There’s something distinctively dismal about losing a soldier in battle in M.E.R.C. Your troopers aren’t quite as customizable as XCOM operatives, but there’s the same sense of dread and sadness that goes along with seeing one fall to enemy gunfire in the rain-slick passageways of the Sprawl, a vast system of slums outside the corporation-controlled future city of Neotopia.
The connection isn’t accidental. Jamie Toghill, who is the game’s director at TinyMob Games, began his career in games in the very shop that made X-COM UFO Defense and Terror From The Deep.
“I grew up in a small village in England called Chipping Sodbury,” said Toghill, who is now based in Victoria, British Columbia along with the rest of his small studio. “Bizarrely, the European headquarters for MicroProse was based in a small, wooded area on the edge of this village X-COM was one of the games I was fortunate enough to work on.”
Toghill, who grew up playing games in the ’80s, started out working alongside Julian Gollop at Mythos on X-COM: Terror from the Deep, and eventually wound up contributing to the third game in the series, 1997’s X-COM: Apocalypse. It was an ambitious project, attempting to add a real-time component to the tried and true turn-based system of the first two titles.
The real-time combat in X-COM: Apocalypse did not prove popular with critics or fans, but it wasn’t an idea Toghill was ready to give up on after falling deeply in love with Bullfrog’s 1993 classic, Syndicate.
“I remember playing that game, playing the same mission over and over again, and I’d just make up my own objectives,” he said. “I think it was the Persuadertron, is what they called it. I would just go around and try to mind-control all the civilians, see if I could get the entire population to follow me around.”
M.E.R.C., which entered Steam’s Early Access program in January, wears these influences on its sleeve. In the game’s tactical side, you control a team of four mercenaries who need to complete missions to earn money and reputation from the various corporations who control the cyberpunk world of Neotopia. Usually these missions involve exploring the Sprawl, a network of slums built mostly from shipping containers and corrugated sheet metal.
You can split your team up into alpha and bravo squads to flank enemies or to set up ambushes. Cover is crucial, and you spend a lot of time dashing from one firing position to another to avoid taking ruinous damage from enemy fire. Side missions can be played co-op, with each player controlling one of the team’s squads.
Outside of the missions, there’s a command center screen that works very similarly to any XCOM game. There’s a map where you’ll choose missions, a barracks for mercenary management, and a black market arms dealer for buying better equipment.
There’s a grimy, run-down aesthetic to the game, which Toghill said comes from their decision to set the game in a post-war dystopia instead of a slick, post-singularity Star Trek-style future. Corporations control most of life inside and outside of Neotopia, and the government is largely a non-actor.
“You’re a mercenary group fighting for these corporations, for the stability of Neotopia and the Sprawl, and they have this symbiotic relationship,” Toghill said. “But at the same time, you’re kind of supporting something that is oppressive. There’s a lot of parallels that we want to expose, and we felt obviously not trying to get too political but we felt we could kind of expose what’s going on in the world.”
Despite being set in 2124, the world of M.E.R.C. is not particularly advanced from the present day. Sentient drones roam the skies, but soldiers are still shooting at each other with bullets and lobbing grenades. Your own group of mercenaries has a converted garbage hover truck to fly to missions in.
Toghill said they had designed the garbage trucks as pieces of background prop art. But after looking at several mockups of dropship designs, one of the TinyMob designers suggested using the sanitation vehicles.
“He said, ‘Well, why don’t we just stick them in a garbage truck?’ It makes total sense,” Toghill said. “They’d be trying to keep to themselves so that’s how that came about. It’s one of those fun whims.”
TinyMob plans a relatively short stay in Early Access for M.E.R.C. they estimate being ready for a full launch within three to six months. There’s still a lot to do within that timeframe, however. The team plans on adding more in-world locations, and there’s work to be done on the sometimes-finicky camera and control scheme. They’re also taking in feedback from the game’s playerbase on Steam, which Toghill says has been generally helpful.
“Something you worry about when you release a game, or anything creative, is the feedback,” he said. “I think anyone appreciates constructive feedback, but what you’re worried about is getting burned out of the sky by the more nastier comments. But we’ve been very lucky in that I think all the players who have picked up the game, good and bad, (their) feedback has been very constructive.”
M.E.R.C. is currently available on Steam via the Early Access Program.