by Ewan Wilson
reviewed on PC
According to the Art of War a “clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.” That sounds fine, but as far as entertainment goes, I’d say the most compelling war dramas are the ones involving close, hard-fought battles and overcoming great odds. Mechs & Mercs: Black Talon is instead full of grossly one-sided skirmishes – and you’re not always on the winning side!
Mechs & Mercs begins with an all-too familiar premise: a devastating war has torn the galaxy apart. Some faction called the Tzanar Union has invaded a small, independent system in a bid to fuel a larger campaign against the United Federation of… something or the other. As commander of the Black Talon mercenary company, you’re called in to help the independent system fight off the evil Union and retake its homeland.
The game is an eclectic, low-budget mix of some of the strategy genre’s titans: Dawn of War, Starcraft II and XCOM. You coordinate the guerrilla campaign from your battleship the “Paladin” (reminiscent of Jim Raynor’s “Hyperion”); a series of rooms with menu screens. There’s a barracks where you equip, upgrade and level up your squads, a la XCOM, and a star system map where you gather intelligence on available missions. Once you’ve chosen a mission, you enter the hangar and load up your dropship to begin the game proper.
With your handful of starship-trooper squads and a mech or two planetside, you begin by taking resource points and securing additional landing pads around the map, as well as working towards the mission’s larger goal (destroying gun placements, protecting civilians, defending areas etc). There is no building, only the capturing of strategic points, as in a Relic strategy game. With the resource points you can call down reinforcements or repair mechs/bolster squads.
The trickiest parts of Mechs & Mercs: Black Talon are the engagements with the enemy. As you click around the map to order your units about, your beefy space marine squads clump together forming great armoured trains of generic testosterone. A combination of clumsy pathfinding and brain-dead A.I. means the zoomed-out movements of units come to resemble an ant farm as opposed to a battlefield. The tactics of firefights involve a cover mechanic (Dawn of War), but it’s applied in a bafflingly random fashion. Maps are littered with physical obstacles that look as if they could be used to hide behind, but obviously aren’t programmed to be useable cover. Whilst Relic’s strategy games offer a consistent and free form mechanic, Mechs & Mercs’ comes across as a barely functioning late addition.
The second tactical consideration is something the game calls “crossfire”. When two squads begin shooting one another they’ll become suppressed and locked into combat. Defeat will come quickly to those who engage head to head, and so you’re encouraged to flank the enemy with other units, so that you’ll receive an attack bonus. Head to head firefights are suicidal slugfests, but catching the enemy in a crossfire situation is a guaranteed slaughter.
It’s peculiar then that the first couple of missions take place on maps full of narrow bridges, extreme chokepoints where suicide seems to be encouraged. The enemy has fortified positions on one side of the bridge, so sometimes you’ll be forced to group up and send your bumbling train of space marines down the corridor of death, hoping to win out through sheer numbers. The enemy is of course just as likely to make the same tactical blunder – and so it can be a game about fostering stupidity. Send a fast, lightly armoured unit into a chokepoint, then pull them back when they’re fired upon. Occasionally the enemy will follow and you can run them back to your own fortified death-trap. It’s like that comical reverse chase scene from the Indiana Jones movie!
When you’re not exploiting poor A.I. and running the enemy into their own artillery strikes, you’re on the receiving end of your own units poor decision making. Even on the easiest difficulty your squads can be wiped out in the blink of an eye, and not only is there no in-mission saving, the game features permanent death. It features XCOM levels of punishment and frustration, only here there is little reward.
Of course, you can always take revenge and exploit the system: either the bad A.I. generally, or more critically, the levelling up of units. There is an exploit that involves grinding the enemy reinforcements which spawn from landing zones. Technically, as some missions have no time limit, you can infinitely farm experience, gaining hundreds of kills in a single mission and quickly super-powering up your squads.
It’s hard to see Mechs & Mercs: Black Talon as anything but a sloppily made game. Everything from the sci-fi visual design to the in-mission “tactics” is clunky and ugly. It’s a mishmash of some of the greatest strategy games of all time, but at no point do the good attributes of those other games shine through.
There are space marines and mechs, decent squad customisation
Generic sci-fi setting, ugly and outdated aesthetic, a messy mishmash of different games, very uneven tactical play, terrible A.I. and pathfinding, some horrendous exploits