Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Release Date: August 31, 2008
If you've ever wanted to hijack an assault chopper mid-flight, sink an oil tanker, or call in an airstrike to destroy the oil rig you're standing on, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames is the game for you. Pandemic Studio's sequel to their 2005 game is another third-person-perspective sandbox game that follows in the tradition of the Grand Theft Auto series. It gives you a massive sprawling environment with very few limits, where practically anything your imagination can conjure up, you can do —provided it involves explosives. While it's not without some noticeable flaws and bugs, it's still an action-packed, bullet-riddled, firepower fiesta that manages to set the bar for how much purely escapist fun can be crammed into one video game.
At its core, Mercenaries 2 is 20 to 30 hours of pursuing revenge for having been shot in the ass. There's no pretension to a serious plot or story here, just riotous arcade action. You can play as one of three laughably stereotypical sociopath action heroes. I chose Mattias Nilsson, the chaotic Mohawk-sporting Swede who looks like the result of a high-speed collision between Dennis Quaid, Hulk Hogan and a tattoo parlor. He's pretty much your typical one-dimensional badass who, over the course of the game, doesn't undergo any fundamental life-changing experiences, discover the meaning of true friendship or the underlying emptiness of the American dream. If you enjoyed Grand Theft Auto IV but thought the story line kept interrupting your fun, you'll find Mercenaries 2 more enjoyable because it simply dispenses with any such pesky interferences to instead focus on blowing up stuff.
That's not to say there isn't a premise here, but the somewhat amateur geopolitics feels almost like an afterthought to the more expertly handled destruction simulator. As the story goes, near-future Venezuela has become the battleground for competing interests from around the world, including big oil businesses, the Venezuelan national army, rebel revolutionaries, Jamaican pirates, an oil-hungry China, and a power-grabbing coalition of allied forces led by the United States. As a mercenary, your goal is to find the path among all of these disparate groups that will give you the most money. Doing this isn't always straightforward because sometimes two parties are in conflict with each other, and doing favors for one will ruin your relationship with the other. While they're friendly with you, you can visit their bases, buy their supplies, and take on their missions for money, but rub them the wrong way and you'll be on the receiving end of their RPGs. With a little forethought, it's not all that tricky to maintain friendly relations with all sides, and if you do mess up, you can always make it better with an expensive faction bribe.
The Venezuelan sandbox environment that is your playground of destruction is gigantic, immersive and seamless. As befits a warzone, it is dotted with military outposts, populated by soldiers and armed guards patrolling checkpoints, and littered with valuable pickups that reward exploration. You really get a great sense of the tremendous scale of Pandemic's undertaking when you're in the air and you can see the visually distinct areas like Lake Maracaibo, the skyscrapers of Caracas, the polluted haze that hangs over the oil refinery, the lushly vegetated Amazon rainforest, and shanty towns clinging precariously to the side of the hill. Initially, your exploration is limited by satellite coverage, but this expands as you progress through the game to give you a fairly massive gameplay environment.
With such an expansive territory, you're going to need some way of getting around, and Mercenaries 2 gives you options galore. From civilian cars to monster trucks, helicopters, jet skis, mobile SAM units and tanks, there's always a new way to get from point A to point B, and the choice is really in how fast you want to go, and how much damage you want to do when you get there. The quickest way by far is to recruit a chopper pilot who can taxi you in between different helicopter landing pads. The sheer variety of transport options is amazing, and it continues to grow as you play the game and unlock new land, sea and air vehicles. Whether you're piloting a boat, APC or motorbike, the vehicle controls are handled very competently with the appropriate depth and playability, although the tank controls take a little while to get used to.
A large part of opening up the game involves capturing outposts for the various factions, and this is where the bulk of Mercenaries 2's action lies. One faction wishing to expand its territory will pay you to destroy all of the resistance at a location so they can move in their soldiers and create a new military base of operations. Despite how often you'll find yourself doing these sorts of missions, it rarely gets old because from junkyards to mansions, each outpost is sufficiently different from the last, and the difficulty level escalates with more bad guys and heavier armed resistance. By simply switching up your strategy, you can have a fresh gameplay experience every time. Instead of just running in guns blazing, you could hijack a tank and plow through buildings, or even soften up the area first by calling in an airstrike or two.
When the bullets start flying, Mercenaries 2 becomes an orgy of beautifully orchestrated destruction that is a joy to behold and a blast to play. Practically every building from tiny military bunkers to the tallest skyscrapers is destructible, and more than just shattering, they'll crumble into a billowing pile of dust and rubble. The entire combat experience is highly satisfying, and there are a seemingly endless number of ways to wipe out your enemies. You can use regular run and gun, lethal single-blow melee attacks, plant C4 to topple the buildings they occupy, and rain death and destruction from above in an attack chopper. The lighting and effects are wonderfully visceral and immensely fun to watch. Trees catch fire and come crashing down, oil tanks blow up with a gigantic screen shake and a searing flash of white hot light, and artillery fire comes raining down like a fiery earthquake. The sheer number of moments where you're just wowed by the impressive combination of unadulterated firepower and destructive capability are worth the sticker price alone.
While the explosions are definitely worthy of praise, there are plenty of points elsewhere where the graphics are rough around the edges and don't live up to the expectations you might have for a next-generation game. In particular, the rim lighting of character models in cut scenes is overdone, and they appear to glow in the dark in a really distracting way. The game is also plagued with a fair number of graphical glitches and some draw distance issues that cause vehicles, terrain and enemies to pop in and out awkwardly.
During the course of the game, you'll get the chance to recruit other mercenaries to help you with your money-making endeavors. As well as being your air taxi, the chopper pilot can pick up and deliver supplies to you while you're in the middle of a firefight, provided you've taken care of the anti-air defenses first. An engineer can provide you with even more interesting, powerful and deadly transportation options, and the jet pilot will deliver death from above at your request. There's no better way to make an impression than by dropping tons of heavy ordnance on your enemy's head, and as you progress, you get to choose from an à la carte menu of more than 20 laser-guided bombs, cruise missiles, bunker busters, cluster bombs, daisy cutters, and more.
If you play the way I did, you'll find yourself frequently attempting to hijack enemy tanks and choppers. Helicopters can be stolen by grappling onto them when they fly overhead, and to take a tank, you must first eliminate the turret gunner. The actual takeover is played out as an interactive quick-time event, where you'll press and mash buttons matching the prompts as they appear on the screen. Follow the orders successfully, and the vehicle is yours, but mess up, and you're back on the street again. Quick time minigame events are finding their way more frequently into games, and, depending on your playing style, you'll need to have a fairly high tolerance for them because you'll find yourself doing them quite frequently.
Mercenaries 2 is firmly anchored in non-realistic action gaming territory, which will appeal to some gamers and turn off others. Your mercenary is very much a gung ho one-man (or -woman) army with Rambo-like resilience who can take on entire armies without breaking too much of a sweat. You can survive anything from a thousand-foot free fall from a helicopter to a tank shell in the face. These close-to-lethal events will reduce your health to nearly zero, but if you can find cover to avoid any further damage, your health will regenerate automatically, and you're good to resume your rampage. The way this is designed makes combat easy except in situations where you're totally outnumbered and overwhelmed by gunfire from all sides.
The game's overly forgiving lack of difficulty, combined with some pretty brainless AI enemies and an overly helpful auto-aim feature, keeps the gameplay flowing and prevents it from becoming too repetitive and frustrating. However, Mercenaries 2 could have benefitted from having its difficulty tweaked up a notch. Perhaps the hardest part is trying to second-guess the requirements on some of the contracts where you have to rescue and escort key characters who don't possess the same knack for indestructibility that you do. During some of these contracts, there are moments totally lacking in clear feedback where I often ended up failing for no clear reason. These instances, while rare, were frustrating enough to detract from the overall fun.
As with any sandbox game, Mercenaries 2 allows you to pursue the main campaign but also offers you a broad variety of secondary objectives, including capturing high-value targets, destroying buildings and simple assassination missions. Combine this with three different playable characters, hundreds of collectibles, and a branching plot later in the game, and you have a highly replayable experience that really offers good value for money when you start factoring in dollars per hours spent gaming.
Mercenaries 2 also offers online cooperative gameplay where you and a buddy can play through the entire campaign together, which is a very appealing prospect. While fanboys could argue back and forth for days about the minor graphical differences between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 versions of this game, a bigger difference that might disappoint PS3 owners is the lack of trophies. It's possible that this feature might become available in a future patch, but retroactive rewards are hardly consolation for those who are playing the game now.
Much like its predecessor, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames is about wreaking tremendous havoc and having fun while you do it. It's a good game that's prevented from being great by sub-par graphics, a few too many bugs and an overall lack of any serious challenge. If you can look past these shortcomings, however, Mercenaries 2 offers a great deal of high-energy explosive thrills and seriously satisfying action gameplay that is well worth your attention.
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