The city map is a web of nodes spread out before me. Every one of them under the control of the robot rebellion. With each passing day all those armouries, labs, and production factories bolster the enemy’s forces.
High command has given me 50 days to put down the AI uprising or they’ll nuke me, and all of its inhabitants, from orbit.
Even though my enemy is a collection of shoddily designed, half-sentient killing machines this is going to be a serious challenge for me and my four mechs. There are hundreds of them and they’re armed to the motherboards.
At its simplest, Bionic Dues is a turn-based tactical game where you’re commanding mechs to overcome vast hordes of rogue robots. Wrapped around that core tactical game is a strategic metagame where you try to capture key points around the city, aiming to cripple the AI army and strengthen your own. You have to be judicious with your assaults, win or lose after every mission the enemy robots get stronger.
The robots of Bionic Dues aren’t the ED209s and T-1000s of this world. They’re closer to Homer Simpson’s half-finished mechanical child. This is a revolution of worker drones and half-sentient coffee machines.
One of the trickiest machines doesn’t even have a gun. As I write this, my assault mech is crowded by EMP bots. Like any groupie, they’re mostly harmless but they’re blocking my route to safety. I’ll have to shoot my way through. Except, with EMP bots you don’t want to do that.
When an EMP bot blows it disables all droids in its vicinity for four turns. Fine if no one is about but if your mech is disabled in a firefight it’s basically bye bye battlemech: the enemy droids will focus fire and it’ll be a laser burned hulk before your systems reboot.
And in a firefight is exactly what I am.
I’d sent my mechs to recapture one of the city’s armouries. Not only would success bring me a stack of salvaged weapon upgrades but it’s a vital link on the chain of nodes that will take me to a Lion’s Den mission. Completing that will be a massive hit to the size of the AI’s army.
Your mission isn’t to recapture every node on the minimap. With 50 days till the AI war machine launches an assault on your HQ and the higher ups drop a nuke on the city you’ve to time to go door to door unplugging disgruntled washing machines and taking a sledgehammer to microwaves.. Instead, you balance your time scavenging better kit for your mechs and doing all you can to destroy the factories that the AI’s using to bolster its army at the end of every day. That main attack can’t be stopped. All you can do is prepare as best you can.
Which is why I’m holed up in an armoury in uptown, surrounded by EMPs. The real threat, just out of my range, beyond the groupies, is a gaggle of doom bots. Okay, so it’s not all revolutionary hair dryers and trotskyite sandwich toasters, there are some military types on the field. With every hit they land doom bots get 50% stronger. I don’t want to give them that opportunity. In the last turn the lead doom bot moved close enough to fire on me. Next turn she’s getting stronger unless I can destroy her.
I solve the range issue by switching to my missile-toting siege mech. You can only have one mech on the battlefield at a time and they swap into the same spot, so I’m still trapped by the EMP bots but now the doom bots are in range. The swap takes up my turn and the lead doom bot scores a hit on my siege mech, buffing its attack.
This should be worrying but I spent my first week in the city scavenging upgrades.
Your mechs don’t level up like the enemy’s and you’re not able to change your mechs’ weapons. An assault mech will always be armed with a machine gun, a laser, and a grenade launcher. Instead, you improve your machines by fitting their subsystems with new kit. My siege mech’s rocket launcher’s been buffed to the nines with damage bonuses and area of effect increases.
A single missile takes out all four doom bots freeing me to deal with my ensemble of groupies unmolested by military types.
Every mission, despite being procedurally generated, has these tactical traps where you have to think of how to best use your mechs to escape being the first against the wall in the robotic revolution. Play an encounter wrong and the AI will tear you apart in a couple of turns; then it’s back to base, and you know the next time the enemy will be even stronger.
I’ve a lot of time for Bionic Dues’ complex tactical game wrapped in strategy and loot drops but it’s the numbers that get me confused. Stats and data are everywhere.
The mech fitting room is awash with numbers. Each bit of gear has a slew of buffs and abilities, a power consumption rating, and an incomprehensible naming convention that puts graphics cards manufacturers to shame. Is the Mk 1 Grueling Explosion Booster better than the Mk1 Hardshell Ammo Extender of Generosity? I gave up on analysing in the end and started swapping gear in and out without much thought beyond “This makes explosion number bigger. Explosions good.”
Then in the missions there are more numbers you need to be aware of – your own four mechs’ health, damage, and weapon ranges, but also their health recharge rate, the range of your enemies’ attacks, their damage, and health. Any special abilities they may have or special quirks. Then there’s the console box at the top of the screen that’s a log of all the damage and kills happening in the game and… and… and I give up. It’s easier to ignore it all and play badly than take it all in and risk having your brain drain lumpily out your nose.
At its best, with its dystopian future and haphazard revolution, Bionic Dues feels like a Games Workshop game that never was. At its worst it’s like being submerged in a swimming pool of dice and calculator printouts.