REVIEW: BATTLETECH: Urban Warfare

Jun
05

REVIEW: BATTLETECH: Urban Warfare

The latest DLC for Harebrained Schemes’ excellent BATTLETECH brings stealth and city-based battles to the table.

Steam: Released
Type: Single-player, Multi-player, DLC
Genre: Action, Adventure, Strategy
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release date: 04 June, 2019

Introduction

BATTLETECH: Urban Warfare is the second of three DLC expansions promised for HareBrained Schemes fantastic 2018 PC conversion of the old FASA BATTLETECH game, published by Paradox Interactive.

You may already have gathered that I’m a bit of a fan, especially if you’ve read my reviews of the base game and the earlier Flashpoint DLC. In fact, I couldn’t decide in last year’s game-of-the-year roundup whether BATTLETECH or Conan: Exiles should take my number one spot. So they had to share!

Urban Warfare is as suitably named as the previous DLC, as perhaps its biggest draw card is the new biome it brings: urban. But it also includes some revolutionary stealth technology (and counter-stealth technology), a couple of new Battlemechs, some new enemy vehicles, and another series of multi-stage “flashpoint” missions — 10 in all if the pre-release discussions I read are correct.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Urban Warfare since sinking about 100 hours into the base game’s campaign and another 50 or so hours into the Flashpoint DLC, and that’s without even looking at mods (RogueTech sounds excellent). ‘Mechs stomping around big destructible future cityscapes? Yes please! On and that stealth thing sounded fun, too.

Wait, what do mean “stealth”?

Yes, it’s true! That 35-ton, 10-meter high bipedal war machine covered in metal armour and wielding BFGs is actually a stealth ‘mech!

Urban Warfare introduces the Raven: a new prototype Light ‘mech with high speed, low armour, reasonable damage output, and, most importantly, an unremovable ECM package fitted into its right torso. This provides it with two abilities: a visual and electrical stealth field easily large enough to hide a full lance of Battlemechs, and the Active Probe ability, which both sensor-locks any ‘mechs in a large radius around the Raven and also temporarily knocks out enemy stealth fields, exposing those hiding within to normal visibility targeting. The first flashpoint in a new career or post-campaign game once Urban Warfare is installed has you liberating this marvel of modern technology and, if you’re so inclined, keeping it for yourself.

The stealth field is passive and uncontrollable; it’s always there in a big, very funky-looking special effects bubble around the carrier. ‘Mechs inside it are blurred as if under water, or more accurately, I suppose, using active camouflage. Game-mechanics-wise, it operates using “stealth charges”: every friendly ‘mech inside the ECM bubble receives one stealth charge, with the Raven itself having two. While a ‘mech has a stealth charge it can’t be seen or targeted in any way. Attacking an enemy removes a stealth charge, as does moving outside of the bubble. For every enemy unit inside the bubble, every friendly unit loses one stealth charge. All stealth charges are recharged at the end of the turn.

So what does this actually mean in practice? Well, if you keep your ‘mechs inside the Raven’s ECM bubble, which moves about with the Raven itself, and no enemies enter the bubble, and you don’t take any offensive actions, then your ‘mechs will be invisible to everything except you. Furthermore, if you hold a stealthed ‘mech’s action in a round until after all enemies have acted, then you can attack with your stealthed ‘mech without fear of retaliation, since as long as it remains within the ECM bubble it will regain its stealth charge before the next round.

This introduces completely different tactical considerations to BATTLETECH combat. Missions with the Raven become tense forays into enemy territory, keeping the Raven’s ECM bubble away from roaming enemies while waiting each round until everything else has moved before attacking, only to hide again at the end of the round. If you’re careful (and lucky!) you can spend a whole mission secure inside the bubble, popping out opportunistically to unleash alpha strikes on unsuspecting enemy ‘mech rear armour, and taking out much more powerful lances than yours. But watch out! Fast, light ‘mechs have a tendency to run into your bubble, revealing all within to the weapons of their bigger, slower friends.

This also influences your MechWarrior ability selection. For me Bulwark and Master Tactician were my staple; almost all of my pilots had this combination. But now I find myself holding action until the end of the turn anyway, making Master Tactician much less useful, and who needs Bulwark if you never get hit? Juggernaut is starting to look much more attractive now that I have a Raven in my ‘mechlab … .

Oh, and escort missions are a breeze when the vehicles you’re escorting can stay inside your ECM bubble for the whole mission!

Urban Warfare

As I mentioned, this DLC introduces a new urban biome. In stark contrast to the rolling hills, snow-covered forests, stark badlands, and other nature-themed areas, urban missions drop your lance in a cluster of drop pods right into the heart of a huge metropolis, complete with traffic-packed multi-lane highways, parks with fountains (good for cooling!), countless buildings on which jump-jet-equipped ‘mechs can perch, and all manner of destructible urban infrastructure.

Even a tiny 20-ton Locust looks huge running along a freeway, each step causing another crushed commuter vehicle to explode, a trail of burning wreckage left in its wake.

Sick of that Griffin sitting atop that 20-storey building taking pot shots at you with its PPC? Try taking out the building from underneath it and see how it copes with an unintentional Death From Above … straight into a pile of rubble!

Can’t see that pesky assassination target hiding behind that building? Never fear; just clear the whole block and leave it with nowhere to hide.

As with the new stealth-based gameplay, missions in the urban biome feel vastly different to the others. There’s little damage-reducing cover, but so many buildings to hide behind, blocking line of sight. Indirect weapons are an exceptionally useful; a custom Trebuchet or Catapult LRM build can cause untold havoc, but all weapons tend to build up more heat, since extra cooling is rare. It’s just a shame that with all that destructible stuff — all that collateral damage — there’s no rating for it at the end. I’d have loved to see just how much I cost the planetary government for that last mission!

While almost everything looks really good, there are some minor clipping and line-of-sight issues with all of those buildings. It’s also a bit of a shame the vehicles on the roads aren’t that detailed — up close they look pretty basic. Given that almost the whole biome is destructible, though, it’s understandable; all of those models and physics objects do affect performance. I play with everything at maximum on my aging GTX1070-based laptop (i7, 32 GB RAM) and experience only very rare slow downs in other biomes. In urban missions, though, it stutters much more often. It’s not a big problem — the game is turn-based after all, so it doesn’t cause any playability issues — but it is noticeable. I have a suspicion the ECM field effects may cause slight slowdown, too, but that’s much less obvious. (I’m actually perfectly happy with this — I’m glad they’re adding lots of cool stuff that pushes the engine on the previous generation of hardware.)

Other New Stuff

As they did with the Flashpoint DLC, HBS have released a new free version update to the game to coincide with the Urban Warfare release: 1.6. There are other new features and changes that I’ve noticed while playing that I believe are part of this update, but since there’s no way to install Urban Warfare without the update, it’s hard to be absolutely sure. From various forum discussions think the major 1.6 changes that I took notice of while playing are as follows:
– extended star map (more systems)
– two independent filters on the star map for biome and difficulty (I verified that, as I suspected, my post-campaign save star map only has systems of 3.5 skulls difficulty and above)
– visited systems marked on star map
– extended options for career games: randomised starting lance, career score multiplier based on difficulty
– no further changes to Bulwark 😀

I’ve also seen some new travel events and some really fun missions with two enemy factions on the map at once, allowing you the option of going in, guns blazing, and trying to take out both groups at once, or sitting back and dodging the occasional stray shot while the two enemy groups tear each other to shreds. The first of these was completely unexpected, but now I keep hoping for them. Great fun! I think these are part of the 1.6 update.

I mentioned collateral damage in the urban environment already, and this is another new feature: stray shots. I assume HBS implemented it mainly to make urban missions more fun and realistic, but it applies everywhere: miss a shot and there’s a chance any object — including ‘mechs — near the line of the shot will be hit by it instead. I don’t know if this is part of the 1.6 update or only applies to Urban Warfare owners. Regardless, it’s a fantastic (if painful!) addition to the game. I now know it’s not safe to keep my ‘mechs clustered together; I don’t want to give the enemy free hits!

Oh, and I almost forgot: there are apparently three new enemy vehicle types (I haven’t seen them yet) and a second new Light ‘mech, with two variants: the Javelin. One variant is like a double-barrelled shotgun, wielding two SRM-6 arrays, whereas the other feels to me like a more nimble version of the Jenner: four medium lasers and heat build-up out the wazoo! Though I haven’t finished all of the new flashpoints yet, I like the ones I’ve seen.

Artificial Intelligence, or WTF are you doing!?

Since BATTLETECH was released I’ve seen some discussions around what people view as poor AI driving the enemy units. In particular, individual enemy ‘mechs have been viewed as suicidal, fighting against obviously losing odds to complete destruction, over and over again. While I agree with this, in part, I also think it’s been good enough to provide a fun level of challenge, even if not a terribly efficient one.

AI with Urban Warfare seems different. The suicidal tendencies are still there, but now I’ve seen ‘mechs turn tail and run, both to escape an assassination mission and as a temporary retreat, only to regroup with their fellows soon after. Enemies seem to be much better at choosing what I consider to be “good targets” now than before, too, though I know my Cyclops with its Battle Computer was always a first choice in Flashpoint. But now they seem to gang up on individuals, attack from positions that better target weakened armour locations, and try to finish off a fallen enemy with called shots and overwhelming destruction. I was even on the receiving end of a called shot to the head the other day! It’s possible that the AI has always been this way, but with about 150 hours under my belt pre-Urban Warfare, I can say that it feels different.

It’s unfortunate, then, that it also suffers from some very obvious failings. For starters, the ECM/stealth field seems to wipe all memory of ‘mechs from the artificial minds of AI-controlled MechWarriors. Hold all your ‘mechs until the end of a round and then let them blast at their enemies in full view, then next turn they’ll be hidden from sight and, more often than not, said enemies will just mill about doing not much at all, rather than actively trying to find the field and the ‘mechs hiding within. You can often take out even Heavy or Assault ‘mechs with ease with a Medium lance and the Raven, simply because the enemies will usually not even try to find you. Every now and then, though — and particularly with fast Light ‘mechs like the Locust — they seem to be on the ball, charging straight for your stealthed position.

Similar madness sometimes occurs with the otherwise-excellent three-way battles. MechWarriors will often focus on one target to the complete exclusion of all others, even presenting their vulnerable flanks to ‘mechs from the third faction. I was in one battle where an all-but-unharmed Crab suddenly ignored the enemy faction’s Grasshopper it had been fighting and turned towards in the opposite direction towards my freshly un-stealthed Hunchback, not even trying to protect itself from its previous opponent. The Grasshopper moved a few seconds later and blew the Crab’s rear centre torso to pieces.

And while the old suicide drive seems to be better hidden now than it was before, it’s still there. Often I’ll have completely heat-free and undamaged enemy ‘mechs charge me to take a melee swipe, when using ranged weapons would be both safer and more damaging, and heat should not have been a serious concern.

Behaviours like these definitely detract from the experience; it’d be great to see a future patch address some of the more glaring artificial idiocy.

Verdict

To me, BATTLETECH: Urban Warfare is another no-brainer. If you enjoyed the base game and thought the Flashpoint DLC improved upon it, then you’d be missing out if you didn’t pick up Urban Warfare as well. The big-name additions — stealth and the urban biome — are great fun and look fantastic, and do really offer different tactical avenues of destruction. Some AI and minor performance issues mar the otherwise perfect shine, but it’s still a very healthy recommendation from me.

I know some people complained vocally about the perceived lack of value in the Flashpoint DLC. If you were one of these people then you’ll probably be unhappy with Urban Warfare, too, since it includes only a similar amount of content and costs more. For me, though, Flashpoint gave the game a new lease of life and sucked up about another 50 hours of my time, and adds still further value in more functionality and options for future mods and expansions. Based on what I’ve seen so far, Urban Warfare is set to do the same.

About Genkipro

I've been playing computer games for over 30 years. I like most game genres and I'm happy to give anything a chance.

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