There are few people more despicable than mercenaries. By definition, they are those who have chosen to indulge in acts of violence motivated only by personal profit. Mercenaries don't believe in anything other than getting paid, and while that attitude might be encouraged among musicians and professional athletes, when the person's primary job responsibility is murder, I can't imagine many people would defend it as a valid career choice.
The denizens of this bottom rung of humanity are the primary focus of Pandemic's shockingly T-rated third-person shooter, Mercenaries. Between this game and Destroy All Humans, Pandemic has established itself as an early specialist in the burgeoning field of games that offer Grand Theft Auto-style mass murder without attracting the attention of Senate subcommittees. All the running, shooting, and hijacking that GTA fans know and love is on display here, with a better physics engine and buildings that can be destroyed with a little bit of effort,. This is all wrapped up inside a plot torn from tomorrow's headlines, in which a North Korean madman has both declared war on South Korea and announced his intention to nuke any country who interferes with his plans for reunification.
The game's structure is fairly simple, and broken up into four chapters. The ultimate goal is to capture General Song, and collect the hundred million dolllar bounty on his head. First, the player must work his way up through the ranks of Song's special forces divisions, and the only way to find out where they're hiding is by performing missions for the game's three expansionist factions: The Chinese, who want to take over North Korea, the South Koreans, who want to take over North Korea, and the Russian mob, who want to get the whole country addicted to narcotics and Baltic whores. There's a fourth faction, the relatively benign Allied Nations, who are the ones putting the bounty on General Song, but who, tragically, have no information to offer about his whereabouts, forcing the player to work for one of the less savory elements on the peninsula.
The game doesn't have enough story to require actual characters, so the available avatars are very thinly drawn; each one has just enough personality to determine which kind of sarcastic comments they'll make in a given situation. The only real decision players have to make is whether they want to spend ten hours hearing the thoughts of a crafty English woman, a sassy black man, or a guy who likes the violence a little too much.
Given the opportunity, it's no surprise that I chose to play exclusively as Han Solo. That's right—because this is a Lucasarts game, one of the unlockable bonus player skins is Han Solo. With a little bit of effort spent tracking down ancient Chinese artifacts and weapons of mass destruction, he's available fairly early in the game. Unfortunately, a questionable programming decision causes the game to reset the skin each time a new mission begins (or is restarted), which forced me to enter the Han cheat code roughly five hundred times over the course of the game. The "cool factor" of controlling Han Solo as he hijacked a Chinese tank then used its main gun to blow up a helicopter more than made the hassle worthwhile.
While the missions are fun enough, the game's sandbox elements are the real standout. The world map up is broken up into two provinces, and other than a training mission at the very beginning, it's basically all available to explore right away. Driving around aimlessly in tanks, blasting tanks fifty feet into the air—this is why the game exists, and the developers know it. This is a game that lives or dies by the impressiveness of its explosions, and on that level, it's an unmitigated success.
There's plenty of money to be made in the game, and nothing substantial to spend it on other than airstrikes, so it's good that they're all as stunningly attractive as they are. The real standout in the assortment is the Fuel/Air bomb, which costs nearly half a million dollars and offers just enough firepower to level a small city. It's a fantastic sight to behold, and more than worth the six successful missions it takes to afford one.
It's a good thing that the game's sandbox aspects are as good as they are, because one insanely stupid programming decision makes the "plot" missions ten times more difficult to complete than they ought to be. Much like Grand Theft Auto 2, Mercenaries has a faction structure that reacts dynamically to the player's actions. If I blow up a Chinese tank, the Chinese will like me less. Eventually, the Chinese stopped offering me missions, cutting off access to their intelligence on General Song and closest officers. While it's easy to make a faction hate me, it's nearly impossible to make them like me again. The only way to accomplish this is to commit acts of violence against an enemy of the Chinese while a Chinese officer is watching. This is even harder to accomplish than it sounds. Unfortunately, just like in GTA 2, it's impossible to beat the game working for just one faction, and since most of the game's later missions require the player to attack one faction at the behest of another, working for enough of the different factions to gather all the intelligence becomes an unholy chore.
Which brings us to the stupid programming mistake. Right in the game's core hijacking mechanic there's a facet that could have streamlined the gameplay quite a bit while actually making it more realistic. Steal a vehicle when no one's looking, and the player is "disguised."; They can drive around pretending to be a member of the faction that the vehicle belongs to. For some reason, committing any act of violence while in that vehicle breaks the disguise. This would make sense if the game could determine what aggressive acts were out of character, such as Chinese attacking Chinese, but it can't, which makes what should have been an interesting gameplay mechanic functionally useless.
It's all the more puzzling because the game's main premise—working for all the different factions to make as much money as possible—clearly suggests it as the logical course of action. After all, I want to work for the Chinese in the future, so when the South Koreans hire me to blow up a Chinese roadblock, wouldn't it make more sense to steal a North Korean helicopter to do it so I don't get the blame? Heck, the way it stands now makes no logical sense—in one mission, I was hired by the Chinese to defend a city from the South Koreans. I spent the entire mission inside a Chinese tank, blasting away at Korean jeeps and helicopters. By the end of the mission, the South Koreans hated me, even though all they saw was a Chinese tank blasting away at them—and the ones who saw even that were dead too soon to tell anyone about it.
While the plot and mission structure are something of a misfire, the game still manages to be a success. Fulfilling the promise made by the subtitle, Mercenaries does offer a "playground of destruction," a morally empty wasteland where life is cheap and so are mass quantities of high explosives. I wonder if we haven't reached the point where games like this can start leaving out the plot entirely. It's a game about giving the player a gun and telling them to go nuts. Beyond a unique setting that allows the games to be differentiated from one another, do people really need any "dramatic" content?
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Playstation 2 version of the game.