The year is 2124. Raging war has reduced the world to a savage wasteland. Neotopia, the only remaining city, is controlled by big business that keeps civil order using their corporate wealth. The peace, however, is threatened by the “Sprawl,” a mysterious group stirring up trouble in the slums.
You, are the captain hired by Themis, the leading Neotopian company, as their only hope to maintain society under control. You scan the city, looking at the remains of what used to be... You turn to your right and see slight movement… The enemy. "TAKE COVER!!", you yell to your mercenaries. After you take down the enemy, you move on, only to be spotted again, and you once again yell "TAKE COVER!"
This, happens again and again, and again. The issue with M.E.R.C. isn’t its story.
In fact, that’s where the Early Access title currently shines: the plot is movie quality and great fun to follow; it knows how to throw you at the center of its plot, and care.
The issue in M.E.R.C.’s current state is gameplay, and a lack of strategy.
The game, in many ways, reduces the depth of a tactical game to the genre’s most basic mechanic: to take cover. Although TinyMob Games, its developer, advertises its Early Access as a "real-time tactical combat," there isn’t the level of depth you’d expect once in combat: telling your 4-soldier peacekeeping squadron to take cover and simply shoot at the enemy isn’t enough to satiate a demanding XCom player. While the real-time aspect of M.E.R.C is an interesting, unique, and exciting take on the genre, it ends up hurting the most valuable feature players expect from this type of games: gameplay. You’ll feel constantly rushed, and consequently, will struggle to develop a sophisticated game plan. There’s just too little strategy involved in beating your enemies. Simply keep shooting, and hope that you hit them more times than they hit you. I also found myself consistently using the same tactic throughout each mission: have one side of your team shoot at the enemy, while the other circumvents them to sneak up from behind.
Then is the lack of variety between enemies.
The individuals who make up for the opposing faction not only look identical, they also share the same attack. In other words, they shoot. Sometimes they’ll have rockets or drones, but even then, these don’t affect how they plan on killing you, and their offensive is, regardless of their weapons of choice, easily avoidable when taking cover. The enemy also seems to struggle in terms of awareness. Once its sight is locked on one of your soldiers, they are oblivious to others. Such limitation in AI makes it too easy to use teammates and kill the side-blinded NPC.
The game’s difficulty also takes a hit because of a mechanic that revives your fallen soldiers before the next level. When a mission is over, you find out they’re still among the living, with little more than a long-term injury to keep them out of commission for a couple days. The consequence is one that TinyMob might want to consider prior to M.E.R.C.’s full release: the player’s growing attachment to their everlasting characters could deter most from spending their hard-earned currency and explore alternative strategies in combat through the purchase of other characters.
Level designs also bring little to no variety.
Although there are different layouts for side missions, the design of each level looks the same: gray, and bland. At first, the style works considering the overarching theme: mercenaries. After a couple hours in-game, though, the look and feel grow redundant and dull.
M.E.R.C does have some attractive qualities.
The biggest of which is customization. You’ll get to form 4-man teams comprised of different classes, each with their own skills: engineers, snipers, assaults, and heavies. The choice makes the preparations quite enjoyable, although M.E.R.C., before it releases, will need fine-tuning to balance classes evenly. The sniper, for example, feels a lot more powerful than the others.
Then is the feature to earn credits and buff yourself up with purchases. Within the first few minutes of a new game, you’ll choose the name of your mercenaries’ company and the logo for their enterprise. You then choose side missions you want to take on, and each of these gives you credits with a different company from Neotopia. Each of these corporate partners rewards you with discounts at their stores, so that you may purchase better equipment and weapons, and gear for your new team members when you need them to catch up with the others. When your soldiers receive upgrades, you can decide what type each receives, depending on how you wish to customize your squad. Bear in mind that each mercenary can only possess two abilities, and sadly, there is little variety between skills, which again, makes M.E.R.C’s combat bland.
M.E.R.C is currently in early access, and in many ways, off to a decent start. There’s a good shell there, an interesting structure, an engaging storyline, and while the graphics are average, the sound effects are exceptional. With a good headset, you’ll feel as if you're in the middle of a war. M.E.R.C. is also treading new grounds, providing new dynamics to a genre that suffers from too little competition despite its popularity among gamers. Still, M.E.R.C., before it releases, will need major improvements, especially if it seeks to compete against the dominator that is XCOM. Quality and depth in strategy and gameplay are lacking, and game design is redundant and bland. If TinyMob Games diversified its maps, boosted up the difficulty level, and incorporated different strategies for a more challenging experience, then M.E.R.C could become a staple in real-time tactical combat games.