Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
- Publisher: LucasArts
- Developer: Pandemic
- Release: PlayStation 2 / XBox, January 2005
- Genre: 3D Action
- Players: 1
- Rarity/Cost: Moderate (US$10-30)
North Korea has always been a fascinating subject for me, despite how sad the whole thing is. The government has allowed large chunks of its population to starve, established the most extensive and longest-lasting propaganda operation in modern history, imprisons those who try to break that image and lock them up into nigh-unlivable prison camps, lavishes all its attention on a military who would be willing to launch an all-out assault on the West at the slightest provocation, and if you were to ask any of the authorities about this, they would deny it to their last breath. So yeah, you'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany, at least not in this galaxy. From time to time I have entertained the thought of taking a little tour in North Korea, but it would inevitably end with me attempting to assassinate the leader and/or getting "disappeared", so forget about it. That's why I've done the next-best thing: experience it in a video game.
Our fictional North Korean head of state, and the game's villain, is General Song, who seized power from his father and started building up the military. When the Australian navy caught him shipping weapons to terrorists, the
|Killing a faction's soldiers automatically lowers your|
relationship rating with them. (XBox version shown.)
But it pays to play the sides against each other: your rewards for completing story missions are cash, ordinance and supplies, and the locations of North Korean officials. Arranged into a "Deck of 52" cards like what was used during the Iraq War (i.e. General Song is ranked as the Ace of Spades), capturing or (for half the reward money) killing these high-value targets (HVTs) fills up an intel meter, viewable in your PDA's menus. The "number cards", 2 through 10 of each suit, are scattered around the map, and clearing missions for each faction will give you hints on their locations. On the other hand, the "face cards", the Jacks, Queens, and Kings, have missions dedicated to capturing them, and they fill up a bigger chunk of the intel meter. You can unlock the Ace missions without having captured or killed all of the HVTs in a particular suit, but while I do admire this flexibility, completing an Ace mission will permanently lock you out from finding any remaining HVTs, so beware if your goal is 100%-completion. You might also want to save before and after attempting to capture an HVT alive, lest an errant explosion kill him or her against your wishes. Save Scumming: it's how the pros do it!
|Call a helicopter to pick up HVTs,|
but clear the landing site first!
(XBox version shown.)
The world of Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction consists of two large maps, one for each half of the game's story. When you take that into account, it becomes understandable that the loading times are on the unfriendly side, and a heaping helping of fog limits the real estate that is drawn on screen. (The latter, if not the former, was also improved in the sequel.) Nonetheless, frame rates are generally stable, and there's quite a bit of bloom lighting to be had, but the washed-out colour palette may not be to everyone's taste. Of course, I'd imagine the real North Korea is similar in that regard. There's not a lot of music to be had, either, but when it does play, it's grand orchestal fare which would fit well in a movie. Then again, you could watch the upcoming remake of Red Dawn to get the same effect. But you'd miss the personality of the voice-actors, including Phil LaMarr (Chris), Jennifer Hale (Jen), and Peter Stormare (Matthias), who leave no doubt that they love blowing stuff up.
It's true that Mercanaries is nowhere near a perfect game. One of the game's weakest points is the AI. Take for example the helicopters you call in to extract high-value targets. It takes effort to find a suitable landing spot, since even the slightest bit of uneven terrain and the chopper will reject your call. Even if you do manage to bring it in, there's a possibility that it could touch down on a stray rock or car, and get tossed around. And it appears that the computer-controlled North Korean soldiers have no qualms about letting their unit leaders (read: HVTs) get blown up by stray explosions, which is why I stressed the importance of saving. (Save early and often, like voting in Florida! >:-) ) So whilst Mercenaries: Playground of Desctruction is rather unpolished, it takes the wide-open-sandbox genre in directions few have bothered to go down, and is certainly worth a try for such reasons.
Control: 3 airstrikes out of 5
Design: 4 airstrikes out of 5
Graphics: 3 airstrikes out of 5
Audio: 3 airstrikes out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)