XBOX REVIEW: MERCENARIES: PLAYGROUND OF DESTRUCTION

Sometimes Santa brings presents after Christmas. If you're an action shooter fan, then you'll be impressesd with the bundle Kris Kringle leaves in your Xbox...after you go to the Mall and pay for this game and place it in there yourself, of course. From the moment I ordererd my first carpet bomb during the demo, I was hooked on Pandemic's wildly entertaining single player explosion-fest. The final product is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It's filled with an incredible 52 missions, and dozens of side missions which culminate in 40+ hours or more of game time, which is almost unheard of in this genre.

Taking the popular "Grand Theft Auto" school of design and littering the playfield with a plethora of vehicles - both ground and air - for you to enjoy at your leisure while keeping the action intense, Pandemic Studios has a sleeper hit on their hands. While this one may have slipped under your radar, it won't stay that way for long. Either the entertaining commercials will catch your eye or you'll begin to hear the buzz around this one. In any case you won't be able to ignore this one for long as it just begs to be played.

As one of three suitable "mercenaries" who loans themselves to different factions - Allied Nations, South Korea, Russian Mafia, and the Chinese - your goal will be locate the top 52 rogue militants in North Korea. North Korea stands on the brink of a global war and you'll have to capture the 52 as a measure to stop the escalating tensions. Each rogue is given a title related to a complete deck of cards and you'll traverse the North Korean landscape in an attempt to bring them all to justice.

If you can't imagine the implications of working for four unique political factions, let me tune you in. When working for one of them, you will inevitably step on the toes of the others. Balance is key to the success of Mercenaries and you can view the stats on exactly whom you're in favor with and whom you're pissing off. Try and keep them all generally happy and remember that all is fair in love and war - if they need you, they'll forgive and forget rather quickly.

Since you're a Merc, you'll be doing this all for the good of your wallet and not for the good of your mother land; take that Sam Fisher. Bigger jobs pay bigger bucks which means you can spend your hard-earned dough on more explosive weapons and air strikes. Did I just say "air strikes?". Let the destruction begin.

The single most addictive quality to Mercenaries is the "Playground of Destruction" subtitle, but it's not always about wanton destruction. While some missions give you some leeway as to how you'll take down the objective, others require more strategy and thus selecting the right approach and the right weapons for the job is completely necessary to succeed. Obliterating an entire city can't be ignored on the coolometer and frankly this game raises a new bar on this type of mechanic. MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf and Otogi 2 also allow completely destructable environments, but neither game can hold a candle to Mercenaries as far as I'm concerned. When a skyscraper is razed in Mercenaries it is something to behold.

Controlling either the mercenary of your choice or the vehicles and aircraft at your disposal has been fine tuned for excellence. The left analog stick controls movement while the right analog controls camera. As Chris mentioned in his hands on preview, calling in airstrikes is done in realtime which can make the game more difficult. I found this to elevate the tension and I welcomed it. I personally dislike games that pause the action while they let you fumble around looking for the right weapon. Sometimes you'll succeed in calling on extra help and sometimes you'll get a rocket in the face. Such is life as a merc, I guess. I was very impressed with the physics of the vehicles. Floaty

Enemy AI runs the gamut from moronic to sneaky and devious (later in the game). Most of the time they will just try and overpower you with sheer numbers. Some of them will stand in the open taking fire, while others will run for cover. Later in the game you'll even experience the AI at their best when the team work AI program appears. They can be pretty crafty, but that's why Pandemic allows you to call in a carpet bomb. Take that team work!

The Havok engine is used to great effect and buildings and people will crumble most effectively. Visually the game isn't the sharpest and most detailed game to appear on the Xbox and some might find the use of fog and simple textures slightly disappointing. However the trade off is in the HUGE environments where almost any structural object is capable of being shaken to the ground with incredible smoke and fire effects to drive home the realism. There is also some framerate issues when too many things appear on screen but I doubt anyone will find huge faults with these minor quibbles. Don't get me wrong and think Mercenaries is an ugly dog of a game as that is definitely not the case. Chances are you'll be having so much fun you won't notice the odd hiccup here and there.

You won't be able to choose your own tunes for this adventure, which is a perk of the Xbox system that developers seem to be supporting less and less over time, but what is available actually works to great effect. You'd think that screaming metal guitars combined with heavy bass and drums would be the order of the day as you waged your own man war but instead you'll hear military-esque marches, ambient choral arrangements and even some classical melodies. It would have been nice to have chosen to destroy North Korea with your own background music playing, but if you give it a chance the music really does compliment the atmosphere.

Unfortunately Mercenaries gameplay is strictly single player and there isn't any multiplayer options to speak of. Not even split screen. A co-op mode online or over a LAN would have been welcome for the sheer fun of it and multiplayer would have been insane. Considering Pandemic recently developed the stellar Star Wars Battlefront, the gaming community knows that they can pull off great multiplayer gaming. To be perfectly honest I feel like an ingrate evening mentioning the absence of multiplayer because the game is so well designed in all aspects. Let's leave it at this: Maybe Mercenaries 2 will feature it.

Without sounding trite, Mercenaries is the best game I've played all year....and it's only January 11th! That being said, Pandemic has set the bar for action games in 2005 and from what I've seen coming down the road, Mercenaries has a good chance of taking home some awards later this year. The play and replay value of the game is currently unheard of in the shooter genre and it's safe to say this is one game not worth renting; the late charges will kill you. Mercenaries is 2005's first "Must Have Right Now" title.

Preview By Chris
Hands On: I wrote the preview for the game Mercenaries awhile back. The idea of taking part fact of the current events in the war and mixing in a fictional story may just work. At the time the preview was written it was all in the hands of Lucas Arts. Now it seems the game has been handed over in part to Pandemic Studios. This new partnership seems like a great idea. I like war games that are good ones and have a decent story added to it. Running around, blowing enemies up and objectives without any reason seems boring. Mercenaries the game seems to have a decent storyline. The game is very complicated and this may hurt the game in sales. It's also so realistic that at times it almost hurts the action of the game. Read on to see what I mean.

I am all for realism in a game. In fact I have said certain games did not offer enough realism to warrant a higher score. However, I think the makers of Mercenaries may have taken for granted the normal gamers knowledge of weapons and military language. Since I grew up on and around military bases, I know the lingo and the weapons. I also have to chalk up my past experience playing other war-themed games. My first impression of the game was "wow, how is the normal gamer going to know what this really is?" Granted gamers pick things up fast yet, I still think they may have gone beyond the bar so to speak on some of the weapons and the controls. Also, the load times were long and if they remain this way, this will also hurt the way gamers are going to react to the game. I know it was only a demo and it will probably get tweaked. The game is truly remarkable when it comes to realistic details. I will give the game credit in this department. The graphics look good but are in need of a few tweaks and a full polish before the release date. Again, this is an early demo and I am sure Lucas Arts is going to make the needed changes. I noticed a few areas where I could walk through (we call it clipping or a glitch). It's a mistake that the testers missed and it happens. The game does have great sound and the use of the voice actors adds an even more realistic feeling to the overall game.

Now for the not so flattering part of the hands on experience: the controls! They have to be the most complicated and touchy ones I have seen in a very long time. It has so many options and controls that there will be a long learning curve to memorize where everything is. Now this is a huge deal. When certain aspects of each objective require the gamer to call in an air strike or ask for a carpet bomb to be dropped, you have to arm the item from the menu using the D pad. Then use the left joystick to use the item. Then carefully use the instant air shots of the area to pin point the drop point. Then if that was not enough, you need to hold in the right trigger to arm the whole strike and wait for the voice cue. If it sounds like a mouthful, just wait until you have to do it while under heavy fire from the countless enemies. Now I will say with some time I was able to accurately launch each item, however, I still took some heavy damage. Every weapon other than your gun or grenades needs to be selected, placed and armed. The commands are more of the type those who play PC games will be used to than a console gamer.

The game is impressive in certain areas. It looks good but the average gamer may not want to take the time to learn everything needed to enjoy what it has to bring to the table. Now I am sure Mercenaries will have levels that will start off easy or a tutorial but please do not hold me to it.

Mercenaries the game has a ton to offer and is one of those games that will not let you have a minute's rest. I mean that in a good way. The action is intense and the graphics are very realistic as is the violent nature of war itself and the language. If you're into war games in a big way, you will probably enjoy the game. Those who are into war games a little and may not have a vast knowledge or playing time under their belt should plan on a rental first. It does look like Pandemic and Lucas have a potential hit on their hands but only for a certain targeted group.

Preview by Chris

LucasArts is taking the recent events in Iraq and using a mix of fact and fiction in the making of a new game. While the whole storyline is not known, the basic plot could happen one day. On the eve of a historic reunification between North and South Korea a general has an evil plan. He launches his plan and is trying to take over North Korea. To make matters worse he also threatens anyone who stops him with the threat of an all out nuclear war. The world, now panic stricken, sets up a special task force to try and overtake the general and his top people. At first they try the diplomatic approach and when things begin to fall into a chaos state they have only one choice of offering a one hundred million dollars bounty to any person or group who can take out this evil general and his top people. To follow current events there just happens to be 52 people in the list of those needed to be dealt with.

Part of the 52 most wanted are made up of the general and his top aides and scientists who are neatly placed in a deck of playing cards (I bet you saw that part coming). As the top operative of a mercenary group, you accept the mission. Your goal at first is simple: take out the list of the most wanted in any order that will lead to the capture or death of the top wanted. Your main goal is of course getting your hands on the general. The most wanted deck of cards comes into play as both knowing who to go after first and a way of helping you get to the higher people in the general's army. You get paid for each successful person captured or shall we say taken care of? Each person you deal with may help you with information to aid you in getting closer to the bigger targets. To make things a little more like the current on-going situation in the real world, a reporter is following you and your group's progress. You also get money for not only taking care of each person in the deck but also rewarded for things like how much damage or harm was done to civilians or their properties.

Mercenaries will also include an environment that almost anything around you can be used in one way or the other. This includes civilian vehicles and of course military ones. You will build up a cash flow as you begin tracking down each person in the deck of the most wanted. This will enable you to buy new weapon and gather important info or use the black market to buy new weapons. The game will allow an open style of game play that will allow you to play the game as you want to and not in any order opening the game up to a few neat possibilities and perhaps more value since the game will change each time based on who you go after and in what order. The graphics look good and LucasArts is promising some of the best graphics ever seen. Take a look at the early screen shots and we will have more on this one when it's shown off at E3. The subject may be a little to close to reality but they seem to have created a unique game based on current issues in the world.

Story: Mercenaries is a revolutionary, 3rd person action-shooter game set in the near future and inspired by real world events. On the eve of a historic reunification of North and South Korea, a ruthless general stages a military coup to take control of North Korea and threatens the world with nuclear war. The international community launches a global task force to stabilize the region. However, when diplomatic efforts collapse and the region descends into anarchy they announce a one hundred million dollar bounty on the North Korean general and his top military and scientific advisors. The targets are identified in a “most wanted” list in the form of a 52-card deck of playing cards. As one of the top operatives for a private mercenaries company called Executive Operations, you have been called in to collect on these bounties.
Massive, open environments that are completely interactive. If you can see it, you can use it, steal it, drive it, fly it, or blow it up.

Features:

  • Explosive combat - you have the firepower (choose from a huge arsenal of realistic, military weapons) to lay waste to anything in sight.
  • Flexible gameplay - Use your weapons and your imagination to figure out how to complete missions in a variety of ways in non-scripted environments.
  • Dozens of different military and civilian vehicles, ranging from tanks, cars, trucks, helicopters, and more that can be commandeered at anytime and used for any purpose.
  • Some of the best graphics seen on the consoles - great weather and realistic explosion/destruction effects.
  • Based on the US military’s system of identifying a “most wanted” list of enemy targets in a playing card deck, players will use the playing card metaphor to identify missions and enemy targets. Take on missions from the different factions in order to gain intelligence and get new playing cards/targets and access to new areas.
  • Reputation system that is driven by an embedded journalist that records player actions, which determines how civilians and the various warring factions respond to the player.
  • Earn cash from different missions to buy better weapons and vehicles, or sell your vehicles and weapons on the black market.
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System: Xbox, PS2,
Dev: Pandemic Studios
Pub: LucasArts
Release: Jan 2005
Players: 1
Review by Vaughn
RATING (OUT OF 5)
OVERALL
4.75
GRAPHICS
4.5
CONTROL
4.0
MUSIC/FX
4.5
VALUE
5.0