Reviewed: March 18, 2005
Released: January 11, 2005
When I met with the guys from Pandemic at last year’s E3 show they literally blew me away with their demo for their forthcoming game, Mercenaries. Eight months later the game is still blowing me away with amazing open environments, engaging gameplay, creative design, and the most explosions of any game in the history of video games.
Pandemic is certainly on a role with a string of hit titles released through a variety of publishers and they are certainly no stranger to military games with titles like Full Spectrum Warrio and Star Wars Battlefront. LucasArts and Pandemic keep the momentum going with this latest installment that mixes all the military style action of any war game you may have played in the past few years with the open-ended freedom of Grand Theft Auto.
The freedom begins with the choice of three unique personalities, the stealthy British female agent who speaks Chinese, the powerful Swedish agent fluent in Russian, and the African-American commando who speaks Korean. Each character offers their own unique approach to the gameplay and even their second language comes into play with the various factions you will encounter.
Mercenaries is a massive game, mainly due to the sheer open-ended nature of the design. You are free to explore the massive game world pretty much at your leisure, of course you may get into trouble if you get caught in hostile territory. There are primary missions that advance the story and create new opportunities and then there are dozens of mini-game challenges that you can complete and then keep on repeating with higher stakes and greater challenge.
You are a mercenary so all those dollar signs on the map are your obvious targets, especially when it comes times to go shopping for new weapons. The more you play the more money you earn and you can spend this at the mafia-owned shop. Nearly everything in the game can be bought for a price including devastating air strikes. Of course a lot of the vehicles and equipment can also be stolen and some of it is even provided at the start of some missions.
Your allegiance fluctuates with the highest bidder and you can find yourself working for the Chinese, Koreans, or the Russian Mafia, but your ultimate goal is to capture (dead or alive) the 52 most wanted terrorists in the world, known as the “Deck of 52”. Each target is designated with a card from the deck, and their card reflects their importance and difficulty. Aces are naturally the leaders and the most difficulty to capture. You’ll need special permission before you can event attempt those missions.
Missions range from racing through checkpoints within a certain time limit to defending bases, destroying x-many jeeps, blowing up a building or group of buildings, and basically just creating a lot of mayhem as you track down clues to the Deck of 52. There is a wonderful selection of vehicles and aircraft at your disposal and the arsenal of weapons is massive and varied.
It is so easy to just lose yourself in the “playground” of this game. At first I did a few of the story missions but I quickly discovered the challenge of trying to kill three mobile SAM launchers, then four, then five. You might talk to a soldier and he will challenge you to blow up three jeeps. When you do he’ll up the ante to four or five. All of these might be distracting from the main mission but they all pay cash that is always useful when you do get back to the story.
There is also a bit of diplomacy involved when playing Mercenaries. The three main factions are generally opposed to one another so if you work for one the others won’t like you. The Chinese might ask you to assassinate some Russian mobsters but if you are spotted you blow your secrecy bonus and now the Russians are pissed at you and the Chinese. As much as you try to be neutral and milk all factions for all they are worth you sooner or later have to align yourself with one or two groups.
Controls are amazing, both on foot and in vehicles with slightly exaggerated physics and arcade controls. Flying takes a bit of getting used to. You can assume one of several positions in most vehicles, gunner, passenger or driver, and with the toot of your horn any nearby allies will climb onboard and fill any vacant seats.
You are literally a one-man army carrying any two weapons of your choice along with two types of grenades. You can “appropriate” any vehicle on the battlefield; you can even jack a chopper if it flies low enough for you to grab the skid. This freedom of selection means that no mission will ever play out the same way twice.
The game world is very dynamic and outside of the scripted missions everything and everyone seems to operate on their own agenda. Jeeps and other vehicles will move around on their own paths, people walk around or stand guard. It’s very hard to recreate the same situations if you restart or load a save game.
The scope of Mercenaries is massive on every level. The size of the world map is huge; the number of vehicles and weapons are so vast you might complete the game without ever trying them all. Each completed mission opens up the Merchant of Menace where you can buy new toys to help you blow up the world.
Perhaps the biggest element of Mercenaries are the explosions. Whether you are planting a C4 satchel charge on a building or calling in an air strike the power at your disposal is enough to level large buildings or even entire cities. There are even a series of statues scattered about the Korean landscape that you can destroy for additional bonuses.
Enemy AI favors numbers over smarts and when the enemy does appear to be on top of things it borders on being unfair. One mission had me sniping three Russian targets and I was supposed to remain out of sight. I was barely in range to hit with my high-power scoped rifle when the target’s bodyguards saw me from a mile away and alarms went off. Unless you are playing the stealthy British agent Mercenaries favors run and gun gameplay.
Crisp, colorful, and detailed would all describe the visuals in Mercenaries. The opening segment on the plane is a great introduction that gets you acclimated to the 3D interface and control scheme. Icons clue you in on certain commands. The movies area all handled with game-engine graphics for seamless integration into the gameplay.
The landscapes are gorgeous, massive in scale with draw distances out to the horizon with only a bit of fogging, probably explained with all of the explosions going on. Everything has an earthy color palette and looks surprisingly real. Jeeps kick up dusty trails, explosions are fiery and violent, and there is a great visual sense of weight and physics.
Framerate is excellent for most of the game, but when you take to the skies the distant horizon can create a few hiccups in the camera movement, but nothing too serious. Even the interior locations are modeled and detailed with excellent textures.
There is some nice military themed music in Mercenaries as well as some interesting classical tunes and even some choir music that gives the game an almost haunting feeling. There’s no custom soundtrack support but frankly, I didn’t miss it.
The Xbox delivers an amazing Dolby Digital mix that literally surrounds you in the sounds of gunfire, explosions, engine noises, and plenty of speech, all with excellent accents and some surprisingly good voice acting. Weapon sounds are as varied as the arsenal they represent and everything sounds 100% authentic.
Mercenaries is a single-player experience, not that multiplayer wouldn’t be welcome, just about as much as we all crave a multiplayer GTA universe. With three unique characters it would have been great to see how they worked together as a team to cooperatively take on some of these missions. But now you have an incentive to play the game at least three times through.
If you stay focused you can finish Mercenaries in about 20-25 hours, but who is going to do that. I spent nearly a week just playing mini-games before I got back on track with the story missions. My final time for my first pass was nearly 50 hours and I’m looking forward to going back and trying the other two characters just to see how differently the game plays.
There is a metric ton of missions and unlockable areas, weapons, and stuff to do in Mercenaries, and I can see this game offering up hundreds of hours of gameplay to those that can easily get lost in mischievous fun.
Mercenaries is simply a “blast” to play. It literally is a “playground of destruction” from the moment you are dropped into the conflict zone to the closing credits. While the story might be a bit light, there is so much to do that just finding those missions that advance the story becomes a mere afterthought as you lose yourself in the dozens of challenges and cash-op mini-games. Not to mention, jacking cars hasn’t been this fun since GTA and these cars have guns…big guns.
The Xbox version of Mercenaries is slightly more polished than the PS2 and delivers better graphics at more consistent framerates with faster load times and better audio, especially on the low end which is used heavily for explosions and rumbling tanks. Mercenaries is very similar to GTA on a primal level, and in some ways a lot more satisfying. A definite must own title for any Xbox gamer.