In a world full of Overwatches and Dotas, the promise of a new XCOM is an exciting prospect. The PC platform, in all its variety, is dreadfully devoid of good tactical games with strategic and logistical components. Therefore, I approached M.E.R.C. with high hopes.
Set in a dystopian future where corporations control a wealthy walled city while poor people live in slums around it, M.E.R.C. has you take control of a mercenary organisation that keeps the corporations in check. For an Early Access title, it has a lot of potential; the strategic map is polished, the production values seem good, and the lore is interesting enough to be better than Borderlands’. However, the Early Access tag clearly shows on the dichotomy created by its different levels of polishment.
While the map, messages, and data are well done and intuitive, other sections of the overall strategic layout are a bit obtuse -- skills are badly distributed, requiring too many steps to unlock and equip; the black market is not explained, lacking any form of tooltip or proper comparison interface; and the squad selection screen is just plain bad, both visually and functionally.
On the tactical level, the gameplay is actually very rough at the moment. The battles are played in real-time, but do not feel good; they lack impact and feedback, feeling like a squad version of Age of Empires. The camera is clunky and erratic as it centres on the squad at all times -- instead of gliding upon a certain plane, it shudders and twitches as the characters move through the level, giving the impression of an extremely cheap and unpolished game.
The controls are also not very precise, which work against the overall premise; on a high-stakes game where precision and decisiveness are a must, M.E.R.C.‘s less than stellar control scheme and real time combat penalise the player.
In real life, years of embedded training and skill allow operators to perform complex actions in a split second; in games, that rarely translates well -- especially on strategy titles. XCOM’s aware of it’s tactical element and the pain that it can be to precisely order a grenade or rocket upon a certain area, but while Firaxis’ masterpiece acknowledges that and surmounts it via turn-based combat, M.E.R.C.’s real time and imprecise controls often mean death for your soldiers.
By the time you’ve struggled with the controls enough to throw a grenade on a certain spot, chances are your soldiers will be dead, injured, or have killed all of the enemies already -- usually all of the above. That creates a very frustrating feedback on a game built around the concept of permadeath and costly tactical decisions.
But currently, the worst aspect of such decisions is that the game is surprisingly shallow on the tactical side. Your characters’ only basic actions are running, shooting and taking cover; you are unable to dash, kneel, or go prone, and even basic military maneuvers such as firing and moving are suspiciously absent. When ordered to fire upon an enemy, your squad will plant firmly in place, regardless of how vulnerable they are; when ordered to take cover, they will move at a normal pace towards said cover even under heavy fire, and will not engage back until cover is reached. That may be an acceptable gameplay mechanic on a turn-based title, where positioning and patience are paramount, but they do not work well on a real time environment. The addition of a “move and fire” and “don’t move and dash” stance could mitigate those artificial gameplay limitations significantly while adding an extra depth of tactical gameplay.
On the technical side, the game ran fine and I did not encounter any noteworthy bugs. The production values are good on all aspects, but the graphics could use more polishing. Character models look horrific and need a lot of work, as currently they don’t even hold their guns properly. The actual level-to-level gameplay looks acceptable by today’s standard, but the game does not have an inspiring or significant art design; there is very little variety, and everything just looks a bit bland.
M.E.R.C. may one day be a worthy addition to the genre, but at the moment it is not quite there yet. It does suffer from a severe lack of polish, but that is acceptable in Early Access titles; what isn’t acceptable is an uninspired core gameplay, and that unfortunately seems to be M.E.R.C.’s biggest problem.