Welcome to another retrospective on the video games that made the BattleTech universe come alive in ways that dozens of novels, hundreds of sourcebooks, and even a short-lived ’90s cartoon just couldn’t. I’m your host, Sean at Sarna, and I’m here to teach you a thing or two about MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries–perhaps the greatest BattleTech-sourced video game ever made.
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.
A Labor Of Love
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.