“Soon” is a word that fellow Gamezebo writer Nick Tylwalk and I joke about often. We’ll see a game announced with the vague release date of “soon,” only to have weeks, months, and even years pass before it finally sees the light of day. The recently released Galactic Keep was arguably the worst offender in this regard (it was announced back in 2009), but no conversation about “soon” is ever complete without mentioning Game Insight’s upcoming strategy game X-Mercs. The game was announced in early 2014, and was later promised as launching before the end of that summer. It’s now the summer of the following year, and with the exception of a soft launch, the game has yet to be shared with the public at large.
The company recently flew a cadre of games journalists out to their studio in Riga, Latvia to check out X-Mercs, and within moments, it became abundantly clear why “soon” has taken more than 18 months. Game Insight might just be making the best mobile game in the genre.
Using only the information, screens, and videos that have trickled out until this point, it has been very easy to paint X-Mercs as “free-to-play XCOM.” We’ve even been guilty of that headline once or twice. Yet while the comparison may be well-warranted in some regards, X-Mercs is also something entirely its own. Discerning that from screenshots when so many of the game’s presentation elements borrow liberally from the familiar can be a challenge, but after going hands-on, the game’s unique elements quickly stand out.
For one, while both share a sci-fi storyline on a global scale, X-Mercs enemies aren’t aliens so much as monsters that have spawned from our own soils. This distinction has given the team at Game Insight plenty of room for creativity, and the creatures you’ll battle are fantastically grotesque as a result. Aesthetically, X-Mercs looks less like XCOM than it does like some wonderful alternate universe where HP Lovecraft directed Alien. Combine these monsters with the metal-plated defenses of your squad, and the whole thing feels like a subtle homage to Warhammer 40K. (In fact, more than once I thought “man, this would have been a cool overhaul for Space Hulk.”)
It’s also worth mentioning that, in technical terms, the graphics are gorgeous. Using the latest Apple devices in their office, I found myself wondering if I’d need to upgrade from my iPhone 5S to have this polished of an experience. But while I won’t know for sure until the game launches, the team assured me that there’s enough trickery going on under the hood that X-Mercs should be accessible on devices older than you’d expect at first glance.
Visual presentation aside, there’s something much more significant that will set the game apart from its frequent comparison point, and it’s something that more than one XCOM fan has been clamoring for: co-operative gameplay. Playing online, players will be able to partner up with friends, choose a few squad members, and take turns working through the game’s (in my experience, totally punishing) co-op levels. During playtesting I was partnered up with Pocket Gamer’s Harry Slater, and despite our best combined efforts, we were obliterated deep into the two levels we tried.
Sat beside each other, you might think that X-Mercs offered a local multiplayer mode, but in actuality it was all going through their servers outside of Latvia, giving us a chance to see what the game’s lag might actually be like upon release — or at least it would have if there had been any lag to speak of.
As blown away as I was by how flawlessly the co-op was executed, what really stood out was how well-balanced and designed the levels were. During the single player tutorial, I never felt like my hand was being held too heavily; I was learning the ropes, but I was having fun doing it. In the co-op missions, despite the time invested, our losses never felt like the game was treating us unfairly. After 20 minutes of play leading to our eventual deaths, all I wanted to do was jump back in and try again with a different strategy.
And that’s what makes a game great.
When it launches, X-Mercs will no doubt suffer an identity crisis in the public eye. People will be quick to pigeonhole it as “free-to-play XCOM,” and while that’s a corner they’ve painted themselves in, it’s not an entirely fair one. There’s no doubt that XCOM is a series they’ve taken clear inspiration from, but X-Mercs is very much its own game. It stands ready to compete against games like Vainglory and Hearthstone for time on your device, and its monetization isn’t much different than those either. If you spend money in X-Mercs it’s not because you’ll have to — it’s because you’ll want to.
When talking to the team to try and nail down an X-Mercs release date, things aren’t much clearer than they were 18 months ago. Some Game Insight staff optimistically told me “in the next month or two.” Others told me “before the end of the year.” One seemingly less optimistic individual said “we’re about halfway done.”
And while the game I played in Riga felt like a product that was ready to launch, I was also learning about other things they’re hoping to add to the day one build. For example, there’s a clan system they’ve described that sounds less like forced mobile socialization and more like a raid-focused World of Warcraft guild.
I suppose X-Mercs’ release will be contingent on how many of these new ideas they insist on having at launch, and how many can wait for an update down the road.
tl;dr — expect to be playing X-Mercs “soon.”