It would be the perfect marriage: The esteemed and established BattleTech science fiction universe applied to the real-time tactical wargame formula. The player would no longer be responsible for a single Mech, but rather find himself directing up to a dozen of them at once. He would use reconnaissance and careful planning to guide his forces to victory against overwhelming odds. This concoction nearly succeeds: It is MechCommander, a beautiful-looking strategy game whose design flaws, few as they are, prevent it from achieving its rightful greatness even in spite of its many strengths.
MechCommander looks as legitimate as BattleTech ever will. That's no surprise; it was developed by FASA Interactive, a new subsidiary of the corporation that created BattleTech in the first place. You view the battlefield from the fixed, isometric perspective typical of real-time strategy games, but the graphics themselves are extraordinary. Any given Mech is strikingly animated as it jogs about the battlefield, and it moves so smoothly you may well mistake it for a polygonal object. Mechs leave footprints in their wake according to the shape of their feet, and they fell small trees when they pass nearby. They twist at the torso and stay trained on their targets as they move about, and their various weapons all look different and impressive. Mechs are shown to perfect scale - if the enemy looks bigger, rest assured it will most certainly pack a greater punch. Smaller foes, ranging from armored cars to heavy tanks, are dwarfed by the BattleMechs but nevertheless must not be underestimated. Meanwhile, the battleground itself also looks attractive, with dense forests that can be burned, rivers that can be leapt across, and bases, residential zones, and construction sites that can all be razed on a whim. Rolling hills not only make the terrain appear more realistic, but help or hinder your line of sight as you would expect them to. The only problem is that you'll be looking at just the one grass and river tileset throughout the game. Every combat zone looks essentially identical.
Likewise, audio in MechCommander is for the most part perfectly appropriate, diverse, and effective, though at times somewhat repetitive. From the distant thumping of your BattleMechs' feet as they trudge about, to the roasting of a forest fire, to the characteristic boom and pop of a MechWarrior ejected from his ruined machine, MechCommander sounds just right. All the while a dynamic soundtrack that picks up when you score a kill or complete a mission objective keeps the action interesting. Yet while the musical score works well and sounds good, it isn't particularly memorable. The most irritating element of MechCommander's audio is also its most impressive - that each of your MechWarriors is a unique character with a unique voice. The vast pool of pilots is represented by all manner of men and women, from the trigger-happy hothead to the cool customer. Unfortunately, while they all look and sound different, they only have a few speaking lines in combat. They'll say one thing when they spot an enemy, another when they put it away, one more when they're taking damage, and that's about it. There's no variation in the speech, so your MechWarriors may quickly get on your nerves.
Because you play an off-site commander telling your troops what to do, you don't actually control your individual Mechs to the extent that you could when you were at the helm in games like Activision's MechWarrior 2. To that end, you needn't worry about your Mechs overheating or keeping their targets in sight; your MechWarriors will manage themselves in combat as best they can. That won't necessarily amount to much - a green recruit will hardly be able to hit the broad side of a barn, let alone a fast-moving Smoke Jaguar Clan Uller-class BattleMech. Fortunately, your pilots who fight and survive through missions will gain experience and aptitude both in maneuvering and using weapons, and only such veterans will capably control bigger, tougher machines. Because your pilots will do the dirty work on their own, all that's left for you to do is to tell them where to go. That's no easy task; your enemy will always have greater firepower on its side, so you need to win through strategic placement. Having your tougher Mechs draw enemy fire while your faster ones run around to attack from behind becomes an invaluable strategy. You must otherwise tread carefully about the map, as your scanners are more effective when your Mechs are inert. A bit more strategy lies in the proficient use of available artillery strikes and other special devices, but ultimately MechCommander is a simple game to play.
It is simple to a fault. For one thing, you cannot order your Mechs to move in formation. A smaller Mech will always move faster than a larger, stronger one. There's no good way to keep your bigger units in front of the smaller ones, which renders the aforementioned tactic of diversionary flanking far more difficult to achieve than it should be. It's usually your smaller Mechs who blunder into danger first. You cannot assign waypoints either, an oversight that often forces you to click the mouse in rapid succession in order to make your Mechs change direction. Furthermore, while it is possible to order your pilots to target particular areas of their enemies, these targeted shots will miss their mark far too frequently to be useful in most circumstances.
Despite its simplicity, MechCommander is an astonishingly difficult game by any standards. For many, the game will prove entirely impossible, while others will become too frustrated to go on. Only a few will manage to fight their way through the whole campaign. The high difficulty setting is not strictly due to the fact that the odds are heavily in favor of the enemy. The main problem is that mission events are entirely scripted, yet you cannot save your game within a mission. And so, in spite of lengthy mission briefings and the like, you'll find yourself playing each mission several times over - if not because they're so difficult in their own right, then to minimize the damage your forces sustained in the process. Soon you'll find that your greatest power as a MechCommander is not so much your tactical view of the battle as it is your infinite, godlike ability to load previous saved games and restart missions as often as you like. But because the missions are identical every time, you won't like restarting them for long. While there are many different types of missions, from surgical strikes to base defense to rescue operations, having to restart individual scenarios more than half a dozen times makes the game feel more like hard labor.
Part of the problem is MechCommander's propensity to feel more like an action game than it should. You cannot slow the game down, nor can you pause and issue orders from a frozen state. These aren't necessarily ill-conceived design decisions, but those players who prefer strategy over action will find controlling several isolated Mech lances simultaneously far too frantic. A quick skirmish mode or random battle generator of some sort would do well to alleviate some of the disappointment you will invariably encounter trying to pass the campaign, but you'll find nothing of the kind in MechCommander. You can play against other human opponents, either individually or in teams, in a multiplayer match, and while multiplayer MechCommander is a lot of fun, it too suffers from a few problems. For one thing, the inherent superiority of Clan Mechs means a Clan player has a distinct advantage over the Inner Sphere Mechs that you control in the solo campaign. For another, the inability to save custom setups means you need to equip your force from scratch every time, which isn't a quick process.
MechCommander is a solid effort right down to its glossy packaging and colorful documentation, and it's a commendable release from a new development team. The game will certainly appeal at some level both to BattleTech fans and to tactical strategy gamers in general. Yet its frustrating single-player campaign and its limited control will likely leave you longing for what MechCommander might have been, rather than enjoying what it is.