Monday, December 5, 2011

Game Review: Mercenaries 2

Mercenaries 2: World In Flames
  • Publisher: EA
  • Developer: Pandemic
  • Release: PlayStation 3, XBox 360, PC, PlayStation 2: August 2008
  • Genre: Action (3rd-person shooter)
  • Players: 1 local, 2 online
  • Rarity/Cost:
The original Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (2005, PS2 / XBox) was a rather underexposed title which nonetheless grew on me as one of my favorite games of its console generation.  Basically, it went down like this: picture a wide-open sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto III, only set in a war-torn North Korea.  You play as one of three mercenary soldiers working for a private military company, and your goal is to bring the nuclear-armed Korean generalissimo to justice.  All the while you'll have to gain intel and profits from multiple factions who have nothing in common except their desire to see the regime disappear.  And beyond the ordinary cars and guns you'd expect from its contemporaries, tanks, helicopters, explosives and airstrikes are in frequent supply.  Playground of Desctruction deserves a separate review somewhere down the line, but here's my short take on it.  It may not be as polished as the output of Rockstar North (the house that built GTAIII), but when it comes to straight-out fun, I prefer my open-world games set in a legally-defined war rather than a civilian-time life of crime.  And it's Teen-rated; I don't know about you, but that's a bonus in my book.

Fortunately, they found fit to maks a sequel: 2008's Mercenaries 2: World In Flames for PlayStation 3, XBox 360, and PC.  A port for PlayStation 2 was also released at the same time, but it departs substantially from its bigger brother and, again, merits its own review.  The plot this time around pits your PMC against Ramon Solano, an IT billionaire in Venezuela.  In the game's tutorial mission, he hires you to free a friend, General Carmona, from prison, but instead of paying you, he tries to have you killed.  In the meantime, he installs himself as the country's president with the general's help, but his days are numbered when your mercenary of choice decides to launch a campaign against the double-crosser.

If a soldier finishes reporting to HQ, your standing
with his faction will suffer.  (PS3 version shown.)
Obviously, you're not gonna do it alone.  Along the way you'll recruit a helicopter pilot, a mechanic, and a jet pilot who each provide you with valuable services, but you'll never get much done without taking on some work.  The factions you'll be making deals with include an American oil company (Universal Petroleum), a ragtag band of communist guerillas (People's Liberation Army of Venezuela), a group of Jamaican pirates, and returning from the first game, the United Allied Nations and Chinese armies.  You'll have to balance your relationships with each of the five factions.  If you destroy assets (soldiers, vehicles, etc.) from one faction, you'll improve standing with its rival (UP vs. PLAV, Allies vs. China), but if someone successfully reports you, your standing with the target faction will go down.  Or if all else fails, bring out the big bucks and just bribe 'em.  There are many side-quest activities to pursue (destroying target buildings, capturing HVTs, collecting spare parts), but if you ignore them, you'll doom yourself to a far shorter campaign than in the first game.

It wouldn't be a Mercenaries game without the ability to call in airstrikes and support whenever you need them, and World in Flames does not disappoint.  The problem lies in how you acquire them.  Unlike in the first game, where you could place orders from your PDA no matter where you were, this time around, you have to buy them directly from one of a faction's shops, and add the goods to your stockpile.  Then, you have to collect oil and spend it in order to call in your new toys.  Wait a minute...  Venezuela, oil, America against China... any more political and they'd have to use real world leaders!  (And wouldn't you know it, the "Blow It Up Again" DLC expansion does something like that.)  On the plus side, your helicopter pilot has the ability to pick up any of the frequently-found oil tankers and even airstrike ammo you find lying around, as well as airlift you directly to any outposts you've unlocked (provided you're in good standing with their owners).

Fuel tanks like these can be stolen, adding to your stockpile, or just make a big boom. (PS3 version shown.)
In a game where so many things go boom, you'd expect the physics engine to be up to snuff, and it pretty much is.  You know how you could destroy almost everything in the first game?  Well, now you can take the "almost" out of the statement.  Out of all the video games I've played in my life, it's so nice to have one where you can knock down trees instead of them staying firmly rooted in the ground!  The AI, on the other hand, has made no improvement.  In one mission where I had to call in a strike team in order to capture a building, I threw the smoke grenade on the ground only for - twice in a row - the helicopter to land on the roof of a nearby building and the soldiers to fall to their deaths.

If you've read all this and wish you could have a friend share in the fun, you're in luck... sort of.  Mercenaries 2 supports online co-op on both the PS3 and 360.  It's drop-in-drop-out, meaning that anyone can jump into your single-player game at any time and quit whenever they (or you) wish.  Unfortunately, there's no in-game support for voice or even text chat of any kind, so it gets all the more frustrating when your partner starts destroying things they're not supposed to or just stands around doing nothing forever.  "But wait," you say, "I can't get the game to run when I'm signed in, so does that mean EA shut down the game's servers?"  No, but the truth is more complicated than that, which is why I present to you an...

Important Notice:  The PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 versions may not run if you try to play whilst logged into PSN/XBox Live, because the game gets stuck at the "Connecting to server" message, and doesn't even error out over time.  Contrary to popular belief, the cause of this has something to do with the Terms and Conditions; EA must have updated them somewhere along the line, but never patched their new location into Mercenaries 2.  Fortunately, there is a way around this.  What you need to do is buy, rent, or borrow any EA-produced game released before Mercenaries 2 (August 2008) that still has online features up and running.  Compatible games as of the time of this writing (December 2011) include Need For Speed Carbon, The Orange Box, and Battlefield Bad Company.  All you need to do is accept the Terms and Conditions from one of these games, and you're all set to go back to Mercenaries 2.  Oh, and the PC version's servers have officially been shut down, and the PlayStation 2 version never had any online features to begin with.

Edit 20/Jul/2012: Rumours exist that as of earlier this year, this bug has been fixed.  I for one am not in the mood to test this for myself, at least not until I get the remaining online Trophies, but that's great to hear all the same.  Lord knows I need some good news for once.

Seeing as how I've spent exponentially more time with Mercenaries 2 than any other game on my new PS3, I'll let you guess how much I like it.  But critically, is it better than the original Mercenaries?  There's not much World in Flames adds to the formula that makes it more exciting than Playground of Destruction, and what changes have (or haven't) been made tend to fall on the side of annoyance.  At the end of the day I'd prefer more mechanics to have carried over from the first game, but what we've got is still perfectly satisfying for anyone with a hunger for open-world gameplay.  Grand Theft Auto IV may be a more well-oiled machine, but I'll be darned if Mercenaries 2 isn't more fun to drive.

Graphics: 4 airstrikes out of 5
Sound: 4 airstrikes out of 5
Control: 3 airstrikes out of 5
Design: 4 airstrikes out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Next Episode:  You know the worst manga I've ever read and reviewed?  They made a sequel!

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