Killing in the name of...
Interested in starting the year off with a bang? If that's the case, there's no bigger bang than Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, Lucasarts' new military action monster. As a highly-trained operative of the ExOps mercenary organization, you'll be dropped into the North Korean theater of operations with the goal of capturing the maniacal dictator General Choi Song and claiming a 100 million dollar bounty. Armed with an assortment of guns, vehicles and a million ways to blow stuff up, you're ready to take on the world.
As sort of a military version of Grand Theft Auto, Mercenaries offers players a huge, free-roaming area to explore and destroy. You wander about the North Korean landscape in third-person commandeering vehicles, searching for hidden treasures and generally wreaking havoc wherever you go.
At the start of the game, you'll take on the role of one of three mercenaries: ex-Army man Chris Jacobs, former MI6 member Jennifer Mui and Mattias Nilsson, a freelance artist with an appetite for making things go boom. There really isn't a difference between these mercs, so choose one and get to work.
In an eerily familiar plot, the Allied Nations have issued a most wanted list in the form of a deck of cards. These "cards" will be your primary targets, but to get to them you'll need some Intel on their whereabouts. The Allies will be able to provide you with a little information, though you'll have to pick up more by doing a few jobs for the other factions in the North Korean power struggle: the Chinese, South Koreans and Russian Mafia.
Helping one faction usually means pissing off another, and pissing off a faction usually means guns, explosives and other unsavory objects pointed in your direction. This is where the game's strategy comes into play. Commit hostile acts against a faction and its attitude will become more hostile towards you. Conversely, completing missions or recovering important objects will put you back in their good graces. If all else fails, you'll just need to sneak your way into their HQ and slip some green in the right hands.
Like other free-roaming games, one of the best features of Mercenaries is the ability to ditch the missions and strike out on your own. You can meander about the countryside and blast enemies at random or focus your energy on a few standing bounties. The Chinese seek North Korean National Treasures and dislike South Korean listening outposts, while the South Koreans are on the lookout for blueprints of WMDs and will pay you handsomely to blow up any bronze statues of General Song. Meanwhile, the Mafia is interested in any rare military vehicles you stumble across. Add to all that an assortment of reward challenges and you'll find yourself with plenty to do in this well-equipped game.
When you gather enough Intel and decide to tackle a member of the Deck of 52, you can try to capture the subject alive. It's generally pretty easy to blast your way in and take out a target (at least during the first stages of the game), but you'll only receive half the bounty. For a full reward, you'll need to get in close enough to subdue your target, clear the area, and call in a support chopper for pickup. It's easier said than done, but that's the beauty of Mercenaries - specific objectives without a specific ways of accomplishing them.
With a hefty assortment of machine guns, RPGs and sniper rifles, you'll never lack for firepower. Alternately, you can hop into an assortment of vehicles, such as an armored Humvee, APC or Tank to zoom in and grab the target quickly. Others may want to fly in on an Allied Gunship and wipe out the surrounding support. Whatever your pleasure, Mercenaries probably has a way for you to make it happen.
Even more goodies are offered through a handy, PDA-accessible Russian website with the catchy name "The Merchant of Menace." Assuming you don't need cash to get a faction off your back (and assuming you're on good terms with the Russians), all you need to do is pop open your PDA and start shopping. Items such as explosives, medkits, vehicle repair units and even functioning vehicles can be airlifted to you any place, any time. If you have the dough, you'll also have access to a variety of air strikes with which to decimate your foes. The possibilities are impressive.
Mercenaries also comes through with a simple, intuitive control scheme for both on-foot and vehicle-based play. However, the characters have some trouble running and turning. When the battle is raging and a million things are happening around you, sluggishly rotating while running can be disastrous. It's not impossible to negotiate, but it's still a pain in the thumb.
The A.I. is also a bit twitchy. Enemies are generally smart enough to commandeer vehicles or use trees as cover, but the allied A.I. could use some work., especially in one mission that involves destroying a number of fuel trucks in a limited amount of time. I took control of a Humvee with a mounted rocket launcher, called a few allies into the car and took off. But since the fuel trucks didn't shoot at me, my gunner would never shoot at them, forcing me to exit the vehicle, kick the gunner out and fire the weapon myself. Sometimes being a one-man army is no treat.
Graphically, though, Mercenaries serves up some tasty eye-candy. The character models are finely detailed, the environments are expansive and interesting, and the countless explosions are big, burly and intense. The audio is far more limited, comprised mostly of character voices, gunfire and the sporadically played Mercenaries theme. Both the PS2 and Xbox versions work well, although if you have the option, go with the green box for a smoother ride.
Mercenaries is certainly a big game, but the gang at Pandemic has seen fit to provide even more in the form of unlockable goodies. More weapons, more vehicles and even a few more characters (this is a LucasArts game after all) are tied to the free-standing bounties, extending the game's already long shelf life.
What they don't give you, however, is any way to play with others. There is no online play at all, nor is there a co-op mode. The faction breakdown seems tailor-made for multiplayer; it's a shame they didn't see fit to include it.
But they sure as hell included most everything else. For the action freak or A-Team wannabe, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is an easy recommendation and stands as the first sweet action game of 2005. Lock, load and roam, baby.