Who made it?: Pandemic (Developer), LucasArts (Publisher).
Genre: Sandbox Game.
Platforms: PS2, Xbox.
Format: Optical disc.
Release Date: 18th February 2005 (UK).
Mercenaries, as the name implies, puts you in the role of a soldier for hire tasked with bringing the war in Korea to an end as soon as possible; chiefly by capturing or killing the “deck of fifty-two.” These enemies are key figures within the North Korean government, designated like playing cards based on their strategic importance. You choose to play as one of three mercenaries (although they only really differ in appearance and personality), and after a brief but engaging pseudo-tutorial of the key gameplay elements, you’re left to your own devices.
From there, what you do is really up to you: you could conceivably just wander around the countryside picking off the deck as you go, although the Aces can only be found once you have gathered enough intelligence regarding the rest of each suit’s hierarchy. A more gratifying way to progress is by taking part in some of the missions offered by the game’s four factions: The Allied Nations, South Korean Union, China and the Russian Mafia.
The dynamic between these forces is intriguing, since while they all can agree on certain key issues (such as: North Korea + WMDs = Trouble) they all have ulterior motives – which often means that you’ll be taking on a mission to earn favours and goodies from one faction, only to snub another. As each faction provides interesting and powerful weapons, vehicles and support options, the player is forced to pick one or two favoured factions at the cost of the others, or play a complicated balancing act between all those involved.
The gameplay felt like a blend of the free-world exploration and mission structure of the Grand Theft Auto series, twinned with the epic explosions and scale of the Call of Duty games. This led to a satisfyingly varied mission structure – at one point you might be tasked with leading an armoured spearhead against a North Korean nuclear power station, while an hour later you’ll be delivering a sports car to the Russian Mafia by driving it straight through a warzone.The game does a brilliant job of making you feel like you were merely playing a minor role in a wider conflict. Your character often comes across large skirmishes between the game’s five factions. or is tasked with sabotage missions while armies clash around you. Truly epic stuff, and quite technologically impressive considering it came out in 2005. It isn’t looking too ugly even by today’s standards.
Speaking of Grand Theft Auto, upon the game’s announcement many were quick to assume that it would be yet another pretender to the quintessential sandbox game’s throne, but Mercenaries has carved out a distinct niche for itself. This is thanks to the much greater precedence placed on wreaking havoc in its own Playground of Destruction, as was proudly emblazoned on the front of the box. “If it drives or flies, you can hijack it. If it shoots or explodes you can use it as a weapon.” Years of video game addiction have taught me to be very wary of promises made on the back of a box but remarkably the game delivers, or at least comes close enough that it doesn’t matter.
If you see a means of transport, be it saloon car, tank, or helicopter gunship, you can take it for a spin, although you may sometimes have to mercilessly deal with the vehicle’s occupants first – no great problem as even a fully crewed tank can be stolen so long as you get close enough to initialize one of the neat little commanding quick-time events.
Another key difference between Mercenaries and other titles is the ability to call in a wide variety of bombing runs, air strikes and artillery bombardments more or less at will; a game element virtually unheard of at the time. And while laser targeting your first surgical strike near the game’s start feels a little tame, you’re soon given control of far more exciting toys like bunker busters, fuel air bombs and devastating carpet bombings. Having these attacks at your beck and call gives you the feel of some all-powerful god of war, literally raining fire on all who oppose you. The fact that almost all of the game’s vehicles and buildings are destructive (trees aren’t, I can only assume that trees native to Korea are made of Adamantium or something) makes you feel all the more potent a force.
I could literally go on for hours about this game, but I would rather urge you to grab a copy of this under-appreciated gem, especially as you can usually get it second-hand for a few quid. I would also advise you to avoid the sequel, World in Flames, seen by most as an unsatisfactory affair, hampered by too many glitches, foolish enemy AI, poor graphics and repetitive missions. The only thing more disappointing than that was the fact that the company that made it, Pandemic, went under in 2009 meaning the chances of the franchise redeeming itself with a third title are crushingly slim.
Gameplay: The shooting mechanics are simple and effective, and all the vehicles handle quite forgivingly, which means you’re unlikely to lose your temper when your Humvee careens into a lake. These factors alone would have been more than satisfying, but you also get the bonus of calling in air strikes, which I honestly believe could never get boring.
Graphics: Having replayed this again recently, the graphics haven’t aged badly whatsoever. I’m fairly sure that they used a slightly polished version of the same engine for World in Flames.
Sounds: While the game’s one and only song will slowly drive you mad after hours of play, the sound effects themselves are gratifying. The whooshing noise of oxygen burning up as a fuel air bomb detonates, or the eerie silence before a bunker buster explodes, create a strange kind of awe. Well, they would if you weren’t literally running for your life to escape the blast radius.
Story: The game’s story was actually quite good, allowing for some interesting and diverse set piece battles and quirky characters to interact with. As a bonus, the game’s story does have replay value, thanks to the different personalities of the three characters you can choose from at the game’s start.