M.E.R.C. wears its XCOM inspiration proudly on its sleeve, and as its grim gray militaristic cast of characters would heavy-handedly growl, that’s a tactical error. Because it means I have to open this preview of its Early Access build by saying this: M.E.R.C. isn’t as good as XCOM, and it certainly isn’t anywhere near as good as XCOM 2. Its story, presentation, gunplay, and base-building are so similar that you can’t help but compare the two, and in every one of those aspects I’m sorry to say that the colorful, strategy-rich game about shooting aliens in a variety of exciting environments beats the game about guys with guns shooting guys with guns near a bunch of identical shipping containers. I mean, for goodness sake, even its name is another four-letter acronym, albeit one with unwieldy periods that make it annoying to type.
Anyway, it’s a shame that that has to be my opening paragraph, because M.E.R.C. isn’t a bad game. In fact, it’s quite good. If it could take a moment to stop pretending to be XCOM and just be M.E.R.C., it could turn out to be something very special indeed.
M.E.R.C. is a tactical top-down shooter where you control a team of four soldiers with various classes, a large assortment of equitable items, and a customizable suite of abilities upgraded through a tree. So far, so standard, but M.E.R.C. comes with a twist: rather than being turn-based, its fights play out in real time. This…took some getting used to, at least for me. I’m pretty good at turn-based strategy games, but only because they give me a lot of time to think over every possible decision, and if you try to play M.E.R.C. at the speed of thought, you’re going too slow. It took a while to get used to, and that’s great! Dying is great, and being forced to think about old systems in new ways is one of my favorite things to do in games.
Unfortunately, everything else about the gameplay really can just be summarized as “XCOM, but worse.” I don’t mind that each soldier only has two abilities, or that you move the whole squad as a single unit – while some might decry this as “dumbing down,” in my mind these changes are pretty necessary if you have to make tactical decisions while enemies are turning your gray military pants into gray military swiss cheese. But the lack of enemy variation means the novelty of real-time combat wears off pretty quickly, as does the lack of character customization (I can’t at least give my soldiers funny names, TinyMob? Are you really so committed to your gritty military power fantasy world that I can’t even have that?)
Worst of all is the headquarters. See, XCOM is two games: a base-building/research sim and a turn-based strategy shooter, and what’s great about it is that both halves of the game are equally good fun. A number of tactical shooters of this kind (Codename: S.T.E.A.M. comes to mind) choose not to include that basebuilding aspect, and if M.E.R.C. had done that I wouldn’t even be talking about it. Instead, most of the elements are there – the squad barracks, the weapons upgrades, trying to keep every country (in this case, corporation) supporting you happy – but none of the strategy. Weapons aren’t upgraded by completing special mission objectives, but rather just by collecting more money. There’s no real specialization with your squaddies – you’re just gonna keep going down the tree and swapping out old abilities for identical abilities with “2”, “3”, and “4” in the name. You can have good basebuilding, or you can have no basebuilding, but this transparently half-assed XCOM ripoff isn’t going to cut the mustard.
I should add that the game has one other new feature: co-operative multiplayer. Like everything else in the game, it works surprisingly well – I think this might be the only Early Access game I’ve ever played that doesn’t have a single notable technical issue (something for which M.E.R.C. deserves a thousand praises.) Basically, you have the option to open any mission to allow other players to join (or you can sit in the lobby and join other open missions), and the drop-in drop-out transition between single and multiplayer is pretty much seamless. If you’re playing a mission co-op, each player gets to take two soldiers into combat, and, well, herein lies a bit of a problem, because you’re liable to end up in one of two scenarios if you’re playing a lot of co-op at the beginning. The first: half of your team is seriously underleveled, making an already challenging game a heck of a lot moreso. The second: your soldiers come back grievously injured, meaning you have to wait for them to heal before you can try any more missions (new soldiers are hard to come by, and have an annoying if on-brand mercenary habit of just leaving if they get bored.) As a result, I recommend trying the co-op, but only when you’re far enough in the game that you can afford to lose a couple soldiers.
The game’s story is basically nothing, at least in this point in development. In an alternate history timeline where evil corporations took over the planet in the 2100s rather than in 2017, the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk future is divided into Neotopia, a shining city ruled by corporations good and bad, and the Sprawl, an urban wasteland of a slum ruled by the people but full of exploitable natural resources. When both are attacked by a rogue corporation called Manta, a good corporation led by you (which I named ScrungCo in deference to HPP tradition) is the last line of defense between evil corporatism and slightly-less-evil corporatism. There’s a theme at play here, in case you couldn’t pick up on it. The plot’s mostly pointless fluff, although I did genuinely enjoy the overly-optimistic AI companion that joins you on story missions.
I would’ve liked to see more of a visual difference between missions taking place in Neotopia and missions taking place in The Sprawl, but even if everything basically boils down to identical shipping containers, at least they’re really pretty identical shipping containers. I’m generally not a fan of military aesthetic, especially in games, but I found M.E.R.C.‘s gorgeous graphics quite charming – gritty, but with enough light and color that the world feels real. Apparently somewhere between Battlefield and Hard Reset there’s a visual language that I enjoy a lot more than I enjoyed either of those games.
I’ve been pretty critical in this preview, but that’s only because, well, I’m a critic. M.E.R.C. isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, and by the standards of Early Access it’s actually quite impressive. If you need something to scratch that tactical top-down itch while waiting for XCOM 3 to come out, you could certainly do much worse than this beautifully-presented real-time military shooter. Just don’t go in with high expectations, or you’ll find that the overall experience is rather shallow, and as a result, gets old rather quickly.
Also: I still have no idea what “M.E.R.C.” is supposed to stand for.