A little guest review from Vasteel

Since Rockstar Games took the 'here, have a huge map - do whatever you want' genre of free-roaming action and adventure gaming to the next level with GTA3 and its sequels, many developers have tried with various levels of success and failure, to create games along the same lines with the most obvious being Luxoflux's True Crime and SCEE's The Getaway.

Likewise a review of Pandemic Studios Mercenaries could not really be done without a mention of influence from Rockstar's series of free-roaming crime sims, but is Mercenaries different enough to stand up as an original game in its own right?

A World Apart

Unlike the two latter free-roamers mentioned above which borrowed very heavily from Rockstar's recipe of criminal behaviour, Mercenaries is not simply another serving of the same tried and tested formula, sure some of the game play devices common to the genre have made it into the game - take missions from various Contacts dotted around the map, no saving on a mission, steal any vehicle etc - but Pandemic Studios have definitely done enough to break the mold more than just a little, in fact it could be quite reasonably argued that Mercenaries raises the free-roamer bar even higher, so what's the game all about then?

Mercenaries places you in the boots of any one of three combatants working for an organization called Executive Operations (ExOps), a private collection of Mercenaries who will accept contracts from either government or private groups who are willing to make it worth their while, the situation presented in the game it seems, is more than worth it - a hundred million dollars worth it in fact, and then some.

The plot is that the leader of North Korea has been assassinated by his son General Song, who has installed himself as the new leader and consequently taken control of the nations military resources. It transpires that said resources include weapons of mass destruction and then in turn transpires that said WMDs have been finding their way into terrorist hands, prompting military action from certain factions of the rest of the world, among the involved factions are the Allies (US) from whom you will be most closely tied with initially, the South Koreans backed by the CIA together with their own agenda, the Chinese who also have their own interests in the conflict and the Russian Mafia, who figure they can make a quick buck or two from the war by supplying arms and equipment to anyone who can supply the aforementioned buck, and a convincing war it is too...

War Torn

Mercenaries places you right in the middle of the war detailed above and never lets you forget that it is a war, from the start the on screen fireworks are present practically everywhere you go in one form or another, whether its gun skirmishes between the factions, blazing fires from burnt out vehicles by the side of the roads or the slick explosions liberally scattered throughout the game the action is always there, after being dropped in the war zone you are required to travel to the nearby allied base for your first real mission, yet this seemingly simple 'getting used to the game' section involves driving through a pitched gun battle only to find the base being shelled by artillery upon your arrival.

This pace is maintained pretty much throughout and as a result the game does a good job of portraying a convincing war zone, even if there is no fighting going on around you there is still the scarred and smoke plastered landscape and the occasional scream of fighter planes passing over to maintain the atmosphere.

The landscape itself it destructable and you will find that pretty much any building can be brought crashing down with sufficient firepower brought down upon it, similarly you can send your vehicles crashing through boxes and crates although not crashing through the roadside fences which is sometimes an annoyance, also the vehicles will inexplicably go riding up and over fabric tents as if the tents were made of hardened steel, but on the whole the amount of damage you can deal the landscape around you is highly impressive with buildings coming crashing down in clouds of smoke and flames depending on your chosen method of destruction, artillery strikes, C4 explosives and summoned air strikes are amongst the tools at your disposal to wreak havoc on the scenery

The looks of the game are impressive, possibly amongst the most impressive on the PS2 at the moment with the detailed textures of the buildings, nicely done character models, seamless landscape and eye-candy like the explosions going off around you, some of the more powerful support weapons of the game arrive with a whole show of on screen pyrotechnics that should suitably impress anyone.

The vehicles you can use are as you would expect for a war zone, from your jeeps and APCs through to tanks and helicopters. Some of the vehicles you find will have gun turrets on which you can use after driving the vehicle into the position of your choice, or you can drive around with a faction soldier firing as you go if it's the right factions vehicle you are taking for a spin.

Hijacking a vehicle belonging to one of the factions will disguise you as a member of that faction and they will not attack you unless you commit what they deem a hostile act in which case the disguise is lost

Profit and Violence

The motivation behind ExOps decision to send you to the war zone is the hundred million dollar bounty on General Songs head but that's not all the cash up for grabs, General Song has 51 other military officers with him, collectively known as the 'Deck of 52' these all carry a bounty which you can collect by capturing them, or half the bounty by killing them. The way in which they are captured is slick too, you bash them with your gun, tie them down and then summon a helicopter to airlift them away by means of a flare which gets added to your support options once the officer has been tied.

The game requires you to work your way through the deck to get to Song, and there are plenty more things to do along the way. You can accept missions from the factions to earn money as well as advancing your quest for the dictator or attempt the numerous checkpoint races dotted around, these races also serve another useful purpose as you will find that the end point of the races will sometimes bring you out near a mission or something else of interest and the races can usually be found all over the various towns on the map, this certainly helps to keep the game moving along and you are never really stuck wandering around for something to do as a consequence, even if you do get a bit lost you can summon a Medivac to transport you directly to an Allied base for a small fee

The factions missions are fun and include assassinations, destruction of military hardware amongst other things, the missions will affect how much each faction likes you and you may find that a faction will stop offering you missions for a while until you find a way to make amends for your deeds working for a rival faction. A nice touch is that you get to hear the description of a mission before deciding whether or not to accept the contract or go and do something else

Your money can be spent pretty much at your leisure, if the Russians are happy with you at the Russians 'Merchant of Menace' shop. Unlike other games of the genre you do not have to travel to certain points of the map to spend money, simply pressing right on the d-pad will open the shop menu for you and you can spend at will. Health, weapons, and a whole host of other toys can be purchased provided you have the cash and then can be used at your leisure via your support menu. You can only carry two weapons at once though (plus grenades and supports) which can be as much an annoyance as a challenge at times, it would be nice if you could gear up with a couple of machineguns, a sniper-rifle and rocket launcher all at once but you cant, something is going to have to get left behind. This does add a tactical element to the game however and you will find yourself having to plan what weapons to take along depending on what is required of you

Any equipment or vehicles that you purchase are airlifted straight to you in a matter of seconds and the game play advantages of this mechanism of purchasing arms and equipment compared to having to travel to an in game shop cannot be overstated enough, you never get that 'I-wanna-arm-up-but-the-shop-is-miles-away' frustration experienced in other games of this style and this is one of the nice touches things that really sets Mercenaries apart.

All in all Mercenaries of a very welcome spin on a tried and tested formula, any fan of the GTA games will be right at home here but Mercenaries has more than enough of its own style and game play devices going on to ensure that the game stands out on its own too.