Developer: Tribute Games
When Tribute Games announce a new title, we tend to ask, "how much, and where do we get it?" This boutique indie studio comprises a handful of Ubisoft veterans who decided to run with their love of classic games by forming their own retro-tastic outfit, bringing us the fantastic Wizorb and the utterly sensational Scott Pilgrim vs The World (quite possibly the finest movie tie-ins ever made). Blending superbly detailed sprite art with responsive gameplay and a heady pinch of nostalgia, they tickle our love for both old and new in all the naughtiest ways.
Mercenary Kings is their latest project, a Kickstarted run & gun platformer in the vein of Contra and Metal Slug... but packing the persistent crafting and exploration of Monster Hunter alongside an obscene number of infinitely-customisable guns. Now that we've put in some time with its Steam Early Access build, we can report that fans of shooting and looting with friends are in for an absolute treat.
If said friends happen to be clustered around the same screen, high-fiving and punching each other with merry abandon while knocking back lukewarm beverages and cold pizza, so much the better. Mercenary Kings is a whole heap of high calibre fun, and it's not even finished yet.
The Monster Hunter comparisons make themselves known from the outset. As a badass mercenary out to thwart the evil CLAW organisation (yes, we're deep in Saturday morning cartoon territory here), players begin their adventure in an expansive base camp bristling with NPCs and vendors to chat to during downtime. A suitably jingoistic colonel dishes out dozens of short and snappy missions while standing in front of the Stars and Stripes, offering a range of objectives ranging from assassinations to all-out destruction and gathering quests. Your repeatable mission chosen, you're whisked away to the battle zone via helicopter, at which point things become properly retro.
Like a super-charged version of Metal Slug, you're deployed into expansive side-scrolling maps full of legions of foes to kill, including gun-toting soldiers, massive mechs, hovering drones, mecha-snails and all manner of dangerous wildlife. As you'd expect, you're capable of firing in cardinal directions, ducking and leaping about to avoid incoming fire; traditional mechanics bolstered by a few current-gen flourishes such as active reloads and a streamlined inventory pane granting access to health kits or explosives. However, unlike the strictly linear run & gun platformers of years past, stages are enormous free-roaming affairs, full of hidden tunnels, cubby-holes and to explore at leisure. So long as you keep one eye on the clock, that is.
Played solo, it's a riotously hectic experience, but the name of the game is Mercenary Kings. Plural. Like Contra and its ilk, the fun is magnified by every player who joins you on the single screen (either plugging in an extra controller or using the keyboard), with up to four Mercenaries blasting, leaping and gunning in an uncontrollable orgy of split-screen ultraviolence. Whatever your objective, it's always better to hunt in packs, and increase the number of ludicrously oversized explosions fourfold.
Online multiplayer will also be available in later builds, accessible from the base camp and featuring an intuitive callout menu, but hasn't currently been implemented. UPDATE: Online multiplayer has now been added, and is as fun as you'd imagine. Coordinating with the radial callout menu is relatively easy and intuitive, though I'd personally still recommend playing locally so long as you've connected your PC to a decent-sized telly.
So far, so delightfully straightforward, but Mercenary Kings is all about the long haul. Completing objectives rewards you with persistent cash, while defeated enemies and animals frequently drop resources such as steel, leather, volatile gases and polymers. These crafting materials can be used to construct totally bizarre weaponry out of a dizzying array of receivers, barrels, magazines, scopes, stocks and ammo types. There's a gun for every playstyle, whether you prefer to dish out walls of lead or methodically pick off foes with big slow rounds.
Personally, I favour a fast-firing sniper rifle that spits magnum rounds out of a trombone. Because, erm, why not?
Beyond boomsticks, players are also able to craft armour upgrades, cybernetic implants that grant passive buffs and drawbacks, melee weapons and consumables. You'll come for the brutal 16-Bit action, but the persistent progression will likely lock you in for the long run.
As you can probably tell from the screenshots, Mercenary Kings looks the business. Favouring the big expressive sprites of Scott Pilgrim vs The World, players, NPCs and enemies are packed with personality and animated detail; down to facial tics, exaggerated idle animations and little quirks that round them out as genuine characters with genuine character. Tribute have lavished similar attention on the backgrounds, all of which feature an embarrassment of ambient detail without becoming overly fussy or impacting on the action. Naturally the shooting and looting is underpinned by an upbeat chiptune soundtrack courtesy of Patrice Bourgeault, rounding out the retro vibe. Be sure to get a sneak peek over at SoundCloud.
Since Mercenary Kings is still in Early Access phase, akin to an open beta or perhaps more appropriately alpha funding, there's understandably plenty of work left to do. Numerous new levels and components have been promised, but a few more specific concerns need to be addressed before version 1.0. Currently, the relationship between gun magazines and damage isn't at all explained in the crafting menus, meaning that you can easily create useless components that gimp your weapon rather than improve it, while the open quest-free hunting environment is a little on the uninteresting side. More dangerous quarry, perhaps even dinosaurs and the like (easier than lions and tigers if you're worried about attracting unwarranted PETA attention), would make scavenging runs more interesting.
As things stand, though, Mercenary Kings offers a huge amount of enjoyable content and promises a whole lot more. Run & gun fans should keep a close eye on the project as it develops - and if you read around and like what you find, you can get in on the ground floor.