First Impressions: Call it Grand Theft Mercenary.
LucasArts is of course best known for its Star Wars games ? so much so that many gamers may be surprised at the breadth of their quality non-Star Wars titles like Sam & Max, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, the Monkey Island series, Armed & Dangerous, Gladius, Wrath Unleashed, and many others. Typically, these games have received glowing critical acclaim, but have only achieved modest commercial success compared to their more familiar light saber-swinging cash cow siblings.
With the upcoming release of Mercenaries, LucasArts is trying to reverse that trend. Teaming up once again with Star Wars veteran developer Pandemic (who gave us The Clone Wars and Battlefront), LucasArts will take gamers as far away from the Force as possible. Mercenaries will be a violent, dark game in which ? as the title suggests ? gamers will hire their brutal warfare skills out to the highest bidder.
The story, seemingly ripped from current headlines, takes place in North Korea as radical and corrupt government officials are stirring up trouble in the region. The UN tries to settle things down, but when they can't handle it, they hire mercenaries (or, using the more politically correct term, a ?private military company?) to go in and take out the ?Deck of 52?. Like the infamous real-life playing card deck of the 52 most wanted Iraqis, Mercenaries' Deck of 52 consists of the most dangerous or influential individuals in the North Korean government. The easiest ones to capture or kill will be the low level officials like the Two of Clubs; not surprisingly, things will get tougher as you move up the deck to the head honcho himself, the Ace of Spades.
You will play in the third-person view as one of three mercenaries: a tough African-American who speaks fluent Korean; a quick and stealthy British female who speaks Chinese; or a Russian-speaking Swede whose abilities are balanced between the other two. There will also be a fourth unlockable character, but who he or she is remains a mystery (although there are strong hints that it will be a character from somewhere in the LucasArts universe. I'm hoping it will be Yoda ? he would look cool packing an AK-47).
In addition to choosing a character based on their physical abilities (like how the American can take more damage or how the Brit can quietly sneak up behind enemies) you will need to consider their language skills carefully as you will have to deal with four different factions in the region, each with their own self-serving interests. Along with the UN who is trying to bring stability to the country, you will have the Chinese, South Koreans and the Russian Mafia eager to hire your services as well. If you speak the language of a particular faction, they will be easier to deal with and therefore more willing to share valuable information and hire you for lucrative jobs.
Show me the money
Anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto would probably agree that running around with a massive gun mowing down everything in sight is insanely fun. LucasArts and Pandemic know a good thing when they see it, and just like how they emulated Battlefield 1942 for Star Wars Battlefront, so too have they created their own version of GTA in Mercenaries. Gameplay is free-form just like GTA: you can focus on your primary mission of taking out the Deck of 52; hijack a ridiculous number of vehicles to cause general mayhem; or take on various side jobs to earn money ? it's entirely up to you.
Ah, yes, money ? as a mercenary, that filthy lucre will be your primary motive. Each time you successfully complete a side job or take out a card in the deck, you will get cash ? and with that cash, you can buy new equipment, vehicles, and special favors (like airstrikes to take out buildings. Don't we all wish we had friends like that?). They will also deliver your new vehicle purchase directly to you via airlifts, but be careful to request your delivery in a safe location, as nearby enemies can shoot down the plane and your expensive, non-refundable investment with it.
Even though money is your motive, you will still need to tread carefully in your dealings with each faction. For example, you can steal from the UN and sell the goods to the Russian Mafia for a quick buck, but your status at the UN will go down and they will refuse to give you more jobs. That may not sound so bad, but they will also refuse to talk to you, which could be a problem if they have vital information that could help you find a particular card. Tick them off too much by, say, blasting UN headquarters with a tank, and they will start firing on you with everything they've got. The flip side is that your status with the Russian Mafia will go up, opening up better paying jobs and access to special areas like a seat at a Russian poker table.
As well, everything you do has consequences. Not only can you affect how various factions deal with you, but like the Light Side/Dark Side paths in many Star Wars games, the path you choose will change the game's outcome as well. There are at least two different endings, depending on whether you take the ?Light Side? by being a good soldier and helping the UN, or the ?Dark Side? by taking blood money and going on a destructive killing spree. Don't think you can be sneaky about doing shady side jobs or killing everything in sight either; there are journalists scattered throughout the region who will report on your activities, and if you kill civilians, your status as a reliable mercenary will go down and make it more difficult for you to find jobs.
All work and no play make Jack a dull merc
As a mercenary, your goal may be to collect as much money as possible, but as a gamer, you want to have fun ? and with its free-form GTA style of play, finding fun things to do shouldn't be a problem.
Take your weapons, for example. Each faction will have realistic weaponry ? like Russian AK-47s, UN M-16s, and so on ? available for you to buy and use. You will only be able to carry two weapons at a time, a primary (assault rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher) and secondary (usually grenades), so choose wisely. And if you tire of shooting at people, you can always smack them in the face with your melee attack.
But for real excitement, hop into a stationary gun turret or a vehicle. Better yet, hijack that nice shiny tank over there and watch a very cool animation as your character jumps up to grab the main gun barrel, swing up to the top of the turret, open the hatch, throw in a grenade, and then climb inside after it goes off. You can even hijack helicopters in mid-flight by grabbing the landing skids, opening the door and throwing the hapless pilot to the ground. Sweet! Best of all you will have over 50 vehicles to choose from (in fact, Pandemic is trying to bump that number closer to 65), ranging from speedy jeeps and Hummers to lumbering tanks that can run over and crush roadblocks, smaller vehicles, and of course, enemy soldiers.
If you have an urge to remodel the landscape, you're in luck. Virtually everything in Mercenaries will be destructible ? vehicles, windows, buildings, basically anything that you should be able to destroy in the real world, you can. And destruction never looked so beautiful; the explosion and flame effects are amazing, but the real jaw-dropper are the smoke and particle effects that look and behave with incredible realism, especially when a building collapses.
Much of this demolition joy can be attributed to the use of the Havok physics engine, which is also responsible for the cool ragdoll effects when bodies are blown all over the place into eye-watering contortions.
Alas, all of this fun will have to be experienced alone. Mercenaries is single-player only, with its only online component the ability to download future content like new weapons, missions, and equipment over Xbox Live.