Developed in China by Yingpei Games, which used to be called Epic Games China, the shooter is being distributed by the San Francisco-based outfit Kalends, a group of developers who've decided to try their hand at publishing on their own.
As for the game itself, Kalends has announced that Mercenary Ops will be released as a free-to-play, microtransaction-based title – a business plan that has deep roots in China, but is only just breaking ground stateside.
Mercenary Ops already has predecessors in the complex realm of Eastern online free-to-play shooters, like Cross Fire, Special Force, and the Asian version of Counter-Strike Online. Yingpei's first title is completely item-driven, and very complex: Each player gets to choose a primary and secondary weapon from scores of guns, and each weapon can have eight different mods, affecting things like fire rates and reload times. Players also gets access to six perks that can also be customized for gameplay, and players can customize their own avatars with cosmetic items, too.
As is usual for an Eastern free-to-play title, the user interface for all of this is pretty bland – unless you really enjoy digging into numbers. This design works well in the Chinese market, where players have grown fond of granular customization. Mercenary Ops' main gameplay is very much inspired by any other typical grind: Clear out a level with or against friends, rinse and repeat to earn XP, unlock more mods and perks to use, and so on. Players in Asia have grown accustomed to this system, though it may be seen as repetitive elsewhere.
While many Asian microtransaction games allow players to buy items that offer a gameplay advantage, Kalends is doing its best to make sure Mercenary Ops is balanced enough for even competitive play. It's planning regular tournaments after launch, and is currently working with a number of pro Counter-Strike players to keep everything fair. "We're working hard to make sure the gameplay mechanics make sense for the competitive scene," producer Jason Sharp told Joystiq.
As it is, Western players still have plenty of modes to choose from: In addition to Team Deathmatch, Elimination, and Demolition versus modes, there will be up to eight player co-op, with Survival (a Zombie mode, basically, where you can earn points to build defenses), Invasion (like Horde mode), and Assault (objective-based) variations at launch, complete with extra elements like boss fights and scripted sequences thrown in at various points. There will be seven versus maps and five co-op missions at that time, with more content planned later on. For both Eastern and Western audiences, Kalends is trying to make sure there's no shortage of things to do.
And it's hoping that, in the quickly emerging free-to-play market of the West, that's going to be enough. "There's a lot of things about this game that could be mainstream," says Sharp, and he's right: There are elements to Mercenary Ops that would appeal to a large audience. It remains to be seen, however, if a Chinese developer and a Western publisher can make a title that appeals to both sides of the world. Kalends is planning a closed beta next month, and a wider release for the game later on this year.