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PC Gaming: Battletech... I Mean, Titans of Steel

posted Aug 30, 2012, 12:26 AM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: October 9, 2009

Just about the only pleasure of reorganizing my house — a long and arduous task that has, alas, superseded blogging — is the pleasure of archaeology, of discovering among the layers of sediment forgotten things that are enjoyable, or at least useful. Earlier this evening, it was a roll of Scotch Tape I found in a desk drawer. Don’t have to make a special trip to Staples this weekend, after all! Last week, it was Titans of Steel: Warring Suns, which I bought back when I grunted and sweated under the strange belief that I absolutely needed to be running Windows.

Titans of Steel was published by Matrix Games back in 2003, back when Microsoft was still making hay with its FPS-style Mechwarrior PC games. The Okuno Brothers, who bear so much of the moral culpability for getting me into the Battletech universe in the first place, doted on the Mechwarrior games, but I never warmed to them — mainly because of my aversion to games that require me to act on reflex rather than thought. Titans of Steel, however, was in effect the Battletech computer game that I really wanted all along; it was a good, reasonably solid attempt at replicating the Battletech tabletop game as a digital strategy game. Matrix didn’t have the license to use the game world and the exact terminology, but the developers, Vicious Byte, clearly were Battletech heads, and they knew how to walk the walk.

In true Battletech/Mechwarrior RPG fashion, Titans of Steel puts you in charge of a small mercenary unit of battlemech pilots — oops, I mean titan jocks. You have to manage its finances and keep its titans battle-ready, and go out in search of a fight. The battle interface allows you to customize missions and fight them just for the sake of gaining experience and money, but a few pre-fab missions and campaigns are also included (more may be available on the Internet). Battle involves moving your titans across a top-down, 2D hex-grid terrain map. If you choose the Fog of War option, hexes that are not in the line of sight of one of your titans are blacked out, so that the great challenge of the beginning of any mission is to locate the enemy.

It’s the battles that are really the heart of the game. The peripherals and the flavorful aspects, to be honest, were either kind of cheesy (the grinding rock score, which I disabled at the first possible moment) or cheap (the green text on green background in the unit management interface, mimicking a 1970’s-vintage notion of what an electronic display should look like) even in 2003, and they have not aged well. The game world is barely developed at all and is hardly a presence. The pre-set missions and campaigns, as I mentioned, are scant and light in substance.

But if you enjoyed the Battletech tabletop game at all, the battles will get your pulse going. The turn sequence is a little herky-jerk; the basic unit of action is turning 1 hexside or moving 1 hex, and it starts and stops according to each titan completing a basic unit of action. The cumulative effect is to simulate a real-time flow of action in which units act according to the quickness of the titans and their pilots while maintaining turn-based gameplay, rather than impose the artificiality of a traditional IGO-YUGO turn structure. And as such, it does a good job. But with all the starting and stopping and moving from one titan just moved a hex to another that’s about to move a hex, it can feel somewhat discontinuous.

But otherwise, the good ol’ basic principles of Battletech still apply: You still have to make judgments about what to fire at the enemy that balance expenditure of ammunition, accumulation of heat and the probability of hitting the target. The software handles all of the math, of course, but you still feel like you should be rolling 2d6 to hit, followed by 2d6 for location — and please, please, let it be that center torso that has already been stripped of armor. It still makes the most sense to keep your units together and concentrate fire on a single target; in short, it still feels kinda like a naval miniatures game (or Starfleet Battles) fought with land-based units.

Best of all, Matrix has made Titans of Steel available as a free download. So if you’re an old Battletech head, now there’s no excuse not to check it out.