You've got to hand it to LucasArts. As a company known for creating inconsistent quality Star Wars games and some very forgettable non-Star Wars games, the last 18 months have been a boon. With few exceptions, you can now look confidently at the Marin, Ca.-based publisher and find something compelling or downright desirable. With Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords
, the upcoming Star Wars: Republic Commando
, and the strangely addicting Mercenaries
, you'll be hard-pressed to resist any of them.
Developed by the red-hot Pandemic (Full Spectrum Warrior, Star Wars Battlefront) and produced by the well-versed Peter Hirschmann (creator of Medal of Honor, producer of Secret Weapons Over Normandy), Mercenaries is a third-person action that delivers on its promise of massive unending destruction. Incorporating elements of Battlefield 1942 and Grand Theft Auto, LucasArts and Pandemic have created a militaristic sandbox-style tour de force. You're handed the keys to drive dozens of military vehicles from civilian cars to tanks to helicopters, offered a massive North Korean landscape on which to drive, and five belligerent factions, all of which you get to play off one another for fun and profit.
Developed for Xbox and PlayStation 2, LucasArts' Mercenaries should feel both familiar to those who've played open-design games, and fresh, as the 20-plus hour, single-player action game stars three mercenaries who run around North Korea like it was their neighborhood stomping ground. You start with one of three characters, the swift, roguish Swede who speaks Russian, a stealthy British female from Hong Kong who is fluent in Chinese, and a tough Korean-speaking African-American. (There is supposedly a fourth, unlockable character, which LucasArts has yet to reveal.) You'll be brought up to speed on the controls, vehicles and weapons as you progress through the first mission and within minutes you'll be introduced to the factions, which are at the core of Mercenaries's unique progression scheme.
Being a mercenary, you work for a Private Military Company (PMC) but you're hired by all the factions at one time or another. Your aim is to take down 52 of the most deadly North Korean militants (thus the most wanted deck of 52), with General Song being the primary objective. Each faction (Allied Nations, South Koreans, Russian Mafia, and the Chinese) is part of the general chaos of trying to fight or contain the explosive and unstable North Korea, which is on the brink of a potential global war. By taking contracts from a faction, you'll earn money and gather data, helping to stop North Korea's assaults. The money is good to buy increasingly powerful weapons, vehicles, airdrops, and military power, while the data provides the most recent whereabouts of another card in the deck of 52.
While like GTA and Battlefield 1942, Mercenaries offers a distinct sense of balance and gameplay. The contract missions are key to progression, but exploring the vast Korean landscape is fun and helpful as it's filled with secrets, mini-missions and an ever-changing war-torn environment. The balance issue comes into play as soon as you take contract work for any one faction. Each time you take one on you'll likely to fight another. As you progress, you realize you'll fall in favor with the Chinese but find the South Koreans angry -- or vice versa. An efficient menu system enables you to see what your rating is with each faction, and part of your overall goal is to keep all of them generally happy with you. The result of an angry faction is their direct assault whenever you come near.
The system works well most of the time; you'll feel compelled to keep them all happy, and they all provide new info and cash. On the other hand, it doesn't matter all that much if one or even two factions are pissed. You can simply bribe the guards of any faction and quickly earn back their love. And you're always getting shot at, so it doesn't force you to be nice all the time. Once you start progressing, you'll fight each suit, with the "boss" Ace as your goal. Each one gets progressively harder and increasingly surrounded by heavier military muscle. And Pandemic has done an excellent job of varying the style of each "boss" mission. Also, the cash incentives become more obvious as you progress: they give you ample options to buy more powerful weapons on a mission where you prefer a carpet bomb instead on a surgical strike, a rocket launcher instead of a sniper rifle.
Once you get into Mercenaries you'll realize that Pandemic and LucasArts really love military sh*t. The sheer volume of vehicles, weapons, and toys is immense. You'll travel with two guns simultaneously, plus two kinds of grenades, and at any time you can jack vehicles. Jacking vehicles brings great, great pleasure. You can jack regular civilian vehicles, jeeps, trucks, tanks, and even helicopters. Pretty much any vehicle you can see you can control. Sweeping onto the cannon of a tank and gutting the pilot with a grenade is a wild event every single time you do it.
Using Havok physics to give the game a sense of gravity and realism, Pandemic has tuned each vehicle to drive differently, with tanks being cumbersome and powerful while jeeps and sedans are more loose and wily. Tanks can be a pain to control, thanks to their slow, awkward steering controls, while the helicopters are remarkably nimble and satisfying. Don't worry, though, you're given liberal opportunities to handle them all.
What's more, the game might permit you to run-and-mindlessly-gun through a number of missions but there is strategy behind a significant number of them. You'll need to figure out which guns, air strikes, and tools work best, and how and when you should use them. Strategy is key, and so is knowing the nature of your weapons. But the trial-and-error nature of the game emerges readily enough. You might breezily finish one mission the first time around, while the next contract might take three hours.
Unlike GTA, however, this game hands you endless military power, Mercenaries' true calling as a sandbox endeavor. Each completed mission opens up the Merchant of Menace -- an online weapons store -- and completed missions open up oodles of power. So, if you don't like the weapons you're handed, you can buy others on the fly. More importantly, once you call in a surgical strike on an enemy cannon, or use a megaton bomb to level a skyscraper, you'll fully appreciate the beauty of Mercenaries. You can literally destroy an entire city -- similar to the way you can in MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf and still have money, weapons and vehicles left over to go on your merry way. This single attribute is absolutely addicting on its own.
The issues I have with Mercenaries are very minor. Handling weapons is sweet, controlling vehicles is excellent (though some might not like the stiff panhandle controls), and the game's open nature is well balanced and expertly thought out. The AI, on the other hand, is interesting. It's not all that smart or stealthy, but it's very aggressive. In many missions you'll find yourself simply outnumbered and overwhelmed with unending enemy manpower. You'll encounter rockets launched into your chest, and I learned the heard way that enemies are ruthless enough to run you over in their cars (something I found both awesome and annoying). In other missions, you'll know you've interpreted the mission badly when the AI instantly slaughters you, overpowers your one-man force, or chases you away. On the other hand, it's often stupid. You can drive into an open enemy jeep through their city without being noticed. You can land a helicopter not far from a roadside filled with tanks and jeeps, and if they don't see you land, they'll drive right by.
Another small issue is the lack of story and character. There really isn't a story to speak of. You're simply given a monstrous string of missions. Not everyone likes or even wants a story, but most games of this nature (GTA, True Crime, The Getaway) offer substantial ones. The trio of characters is also relatively free of color or personality, which is a small -- but a not deal-breaking -- bummer. They all have a little pinch of it, the Swede perhaps being the most humorous and weird, but they say or offer little. The game's strengths -- unlimited military power, free-ranging action, jacking, driving, megabombs, etc. -- generally make up for these issues, but at some point you'll feel that little something missing, the need to be told a story. Opening up countless caches of weapons just isn't that memorable or compelling.
Mercenaries is a single-player offline game. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, the norm used to be offline, single-player games. But in 2005, a game of this nature begs to be played online or at least cooperatively. Pandemic offers three characters who play a little differently from one another, though not significantly. The game's 20-plus hour length the first-time through, however, and its expansive environment make up for its lack of multiplayer components. It's packed with tons of little treasures, hiding places, additional maps (once you beat the first two sets of suits a whole new landscape appears), and worthy exploratory objectives to push the game well into the 30-40 hour department.
Overall, Pandemic's game is excellent looking. The textures are simple, but as you explore the landscape a great deal of detail, color variation and thematic variation appear. There are rocky mountain outposts, dusty backtrails, farmlands, full-scale cities, military compounds, and more. You'll encounter war zones with dark cloudy skies, cannon shells arching across the landscape, vehicles blowing up left and right, and constant activity. Or a simple drive through a cityscape reveals safety and normality, as civilians walk calmly around, produce trucks drive slow and sedans occasionally swerve in your way.
There is a certain amount of pop-in on both PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions, with neither dominating the other. The landscapes are just simply too big, and there is so much activity that you cannot have a perfect framerate all the time. Both unfortunately offer slowdown and pop-in. But the game is better at controlling than, say, GTA: San Andreas. Also the game is pretty. What it lacks in super textures, it makes up for in effects. It offers excellent smoke and fire, particles, fog, and mist. It also provides a superb set of distinct landscapes: there are great big areas that change in tone, color and theme. Both versions apply a liberal amount (or rather, an overt amount) of bloom lighting to soften things up. And when the game takes place in the compounds, inside, it's even more shiny, pretty, and polished looking.
Mercenaries offers good solid sound, with the Xbox version supporting in-game Dolby Digital (no custom soundtracks), and the PS2 version supporting Dolby Pro Logic II.
The music is unusual for a game of this nature, which is why I like it so much. It's a strange but likeable musical ensemble. You'll hear strong military themes, but hints of classical and choir music too. The music might feel incredibly "right" at one moment, and oddly wrong at others. It's slightly weird destroying a massive skyscraper or downing a helicopter with a choir singing in the background. On the other hand, most of it works, and I think more development teams should take chances like this. You'll hear lots of chatter from Fiona Taylor, your navigator, though your character doesn't say much at all. The sound effects are better than average, and there are a lot of them.
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