versions were often bug-filled messes that crashed after a few minutes of play. Splash damage was so hopelessly broken that it doubled or even tripled the stated damage of ER PPCs and LRMs, making a pair of LRM-20s capable of destroying any ‘Mech in a single salvo. And those LRMs were actually Streak LRMs considering how they locked-on and homed in on targets.
Let’s not even get started on the Sega Saturn or PlayStation versions of the game.
But these faults were relatively minor. MechWarrior 2 was the first game that truly captured the magic of BattleTech in a single experience. You had all the lore of previous BattleTech video games combined with the feeling of really being inside a multi-story death machine, with truly enough firepower to level a city block. That’s an intoxicating combination that snapped up more than a few impressionable young minds.
Hi everyone. Pull up a chair, take a sit, grab a cup of hot cocoa. I want us to have a frank, honest discussion about MechWarrior: Dark Age.
Now, I know that Dark Age wasn’t particularly well received by the BattleTech faithful. There are plenty of good reasons for that–the complete sidelining of all the major houses, the inability for anybody to communicate due to the HPG blackout, and ‘Mech stats that didn’t even bother to follow the classic ‘Mech construction rules are all valid complaints. Even for me, as someone who arrived at BattleTech a little later on, thought that Dark Age represented a franchise reboot that pissed all over the original game’s charms.
I mean, who wants to field an army of modified AgroMechs and unarmored infantry? Nobody, that’s who. A glorified farmer in a chainsaw-wielding tractor with legs is nobody’s idea of a sound military strategy.
courtesy of Troll and Toad
But I don’t want us to just spend an hour bashing Dark Age and blaming them for BattleTech’s relative obscurity in this era of increasing tabletop gaming interest (I think that has more to do with the complicated web of licenses and ownership of the original IP). There were real, genuine merits to MechWarrior: Dark Age.
First, there were the models themselves. I know plenty of people love painstakingly painting their own figures and even customizing them into miniature pieces of art, but man, I don’t have that kind of time! Being able to get a fully-painted and even slightly opposable figure straight out of the box was actually pretty cool, if I do say so myself, and they weren’t half bad! Sure, sometimes the arms fell off at the slightest provocation, but they were intricate, fully-painted models that look good for zero effort. I call that a win.
And the Clix system wasn’t half bad either. Let’s be real: BattleTech’s rules are a wee bit on the complicated side, as my 300-plus page tome of Total Warfare can attest (I had university textbooks that were smaller–just sayin’). Simplifying everything down to “damage equals clicks”, and having your ‘Mech’s or tank’s (or whatever) stats modified to represent battle damage with every click was actually a really clever way of making combat easier to keep track of.
Admittedly, using a tape-measure for movement a la Warhammer 40K made the rules slightly more complicated, but it also meant that Dark Age could be played anywhere and even household objects could be repurposed as ad hoc terrain. Empty bottle cans became buildings, moldy pizza boxes became swamps, and that bit of carpet where your dog threw-up became a toxic waste zone.
For some reason, my miniature battles were usually fought in some pretty rank areas.
I even appreciate the random “loot box” nature of buying most MechWarrior: Dark Age boxes. It was a lot like buying Magic: The Gathering cards, which was another pastime that I genuinely enjoyed. And even if you don’t like that aspect, the age of the internet has made purchasing specific figures in Dark Age or any other collectible game easier than ever–just go on eBay and you’ll probably find what you’re after.
Anyways, my point is that Dark Age gets a lot of flack, and while a lot of is deserved, it’s important to understand that it wasn’t all bad. There were some truly innovative of fun aspects of Dark Age, and I kinda wish that some of those aspects could be incorporated into the original tabletop game. But no AgroMechs, please. Those were stupid.
Also, I’m selling my old Dark Age collection. It’s spring, I haven’t touched the things in years, and I suspect wherever I wind up next won’t have the storage space for me to keep these plastic bins as monuments to my childhood. So they gotta go.
Details are on the eBay listing. Yes, this is a shameless use of a pulpit for my personal benefit, but someone else should be able to get some joy from these toys so they don’t just languish in my basement. That and it’s tax season and Canadian taxes are no freakin’ joke!
And if that ultimately means my old collection gets chopped up to be used as props in someone else’s custom miniature scene because Dark Age is stupid and everybody hates it, that’s fine with me.