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Mercenaries is a third-person combat-action game that features free-form gameplay in massive interactive environments. The game gives players the opportunity to take on the role of a soldier for hire, letting players choose to be one of three mercenaries: an American ex-soldier, a British secret agent or a Swedish bounty hunter. Each playable character has unique strengths and weaknesses that affect gameplay. I recently got to spend some time with the game, and I've finally finished blowing stuff up – at least long enough to write some impressions.

The demo scenario begins with you standing in front of a large military base, and you're armed with an assault rifle, some grenades, C4, and a rocket launcher. However, you won't need any of these weapons, as the woman in your earpiece suggests that you just call in a carpet bomb. That's easy enough – you just select "carpet bomb" with the d-pad, hit R1 to bring up the overhead view that lets you select your target, and then hold R1 down until it locks on. Oh yeah, you'd better run, because when the jet flies in and drops its payload, the explosion will take out the gate, the two guard towers, and anything else nearby. Everything collapses in an awesome cloud of dust, fire and smoke, and the whole process is very satisfying.

As you enter the base, a few guards will try and stop you, but you simply switch to the assault rifle and mow them down. If that's not your style, you can run up and beat them with your gun, toss a grenade at them, hop in the back of a jeep and use its gun, or you can hop in a tank. You can pick up the weapons of your fallen foes, and as you progress, you can get all sorts of items air lifted to you. Basic supplies, like health, and grenades can be dropped for a small fee, and bigger weapons, like rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles can be dropped, but they cost a bit more. The money for these weapons comes out of the fees you are being paid, but you can earn more cash by destroying property, and capturing certain people.

After you blow up some Surface-To-Air Launchers, you are told to take out a chemical weapons facility, which can be done via calling in a "bunker buster" bomb, which levels the entire plant in just a matter of seconds. Again, you can watch the explosion and the ensuing destruction, but you'll want to stand back or you'll be included in the final death toll. Your target in the demo is the Queen of Hearts in your deck of cards featuring 52 people to capture, and you'll have to capture him alive to get a bonus. Capturing him is easy enough; you have to catch him before he flees, smack him with your gun, and hit the action button (triangle) to handcuff him. The last step is to call in a Blackhawk helicopter for extraction, so you have to carry him to a clearing and throw a smoke grenade to call the ‘copter.

Like Battlefield 1942, you can take control of nearly every vehicle you see. If you want to rampage through the base with a tank, all you have to do is find the tank and you're on your way. The game's motto is "If you can see it, you can drive it, fly it, or steal it", and it's very true – you can drive and fly till to your heart's content. The controls are simple for all of the vehicles as well, so it's not tough to go from driving a jeep to maneuvering a tank over unsuspecting bad guys.

The game's controls are easy to learn, and the special items like C4, bunker busters, and carpet bombs are all selected by pressing the d-pad, which brings up a menu, and then pressing R1 to execute the choice. There's an action button which covers things like entering vehicles and capturing bad guys; and firing and changing weapons is done with the R1 and R2 buttons. The controls feel a little bit loose, but the game seems to be rather forgiving, so it wasn't an issue.

The graphics are very nice, and the special effects really steal the show. As I mentioned earlier, the explosions that occur when you destroy a large structure are very impressive and very satisfying. You'll find yourself backing away from a dust cloud as it rolls towards you, and the smoke is so thick that you'll have to wait for it to dissipate before you pass through.

Nearly every structure in the game can be blown up, and that includes: buildings, towers, walls, fences, barrels, crates, jeeps, tanks, planes, helicopters, and much, much more. These all fall in realistic ways and can even cause collateral damage to other structures that they fall on. You have to actually blow some stuff up yourself to get an idea of how cool the physics are, but rest assured they are great.

The game's obviously got lots of shooting and blowing stuff up, so it's good that the sound effects are up to the task. The guns all sound good, and the explosions will rattle the walls, if annoying the neighbors is your cup of tea. There are also plenty of little things, like alarms that go off when you've been spotted and soldiers that yell out all the things that dumb videogame soldiers have to yell when they shoot at you.

I was only able to play a small portion of the game, but I was left very impressed with Mercenaries. If I was to compare it to another game, I'd have to say it's like a mixture of Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield 1942. It's got the third person perspective of GTA, and the freedom to do things how you want, but it also has the war setting and ability to drive and fly anything like Battlefield. Throw in the explosions, and it looks like Mercenaries could be a surprise hit for the typically slow period after Christmas.