Off the Board: Tales of a grizzled MechWarrior

BTL-1M BattleMasterEach Friday, Off the Board invites you to step away from the boardgame table for a moment and take a look at other types of games, hobbies, or pastimes. Regardless of the topic, the keyword is always “fun”, of course! This week, Christian relates an old war story, and looks ahead to epic battles with huge robotic war machines.

Let’s face it.  I’m a boardgamer at heart, and other hobbies will always be secondary.

Still, I’m a gamer in the most general sense, and the news that a new MechWarrior video game is in development — headed by the original BattleTech creators — is just too exciting for me to pass up writing about.

As most gamers probably know, MechWarrior is heavily based on BattleTech, which was conceived as a tabletop miniatures game but quickly gained popularity through its video game translations. In BattleTech’s violent universe, huge robots called “mechs” are the unrivaled war machines of the future. Imagine hundred-ton walking tanks with a dizzying array of weapons, stalking across the battlefield, easily laying waste to anything they encounter — short of another mech.

Rather than rehash the few details we’ve learned about the upcoming game, I’m going to relate a story. If you you’re new to the BattleTech universe, this may inspire you to check out the games — whether tabletop or computerized. If you’re an old mech nerd like me, perhaps your love of the game will be rekindled.

Back in the mid-90’s, when the Internet was still in its infancy, dozens of mech enthusiasts played on the BattleTech 3056 MUSE. The MUSE was a text-based, real-time online mech combat simulator. It faithfully recreated all of the rules from the tabletop game, translating game rounds into real-time minutes and seconds, and updating players with ASCII-drawn sensor scans and terrain maps. Players represented a pilot — a MechWarrior — each assigned to a unique mech. Entire large-scale wars were fought “in-character” between the different factions in the game, with dozens of mechs taking the field for a single fight.

Sit back, kids, and let this grizzled old BattleTech nerd tell you a story…

My personal mech on the 3056 MUSE was a heavy assault unit called a BattleMaster. Aside from a healthy mix of short- and medium-range weapons, the thing had insane amounts of armor. My mech, in particular, seemed to be nigh unkillable, lasting through several battles that it really had no right surviving. Despite taking massive internal damage on several occasions and having more than a few arms and legs blown off, nothing could ever quite knock out my BattleMaster’s main reactor.

My unit was the Eridani Light Horse, a well-known mercenary group consisting of several dozen pilots. I remember our first in-character engagement: a long, running battle through the forests of some godforsaken Draconis Combine planet. What began as a light, company-level skirmish slowly degenerated into a war of attrition as both sides ran low on ammunition.

My BattleMaster represented itself well, dishing out punishing shots from its energy weapons even as the ammo supply for its rocket launchers dwindled. I managed to destroy a nearly undamaged enemy Awesome (another Assault Mech with three devastating Particle Projection Cannons), emerging from heavy woods and firing a couple of point-blank volleys into its back.

Still, I was taking a lot of hits, most notably from a particularly pesky Griffin. The Griffin is a somewhat smaller medium-class mech, but its lighter armor and firepower is more than compensated for by its incredible mobility; not only could it run circles around an assault mech like mine, but it was fitted with jump jets that would allow it to make huge, fiery leaps over difficult terrain.

I’d been trading shots with the Griffin for the better part of ten minutes when my opponent finally got a break. With a blazing volley of firepower, he finished off the internal structure in my BattleMaster’s right torso, destroying most of its functional weapons and snapping off the left leg. My mech fell hard to the ground, severely damaging the actuators in the remaining leg. I was prone and immobile — and facing away from the Griffin.

As I lay helplessly on the ground, the damaged but still mobile enemy mech closed in to finish me off. Enlightenment hit me like a lightning bolt: the Griffin was standing in my rear firing arc! I triggered my remaining rear-facing medium laser. Headshot! The Griffin’s head, already missing most of its armor from our earlier exchanges, offered little resistance. My beam of coherent light sliced right through the cockpit. The enemy mech slumped to the ground, its pilot dead.

With my BattleMaster unable to stand, I knew I was out of the fight at that point.  Fortunately, my teammates quickly cleaned up the rest of the enemy force. We loaded back onto our dropship with millions of credits in salvaged equipment — including a nearly-intact Griffin, absent one head.

And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of BattleTech.

Oh, sure, I was playing a primitive text-based game, while this new version of MechWarrior promises to be a beautiful, state-of-the-art simulation. But it’s all the same game at its core, whether on a tabletop, an ASCII-based text window, or a fully-rendered 3D world.

I’m hopeful that the upcoming MechWarrior game will live up to its BattleTech pedigree and can bring this type of incredible, adrenaline-filled experience to a new generation of gamers — and to some of us curmudgeonly old ones, too.

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