I like open-world, sandbox games. I liked Just Cause and I liked Crackdown, I'm a fan of GTA IV and anything that remotely sounds like an open-world sandbox gets my attention. Thus it was that I loved Mercenaries on the Xbox and played it to death. I was excited to see what Pandemic could do with the next-gen 360 version and finally after giving the game a good play-through I can say that it's bigger and better than Mercenaries but it's not without its faults.
The original three mercs from the first game are back, Jen, Matthias and Chris. You can choose to play as one of the three in this tongue-in-cheek blockbuster action-movie story of betrayal and vengeance. This time you're going to level the country of Venezuela to get to the man who shot you in the ass. Each one of the mercs has a trait that sets them apart from the others, Jen is faster, Chris has more ammo and Matthias heals much quicker than the both of them.
The initial tutorial level eases you into the various concepts of the game, introduces you to on foot combat, vehicle control and munitions deployment. Just like in Mercenaries, you're able to call in variously destructive airstrikes on the targets of your choosing and thanks to the enhanced levels of destruction; virtually everything in the game can be reduced to rubble.
The game opens up when you take over the ex-villa of the evil Solano, killing his men and taking up residence in the villa. It now becomes your PMC, a private mercenary company where no one but you can tell you what to do. You play by your own rules, be it sneaky like Jen, tactically like Chris and over the top in your face destruction like Matthias. However there is a price to be paid for reckless destruction, as you will be billed for civilian casualties. If you can handle the price tag however, don't let that stop you.
You're given a variety of contacts you can work for and more open as the game progresses, there are certain story missions that bring you one step closer to your final goal and side-missions that come from the various factions. As you begin the game there are only a few factions open, but continue to do well, rake in the cash and take the right jobs you'll be able to contact more. Just as in the first game all the factions don't quite play well together and they may well ask you to destroy an opposing faction's targets, kill or extract their High Value Targets.
If you upset a faction, you can always bribe them at the PMC. However this also comes with a hefty price tag, so you'll want to try and avoid this in the first few hours of play unless you don't care. As you do missions and jobs for the factions, you'll unlock new weapons, vehicles, support options and airstrikes in the various shops around the country. However the Merchant of Menace from Mercenaries is gone so you'll have to travel to the various outposts to buy these commodities. There are lots of explosive options in the game, there are numerous vehicles (at least over 150) that can be bought or stolen.
In fact, if you can see it, you can steal it. Pandemic are very keen to try and say 'yes' to the player. A few good examples of this have turned up in our various play sessions as I reviewed the game. Can I steal an airstrike that's lying on the ground, plant c4 on it and then airlift it into the enemy base, get out and detonate the c4 from a safe distance? Yes.
Can I jack a helicopter, land it, plant an artillery strike beacon on it and then quickly fly it over the base, jumping out before I get there and watching the chopper crash only to have it immolated in the following rain of death?
Yes you can. It's this open play style that appeals to me the most, where the rules are of my own making. Vehicle disguise (where as long as you aren't seen getting into the faction's vehicle, allows you to sneak around bases like this without being detected. If you are doing something you're not supposed to be, you'll have a short time to drive away from the spotter or fly in the case of the chopper)
You can recruit up to three additional team members as you play the game, Eva, the mechanic allows you to eventually buy customized vehicles from her shop. You have to find the 100 or so special part crates all littered around the country, every 10 you find will unlock a new option in her shop. From a tank-tracked motorbike armed with a pair of heavy machine guns to a sleek sportscar that comes with a roof mounted rocket launcher.
Misha is a drunken jet pilot that allows you to deliver your own ordinance in the field, dropping bombs on any target that you choose. Ewan is your chopper pilot and will drop off goods into the field, from vehicles to supply crates. He also extracts munitions and piles of cash that you find strewn around the country. These drops respawn so you can always have a 100,000 dollar bonus or a few free airstrikes at hand. It keeps the destruction flowing nicely, and talking of flow, fuel is a valuable resource since you'll need that to call in the various drops and vehicles.
Ewan can extract any fuel tanks you might find and your PMC has an upgradeable storage facility to allow for more. The game has a light strategy side to it in this regard as it's important to make sure you keep an eye on your fuel reserves to allow you to deliver the right kind of destructive welcome to your enemies, and there are a lot of them.
Ewan can also fly you quickly to the various landing zones that you unlock around the large game world, this is a good addition.
There are various challenges from your crew at the PMC, Fiona, your main support operative from the first game is back and she's now your partner in this endeavour. She'll offer you some challenges along with Misha, Ewan and Eva. These can be a good source of extra money, especially the winching challenge that pays out nicely for a very simple task.
In terms of map, ideas, gameplay and direction the game is definitely bigger and better than Mercenaries as I said previously; it features a slew of new content and lots of hardware. There's a grapple gun (from Just Cause) that gives you a way to hijack helicopters without having to wait for them to get too low. Both the enemy/occupied vehicle jacking and the satellite strike system have been changed in Mercenaries 2. They are now quick time event mini-games in terms of the vehicle jacking, you must respond to the right control symbols on the screen to successfully hijack the vehicle. In terms of the satellite system you just have to press A at the right time when the blip shows on the confirmation radar screen.
The core story however seems very short. There are numerous side missions to do and the destruction/HVT/bounties for the shop item unlocks will keep you going as you plough through the game's missions. I was disappointed to find that you couldn't stockpile vehicles and store them at your PMC. Yet with the huge amounts of cash you can rake in and various vehicles you can steal that shouldn't be a problem.
The maxim of Mercenaries 2: huge open world, massive destruction and over the top action, no rules except those that you make yourself. It sounds too good to be true doesn't it? Well, it's true, you can go anywhere, do anything and as long as you can handle the consequences, you'll be fine.
The game is great, it does however have faults. The achievement system is broken; some people can go online with friends and get achievements they're not supposed to get. Some can suddenly find that they're blocked from picking up other achievements. There are some cases where a user has unlocked every achievement in the game just by playing for an hour. These kinds of glitches are things that should have been nailed from the get-go by EA's Q&A team.
Whilst the physics system is robust it's also glitchy as well, we've seen several strange behaviours in single player involving vehicles that vanish through the PMC helipad roof (Ewan's chopper if you ask him to fetch any strikes or cash local to the PMC). Vehicles have exploded for no reason, not an RPG trooper in sight. A few floating helicopters caused us to chuckle as they hung there in the sky, exactly as bricks don't (HHGttG reference there: Ed).
The player model has been stuck in some rocks and so on. There also needs to be a tweak to the damage model from slides, you can slide a few feet sometimes and take no damage, other times you can take 10-20 points from a slight trip. Again, these are things that should have been sorted out before the game went to retail.
The AI needs some work as well, your chopper pilot isn't too bad, apart from when he sometimes doesn't come when you call him, hangs around trying to lift a fuel tank and then vanishes without a trace. Enemy AI is too aggressive when it comes to firing RPGs, they shoot those things like they're shooting a machine gun most of the time, whilst you have to go through a reload animation just to shoot one rocket. The enemy AI makes stealth damn near impossible and Jen, who is supposed to be covert, doesn't get a chance to shine in that respect. Any AI that can see through six tonnes of rock is either superhuman or badly programmed.
The accuracy on player weapons needs a few tweaks since it can take a clip or so to put down one VZ soldier with some of them. Whereas the machine pistol is a veritable killing machine from close or long range. There are moments where the AI also loses the ability to navigate, bumps into walls, shoots the wall with an RPG and kills itself (thank you Mr. HVT with an rpg for robbing me of my perfect capture record) or flies a helicopter around and around on the spot in circles for an hour.
These glitches don't just happen in single player either, there's a whole list of them for multiplayer as well. A great highlight would be where the physics system seemed to forget how c4 worked for a moment and detonated the explosion aimed at the building we were standing on, instead of the fuel tanks we'd placed 5 blocks of c4 on several hundreds of feet away.
It would be impossible to list every glitch and bug we tracked down, most are minor and some are just things that we wish the developers had thought of. Yes it's great to be able to grapple a chopper that your friend is flying, but how about the ability for us to reel the grapple in and climb into that vehicle with said friend? I don't mind hanging around like Spider-Man on the underside of his chopper but it's like they forgot to add something decent in the animation: most of the time the character runs on the spot as he swings around.
Before this turns into a massive rant on the glitches, Mercenaries 2 is a good looking game; there is some pop-in and pop-up. We didn't spot any frame-rate drops even when things got utterly insane and the special effects for the explosions, damage, over the top destruction are excellent. The fire is some of the best we've seen in a game and the way it spreads to flammable objects is great. The animations are good, the hijacking animations are the highlight of the whole thing and each vehicle has its own style of animation to make things interesting.
When the physics and ragdoll systems work properly, they look good. There are times when the player ragdoll produces some unexpected hilarious results as you're blown around by a rocket strike or something heavy like a tank shell (thank Pandemic for making your health regenerate in this one). Every building can be blown up and comes apart in different ways, sometimes they come apart completely and other times they might take another rocket, strike, tank shell or impromptu c4+fuel tank bomb to take down.
The voice acting is great, with Jennifer Hale (Jennifer Mui), Phil Lamarr (Chris Jacobs) and Peter Stormare (Matthias Nielsen) reprising their roles along with India Dupre as Fiona Taylor.
The music is solid and the sound work is excellent, with many decent spot effects and good chunky explosive sound effects to complement the on screen action.
Mercenaries 2 allows for jump-in, jump-out cooperative play. But the kicker is that EA have region locked the online portion of the game just like Army of Two, only their region locking censorship extends to preventing PAL regions from playing with each other. So PAL UK and PAL UK is fine, PAL UK and NTSC is a no go. So are PAL German and Pal Italian. So they are effectively limiting the Xbox Live experience and cutting the gaming community off from friends who might want to play the game together. I know I wanted to play with a friend of mine in the US, but I can't.
Apart from that the game is much better with another player, you can both rain destruction. You spawn into the game on foot or in the same vehicle as your friend and there are cooperative gunnery seats in most vehicles allowing for some great teamwork. Add to this the fact that your buddy can revive you if you go down and vice-a-versa you have a solid MP experience. Anything you earn from your friend's game is automatically added back in as cash/and/or fuel to your save as well as a bonus, so you can earn millions from helping out a friend and use that money to blow the crap out of everything back in your saved game.
Mercenaries 2 is a great but flawed game, it could have been a true kick-ass title but in the end it's let down by some poor design choices, a lack of thought in terms of certain elements, censorship in terms of ragdoll physics for some countries and the kicker is the region locked multiplayer preventing regions from other PAL regions from playing together. I have to say that EA have made some poor choices in this respect.
Roll on Mercenaries 3.