Review: X-Mercs07 Dec 2015 0
X-Mercs is free-to-play XCOM, and it’s quite open about that fact. It’s an interesting test case in our intuitions about intellectual property in games; most creative works attempt to camouflage their influences. I remember reading a series which was clearly intended to be The Lord of the Rings for people who didn't like Tolkien’s writing style, but it wasn't simply called The Shire. Heck, you could be forgiven for not even noticing that The Name of the Wind is basically Harry Potter. X-Mercs takes a more direct approach--like Star Whores, nobody’s left wondering where it got its premise. It also hails from the Star Whores school of character design, but then confounds the resulting expectation of lazy design with a number of mechanical innovations.
Those innovations include collapsing parts of the assault class into the heavy and support (now scout) classes, which allows a pleasing symmetry in that each class starts with a different base amount of movement and armor as well as their usual differences in available weapons and unlockable abilities. I’m also quite partial to the fact that choosing to use both of your actions to sprint lets you go slightly farther than moving in two separate actions--there’s a nice risk/reward dynamic which makes movement slightly more interesting (and also quicker in situations in which you know you’re safe and just need to reach your destination). Base construction is still two dimensional, but rendered nicely in isometric 3-D and now has a wider variety of buildings which are newly upgradeable. The research tree is now viewable, fixing a minor quibble I’ve long had with XCOM interface. On the world-building side, there’s now a deliciously cynical view of the defense of humanity involving competing private military contractors, corporate sabotage, and an oligarchic council which unofficially but openly rules humanity. There’s also a bit more background offered in each mission, which gives them more individual character, and a wider variety of enemies including exploding mutant puffballs, small dragons, and psychic zombies. Mission selection is much more controllable, and I’ve seen no sign of the sort of minimal air defense mini-game or concerns about losing the support of nations.
There’s a ton to appreciate in that list, but there are three problems which might give a potential player pause. First isn’t the wide variety of monetization schemes, but the fact that progress is very slow in order to incentivize them. Developers Game Insight generously gave me a giant wad of in-game cash so I could see more of the game before writing my review, and I blew through that in less than a day. Seriously, don’t ever give me your credit card in a casino. X-Mercs also gates progress on some areas based on progress in others, without explaining these dependencies beforehand. So it’s easy to end up in a position in which you can’t expand your base because you didn’t realize you can’t clear more space until you reach level eight. But you can’t get more experience to increase your level without doing more missions. That may happen agonizingly slowly if, as I did, you get yourself into a position in which you’ve only unlocked missions which are rated as “very easy” or “impossible”. You can unlock more missions by progressing in the main story, but you need more money to buy the equipment you need to make that possible, and your only options for earning money are very slow. Which is a lot of ways of saying that progress is unpredictable and slow.
Second, the absolute brazenness of the adoption of XCOM’s design induced serious culture shock in me. There are so many moments that just made me cringe, like discovering that Lightning Reflexes is not only mechanically identical, but even retains the name of its XCOM equivalent, or the appearance of Sectoids under another name. It’s my understanding that Game Insight is a primarily Russian operation, and there’s a different ethos about intellectual property at work. I also have some concern that my view about this issue is a product of a degree of privilege which in many ways exceeds that of the royalty of nineteenth-century Europe. So, while my reaction to these elements was pretty negative, I don’t take it to have been reflective of any timeless moral truths I can reasonable expect to concern others, and I don’t have reason to think that any laws were broken. But if I worked on XCOM, I’d be pretty disappointed.
Third, breasts. It really helps your appreciation of the characters in the game if you like boobs. You remember that guy who kind of walked you through stuff in XCOM and wore a military-style sweater? He’s been replaced by Captain Veronica Bigtits, the star of some army-themed porn with a heavy-handed makeup artist. Dr. Shen, elderly engineer? Now a tatooed porn starlet. Dr. Vahlen, scientist? Classy porn starlet. Even the one guy they let hang out in security looks like the male lead from interracial porn (and, I’m not kidding, they named him “Hammer”). So, uh, try not to let this game affect your body image or standards of beauty, is the takeaway.
How would you feel if it turned out that Star Whores wasn't actually pornographic, but mostly followed the originals with more exploration of the complexities of galactic politics and did away with midichlorians and Jar-Jar? What if there were some manipulative business practices behind it? For me, conflicted is where I ended up with X-Mercs. It could certainly use something like Enemy Within’s addition of Meld to add more reward to risky play, and some tweaking to the spawn points of enemies so they don’t pop up in such tactically bizarre locations, but it’s basically a great tactical game. If you’re willing to play it in small doses over a very long period of time, with either a lot of in-app purchases or a long grind, there’s absolutely a game worth playing here. I distinctly prefer games which can tune their pace for optimal player enjoyment rather than optimal return on sales of digital goods, and which respect the work of other creators by emulating their process, rather than their products.
X-Mercs was played on an iPad Air for this review.