I have a slap-slap-kiss-kiss relationship with the Battletech/MechWarrior
franchise. MechWarrior Online
is a game I keep returning to even though I find it ridiculously underdeveloped and often completely frustrating to play. The Battletech
universe is something I've warily watched from afar, skimming the wikis, reading the occasional game scenario or novel synopsis, trying to make sense of it's often nonsensical and bizarre trappings. I just dip my toes in from time to time, I've never gone full "Batchall" into any of the lore, it's all too silly to take seriously.
But there is something there. The games are bad, and the universe is crazy, but it keeps tugging on my mind, making me glance in its direction every now and then in spite of myself. It's why I can never seem to quit MWO
for good, despite threatening to do so on a regular basis. Beneath the occasionally embarrassing robot designs, the consistently embarrassing characters, and the shamefully embarrassing racial stereotypes embedded into the franchise, I've always felt there was a small hard kernel of unrealized greatness buried in there. Something about these futuristic knights in enormous mechanical suits of armour, fighting for political dominance in a feudal solar-system; it speaks to a nerdy and lonely part of my heart that grew up on tales of Camelot and Transformer cartoons.
So when my brother picked me up a couple of Battletech
novels from a book fair as a joke (he choose them based on how terrible the covers looked), how could I resist the chance to finally indulge my mildly worrisome interest in the series? I thought it would be a fun goof, a little light-reading during a hot summer evening.
When I was finished, I wasn't exactly laughing. Instead of a fun lark, I ended up with a deeper understanding of the MechWarrior
game I've played so much of and the fanbase that supports them; and it wasn't pretty.
- Only 25 cents each, can you believe it?
I started with Malicious Intent
, a story set slightly after the time-period MWO
is set in, with the eternally embattled Great Houses of the Inner Sphere begrudgingly forced to work together to defend against the threat of a renewed war with the Clans. The Clans are an equally contentious group, a society of deep-space warlords with superior technology, curious syntax structures, and a high school sophomore's understanding of eugenics (infused with some fairly unsettling undertones of incest).
Michael A. Stackpole is supposedly THE name in Battletech
literature. Asking MechWarrior
fans about the books generally elicits a slightly apologetic response. They'll shift about and tell you how they really enjoyed them when they were they were young, or how some of them are kind of corny but enjoyable reads, always with a cautious bit of distancing. But every single one of them willl vouch for Stackpole's contributions to the series. His Blood of Kerensky
trilogy is considered holy canon for the fandom. So when I saw his name on the cover of Malicious Intent
, I was almost disappointed. I wanted low-brow sci-fi trash I could snicker at, not something written with quality and craftsmanship.
It turns out I didn't have much to worry about.
To be clear, Malicious Intent
was not the worst novel I’ve ever read. It was a breezy sci-fi read filled with giant robots and one-dimensional characters (which is probably what you should expect from something called Battletech
). But considering how Stackpole is considered the one best of the Battletech
writers, I was surprised by how amateurish large portions of the novel struck me. When I read something silly like this I don't go out of my way to pick it apart, but the number of times characters would repeat certain phrases or perform the same actions stood out even without looking for them. There are more "devious smiles" in this book than at Satan's own poker table, and if I don't think I'll ever hear a variation of the term "bleed them/us white" without thinking of the uncountable strategy meetings scenes where worried men hovered over causality statistics, fretting about the forces lost on both sides. Also, I guess a bottle of sipping brandy is a required component of every Star Captain's chamber? Inner Sphere, Clanner, good guy, bad guy, everyone in Malicious Intent enjoys brooding over a snifter of brandy.
- Dammit Bing, if you just spit it out we could have skipped this part and gone straight to the swag Christmas outfits.
I've always hated novels and movies where the plot hung on a simple misunderstanding that could be resolved with a minute or less of talking (I take an annual nap during the drawn out third act of White Christmas when Bing Crosby flounders to explain himself for an excruciating 30 minutes, it's tradition). But it turns out the opposite is nearly as frustrating. Conflict that is introduced only to fizzle out mere moments later is just as painful. I can't count the number of times two characters in Malicious Intent would seem on the verge of exchanging blows or declaring war, only to be appeased and suddenly friends within a few paragraphs. There's a whole lot of "WHAT IS THIS GRIEVOUS INSULT!?... Wait, I see the wisdom in his actions... Well played worthy adversary. Perhaps we can help each other...
It reminds me of playing with action figures as a kid, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would always have a brief fight with He-Man before realizing they were all good guys and could beat up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man together.
The comparison says something unflattering about the maturity level of the audience the Battletech
books are aimed for (and I suppose by extension, that includes me).
To the author's credit, he did a great job of replicating the feeling of the battles of the original tabletop game - maybe too good. Battletech
is a strategy game, you choose your units, place them on the map, and try to outmanoeuvre your opponent. But it is also a game played with dice and diagrams, and chance. When a mech launches an attack, dice are rolled for each weapon fired and those random numbers determine if, and where, those weapons hit their target.
This results in a lot of random crazy hits and ridiculous bullshit. Considering mechwarriors are supposed to be the elite of the elite, and battlemechs themselves are priceless, finely tuned instruments of destruction, the wars of the Inner Sphere frequently devolve into farcical displays of ineptitude and comedic pratfalls. These machines blunder into battle, spaz out, and spray artillery all over the place. A battery of lasers will burn the shins of an enemy while an auto-cannon rakes the shoulder (despite both of those weapons being mounted on the same arm of the mech firing them), while a bad roll can cause a gyro-failure, sending a mech ass-over-teakettle right in middle of battle.
While reading through Malicious Intent
I often wondered if the author didn't set up little mock battles with the miniatures and dice while writing those scenes, transcribing the results of random rolls and dressing them up with dramatic language. Which is actually kind of an adorable image.
- "The elite warriors of the Inner Sphere moved out to flank the the attcking Clanners... Oh god this is silly."
It lends an air of deeply nerdy credibility to the proceedings. The Morlocks who've played the tabletop game would certainly appreciate the commitment to Battletech's
quirky mechanics. However, I can't help but wonder what non-fans reading it would think. Readers unfamiliar with the Battletech
style, puzzling over why these futuristic war-machines can't seem to hit the broad side of a barn, or why anyone would want to pilot a giant bumblefuck robot that can helplessly tip over mid-battle and die like a turtle stuck on its back.
I suppose the reasoning was that nobody outside of the die-hard fans would be reading these novels anyway, so they might as well cater to their core fanbase at the expense of outsiders.
This was my first deeper observation about the franchise, because this exact toxic frame of mind continues to haunt the series to this day.
For a F2P game that should supposedly thrive on a huge playerbase of casual players, curious mayflies, with a small hardcore audience to anchor it, MWO does not give a fuck about new players
. Not a single one. Zero, zip, don't even ask.
- This isn't even all of the possible HUD info that can be on screen at one time. Good luck new players!
I’ve never seen a game so stubbornly refuse to do even basic things to reach out to a broader audience. Hell, it took them nearly two years to even add a bare bones tutorial to the game. MWO
is a mechanically broad game (I would never call it "deep" like Dota
or Street Fighter
, because it isn't, but there is a lot to learn and keep track of). The jumbled HUD full of indicators, paper-doll readouts, weapon groups, and endless meters is flat-out overwhelming for players new to the series. But PGI doesn't care, they expect you to either figure it out on your own or go read up on a forum or fan-made guide.
The same cavalier attitude continues on into almost every aspect of the game. It's 2014 and MWO
doesn't have support for voice communication. They don't even have radio commands or quick-select responses like EVERY OTHER GAME released in the last decade. If you want to communicate in this team-based game, you either need to stop and type it out, or find a Teamspeak, Mumble, or Ventrillo server to link up with friends on like it was 1999. Similarly, the UI for building mechs is a confusing mess of numbers and statistics. If you haven't been following the games for the past two decades, or are not willing to do some serious reading on fan maintained wikis, you can expect to make some costly mistakes in the mechlab until you figure it all out. It's all incredibly unwelcoming. Keep out, nerds only, no fun allowed.
That's not even getting into the pricing structure. Most F2P games rely on constant small transactions. Impulse buys, cosmetic trinkets, time-savers bought for pocket change and the like. MWO
has all that, but it's loads more expensive than almost any other game I've played. One shade of paint for your mechs can easily cost nearly $7. "Hero mechs", unique chassis that can only be purchased with real money go as high as $40, that's nearly the cost of an entire whole game for ONE character (oh, and you have to buy the garage space for it separately for another $1 or so). The recently released Clan packs were sold from anywhere from $45 for the most useless set of Clan mechs, to $210 if you wanted the whole collection (IE, the good ones). And lets not forget the $500 gold painted limited edition Clan mechs available for the "truly devoted".
These are not prices you set to attract a new audience, it's the kind of premium you put on collectables and nostalgia. The prices you set to milk old men with too many fond memories and not enough sense. PGI seems to have given up on bringing in new players, so instead they've decided to cannibalize their existing fans, sucking them dry until even the marrow has been consumed.
I always laid that blame on PGI's feet. I thought they were shortsighted and greedy (and even a little exploitative), but maybe that tendency has always been there in the franchise. Maybe that's why Battletech
has disappeared off the shelves while similar games like Warhammer 40K
soldier on, why MechWarrior
couldn't find a publisher to fund a proper single-player campaign game and had to go the F2P route.
The franchise has eaten itself hollow from the inside out.
While reading the book, I couldn't help but smile as familiar mechs from the game made appearances. The diminutive 20 ton Locust is regarded with the same scorn in the fiction as it is in-game (nothing will elicit more moans from your teammates than dropping in the pint-size walking coffin). It was refreshing to see the Hunchback, a personal favourite of mine, regarded in high-esteem in the novel (it's performance in MWO
has suffered as power-creep from newly released mechs make it more obsolete every passing month). While more bizarre mechs like the hilariously stupid looking Baboon seemed to have been chosen at random, or maybe for comedic value.
What also struck me was how familiar many of the tactics employed in the novel seemed to me. There is a pivotal battle early in the book where the fearsome Clan warlord Vlad (the antagonist or anti-hero of the book depending on how sympathetic you are to Clan bullshit) fights a one-on-one duel with another Clan chief to settle some ridiculous nuance of honour and vengeance.
Vlad, being the tactical genius the book constantly goes to great pains to remind you he is, carefully selects his mech for the battle. He chooses a ride with a greater firing range and more focused pinpoint damage over his opponent's close-in slugger of a mech. He meets him on a flat and desolate field like gun-fighters at high-noon, and promptly explodes the other mech with a distant barrage of fire before the other guy really has a chance to fight.
- This picture accurately sums up most matches in MWO. Ground based mechs like the much maligned Hunchback and Commando spend most of the game hiding from their flying, PPC wielding overloads. The artist of this pic, Alex Wolfe, created an entire series of comic images detailing the often tragic experience of playing MWO
It was a scumbag counter-pick. The mech combat equivalent of picking Guile to fight against a scrub Zangief and then acting proud of beating him with 50 consecutive Sonic Booms. This brilliant strategy is lauded as an amazing tactical insight on Vlad's part, which made my eye twitch with barely suppressed rage not just because it was some lazy writing to prop up a Mary Sue character, but because that’s exactly how the meta-game in MWO has developed
. In this case, life really does imitates art.
There are truckloads of weapons designed for exciting, close up, mech-to-mech combat in MWO
. Powerful short range rockets that can blow off chunks of a mech like a sledge hammer punching through drywall, massive school bus sized shotgun cannons that launch robot shredding buckshot, there are mech's that can strap on a battery of small lasers, making up for raw damage with a never ending series of surgical cuts. But none of those weapons really matter. If you want to win, there is only one way to go in MWO
– high damage sniper fire. You want to strap on as many lightning bolt-esq Particle Projection Cannons as you can (just like Vlad!), find a nice ridge to hide behind, and play peek-a-boo for the next ten minutes. Whoever gets bored and leaves their hiding spot first, loses.
Over the past year or so of the game, the playerbase has wised up to this tactic and even casual pub matches are dominated by jump-jetting snipers playing jack-in-the-box over a mountain. It makes matches incredibly slow as most players are too terrorized to leave the safety of their nook. To top it off, those same sniper weapons are equally capable of brawling as most of the specialized close-in weapons! So even if you do manage to wade through the never ending downpour of lightning bolts and electro-magnetically hurled gauss slugs, you won't even have the advantage in the knife fight!
- Robot bullet-hell.
Again, this is one of those things I've always blamed PGI for. That they suck at balance (they do), that they are blind to obvious facts about the game (true), and are way too slow to react to mass player concerns (undoubtedly). But maybe the cancer was always there. Maybe the idea of fun rock-em-sock-em robot battles in the series is just crippled by design. Things were ruined the first time a pen-and-paper designer sketched out the idea of the gauss cannon, and the disease has just metastasized over time. Growing and spreading as the game left the world of random dice rolls (where your super powerful sniper shot could uselessly ping off a mech's toe by the whim of the dice) and allowed players with eyes and brains to target those sniper weapons where they'd do the most damage. PGI has been negligent, but the patient was doomed long before their malpractice.
The other book my brother picked up for me, Test of Vengeance
, had an Atlas on the cover, so I was immediately expecting great things. The Atlas is a hulking 100-ton death-machine with a skull shaped cockpit, bristling with some of the heaviest firepower in the Inner Sphere. A book all about a kick-ass Atlas pilot messing people up? Fuck yes
The Atlas on the cover is dead within the first 20 pages and the rest of the book is about inbred Clan warriors whipping it out and measuring each others honour. Fuck no
I've never liked the Clans, even with my limited knowledge of the franchise. They're basically the same as every other PROUD WARRIOR RACE like the Klingons, Krogan, or Spartans, except with uglier tattoos and an incredibly unappealing mode of speech. They're belligerently aggressive, blindly bound to tradition, and like all proud warrior race stock-types, spurn emotions and keep interpersonal relationships as distant and chilly as possible. How utterly boring.
- The Klingons should consider legal action.
It turns out there are even better reasons not to like the Clans than the stereotypical traits. Not only are they dull, they're also creepy. Slavery is a big part of the Clan experience, so that's fun. While warriors taken as a "bondsman" in defeat may one day earn a chance at freedom or the right to be a warrior for their "adoptive" (by way of Stockholm syndrome) clan, there is never much mention made of the ENTIRE PLANETS full of civilians they shackle. I guess it just sucks to be them.
A Clan warrior's entire reason in life is to earn a "Bloodname" and prove their genetic material is fit to be added to their Clan's eugenics based breeding programme. They're all basically test-tube babies born from the same collective genetic material, raised together in "Sibko" nursery/school/boot-camps essentially as brothers and sisters. Then when they reach adulthood, they'll totally fool around with each other all the time because sex has no emotional attachment and nobody gets pregnant by regular means.
Again, they are all basically brothers and sisters.
The more I understand about the Clans, the more suspicious and leery I become of their self-proclaimed fans. The dudes that run around in Clan role-playing groups, who have Clan emblems as their player icons, or quotes from great Khan's in their forum signatures. I don't trust those dudes anymore. It's like being stuck on a bus with a guy who won't stop telling you about how the MRA movement is misrepresented in the media, or that one weird clerk at Chapter's who always puts The Fountainhead
up as her "Staff Choice" book. These are people you don't want to know, much less hang around and play robots with.
At least I don't have to hear them in game. I suddenly see the wisdom of excluding voice chat from the proceedings. Well played PGI, my worthy adversary... (fuck, it's happening to me now).
While the Clans caught me off guard, the antagonists of Test of Vengeance
didn't. The Draconis Combine, a Great House of the Inner Sphere modelled after the samurai of ancient Japan (as well as some random Chinese elements because why the heck not) were every bit as painfully stereotypical and vaguely racist as I expected. The leader of the "Black Dragon" army is exactly the Fu-Man-Chu knock-off you'd be embarrassed to caught reading (long white beard, takes his command meeting in a zen garden while sitting cross-legged in a pristine white gi, simply closing his eyes and taking twenty minutes between every cryptic riddle of a command) and yes, the mechwarriors of the Combine do indeed shout "BANZAI!" as they charge the enemy.
This would have shocked me if most of the mechs of the Combine didn't already tip their hand on the racist thing already. My favourite is the Hatamoto-Chi, which is an 80-ton ROBOT that's head is shaped like a big ol' samurai helmet and will walk into battle with a gigantic katana and a replica wood and fabric banner flying from its back. We're talking Capcom levels of cultural sensitivity here.
- Yup, not embarrassing at all.
You'd have to burn it all down.
You would have to chop, and torch, and pulverize everything but the core ideas. Go back to square one, rewrite everything – pitch the stereotypes, re-write the Clans to be more ominous and alien than banal and creepy, re-work all the weapons and mechanics of the mech so you could build a fun and interesting game around them.
I always thought the Battletech/MechWarrior
franchise could aspire to more. That with the right steady hand on the rudder, the series could make a comeback, both with the games and the novels. With the success of Pacific Rim
and Game of Thrones
, you would think the time was right for people to accept a series about giant mechanical knights duking it out on the battlefield while future space viziers stabbed each other in the back in a deadly political game. But I can see that I was wrong.
It doesn't need a steady hand, it needs an iron fist. A great merciless smashing of retcons and reboots.
But maybe the time is right for that as well. Look at Star Wars
just casually dismissing huge chunks of its universe as non-canon. Look at the number of game franchises that have rebooted over the past few years, who shirked their cumbersome baggage and re-released as something a little more fit for the times.
Maybe it's time for "The MechWarrior
" to make an appearance.
Or maybe it's time to just dump the franchise into a shallow ditch and be done with it. At this point, I'm not sure anyone would notice.