We’ve said it before, and we’ll no doubt say it again; Grand Theft Auto III has got a lot to answer for. It raised the bar and moved the goalposts for so many game types that since its release few action games have failed to be compared to it in one way or another. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (to give it its full title) is just such a game.
The leader of North Korea (the aging President Choi Kim) had extended an olive branch of peace to South Korea, and as the peace process gained momentum and the leaders sat down to meet Choi’s son (General Choi Song) staged a bloody coup backed by an army of insurgents he wiped out the North & South's political leaders in a shower of gunfire, and not even President Choi was spared…
Set in the de-militarized zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea, Mercenaries takes the free-roaming aspect of the GTAs and sticks it firmly in a modern theatre of war, complete with wide-open countryside, bombed-out towns and imposing, smoky, scarred cityscapes. The entire DMZ is populated by different factions with different reasons for being there; the AN (Allied Nations i.e. the U.S.), South Koreans, the Russian Mafia, the Chinese, the North Koreans and even poor trapped civilians just trying to survive.
You play one of three AN Executive Operations (ExOps) operatives, posing as mercenaries looking for employment in this explosive (in more ways than one) setting, your real task to track down and capture or eliminating the “Deck of 52” high-ranking rogue North Korean Generals - Song Choi being the Ace of Spades. As you complete missions for the different factions (you don’t have to take any particular side, but everything you do effects your standing with the others) you gain intel on where members of the “Deck” are, and can then go get them. You can kill them or take them alive, the choice is yours (it’s always easier to kill them from a distance with overwhelming force), but the reward that the AN pay you will be doubled if they’re alive and successfully extracted. Looting means that all kinds of other treasures and items have been spread around the map and these are a lot like GTA’s packages and other secrets, so you’re always searching a decimated enemy camp for something. The fab three (Chris the archetypal Yank hero, Jennifer the strangely Oriental Brit, and Mattias, the Swede with a very bad hair day) supposedly has a combat speciality but the difference character choice makes to the game is minimal, the most noticeable being that they have different ‘take down’ moves.
The game plays much like a happy blend of GTA and Driv3r (and maybe a hint of Desert Storm), with you being able to hijack/commandeer any vehicle you can see (including helicopters). On foot the combat is much more pleasing than GTA’s though, as the aiming/looking is done with the right stick at all times in a similar way to Driv3r, but it seems to work much better. The AI of both friendly and hostile forces is really good, with everyone acting pretty much as you’d expect them to, but with the constantly changing attitudes towards you they sometimes seem to get confused as to who’s a friend and who is a foe (and so will you). You can call up to four men aboard a vehicle by pressing ‘B’ (they’ll man on-board weapon(s) for you if the vehicle has them) and get them to fight along with you, but they’ll desert you and even attack you if you do anything that offends them. There’s a lot going on in a war zone so some confusion is to be expected, but I’ve seen enemies hide when wounded, jump into vehicles vacated by me and use them against me, and was amazed to see a Russian Mafia guy (who I’d called to get aboard the APC I was driving) let off a few bad-tempered rounds at the passing civilian car who side-swiped him before finally remembering what he was supposed to be doing and getting on board!
Pandemic obviously want you to have fun because when you “die” you get evacuated to the AN M.A.S.H. and it only costs you $1000 in medical expenses – you don’t even lose your current weapons. Fail a mission and you get the choice of continuing or retrying it, and if you find yourself in a tight spot or get fed up with a particular job you can quit it at any time and go try something else for another faction.
Your PDA is your communication and information centre, and a nice sounding Aussie bird called Fiona is in constant contact with you, giving you updates on missions in progress and advice on what to do next. The PDA also houses the game map and info about vehicles and weapons, as well as being your contact with the Russian Mafia’s Merchant of Menace website, from which you can order up all kinds of weapons, vehicles and even air support – having trouble with a stubborn group of enemies? – then as long as you have the cash just call up for gunship support or carpet bombing – sweet or what?
Visually Mercs is impressive but mixed; stunning explosions, flames, smoke and dust all add to the mayhem as buildings, vehicles and people (just about everything except trees in fact, which won’t be damaged even by 60 tons of tank) get demolished or blown up, you can't fail to form one of those sloppy grins when you cause a chain-reaction explosion of vehicles and fuel tanks and watch them go sky high. The overall effect is added to immeasurably by the physics attached to everything; take out a vehicle and flaming shrapnel and wreckage flies everywhere, rolling down hills and splashing into water – it’s all delightfully destructive. But whilst the many vehicles (30 or so) look good in a ‘GTA Vice City’ kind of way, and deform when in collision and explode in pleasing fashion, a small detail like the fact that the wheels on the tanks don’t revolve really stands out – it looks very odd.
Also in the ‘downers’ department, the draw distance varies from a pleasing panorama at times (where you can snipe from hundreds of yards away), to not being able to see more than a few feet due to some what is at times, ridiculous fogging. Now you might say “it’s smoke and clouds and fog typical of a war zone and it adds to the atmosphere”, but I’m inclined to think that developers Pandemic cut the draw distance right down (in the same way as Conflict Desert Storm’s) to keep the frame rate up and avoid pop-up as much as possible, and to this end they succeeded because no matter how much havoc you cause the game never slows down – impressive stuff indeed. Bodies fly as you fire missiles or throw grenades and the carnage you can cause makes GTA look like a Mario game, but I, like many others, felt that this was all too easy to do too soon, and a feeling of slightly bored negativity started to set in…
Thankfully once I was past this first few hours of non-stop obliteration Mercenaries’ missions started to get more difficult, and therefore more interesting – all of a sudden instead of a few armoured cars and tents to blow up, a heavily guarded fortress awaits you, your air support options are jammed and you have to get crafty, and start thinking and shooting, and thinking about what kind of weapon to use, rather than just busting in the front door RamboArnie-style as you can most times early on in the game. This isn’t to say that Mercs ever gets too tactical because most of the time as long as you have enough cash, you can treat yourself to a heavy enough piece of armour to see the job through in a less subtle way. Whilst progress in the game through the “Deck of 52” is obviously mission-based, everything is pretty much open-ended, how and when you do things is up to you, and that’s always nice.
The handling and physics of the vehicles is varied and feels about right (tanks feel really heavy and pleasingly impregnable), but sometimes the physics of the land vehicles gets a little too lively, and if you stray too far off the beaten track then due to some strange reactions on slopes tracked vehicles will get stuck in some very strange places. The various helicopters are much easier to fly than in Vice City or San Andreas, but subsequently they feel less like they’re actually flying, There’s also plenty of water on the Mercs map, but sadly as with the early GTA games you can’t swim, and there are also no boats, which is a shame - after Driv3r and San Andreas I’d got used to swimming, and this feels like a backward step in gameplay terms. You’ll also come across miles and miles of train track but there isn’t a moving train in sight, maybe they were removed from the final game.
Mercenaries is impressive at the start, and gets better and more fun the further you get into it, and as long as you’re not expecting a realistic war sim or a GTA beater it’s an exciting and impressive title that rarely fails in what it sets out to do. Multiplayer options or even Xbox Live co-op mode would have been an excellent addition, but as it stands its subtitle, ‘Playground of Destruction’, couldn’t be more apt, it sums the game up perfectly – you will have an immense amount of fun destroying stuff in Mercenaries, and let’s face it, that’s what this sort of game is all about…