Release Date: January 10, 2005
I understand that you like to blow things up. Good news: Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction has you covered.
It is less a game and more of one long simulated explosion, delivered via and to planes, tanks, bombs, helicopters, and missiles. If you see it and you have access to enough munitions, you can bring it crashing down, complete with massive clouds of pulverized concrete and a satisfying detonation. There are, of course, people in the area who’d usually prefer that you didn’t, but you’d be surprised how little their objections matter when you have a loaded rocket launcher.
Mercenaries is another entry in an as-yet-unnamed subgenre; call it free action or something. As one of three freelance military operatives, you’re set loose in a small nation to do whatever you want. You can steal cars, drive recklessly, explore mountain ranges, destroy enemy encampments, play with dangerous military hardware, knock down skyscrapers, blow up buildings, or call in airstrikes on whatever offends you. It’s not flawless and it’s often frustrating, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
In Mercenaries, North Korea’s newly elected government has been overthrown by General Song, the most dangerous man on the planet. The country’s now a warzone, as foreigners try to exploit the chaos and Song tries to consolidate his power base. ExOps, a military contractor and your employer, has sent you here to hunt down Song and his subordinates, who’ve been assigned codenames based on playing cards.
Mercenaries is split up into four “levels,” so to speak, as you hunt down each member of the “Deck of 52” by their assigned suit. With each target you capture or kill, you earn money, which you can use to purchase hardware and munitions, and gather intel, which you can use to eventually figure out where Song’s officers are hiding.
There are five factions vying for control of the country. There’s no talking to the North Koreans, who’re pretty much shooting at everyone they see, but you can take on freelance work for the Allied Nations (AN), Russian Mafia, Chinese, and South Koreans. Most of them are trying as hard as they can to screw each other over, so you’ll wind up playing all sides against the middle. Pulling off a successful mission is worth cash, prestige with the faction that hired you, and new intel that can lead you to the members of the Deck of 52.
Alternatively, you can just take off on your own. Korea’s full of hidden bases, concealed treasures, special challenges, and stupid things to do on purpose, and as long as you’re not on a mission at the time, you can do just about whatever you want. The only real restriction is that, as an ExOps employee, you’re discouraged from directly killing civilians or Allied soldiers. Doing either will instantly deduct a cash penalty from your account.
If you can see a vehicle in Mercenaries, you can usually steal it. Helicopters, tanks, APCs, jeeps, civilian automobiles, and more are available for you to drive around like a maniac. Probably about half the game is spent behind the wheel, as you can pose as a member of an army by driving one of their vehicles, and a lot of missions require you to grab a car of some sort. You can also make a decent living as a car thief, selling your cars at the Russian Mafia’s chopshop.
Speaking of the Mafia, their online store, the Merchant of Menace, is a big part of the game. As long as you have a clear place for their helicopters to land, you can order virtually anything from their online store through your character’s PDA: exclusive vehicles, airdropped weapons caches, and even redirected airstrikes. Yes, for only two hundred thousand dollars, you too can drop a bunker buster on that mook who’s been shooting at you for the last three minutes. Overkill? Perhaps, but it sends a message.
The further you get in the game, the more hardware becomes available for purchase or theft. For instance, once you capture the Ace of Clubs and start in on the Diamonds, you’ll find that the Allies have shipped in some brand new toys like anti-aircraft tanks. You’ll often be rewarded for completing a mission or capturing one of the Deck with a new item becoming available for purchase in the Russian Mafia’s store.
When you’re on foot, Mercenaries gets a lot more challenging. You can carry up to two firearms, such as carbines, shotguns, sniper rifles (this is one of the best sniper rifles in gaming history, by the way; it’s a semi-automatic, so it works just as well up close as it does at range), assault weapons, RPGs, or anti-tank cannons; twelve grenades, both frag and stun; and four C4 charges. The general theme here is to blow the other guy up before he does the same to you.
This is where the frustration comes in, as Mercenaries handles damage in a weird way. An individual bullet doesn’t hurt much, if at all, but explosions can stun and maim you in an instant. You can get knocked down from 100 health to 1 by a single direct hit from any kind of explosive weapon, from an RPG to a tank’s cannon. Trying to take on any kind of armored vehicle or aircraft with anything less than heavy weapons that were specifically designed to neutralize them, i.e. an anti-aircraft missile against a helicopter, is a recipe for suicide.
This seems like common sense, obviously, but everyone in Mercenaries is carrying explosives. It’s not uncommon to get into long-distance RPG duels with Korean soldiers, or to get bushwhacked by tanks at every turn. At the same time, a collapsing building doesn’t have any inherent lethality of its own, so if you knock the top two floors off a building, the snipers on the roof will still be up there, unbothered. Fights in Mercenaries have this weird and unique habit of swinging wildly from unthreatening to lethal at a moment’s notice.
You’re also meant to be able to use stealth to get by certain obstacles. For example, you can sneak into enemy territory by driving one of their vehicles, thus making them think you’re one of theirs, or skulk through the underbrush to attack a camp from behind. In practice, it doesn’t work as well as you might think, especially on foot. Soldiers are either supernaturally aware of their surroundings and will see you from a mile off, or are so stupid that you could get the drop on them while singing the Carmina Burana. There’s no real middle ground.
Finally, Korea is honeycombed with tunnel systems, through which Song moves troops and armor. The effect is that several camps are built around barracks or hatches in the ground which constantly disgorge fresh soldiers, like a monster generator in Gauntlet. These are surprisingly hard to blow up, and are kind of silly besides; it’s like you’re waging manly war against an endless force of vicious clowns, constantly emerging from a very small car.
These are all valid concerns, but I’ll admit that many of them evaporate when I knock something down. As befits a LucasArts game, Mercenaries has really, really high production values. The voice-acting and sound effects are nothing short of excellent, and each faction’s territory comes with its own characteristic music.
On the PS2, Mercenaries’s graphics have taken a slight hit, especially if you’re in a helicopter. There’s a murky fog that helps to mask the popup, but it’s still there. On the other hand, the game always runs smoothly, no matter how much stuff is exploding, and you can go from one end of Korea to the other without encountering a load screen.
There’s a lot I’d like to see in Mercenaries, like the ability to enter buildings, an autosave system (you can save anywhere unless you’re on a mission, in which case you can’t save at all until you’re done), or, perhaps most crucially, an online multiplayer mode. What we’ve got here, however, is a fun and truly enormous action game based around that most perfect of gaming goals: blowing up anything that so much as thinks at you funny. Whenever some small facet of Mercenaries’s gameplay annoys you, just grab a rocket launcher and go knock down a Korean guard tower. That’ll set you straight.
More articles about Mercenaries