I normally hate surprises, but I enjoy being surprised. There may be a fine line delineating the two, but my innate reactions to either are such polar opposites that I have a standing order among friends and relatives to never throw me a surprise party. They are, however, more than welcome to point me in the direction of something that I might otherwise overlook be it an underground book or indie flick. This is why I’m such a huge fan of off-beat shows, movies and games – it always feels like I’m enjoying something no one else knows about.
I want that to change with Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction. If you have an Xbox or a PS2, then you owe it to yourself to check this game out because it brings the fun in a big, big way. I have heard the game referred to as a military-based Grand Theft Auto, but that’s selling it short. The beauty of Mercenaries is how deceptively simple both the premise and the presentation are, because one misplaced air strike and you’ll find yourself in hot water with people who have more guns and armor than you do.
The setup involves a worse-case-scenario in Asia: A militant madman named General Choi Song overthrows the North Korean government and brandishes his country’s arsenal of nuclear warheads as if they were paintings on his wall. When the understandably nervous Allied Nations (comprised of the UN, South Korea, and China) went on the offensive, Gen. Song and his 51 subordinates went into hiding in the demilitarized zone. The Allies thus created a Deck of 52 with each member of Song’s entourage listed as a specific card, with Song being labeled the Ace of Spades. This is where a secret organization enters the picture and offers one operative the chance to infiltrate the demilitarized zone and capture or kill everyone in the Allied Deck of 52. Since each member has a bounty on their head, captures are worth more than kills. The operative has to accumulate enough intelligence through captures or kills to open the contract for the Ace of that suite, at which time you can either pursue the Ace or finish the rest of the suite cards first. The four Ace missions take place on special maps and each present a different set of challenges. The goal of bagging the Ace of Spades carries a special bounty of $100 million if captured, and only $50 million if killed. Along the way, you can pretty much destroy everything in your path across the Korean peninsula.
But this is where a huge grey area pops up. There are different factions on the peninsula and each of them has a different agenda. You need to work with each one in order to gather intelligence on the Deck of 52, and you will frequently finding yourself playing both sides against the middle. Should you anger one faction enough, then they will attack you on sight. Considering the North Koreans are always hostile, you will need all the friends you can get. As a result, if one faction gives you a mission to outright attack or provoke another faction, then air strikes and cruise missiles might not be the best route to a win-win for you. Make no mistake, you are not in North Korea to arbitrate a truce. You are there to take down 52 bad guys and make some money in the process.
Basically, Mercenaries is my Game of the Year so far.
The graphics in Mercenaries are dazzling. I do not know whether the engine Pandemic Studios used was original or purchased, but the results are nothing short of gorgeous. The landscapes live and breathe, and the game world borders close enough to “realistic” that it’s utterly immersive. The only times I was taken out of the game was during the load screens after I accepted a contract, or when I would annihilate an NK base and it would later respawn. There are the occasional graphical hiccups and weirdness that would pop up here and there, but never once did I get hung up on a structure or a wall. I was reminded of Steve Martin’s infamously profane rant in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles which he concluded with “four f*@#&ing wheels and a seat” because sometimes that’s all I would see on the roads. A person would be sitting/hovering over four wheels and driving merrily along. Strangely, a rocket from my RPG would cause just as much of an explosion as if I had fired at a real car, so go figure.
The character models look appropriately realistic, which adds to both the immersion and the fun. I failed to notice whether hair moves in the wind, but considering how captivated I was with blasting the holy crap out of the countryside it’s easy to see how I could miss it. It was impossible, however, to ignore the particle effects in Mercenaries. Explosions and damaged vehicles and buildings all burn as they most likely would in the real world, which is to say there is a lot more smoke than fire. The way the smoke reacts to passing helicopters is breathtaking since it whips around and fans out depending on whether the helicopter is flying by or landing. Mercenaries is flat-out beautiful to look at top to bottom.
The music in Mercenaries is odd to say the least. On the one hand, it’s very pretty to listen to and elegant at times. On the other hand, it feels weird flying a helicopter into a war zone to choral chants. Sadly, Ride of the Valkyries isn’t an option, nor is adding customized tracks. I wish there were more musical tracks because what is here is terrific. Driving through a war-torn region and weaving through warring factions while listening to haunting music is a rare experience in a game, and while it remains obvious Pandemic took several chances with Mercenaries, their musical selections were the riskiest. The studio should receive a collective congratulations because those risks paid off.
I loved all of the gunfire and the explosions as well. Maybe I was just having a bad week when I first started the game, but I would blow up everything I came across and it all sounded convincingly real. The helicopters, tanks, trucks, and cars all sound accurate as well, which adds immeasurably to the immersion. It’s also fun hearing North Koreans shout at you in their native tongue as you toss them out of a moving helicopter.
The voice acting is excellent. Bruce McGill is one of my favorite character actors, and he does fine work as a CIA contact who works with the South Koreans against both the North Koreans and the Chinese. The Allied Nations contact is played by none other than Carl Weathers, and he matches McGill in both intensity and presence. For a film geek like me, it was cool to receive missions from Animal House‘s D-Day and Predator‘s Dillon and be verbally assaulted by them whenever I mistook a good guy’s vehicle for an enemy’s. I wanted to say they both look alike from a distance, but your characters unfortunately can’t mouth off during briefings. As for the three available mercenaries, Peter Stormare steals the show as the angry Swede whose penchant for solving simple problems with high explosives lands him in hot water more times than not. Jennifer Hale, who plays the merc Jennifer Mui, simply recycles Bastilla from Knights of the Old Republic, and Phil LaMarr fails to leave much of an impression as the merc Jacobs.
The controls work really well in Mercenaries so long as you are on foot. The thumbsticks are for movement and camera adjustment, the left trigger throws grenades and the right trigger shoots your primary weapon. The white button changes your grenade type and the black button switches between your two main weapons. Press down on the left thumbstick and your mercenary will duck. Everything is pretty basic so long as you remain on foot.
Where the challenge comes in is when you hop into a tank, specifically. The left thumbstick then becomes accelerate and decelerate as well as handling the directional movement. It’s trickier than it sounds at first, but once you get the hang of it you should not have any trouble running things over in your new armor. The right thumbstick then controls the turret, and the right trigger fires the main gun. In other vehicle types, the A button accelerates and the X button decelerates. The B button sounds the vehicle’s horn, regardless of what you are driving or flying at the time. This will drop any disguise you may have at the time, so be careful when and where you sound the horn. The Y button is what you hit to hijack or get out of a vehicle. The use of the left trigger does the same thing, only if you have passengers then they will stay in the vehicle until it comes to a complete stop. It’s very easy to hit the left trigger in the heat of battle and leap out only to watch a Hummer fully loaded with troops go flying off a cliff. You also cannot perform drive-by’s in any vehicle, which is a serious bummer because this game just cries out for that kind of on-the-road action.
Where Mercenaries takes Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas out behind the woodshed and beats it silly is in the flying mechanics. Helicopters all have a different feel to them based on whether they are a small attack ‘copter or a big transport ‘copter. All of them are easy enough to get the hang off without any practice, and stealing a helicopter when it gets low enough to the ground is fun on general principle regardless of which faction it belongs to. But there is an added bonus to using helicopters: They come with a magnetic winch which lets you snag crates or smaller cars and hoist them into the sky. I found myself grabbing North Korean trucks and flying as high as possible then dropping them off a cliff just for the fun of it, and what fun it was. You are also able to use vehicles as wrecking balls in this fashion.
Mercenaries has the Havoc physics engine at its core, but I’m convinced now more than ever that the guys at Pandemic didn’t think realistic would be fun enough. How else to explain the ability to launch jeeps sky-high courtesy of a well-placed explosive? I cannot stress enough the sheer amount of fun one can have when a C4 charge is planted on the hood of a jeep then driven towards an enemy group, and you jump out at the last minute and trigger the explosion. The sense of joy you feel is natural, and will only increase as you discover all the destructive nuances Mercenaries has to offer. You can only carry two weapons at a time which will lead you to strategize on the best weapon for the job at hand. Assassination missions would seem like a natural fit for a sniper rifle, but it’s amazing what kind of difference a rocket launcher can make. Your options are only limited to your imagination, which makes Mercenaries so much fun.
I’ve played Mercenaries end to end and I’ve had an absolute ball. I might sound like I’m selling the game short by focusing so much on the amount of destruction you can cause, because the missions frequently require a more inventive and subtle approach for success. At one point, the Russian mafia orders you to take a helicopter and retrieve a crate that is being stolen by some Chinese soldiers. For a bonus, they want you to kill the Chinese officer in charge. If you just walk up and start shooting, then your faction rating with the Chinese will fall through the floor thereby making future negotiations difficult if you do not have enough money to bribe your way in. You can call in an air strike to destroy all the surrounding buildings thus killing the officer and his cohorts and clearing the path for you to pick up the crate, or you can fly to a near-by building and snipe them all from the roof top, or you can come up with another idea. Another mission finds you on a hunt for four targets, all of which are tough to get close to, and if anyone sees you kill one of the targets then you are essentially screwed. I will only say this much: Rockets are a fun, albeit expensive, way to finish this mission.
Mercenaries has so many ways to approach each mission that it is possible to repeat certain missions over and over just for the sake of trying new things. There are also tons of hidden items to find across the country side, and many of them are in really out of the way locales. Both maps have plenty of Challenges to try out as well. These can be as simple as driving a bus for fares or as complicated as taking a journalist out to a war zone so he can get great footage of the conflict. Once you capture a member of the Deck of 52, you can toss a smoke grenade to signal a chopper to come in for extradition, but you have to make sure anti-air missiles won’t knock them out of the sky first. I love the attention to detail on this, and watching the chopper coming in to pick you up remains cool every time you see it.
The comparison to Grand Theft Auto is valid only in the sense that the world is yours to do with as you please, and that you can hijack vehicles. Any vehicles. If you can get to it, then you can hijack it and that includes low-flying helicopters. The animation for hijacking a tank is nine kinds of awesome, and I found myself going out of my way to find tanks just to watch my mercenary steal it. Of course, it helps that you get money for every enemy vehicle you destroy so rampant destruction behind enemy lines is financially rewarded which just rules. Probably the coolest aspect of vehicle hijackings is the fact that after a short period of time you wind up disguised as the vehicle’s faction. If you steal a civilian vehicle, then pretty soon everyone will see you as a civilian. The disguise only works so long as you remain in the vehicle, you do not make hostile actions towards another faction, and you are not spotted by officers, who can see through disguises. Sometimes stealing a faction vehicle is the only way to infiltrate bases, so it’s something to keep in mind.
The replay value of Mercenaries is immense. Each mission can be played multiple ways due to the ever-changing nature of the terrain, the involved factions, and the weapons and vehicles at your disposal. If you think you can do better on a certain mission, then just restart it and try again. The dozens of challenges scattered across the maps are all fun to try at least once, and each one offers a high dollar value for completion. Once you’ve beaten the game, you get to restart with all your money, weapons, and unlocked items in tact. If you want to annihilate everything on the peninsula, then knock yourself out because it’s possible. You also will have so much money in the bank that buying repeated air strikes is not only fun but economical too.