Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Game Review: Mercenaries

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 United Allied Nations put up a US$100 million bounty for his captured.  (In other news, I think I have a solution to the Syrian crisis.  Anyone got $100 million, three mercenaries, and a bunch of bunker-buster bombs lying around?)  Who's going to take them up on it?  One of three playable mercenaries: Chris Jacobs (formerly of US Delta Force), Jennifer Mui (former British SIS), and Matthias Nilsson (former Swedish Royal Navy).
Killing a faction's soldiers automatically lowers your
relationship rating with them. (XBox version shown.)
And how are they going to get to General Song?  By taking contracts from multiple factions: the not-United Nations, South Korea, China, and the Russian Mafia.  A good number of missions will pit you against other friendly factions, and by killing their soldiers, you'll ruin your relationship with them, up to the point that they'll refuse to work with you and their soldiers will open fire on you.  In order to fix your standing with them, you'll have to pay a bribe (the cost goes up each time) or kill soldiers from a rival faction (AN & South Korea vs. China vs. Mafia) in front of troops from the faction you're trying to patch things up with. (This mechanic was notably improved in the sequel.)

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.)
And now for the feature which sets Mercenaries apart from the Grand Theft Auto trilogy which inspired it.  In this game, you are able to order airstrikes, vehicles, and supplies anywhere from your PDA (the PDA bit was sadly left out of the sequel).  However, instead of getting your supplies from each of the factions, all business is conducted through the Russian Mafia, and if your standing with them has soured, they'll lock you out of their services until you bribe them or what-not.  Another little thing I was pleased they included: you not only have a lifebar for your character's health, but also the life of your current vehicle, something which oddly has been missing from the Grand Theft Auto games.  Then again, the vehicle physics are on the light side, with most collisions tossing your car around like a tornado-induced tailspin, so forget about it.

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-)

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