LucasArts has been on a roll over the past few years. If you had asked someone for their opinion on the company four years ago, they may have noted that it seemed the developer had lost its magic. Then, a couple of years back, LucasArts made the wise decision to give their products some much needed spark by creating partnerships with a selection of the best game developers around. And it worked. Nearly all of the games LucasArts have released since then have been hits with both critics and fans alike. So, bearing that in mind, enter the new action/shooter Mercenaries, LucasArts and Pandemic’s newest non-Star Wars related game, and, you know what, they have another hit on their hands.
The game’s story pans out like this: A North Korean General has overthrown the North Korean government and gained control of a vast collection of nuclear weaponry. Uh-oh! Now, the Allied Forces, along with the Chinese, South Koreans, and the Russian Mafia have all invaded North Korea to either end the General’s maniacal rule, or take advantage of it. Each of the four arriving factions has their own reasoning and motivation for becoming embroiled in the situation, most of which directly conflict with one another. Then, of course, there are the North Koreans who are fighting against ?everybody’. In a nutshell, it’s a political and military mess – which is where the Mercenaries come in.
You play as one of three different mercenaries (imagine!) who work for a company named Executive Operations, or ExOps. After you choose your favored merc, you are dispatched to North Korea, your mission being to collect bounties which the Allies have placed on certain individuals leading the North Korean army. There are fifty-two of them in total, and you start at the bottom of the stature list and work your way up. It’s a huge moneymaking opportunity and ExOps is taking full advantage of it. Upon arrival, you have the ability to accept missions from any of the four factions that are against North Korea – you can work for whomever you choose. You can work directly for one of the factions, or play them all off against one another. Again, the choice is yours. You must exercise caution, though, as each faction is classed as Friendly, Neutral, or Hostile. North Korea is always hostile, but the other four factions can swing across the scale depending on how you treat them. For example, execute too many missions for the Chinese faction – causing damage to Allied progress – and you may find yourself an unwitting enemy of the Allies.
That is just the set-up, though. The real fun emerges when you get out in the field and start to blow stuff up! Once established in North Korea, and having met all of the factions, you are pretty much free to go wherever you want. Mercenaries has a genuine open-ended sandbox style of gameplay. You can accept missions from the factions, or go hunting for the North Korean bounties on your own. You can discover tons of cool stuff just by leaving populated areas and running off into the countryside. Hidden bases, treasure, Weapons of Mass Destruction – you name it – the freedom to go where you want and do what you want is definitely not new to videogames, but it is still awesome to be given access to that kind of play control.
So, what makes this game so cool? Basically, you can use any vehicle or weapon that you come across. Does your enemy have a nifty rocket launcher? Kill him and take it! Oh, you like the look of that heavy tank blasting shells at you? Dodge the incoming ordnance while creeping ever closer, then yank out the driver and commandeer it. Hmm?is that a helicopter gunship swooping down at you, blazing hot streams of lead? Grab a hold of the landing rails when it gets close enough, toss the pilot, and go for a spin. The fun goes on and on. The amount of fabulous stuff you can hijack, employ, and experience is immense. Aside from that, the sheer variety of ways in which things can be destroyed in Mercenaries is absolutely crazy! You can actually board a helicopter, use its winch to pick up a tank from the ground, and then swing it around beneath you as though it were a mace or something. It has to be said, there is nothing quite like smashing a building to rubble with a swinging forty-ton tank.
Apart from the obvious fun, blowing things up also gets you a great deal of money. You see, every North Korean vehicle or building that you destroy nets you a bunch of the green stuff. LucasArts and Pandemic really encourage us to blow everything to smithereens in this game. In addition to gaining wealth from destruction, you can also earn some dough by collecting. Hidden throughout the game world are Korean National Treasures, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Blueprints to North Korean equipment and operations. So, for each of these that you recover, you receive a substantial cash reward. The game keeps track of how many items you have located and – in addition to the money – when you have recovered certain item amounts, specific game secrets are unlocked. For example, if you collect 20 National Treasures you gain the ability to play the game as Han Solo! This alone makes the game worth buying. Blowing stuff up as Han? Come on! LucasArts didn’t stop there, though. If you find all 110 Blueprints, you unlock Indiana Jones! And that, my friends, is just too sweet.
In addition to all the great vehicles and weapons you can get your eager hands on, there are also a whole bunch of Support Items that you have access to during certain missions. These include things like Surgical Air Strikes, Satellite-Guided Missiles, Extraction via Helicopter, Supply Drops, C4 Explosives, and a number of other useful options. These are items that become available only during missions where they are vital to your success. For example, in one particular mission you are employed to destroy some North Korean missile silos. To accomplish this, you get to use satellite targeting equipment in order to identify exactly where the missiles should impact. However, should you choose not to, you don’t have to use Support Items to accomplish the missions. There are always other ways to blow things up – you can plough a gas truck into the side of the missile silos. That works too.
Mercenaries’ gameplay is put together superbly. When on foot, control of your character is simple and easy to figure out. Some of the vehicles are a pain to control at times, but that applies to only a few of the larger trucks, and it perhaps makes sense physically that they would be somewhat harder to drive. The various helicopters available to you are all a cinch to fly. They are actually one of the better ways to get around if you can get hold of one. All of the weapons and support items are accessible and uncomplicated, and in the earlier stages of the game you are provided with some handy-dandy in-game tutorials that give you the 411 on how to use them properly.
The targeting for your weapons is also a pretty nifty aspect. If you place your reticule over an enemy, it will become red. If you take your hand away from the control stick, the reticule will follow the enemy wherever he goes. The only problem with this feature is that it sometimes tracks a few paces behind the target, so you might be better off manually aiming should this happen. Aside from this tiny note of criticism, LucasArts and Pandemic have done a bang-up job on this particular control detail.
Overall, the gameplay on show in Mercenaries veers away from graphic realism and more toward an arcade-like feel. You can sustain numerous hits before you die, unlike in some other combat-themed videogames. This is a good thing, though. You can have considerably more fun blowing stuff up if you don’t need to worry so much about getting killed. However, you’re not impervious to damage, and you do lose energy. Healing med packs are usually only found wherever there are enemies, so healing yourself can sometimes be both challenging and tricky. How often you need to heal, though, depends on how you play the game. You can opt for the Rambo route and run straight at enemies while flinging grenades and whipping your machine gun every which way; you can stand back from the action and launch missiles at the bad guys until they are all burnt to dust; or you can hide in the hills and snipe opposing forces one by one. This reviewer’s favorite, though, is appropriating an enemy vehicle and driving it stealthily straight into the heart of their camp. If done correctly, you can get in, take down your designated target, and drive back out with very little resistance. Wonderful.
The visuals here are terrific, the environments both sprawling and beautiful, and the game’s terrain is unique and it does not repeat itself. Exploring the vast countryside reveals all sorts of interesting structures and landmarks. There are plane crash sites, burned out villages, and a number of other fantastic locations that are hidden throughout the game world. One small problem you may run into occurs in heavily forested areas. It’s sometimes extremely difficult to see past the trees directly in front of you, and a sudden cliff drop is rather bad news if you don’t see it coming. Also, vehicles sometimes get hung up on rocks and other obstacles, which is not such big a deal since you can always steal another ride, but in some instances it forces a mission restart if the trapped vehicle is required for completion of your task. Tiny glitches aside, the graphics engine in Mercenaries is remarkable, though. You’ll understand fully after launching a missile at a tank and witnessing the resulting explosion throw a nearby jeep a hundred feet into the air before exploding as it smashes back into the ground. As well as that, there are also the smaller, more subtle details, like field reporters chasing you around with cameras as you mow down bad guys and capture their commander. Collectively, the graphics lend the game a real gritty, war-torn feel.
The sound is also splendidly realized. With all of the game’s countless explosions, you’d perhaps think that development focus would have been directed to that specific aspect of the sound – not so. The explosions are always fabulous but, in Mercenaries, it’s the voice acting and other environmental sounds that force forward and steal the show. The voice acting in particular is extremely fluid and true to life. In many games today you can ?feel’ that the voice actors are acting. In this game, however, the voice talent creates a tangible atmosphere that evokes a sensation of belief where you feel as though you’re listening in on genuine conversations. Rather impressive.
Mercenaries could quite possibly be one of the most fun and addictive games you’ll play in quite some time. There are a few small flaws within the graphics engine that, most notably, can cause frustrating gameplay restarts, but they are mostly minor annoyances that do not detract from the game’s overall success. In summation, what we have here is an unbelievably accessible game where the goal is to blow as much stuff up as possible, using whatever weaponry you can – traditional or otherwise. By giving the player access to almost everything in the game world, LucasArts and Pandemic have created one hell of a fun game. Plus, you can unlock Han and Indy; delicious bonus icing on an already wonderfully formed Mercenaries cake.