Every so often, a game sneaks in under the radar and captures the fancy of gamers everywhere. One such game is Mercenaries, the latest game from Pandemic and LucasArts. Thanks in no small part to slick commercials that tout your ability to steal any vehicle and blow anything up, as well as a demo that allows you to do just that; Mercenaries has been THE hot game of the traditionally slow after-Christmas period.
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. As you'd expect, each character has unique strengths and weaknesses that affect gameplay, and even the language they speak will change the way the game plays out.
The game takes place in Korea, where there's very little order, and chaos reigns supreme; a perfect place for a mercenary. On the eve of the reunification of North and South Korea, North Korea's President is taken out in a coup, led by his son, General Song. After quickly stockpiling an assortment of WMD's, the rest of the world gets involved in the conflict. You can choose or decline work from South Korea, China, the Allies, and the Russian Mafia. You'll have to be careful when playing the field as some jobs will have you working against a friendly faction, which can be hazardous to your health should you try and pass through their territory. The one constant you can always count on, however, is that North Korea is always the enemy.
If you were to compare Mercenaries' gameplay to one game, it would be Grand Theft Auto. You can not only pick and choose who you work for, you can steal any vehicle, the game world is large and you are free to travel anywhere. There are tons of different missions, but generally you'll be killing a specific person, blowing up a target, or stealing something and bringing it back to your employer. There are tons of side missions, and like GTA, there are lots of little driving challenges, most of these involve getting from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, and are basically there to teach you the lay of the land. Completing a mission or blowing up North Korean weaponry earns you cash, which you then use to purchase more weapons, vehicles, or air strikes. The game does give you a bit of a conscience, since killing innocent civilians or destroying their property will hit you where it hurts the most; the wallet.
In addition to performing tasks for different interests, you'll also spend a great deal of time hunting down the bad guys on the deck of 52 cards. Each person is wanted dead or alive, but you only get half the cash for bringing them in without a pulse. Capturing your target 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.
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. There are tons of weapons, including silenced guns, machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, grenades and much more. There's just as much variety in the game's vehicles as you can commandeer jeeps, tanks, cars, buses, helicopters, anti-aircraft vehicles, and a host of other modes of transportation. The controls feel a little bit loose, aiming is difficult, and the vehicles are far too easy to flip, but the game is rather forgiving, so it's less of an issue than it could have been.
The graphics aren't bad, but they do suffer from many of the issues you typically find in games of this size. There's lots of fog, trees and buildings pop-up all over the place, and the textures are rather poor. Since this is a war game, and there are lots of fires and explosions, a certain amount of smoke and fog can be dealt with, but sometimes it makes the game nearly impossible to play. When you're flying a helicopter and you get a few hundred feet in the air, you can't see anything but fog. You can't tell if you're looking up or down – which means your only option is to hug the ground. This can be hazardous to your health though, since you'll be flying so low that you can run into the sides of mountains. The framerate is generally solid, at least for this style of game, but when you get multiple vehicles and fighting soldiers on screen, it slows to a crawl.
While there are several problems with the game's visuals, the special effects are what really steal the show. 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. 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.
Since you're in the midst of a war, there is plenty of damage not caused by you. In a one-minutes span I saw a jeep blown to bits by the allies, dodged a ‘copter as it crashed to the ground, and then narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded so close to me that I drove right through the deep crater that it left. Needless to say, all that extra action really adds to the game's atmosphere.
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.
The voice acting is pretty good, though there are a few stiff performances. The music is orchestral, and generally stays in the background, though when the action picks up, so does the game's music. Even if you're not a fan of classical music you'll recognize many of the game's musical themes as they've been used in countless war movies throughout the years.
Mercenaries is one of the few games that has a lot of flaws but still manages to be a blast to play. There are numerous glitches and bugs, and the game's pacing can be a bit slow (driving from area to area), but once you get in a big ol' firefight, those things become distant memories. There's so much to do in the game, and it's just so darn fun, that anyone who has enjoyed Battlefield 1942, Medal of Honor, or Grand Theft Auto will almost certainly enjoy Mercenaries.