I’ll admit it right off the bat—I’m a big fan of any form of media featuring dystopian, near-future backdrops. Unlike more far-into-the-future settings (Star Trek, Star Wars), in cyberpunk settings, you can see bits and pieces of the current world and how they might shape their near-future counterparts. It can be almost as if you’re looking through a cyber…er…should I say, crystal ball in order to see what the future holds.
Although I love dystopian and cyberpunk films and books, video games are special because they can allow you to become more fully immersed within their worlds. There is also a degree of interactivity that isn’t present in any other medium, and with VR technology well on its way to become the gaming trend of the future, we’ll see even more of that.
I’ll never forget playing the original Syndicate and Syndicate Wars way back in the 90s, and although I’ve played many other dystopian-themed games, nothing ever matched those gaming experiences. Shadowrun, Ghost in a Shell, System Shock, Deus Ex—these are all great series, but for me at least, they never affected me as the Syndicate series did. Maybe that was because the Syndicate games were the first games of that type that I’d ever played before, and there was a certain novelty associated with them.
The modern update of Syndicate back in 2012 let quite a few gamers down, including me. We had high hopes for the original Syndicate’s spiritual successor, titled Satellite Reign, which was released just last year to pretty decent reviews, overall. Unfortunately, however, even that title missed the mark in terms of capturing what made those early Syndicate games so special.
Well, luckily for us cyberpunk-lovers, a small five-man game development team heard the call, and their new dystopian, real-time, tactics game, M.E.R.C., is upon us. True to form, M.E.R.C. describes a near-future where gigantic mega-corporations rule the world with iron fists. The last remaining city, called Neotopia, is a expansive, walled-off affair, with shuttles flying about its tall skyscrapers. Surrounding Neotopia is what is known as Sprall, which is a huge, hundreds of miles-long network of ghettos.
In M.E.R.C., both Neotopia and Sprall have recently put their differences aside and are trying to work towards a mutually beneficial future. Neotopia needs to harvest the water resources within Sprall, and likewise Sprall needs cash-ola. So, the two sides have entered into a shaky truce and trade deal. Suddenly, a mysterious group known only as Manta emerges, which seems to want to sabotage any goodwill which has been built up between the two sides.
Players take the role of a peace-keeping entity that strives to maintain the peace, as well as investigate this quarrelsome new group. Using a page out of X-Com’s now classic personnel management system, M.E.R.C. allows you to recruit mercenaries, outfit and upgrade them, manage their funds, and pretty much monitor their overall progress.
One of the first things that I noticed was absent in M.E.R.C. was a tutorial. However, since the game is only in its Alpha incarnation, many things are subject to change, and the inclusion of a tutorial is one of those things (hopefully). As of this writing, M.E.R.C. allows you to play nine missions from the game’s first chapter, with many more on the way. The opening act tasks your bawdy band of mercenaries with finding out why a certain hydroelectric plant within Sprall’s slums is malfunctioning. From there, you find out more about the mysterious Manta organization and learn more about the game’s various systems.
Since there is no tutorial, you will literally be learning everything on the fly. Hmmm…that icon with all of the bullets that my Heavy Weapons guy has? Must do something…oh, that’s suppressive fire. Now I know. This is more or less how you figure things out. Although there are tidbits of information in the form of messages that you get from your organization’s CEO, some of them aren’t all that fleshed out or explained in too much detail.
M.E.R.C.’s combat system is sort of a blend of Syndicate and X-Com, although much less tactical than X-Com since it’s in real-time. If you do want to slow things down, you can always hit spacebar for some Pillars of Eternity-style pauses. However, pausing is only allowed in single-player mode and not multiplayer co-op. There is purportedly an adversarial multiplayer planned although I didn’t see any evidence of it during my play-through.
M.E.R.C.’s visuals really nailed the near-future cyberpunk aesthetic. The settings are suitably grim and drab looking, and everything is inundated by a constant deluge of rain. Other staples of the genre, such as neon lights and large Asian language characters, are also ever-present in order to capture that Blade Runner appeal. Your mercenaries all move reasonably realistically, and their figures are larger on-screen than the tiny ones featured in Satellite Reign. One drawback, however, is that unlike that title, in M.E.R.C. you can’t take control of an individual character—they automatically move as one unit. Again, since this is an Early Access game, this facet could change in a future update.
Combat is pretty straight forward. You move around each mission’s map looking for icons on the fringes of said map, which indicate more or less where to go next. There was a curious lack of a smaller mini map that could really help to make more sense of each mission’s objectives. M.E.R.C.’s top-down isometric perspective also makes it a little hard to see where the enemies are coming at you from, especially since there’s no mini map. In addition to that, some of the unit’s (both friendly and foe) path-finding is also a bit off, and sometimes I’d see them get stuck on or around certain objects, or between doorways.
As it is in its current early state, I’d say M.E.R.C. holds a lot of promise. It’s overall fun combat system, along with its immersive character progression and management systems, makes it a no-brainer for X-Com or Syndicate fans. Those looking for a more polished experience, however, may want to wait for more gameplay improvements and balancing.
M.E.R.C. offers some excellent visuals that suit its dystopian science fiction theme. However, you have to have an equally fast gaming PC or gaming laptop in order to play it at a decent framerate. So, you may just want to invest in a decent gaming rig:
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