Oh, goody, yet another GTA clone that emphasizes free-roaming destruction over actual gameplay. Oh, by the way, that’s sarcasm (your line: “Well, Du-uh!” ). I can’t help not liking Grand Theft Auto’s engine; I’m a Dynasty Warriors fan myself and, while it may be unfair to compare the two giants, the rivalry does exist. And although no one knows how it will end, we here at MyGamer are here to inform you that, when the final battle of the “if-it-ain’t-broke” design philosophies comes, those on the side of Musou attacks and elephant death-squads will have absolutely nothing to fear from LucasArts and Pandemic’s thoroughly average and unimpressive title. Just how unimpressive and thoroughly average can a game called Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction possibly be? Read on.
The graphics for the game are serviceable and the textures themselves are realistic enough, but the actual mapping leaves much to be desired. Suspenders zig-zag across blocky torsos, stairs often appear as little more than stair-painted ramps, and character facial animations are better suited to Super-Marionation than third-person action. Fortunately, these otherwise game-killing pitfalls are more than compensated for by some great particle effects such as explosions and dust clouds.
As for sound: it’s probably safe to say that this is the one department of any game’s development that LucasArts is practically incapable of failing at. It’s simply perfect. The music redefines “cinematic” and the sound effects are appropriate and surprisingly realistic. The voiceovers are a little cheesy, but not to the point of becoming distracting or even slightly annoying.
Gameplay is, unfortunately, a pretty mixed bag and is, ultimately, the one area where Mercenaries fails to impress. The game uses the engine from Battlefield: 1942 and Star Wars: Battlefront but gives it an open-ended, play-as-you-want mission system. You begin by accepting a contract from your employer to carry out a certain mission, part of which often involves the apprehension of a member of the “Deck of 52” – a most-wanted list of international terrorists and other such ne’er-do-wells (all named after playing cards). Though references like this to real-life anti-terrorism tactics will appeal to the army-buffs out there, even they will not be able to look past the rather arbitrary collision detection and wonky vehicle physics. Hopeful game designers should take notice of these immersion-derailing inconsistencies.
Although you can literally hijack any vehicle you can get your grubby merc mits on, the mainstay of your vehicular arsenal is a heavily-armed Hummer. For those of you not familiar with this marvel of off-road technology, here’s some insider information: Despite their newfound status as “glorified SUVs” by upper-crust WASPS and West-Side Rappers (ever seen a dirty H2?), Hummers are the single most capable off-road vehicles ever conceived. Driving across even the most rugged terrain is almost as smooth a ride as cross-country skiing. There is virtually nowhere these machines cannot go, and you would think that tremendous sense of freedom would be embodied and embraced by Mercenaries’ in-game counterparts. Unfortunately, something got lost in the translation from reality to virtual reality as the Humvees in this game can be taken down by bushes. I’m going to reiterate that last point because it bears repeating: The Humvees in Mercenaries can be halted dead in their tracks (and even flipped over) by bushes! For all the time you’ll probably waste trying to take shortcuts through shrubberies, you might as well have been trying to “?cut down the mightiest tree in the forest – with – a herring!”
Lampposts are also a formidable obstacle on your path to the game’s subtitled “Playground of Destruction”. Like its shrub buddies, one simple post can often stop a Hummer dead in its tracks, even while traveling at top speed. Of course, the lampposts themselves do incur damage (the light bulb casings will crack for example) and, after commandeering a fresh vehicle, you can even knock them over. But, it’s as if the bulbs are creating an anti-Hummer force-field. Hummer-repelling shrubs and lamp posts? Those pesky Koreans sure know how to fortify a public park! It must be…the future!
Lastly, walls of sandbags serve as the ultimate gameplay obstacle. In a feat of makeshift homeland security – even more impressive than impregnable shrubbery and shield-generating lampposts – these burlap barricades can be responsible for mission restarts because commandeered vehicles flip over and catch fire simply by bumping into the damn things! This infallibility wouldn’t call so much attention to itself if not for the fact that, when the aforementioned glitch happened to this reviewer, only moments earlier an array of K-Rails (large concrete pylons used in highway construction) fell beneath the tires of my jeep like flimsy cardboard boxes in a ?70s cop show!
Are these indestructible feats of civil engineering solely responsible for the game’s low score? Sadly no. Actually, Mercenaries’ biggest failure when it comes to providing a genuinely fun and enjoyable experience is the complete and utter absence of any kind of multiplayer. This wouldn’t even really be a problem except it seems as though the game was meant to have a 2 or even 3-player co-op feature. For example, when you approach most vehicles, three circles will appear around it: one on the driver’s side, one in the back (often a gun turret position), and one on the passenger side. Only two of these three points of entry serve any practical purpose. If you get in on the driver’s side, you can, obviously, drive. You can also honk the horn in a crowd of ally NPCs and they will climb aboard to assist you. Of course, an NPC at the gun turret borders on worthless, so you will simply find yourself asking the question, “Why can’t one of my real friends help me out?” The closest you can get to that is to stop the car, get out of the driver’s seat, move to the back, and climb into the turret yourself. Obviously, this means you can’t drive. But if you really want to feel helpless (or just plain useless), get in the passenger side, where you can sit for hours on end! The point is this: three seats, three players. You do the math. After all, what exactly is the point of having three playable character positions when you can’t utilize them simultaneously?
But Mercenaries’ biggest downfall lies not with the hit-and-miss gameplay, but something a little less tangible. While the overall presentation of the game is nothing less than one would expect from a LucasArts title, there are a couple of minor factors that might have you raising an eyebrow and even questioning your own moral fiber. There will be times when you will not know if you are supposed to be having fun or not. For starters, the game is called Playground of Destruction, a title better suited for the third Backyard Wrestling game rather than a paramilitary shooter. The characters are one-dimensional stereotypes of action-film cliches (note the term actionnot war) who are too busy drooling over weapons and dreaming about what they’ll spend their reward money on to garner any sort of incentive for keeping them alive. Put simply, the over-the-top characters seem to counterpoint the seriousness of global terrorism, and the game’s comedic nuances feel tacked-on at best. For example, one of your missions is called “The Merchant of Menace.” Yes, you will almost forget to laugh for it is so damnably funny. In all seriousness, LucasArts is extremely well known and well loved for poking fun at itself in its games (even those not produced in-house), but, this time around, the self mocking just feels a little out of place. Maybe if the violence weren’t so realistic, or if the game were set in some fictional country, it wouldn’t feel so spiritually bereaving when you toss a grenade into a tent filled with soldiers or level a small building with carefully placed explosives or…well, let’s just say the game hits a little too close to reality sometimes to be viewed as “entertaining.”
In the end, a pared-down multi-player extravaganza does not a great single-player experience make. This game has a lot of good things going for it, but they exist in departments that ultimately don’t matter. If you have never played a Pandemic game before, or aren’t too keen on multiplayer, you may reap some element of fun from Mercenaries (if only as a weekend rental). Everyone else, however, should probably keep their gaming battles in “1942” or “A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” Finally, anyone drawn to the “Playground of Destruction” aspect (or title) of the game should seriously seek out a psychiatrist.