Gamestyle Archive Intro: developers do get carried away with graphic engines and new possibilities. These fads soon pass but physics was high on some titles experience back during the PS2 era. This review is from January 2005 and JJ.
Mercenaries is Rambo for a new generation. Pretty much everything within the sphere of the game can be obtained, utilised and destroyed. There is no distinction between friends or enemies; they only exist to offer contracts, and only care about the results. And this freedom is what makes the playground of Mercenaries so enjoyable. Cast into the wasteland of North Korea by your employer (Executive Operations), you are an elite mercenary given more chance of success than a whole army. By playing off four political parties against each other, you will obtain contracts and intelligence that will lead to the capture (or extermination) of wanted individuals in the North Korean regime.
Your targets are numerous, but they are conveniently listed in a deck of 52 cards (and mirror the US strategy for the war on terror). You have no political agenda – only a corporate desire for cash, and plenty of it. Anyone entering Pandemic’s playground will instantly be reminded of an infamous series by Rockstar North. And, while Gamestyle acknowledges the similarities, Mercenaries is moreover redolent of an earlier title by Rockstar – when they were previously known as DMA Design. Body Harvest, on the Nintendo 64, was an open-ended battlefield where the player waged war against alien invaders; where vehicles and missions could be juggled as the player saw fit. It is this blueprint that Pandemic has lifted and transformed into latter-day Mercenaries.
In terms of performance, the Playstation 2 engine is impressive, but the multi-format roots of this release have somewhat inhibited Pandemic’s expression. Mercenaries is played out over a commendably huge area – which is constantly streamed from the disc – yet the draw distance is distracting. It’s almost as if North Korea is suffering from industrial smog; taking to the skies wholly obscures the land mass and makes your flying experience a complete washout, while on the ground there are plenty of obstacles ready and willing to hamper your enjoyment (be it fences, lamp posts or some badly-textured foliage). The civilian population of North Korea is extremely sparse: residents march along pre-determined routes, bumping into buildings and such like. They have no real impact upon the player, save for becoming collateral damage (and costing the mercenary dearly in terms of cash penalties). Nevertheless, it can be fun finding the beginning of their route – where they suddenly pop out of a building – and then watching them shuffle about like Dawn of the Dead extras.
The controls are fairly well-implemented, although the lack of any lock-on option does prove frustrating. Every type of vehicle handles differently, and this also requires concentrated effort from the player (especially as the physics modelling would make Einstein weep). Mercenaries makes use of the ever-popular Havok engine, but collisions and explosions have been ‘jerry-rigged’ for theatrical effect; the casual observer may be spellbound, but the embattled player will have to battle on regardless. However, the soundtrack and staged effects are of the highest standard – suitably epic and providing a robust atmosphere. And, while the locals may not be up to much, the various occupying forces are authentic and accurately-voiced. Pandemic has avoided the pitfalls of relying solely on missions by introducing challenges and hiding secret plans across the landscape – completing or uncovering these will yield a helpful bonus (the opportunity to play as Hans Solo or Indiana Jones, for example).
However, the real highlight arrives in the form of the sinister ‘Merchant of Menace’ organisation (which shares a humorous subtext with the Ratchet & Clank series); here you can purchase commodities from their extensive catalogue, and have vital supplies flown in by helicopter. These are especially helpful if you find yourself outgunned, or low on heath or ammunition. Yet the merchants offer a good deal more in the form of air strikes and vehicles – rest assured if they can ship it, you can buy it. Having filled this virtual war zone with several conflicting sides, missions, and more weaponry than Saddam could ever dream of, it’s somewhat baffling that Gamestyle eventually grew tired of Mercenaries. For all of the shock and awe-inspiring excitement gleaned during the first few hours, the hunt for each wanted card (or playing off the Mafia against the Chinese or whomever) became tiresome – as did the relentless destruction. Mercenaries paints a vivid picture of freedom and choice, but the reality is much more vanilla: missions are unlocked and key North Korean personnel are triggered simply by your progress. There isn’t any skill involved in tracking down your next target – simply head to the location highlighted on your map.
Mercenaries is literally a ‘blast’ for a few hours, but it isn’t underpinned by the same qualities that defined the GTA series (or Body Harvest, for that matter). Like an empty warehouse it may be huge and imposing, but once inside your options are limited – and disappointingly so.
Gamestyle Score: 7/10