At first glance MERC looks a lot like XCOM. From the classes and abilities of the characters, weapon and armor loadouts, to the cover based mechanics of the combat strategy, it's not bad company to be attributed to. However, even before the bullets start flying you'll fully realize the difference of turn-based and real-time strategy in the relative ease of just moving the squad to your first objective. With MERC falling to the extreme of the real-time side of the spectrum, movement is as fluid as a mouse click; the control scheme is simple, natural, and easy to master; and engagements can play out quickly, sometimes too quickly.
All the data you need to is readily on screen. Health bars clearly mark every friend and foe. Hit percentages are clearly shown along sight lines to the targets. Targets only needed to be point and clicked to engage. Cover is clearly indicated at destinations when moving, special abilities are easy to initiate and target. The only real issue is that when confronted with a large enough opposing force, even within cover, a full health bar can dwindle to a critical situation, and even knock out an ally with alarming speed. There is a handy tool to counterbalance the times when this pace becomes a detriment, and that is the Tactical-Time Toggle mapped to the spacebar and a skinny blue progress bar just above bottom of the HUD, that will slow down the real time and allow a few choice commands or maneuvers to be executed in those critical moments.
Its a pretty decent balance all in all, and the fluid nature of the game is inviting. Even the mission control screen in between tactical missions gives enough info to provide a measure of administration to running your private organization of Mercenaries but doesn't get lost in the micro-managing nightmare that bogs down so many other tactical strategy games, real time or otherwise. MERC is a game to be played, not obsessed over. Earn enough credits to keep your enterprise afloat. Do missions for various corporate factions to keep them pleased, and if it all goes tits up, you can take out a high interest loan to try and squeeze forward after a few bad results. Optional missions boast procedurally generated maps and last for a few in-game days so you can jump into them or if you need time to heal up your squad leave them as an aside and not feel too rushed to jump in.
However, in some sense this fluidity is also the game's weakness, because there are times when a little micromanaging as an optional aside would greatly improve the end product. For example, the game is run by a 4 man fire team split 2x2 into an Alpha and Bravo squad. But after a given particularly hairy firefight, you might find one off each of your Alpha and Bravo teams in a bad way with only a sliver left on their health bars. The natural strategy that you would implement in any other game would be to use the remaining two healthy members to front the next encounters and have the injured hang back until an opportunity to heal the wounded arose. But there is no way to switch up the team composition on the fly, and no way to individually assign member actions. Instructions can only be applied to the whole fire team, or the Alpha or Bravo squad. Either everyone hangs back and no progress is made, or everyone charges on and the weak get picked off in the next engagement.
I might be nit-picking here, but my other slight issue is that some pathing to your exfiltration might be nice. The maps sprawl out and wind around and sometimes there is more than one way to reach destinations. And I totally understand and support promoting exploration when finding these objectives. I even appreciate the chance to survey the battlefield for any missed chests or loot on my exit, but it's a bit silly that when the mission is over and I'm ready to get on with my progress, I have to run around like a mouse chasing cheese in a lab maze just to find the departure zone. If we're some tactical mercenary force, clearly highly trained, and clearly with a pre-defined plan of where the transport will meet us at the end of the day, why does this team of try-hards seem to have such a pedestrian understanding of how to get home. Now there is an on-screen indicator of the zone, but because of the labyrinth like structure of each level, sometimes you think you're hot on the trail only to find yourself squarely back at the start and your ride sitting sadly on the other side of an impassible wall, in reality at the far end of map.
In a genre that is beginning to see more and more competition, MERC attempts to take the XCOM formula and ramp up the pace of play. While there are improvements that could benefit the end product, it is still in development, and more features and tweaks are being actively rolled out. For an unfinished product it has a polished feel to it and invites you to play, removing many of the micro-managing barriers of similar titles. MERC is in early access via Steam. It offers 9 playable main story missions and procedurally generated side missions. The expectation is for this period to last 3-6 months until a full release sometime around mid-year.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...