I mentioned in my last preview how nice it was to take a step back from the hectic pace of FPS games and actually try my hand at a something requiring real strategy, and though I miss the lack of time commitment afforded to me in shooters, I must admit I’ve enjoyed this foray into territories unknown. Flying into the sky and orchestrating an entire battle from above has a certain je ne sais quoi that feeds my god complex like a fat kid in a buffet line, and though I sometimes loathe the speed at which many strategy games creep along at, certain RTS titles maintain enough pace to remain intriguing. Mechs & Mercs: Black Talons, an indie simulation game developed by Camel 101, packs lengthy missions with fast-paced action, craftily combining tactical command and active combat (as opposed to passive combat, I suppose).
Set in a galaxy rife with warlords and conflict, you, the leader of the mercenary company Black Talons, must aid the rebel resistance of a local solar system in defeating the militaristic Tzanar Union before being able to go about your merry kill-for-hire way. Right away, the plot seems to do its best to fall to the sides, possibly in an attempt to be forgotten and not offend anyone. For about half the time I spent planetside I couldn’t even remember why I was there, and just figured that killing droves of people was simply something convenient with which to pass the time. While the meat of an RTS game lies in its complex separation of controllable units and how they interact with one another, I still couldn’t help feeling slightly let down. If I don’t know what I’m fighting for, does it really make a difference if I win or lose?
While the storyline lacks the requisite amount of luster, the combat of the game is actually fairly decent. Typical of all strategy games, your playable squads all fall into light, medium, and heavy builds, and since this is set to a futuristic military tone, you’re fighters are further defined as the traditional recon, assault, support, engineer (etc.) classes typical of most modern military representations. Here you see the typical benefits and limitations inherent to each class, with the heavies being able to take a hit and pack a punch while walking slower than a bowel movement, and the light(-ies?) being able to quickly run to locations and die if you talk to them too sternly.
Each squad of each class has a unique captain, and using a squad more often in battle means their class will level up and gain access to perks and class abilities (calling airstrikes, activating shield, etc.). One pitfall of most RTS games is that when you clone so many fighters throughout a match, you begin forget their actually people and soon see them as lead (Pb) squeegees, but since my men all had names (at least the important ones), it became more of a “we named it so we have to keep it” scenario, and I found myself more invested in their survival, taking fewer risks than I normally would had this been Age of Empires.
In lieu of vehicles, the Black Talons opt to tromp around in burly mechanized suits to better put their enemies in their place. The massive bots boast customizable weapons and perks, and though they weigh enough to truly limit your squad selections during the first shuttle down to a fight, their presence on the battlefield is keenly felt. However, for having their name as the first word in the game’s title, they’re seemingly extremely rare. Apart from certain planets downright denying their presence completely, most other missions wouldn’t let me unleash their metallic fury, and not once did the enemy ever find it necessary. While I understand that the presence of mechs may come on stronger later in the game, holding back on such a necessary class is utterly crippling and slows down the game’s rate of play.
Mechs & Mercs allows some wiggle room in that you can choose to branch off from the main story missions and instead carry out smaller contracts. Missions run along the lines of securing bases, destroying enemies and their equipment, and rescuing civilians, and they’re all rather linear. It’s as if the game thinks that too many objectives in a single mission will confuse my small mammal brain. I’ve got a fully formed cortex in this noggin, Mechs & Mercs, so you can take off the kiddie gloves and actually load me down with something reasonably difficult. With that being said, the combat AI is rather simple in that there are permanently stationed bad guys and scheduled waves of bad guys, and though the latter are more of a nuisance until you secure their landing pad, the former are usually dug into cover well enough to actually put a dent in your squad’s chest cavities.
When you aren’t planetside, murdering anything that moves in the name of mercenary code, you spend your time aboard your flagship, shelling out upgrade points on squad leaders and wasting money on new mechs, mercenaries, or ship upgrades. Since I spent all my money on a new mech (that I couldn’t even use because my pilots didn’t read the manual or some such nonsense), I never had the chance to upgrade my ship, but from the descriptions, such improvements would allow me to upgrade my squad sizes or improve my offensive capabilities. Apart from an upgrade shop, map room, and mech bay, the ship menu also utilizes a faction system much in the same way Mass Effect 3 forced players to become friendly with other forces in order to gain support. The availability of missions in the galaxy map was interesting in that everything seemed to be on a timer, and while the whole ship menu felt like a 2D ripoff of the Normandy, it came off as more useful than not.
Mechs & Mercs: Black Talons is a fast-paced RTS game with a competent amount of unit individuality. While the main story stands in the background with all of the unused mechs, the actual battles proved intense enough to drive me on by bloodlust alone. Though the destination commands were a bit laggy and there were a few glitches, wherein my soldiers would stare fondly into the eyes of enemy fighters for a good seven seconds before deciding to possibly shoot at them, the rest of the game ran smoothly. It’s not the most challenging experience and it certainly feels like the game doesn’t ever want you to feel stressed, but there’s quite a bit of potential in this understated mercenary simulator, certainly enough to warrant looking into it as it hits Steam shelves in early January.