Change is a two-edged sword after all, so I do have two complaints to match what I love about Mercenaries. It’s no secret that the Ravenmark system is about as deep as the Marianas Trench, and Mercenaries just doesn’t have a way of easing new players in as smoothly as Scourge did. Witching Hour certainly put in a good faith effort by kicking Mercenaries off with a few tutorial missions, but their brief and highly contrived examples don’t seem quite as effective as the down-and-dirty intro missions found in Scourge. To be fair, everything you’d need to know about the gameplay system is right there in Mercenaries’ codex, but live training beats book diving any day.
Not that I think the answer necessarily lies in a totally revamped tutorial. It would be great if players could see the opponent’s running victory total or some other telling stat before accepting a random matchup, as this would help newbies or those who need some brushing up find one another and learn together. A set of ever-regenerating single player missions called “border skirmishes” also strike me a lost opportunity on this front. Border skirmishes gradually ramp up in difficulty as the player finishes them, but their challenge curve seems to be statistical in nature; the CPU armies gets stronger but not smarter. What I’d love to see in updates are a series of skirmishes tailored to helping fresh players learn the ropes.
My second gripe with Mercenaries lies in the way it distributes in-game reward cash. Don’t worry, I’m not even talking about IAPs here. Rest assured that the coolest things Mercenaries has to offer are within your reach through normal gameplay. But here’s the weird thing: I’ve been earning a pittance through multiplayer and the aforementioned skirmish missions. To rake in the dough that keeps your mercenary army growing, it seems you have to dispatch your free brigades on “minor contract” missions. These are non-interactive, their outcomes presumably determined by some combination of luck and your brigade’s properties. While the minor contract system is a great way of putting non-favored brigades to use, the result is that the game’s reward system can feel divorced from the parts of the game where most of your effort goes. I’d love to see heftier rewards assigned to multiplayer matches in updates.
In any case, Mercenaries’ flaws have very little sting when you consider the game’s successful use of the freemium price model. The in-game ads are so unobtrusive – popping up once you’ve finished assigning commands and easily swatted away with a quick tap – it’s a little hard to put away the feeling that you’re getting some kind of five-finger discount here. If you do decide to fork over some cash in return for the experience, chances are it won’t be for the sake of nabbing gameplay-breaking goodies or turning off ads. You do get a few unique brigades and ad turnoff in exchange for the $4.99 collector’s edition, but these feel more like neat little perks than necessities. That’s exactly the way freemium should work in this reviewer’s opinion.
Mercenaries‘ ability to skirt the line between gameplay expansion pack and full-fledged storyline sequel is also impressive. Ravenmark fans will be pleased to see how much work went into fleshing out the world of Eclisse and giving all the brigades highly readable profiles. Mercenaries’ story exists passively in its codex for the time being, but the game’s official web page hints at major missions that continue a single-player storyline down the road. It’s just too bad Mercenaries didn’t launch with a few of these in place.
Ravenmark fans should also be prepared for some aesthetic differences compared to Scourge. Li Xiao’an serves as composer this time around — quite the daunting job considering the very large shoes Josh Whelchel left for him! He turns in a suitably epic score, with Mercenaries’ menu and command phase themes especially standing out. Far more contentious than the music change is the decision to chuck those exquisite soldier art splashes that enriched the unit clashes in Scourge! I imagine this was done for technical or file size reasons, and truth be told, the fact that multiplayer battles are played in short spurts makes their absence less noticeable than you might expect. They’re definitely missed during the single-player skirmish missions, however.
Ravenmark: Mercenaries triumphs as a multiplayer take on the Ravenmark formula and as an implementation of the freemium model. It still has some growing to do in its role as a sequel to Scourge of Estellion, but chances are series fans will be too busy warring amongst themselves to notice. While fans are advised to dive right in, newcomers would do themselves a favor in picking up the prequel first.