Review: Blowing stuff up... simple, yet effective.
With the 2004 release of Full Spectrum Warrior on the Xbox, Pandemic Studios showed that they possess the ability to craft original games that take advantage of today's hardware and that parallel current world events. Full Spectrum Warrior placed you in fictional Zekistan, where a conflict raged within the streets, much like in present-day Iraq. The game mechanics were inventive, as you had to command two four-man squads that would move from position to position and try to outflank, outthink and outgun an enemy. While a couple of quirks in the gameplay did show themselves from time to time, the game was truly creative, and was a noted contribution to the 2004 Xbox lineup.
Mercenaries, the follow-up from Pandemic Studios, places you (as a merc) in a day-after-tomorrow North Korea where the fictional General Song is threatening the world with his nuclear armaments. You work for a group called ExOps (Executive Operations) and you can pick one of three mercenaries; each character has a few unique differences that slightly alter gameplay. Since you are a hired gun, your sole objective is to capitalize on the many financial opportunities within the increasingly destabilized country. The chief means of acquiring wealth will come from ?verifying? General Song and the members of his ?Deck of 52.? Much like in present-day Iraq, this game's ?Deck of 52? is a hierarchy of grunts, lieutenants and generals that will need to be compromised. By ?verifying? these people, the game means for you to either kill them outright or to capture them and give them to the Allied Nations in the area. Additionally, Mercenaries has missions that you will conduct for the various factions in the country; completing these helps fully explore the story and also gives you the necessary information on the whereabouts of the 52 targets of the ?Deck.? There are also other ways of making money while in North Korea, including random racing or destruction challenges, as well as by collecting treasures or secret blueprints.
As said, Mercenaries has several factions that you will cooperate with during your destructive adventures in North Korea (the North Koreans actually serve as a fifth faction, but they are always hostile to you so you pretty much have to shoot on sight when dealing with them). The groups you will be working with include the Allied Nations, South Koreans, Chinese, and the Russian Mafia; each of these groups has their own motivations and each will assist you differently during your missions for them. Of course, as you carry favour for one, another might dislike you more, but it's really not too hard to balance loyalties in Mercenaries ? it's really all about the destruction. Each faction has an HQ, represented on the fairly large game map that you will access on your PDA. The missions you will carry out for each faction range from tactical strikes and assassinations to rescues and retrievals; many missions will actually involve the ?deck of 52,? effectively killing two birds with one C4 charge. All of these missions are worth money independently of the 52-card bounties and bonuses.
Mercenaries isn't as original as Full Spectrum Warrior, per say, but it is still quite original in the way its gameplay combines existing styles from other games so well. The similarities to the Grand Theft Auto franchise are immediate and obvious, but this is, for the most part, a good thing. The free-flowing nature of the GTA series is something this game pulls off quite well, as you can move from place to place and do pretty much what you like, all the while completing various parts of Mercenaries' linear elements. Additionally, many of the side challenges or supplemental missions call to mind similar elements in the GTA series. The main differences in this game compared to the GTA mold are the slightly more complex combat engine, the increased sense of interactivity, and the sheer amount of destruction you are allowed to unleash.
Combat plays out in a slightly more precise, run-and-gun fashion than GTA and also employs more vehicular-based weapons. You'll find different weapon sets for certain situations (close combat, stealth, heavy, etc.) and the weapons can all be useful. The covert SMG is a particularly handy weapon and is a quick way of dispatching foes at close range. Additionally, the RPG and sniper rifle will both get plenty of time to shine, as missions will often give you these goodies outright to deal with the tasks at hand. Certain vehicles also come with weapons, such as the helicopter or the tank, and these can be particularly useful ? and enjoyable. There is also a bevy of explosives and air strikes that can be called in, but I'll speak more on this later. It should be said that the AI isn't phenomenal, but does create a decent foe, especially during some of the more congested areas. Grunts won't pose much of a problem when up close, but you will have to advance with caution when dealing with tanks, RPGs, helicopters and high-level officers. You have to keep this in mind for certain missions, as you might breeze through the first section, but get overwhelmed by the firepower later on -- it's important to save your explosives for when it counts.
AI issues aside, it still has to be said that the combat is very fun across the board and never an exercise in futility. Much of this can be attributed to the game's strong sense of interactivity with all of the objects on the Korean countryside. You can jump in vehicles, use turrets, call in air support, order in supplies (thanks to the Russian Mafia), and use the game's many weapons; hey, you can even incapacitate foes (chiefly, the deck of 52 officers) by cracking them with your gun and then slapping some handcuffs on them. All of the interactivity is handled so well in Mercenaries, and the context sensitive nature of the commands and easy-to-use menus really aid this process; nothing gets frustrating and the game flows well with the interactive elements, whereas comparable games have struggled in this area.
One of the main draws to Mercenaries (which was alluded to earlier) is the sheer amount of destruction that you can create with explosives, vehicles and weapons. While not on the level of the N64's Blast Corps (someone re-make this game please), you still can deal out major damage to buildings, vehicles and people by calling in stealth bombing strikes, firing shells from the South Korean tank, using the RPG and C4 charges, or flying around in a helicopter. The fact that you get paid for destroying monuments of General Song or enemy vehicles is pretty cool and really does give an incentive to just keep shooting even when it's not really necessary. The fact that the game pulls off some solid effects for the explosions and mayhem also helps create the sense of weight and power needed to immerse a player.
Mercenaries does have some flaws, but nothing that really screams of low quality or rushed development. As said, the AI is not perfect and can seem a bit weak, unless they are holding an RPG or driving a tank. The handling of the cars is actually quite varied and creates a good sense of speed and weight, but admittedly, the tank could've handled better or used a similar control scheme to that of the normal vehicles. I understand they wanted to make the tank different in feel, but the Halo-esque thumbstick control wasn't very responsive and often resulted in your tank drifting or the camera spinning and disorienting you. The general navigation of the North Korean countryside can also be a bit cumbersome, specifically because the HUD map in the top right needed to be a little bigger and match up more appropriately with the full map on your PDA. I often had to check the bigger map to make sure I was driving the right way towards a destination and I think this could've been a little more polished. It should also be noted that the loading times are quite long when firing up a game of Mercenaries, but admittedly once you get in they don't pop up too often, except when you die or if a story-relevant mission is being loaded. Speaking of story, it should also be said that the game could've used more scripting and dialogue to keep you immersed in the land that you are so casually devastating. While you do get some comedic quips from your chosen mercenary and some in-game briefings from the various factions bosses, there isn't a whole lot to really tie you into what you're doing ? at least GTA had some story-telling elements to keep the player connected to the people, places and events of the game.
Make no mistake about the fun this game can bring though, as Mercenaries does what it promises very well. The sense of freedom you have across the countryside is great and you can take the faction-based missions at your own pace or work on the ?deck of 52? when you get new intelligence. In the GTA-vein, you can drop everything and commit random acts of violence, but in this game at least it can have a purpose, as random battles are constantly raging between factions and you can jump right in and help one side. You might find yourself driving around the mountains or foothills or maybe you'll want to collect all the secret blueprints and destroy all of Song's monuments ? nothing is really dull in Mercenaries. However, I will say that Mercenaries plays better in small doses (say, intervals of 1 or 2 hours), as the constant explosions and driving can leave you a bit numb. However you play, the game will last quite a while with the faction missions, ?Deck of 52,? bonuses and challenges. At a minimum, you could probably finish the game in 25 hours if you rushed through certain elements, but most players should have at least 40 hours of mayhem on their hands.