The sub-heading for Mercenaries is ‘Playground of Destruction’. It sums up the game nicely; if you crave wanton destruction then you will probably be in your element playing this. On the other hand, those of you hoping for a good war-based alternative to Grand Theft Auto (like much of the hype before the game’s release lead us to believe) will likely feel a twinge of disappointment.
In Mercenaries you play (not surprisingly) a mercenary in North Korea, who is trying to make a cool $100 million by bringing down an evil Saddam-alike dictator named General Song. That’s about all the plot you get, other than occasional news updates on the goings-on in the nation and very sporadic cutscenes. You can choose from one of three characters – there’s the tough and efficient American Christopher Jacobs, the unhinged and trigger-happy Swede Matthias Nilsson, and dependable, professional Brit Jennifer Mui. Besides slight diversity in speed and resilience there’s little difference between the characters, so there’s not much to differentiate them overall, excepting from an ocular standpoint.
You’re then free to explore the country as you please, and accept a contract with one of four factions. Your standing with each faction affects how they treat you (i.e. whether they welcome you or use you for target practice). Often doing tasks for one faction will piss off another (such as destroying a Chinese convoy on behalf of the Russians), so it is a good idea to try and keep everyone happy. Although, if you are in one faction’s bad books the get-out clause is a bit simplistic as you can go to their HQ and bribe the guard, which for between a few thousand and a few hundred thousand dollars (depending on the severity of your duplicity) will usually make them happy with you again.
The contracts range from escorting a reporter through hostile territory, to unmasking traitors, through to attacking heavily defended enemy compounds. Herein though lies the main problem – the missions are all too similar. Probably about eighty percent of the missions concern destroying or capturing a particular vehicle, person or building, and the appeal quickly wears thin because there is a chronic lack of variety. Perhaps missions where you have to adopt stealth and crawl around the undergrowth, or maybe chasing down an enemy (a train? Boat? Flying fortress?!) in a helicopter would have helped combat repetition and diversify things a little. There are a number of challenges dotted around the map (represented by a ‘$’ sign), and these are along the lines of a point-to-point time trial, or knocking a barrel as far as possible in a time limit, to destroying a set number of enemy vehicles within a minute. Although these do bring in a little variety and choice, they are not really that involving and I found myself passing most by. There are also a huge number of items to find (and destroy), such as hoarded treasure and North Korean listening posts, which will also please the faction leaders by undermining their rival countries and enemies. The excellent Havok physics make causing chaos a lot of over-the-top fun, and there’s certainly a limited degree of enjoyment to be had in just getting some powerful weapons and running around causing havoc.
The main course of the game is the ‘Deck of 52’, who are North Korea’s fifty-two most dangerous people (culminating with that aforementioned dictator, General Song). You gradually gain intel on each of these targets by completing contracts for the factions, and upon garnering enough info to track them down, capturing or killing these people moves the game along. Half way through the game you move on to a new map area. Together, they both represent a huge area to explore (especially if you want to find all the treasures), but at the same time they suffer from not offering much variety in the landscape. You can steal or pilot almost any vehicle in the game (with the exception of boats or planes), and this adds a lot of fun. There is a lot of choice, from sports cars, to huge missile trucks, to large & heavily armed helicopters. Almost all are very well implemented, and it provides some unmatched thrills when you drive into an enemy compound in a tank and proceed to destroy every vehicle and building, and drive away from a smouldering wreck.
Sonically, Mercenaries puts in a strong showing. The character voices are very good on the whole (including Carl Weathers, Peter Stormare and Phil LaMarr), and sound effects are all fairly accurate and vehicles sound appropriately beefy and realistic. The soundtrack is strong although it feels a little clichéd at times (full, grand orchestra – check, harmonious choir – check), but on the whole the aural side of things is one of Mercenaries’ strongest elements. The visuals are decent, although less impressive. The amount of detail and happenings on screen is adequate, but the main problem is the ubiquitous fogging which plagues every inch of the map. It can’t help but take the edge of the visual side of things when you can’t see more than a short distance ahead, and this does spoil what would have been some nice panoramic views.
Mercenaries is an enjoyable, accomplished game. It could have been great, but a few minor faults (mainly the overall lack of variety) mean it’s just good; nothing more. If you want a fairly shallow game that provides a lot of explosions and thrills then this is a safe bet, but if you’re after something a little more diverse and involving perhaps you should stick with your copy of San Andreas.