Review: Mercenaries (XB)

Mercenaries
System: Xbox (Also On: PS2)
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Publisher: LucasArts
Players: One
Release Date: 01-11-04

LucasArts and Pandemic Studios makers of Full Spectrum Warrior are broadening the playing field, as it were, for their next military tactics action game. Banking on the appeal of its wholesale destruction, does Mercenaries have enough legs to create a lastingly enjoyable experience? Let’s find out in our review.



Story:

The story in Mercenaries is kind of what George Bush Jr and company figured Iraq would one day turn into. A rogue nation state develops nuclear weapons and the ability to attack any part of the world with them, and then is caught red handed selling nuclear weapons to terrorists. In this game that nation state is North Korea, and it is lead by General Song, a tyrant who deposed his own father when he tried to move closer to democracy. The Australian Navy intercepts a cargo ship containing nuclear weapons being sold to terrorists. After that the game is on. Various nations invade North Korea in a mad quest to find the rest of General Song’s nuclear arsenal. You play one of three mercenaries. You have an American who loves money, a Swede who loves… well, I’ve never thought of Swedes as bloodthirsty, but this guy must be a throwback to the Vikings, and a British lady who is professional and stealthy.

Once you select your character you are dropped right into the thick of things in your quest to collect on the bounty that the Allied Nations (sorta like the Coalition of the Willing I suppose) have placed on the deck of 52. 52 people identified as being important members of Song’s military and WMD programs, all with bounties placed on their heads in varying amounts. Song is, just like Saddam Hussien before him, the Ace of Spades, and the bounty on him alone is $100,000,000. Yes. That’s One Hundred Million Dollars.

You need to get intelligence on these playing cards before you can go capture them, and to do that you perform missions for the other various factions in the game, which include the South Koreans, the Chinese and the Russian Mafia, along with the Allied Nations. Each mission you complete will bring you information on a card, and you can then go out and either capture or kill that card. Alive is always more valuable then dead.

Of course, these factions aren’t doing things entirely for the people of North Korea, they are looking out for their own interests, and occasionally those interests will involve you attacking another faction. You are given a faction meter, and how you behave during gameplay will affect your relations with the different factions. Killing a faction’s soldiers is considered bad, but may increase your meter with a different faction. This leads to some interesting situations where you must bribe your way back into the good graces of the faction you just attacked in order to gain more info on the deck of 52. If you can get away with not killing a faction’s troops when doing a mission, then you are more likely to not have to spend any money to save your reputation with that faction.



Graphics:

Developer Pandemic also made Full Spectrum Warrior, and this game looks almost as good as that one, sometimes better. The character models are really good looking, with very little in the way of freaky looking eyes or lips but not jaws moving while talking. Some of the vehicles look like they were ripped directly out of Full Spectrum Warrior, such as the Blackhawk helicopters and Bradley APC.

Where Mercenaries really shines is in its landscapes. You can go from driving through a fairly scenic mountain pass to gaping at a warzone in seconds. In fact that is exactly what happened to me. I was cruising around in no particular hurry to get to my next mission and taking notice of the beautiful scenery all around me. Then I turn a corner and all I see is absolute devastation. And I don’t just mean buildings crumbled. I mean rubble, ruined buildings, burned out cars and tanks, crashed helicopters, ongoing firefights, smoke clogging up the atmosphere. And that is not even including the areas of the game that are flooded with radiation.



Sound:

The sound here is a mixed bag. On the one hand you have sound effects that really fit well into the game, be it aircraft soaring overhead or tanks exploding, it all sounds very authentic. And each of the factions speak in their own language. Or at least I think they do, since I don’t speak Chinese, Russian or Korean. I’m just going to trust that Pandemic didn’t pay someone to speak jibberish into a microphone and then claim it’s one of the above languages. Anyway, all of the background noise, lets call it that, is really well done.

What’s not so well done is the in-game music. This is where things get tossed up. Some of the music is outstanding; it fit right in with the events of the game and such. But sadly not all of the music was that good. There were times, usually when things started to sound like Lord of the Rings (you know, all choir filled and remorseful) that I simply had to reach for the mute button. These compositions just don’t mix well with the gameplay. Or anything other than a funeral, to be honest.

Lastly, during the faction briefings, I found that the main character’s voice was very loud, but the person speaking to me would be much quieter. This wasn’t because I was sitting far away either, and except for one character, they all had what I’d call very forceful personalities, so they weren’t wall flowers who didn’t want to be heard.



Control & Gameplay:

It seems this entire game is a mixed bag. Just like the sound, the controls are both serviceable and horrid. In fact it is in the control department that I found my biggest complaints with the game.

To start with, I’ll let you know what I liked about the controls. When you are on your feet, things work beautifully. Everything from running to shooting to chucking grenades etc, really well done.

But where things have been really well thought out while you are on foot, certain weapons and situations could have done with more brainstorming. Take the sniper rifles for example. There are missions where you will be asked to kill people, where you get a bonus for not being detected. This would be a really good job for a sniper rifle, wouldn’t you say? Normally I’d agree with you, but in this case, I’d say no, because while you can crouch in mercenaries, you can’t lie flat on the ground, nor can you move while crouched or (obviously) prone. So you can setup the kill, but once you move away you’ll get spotted. And this isn’t even the biggest peeve I have with the game. It’s just something they should have thought about a little more. Artillery is another point of contention. What you do is throw a smoke grenade in the area where you want the steel to rain and then run like mad. Quite frankly it’s suicidal, and often doesn’t even hit the target. This may have more to do with the gunners, but I’d like to think that they can hit a target using one of the fifteen shells they’ve fired my way. Calling in airstrikes, missile strikes and the like, all of it is fairly well thought out and useful, but good luck if you have to rely on artillery to take out a target.

You also get to take control of various vehicles in the game, from Humvees to tanks to Apache helicopters, and here is where the controls really break down. Driving anything with wheels is fine, for the most part. You press A to accelerate and X or R to brake. Nothing new or exciting there. Its been a standard configuration for years because it works. If you choose to drive anywhere in a treaded vehicle though, lookout. For some reason the fine people at Pandemic insist on believing that tanks have no suspension. Seriously. Every tank or APC in this game that uses treads will drive exactly like a world war 1 tank. In other words you will have a very hard time driving over railroad tracks, getting onto bridges, etc. And that’s not even the worst part. In order to accommodate the turret and the gun that comes with most of these tanks, they switch the controls from the very useable A/X combo to one that involves pressing forward on the left stick to accelerate and back on it to brake and reverse. That’d be fine, too, except they still insist on you steering the tank with that same stick, meaning you will probably find yourself steering into walls, trees, houses, civilians, whatever, because you aren’t going to be able to steer and accelerate at the same time without it.

Believe it or not, I’m still not done bitching about the controls. Another part of the game that needs more work control wise, the flying. You get to fly a number of helicopters in the game, from troop transports to attack helicopters to scouts, you can in one way or another obtain every helicopter you see. Yet once you get into these beauties, you discover that they fly like pigs. It’s very hard to crash a helicopter once you have it in the air. I can only assume this was an attempt to make it easy to fly but it has wound up taking away much of the usefulness that comes from the copters. Rotating the copters while hovering takes forever when it should take moments. Steering while in the air is abysmal, as though you are always flying into a headwind. The best way I can describe the flying here is this: Some flying games, like Air Force Delta Storm, give you two control schemes for flying. Easy, for people who don’t want or can’t grasp relatively realistic flight models, and Normal, where the planes can and will stall, you can use the rudders and you can bank the planes more than 90 degrees. The flying in Mercenaries feels as though there should be a Normal setting for flying, since right now it’s all stuck on Easy.

Also, (yup, still more) there is some really horrible collision detection going on while you drive on bridges. That’s for everything in the game, be it jeeps or tanks. Go slow on bridges, or wonder why your ride flipped over onto its roof for no apparent reason whatsoever. You won’t fall through the bridge, or the map like in GTA, but you can hit the edge of a polygon and go crashing into a barrier when you least expect it.

Mercenaries does expand gamer’s horizons to include a military tactical world, but cool as it may be to be able to do all these various things the execution doesn’t contribute much to the experience, and often hinders it.



Balance:

On the whole I was satisfied with how long this game was, and how difficult it was. There aren’t what I’d call any bosses, even though there are 52 people you must hunt down and capture or kill. Instead it’s the levels themselves that wind up being the boss. The bigger the card the harder it is to get to that card. The Aces for example, all take place on separate maps, and each has their own reasons for being difficult. And of course, everything is difficult when you aren’t using the right equipment or support options. Some missions are down right easy if you know how to go about things. Most of the number cards are basically the same mission, wander around the general area you’ve been pointed to until you find them, go in and kill whomever is shooting at you while carefully avoiding shooting the card, then running up to them and taking the card down. After that its call in the evacuation chopper and keep the place pacified until it is safely away.

The game itself ramps up the difficulty by including heavier firepower the farther into the game you get. The first suit of cards you go after will be using weapons and armor that won’t be that hard to take out. As you get into the next suit and you obtain more and more firepower so too will your enemies, and they will usually have it in abundance, making things like planning and tactics very useful. I did find that the people who designed the missions seemed to rely a little too much on a jamming vehicle that would keep you from using your support options until you went in and destroyed it yourself, usually in the process making your presence known and killing the whole element of surprise thing. For a game that uses much of today’s military arsenals they seem to have missed out on the portion that directly targets radars and anti radar equipment.

This game took me some 30 hours to finish the first time, but that was hunting down each and every card, searching for various bounties like statues to be destroyed and national treasures to be found. I didn’t get very far in those secondary attempts, but that pursuit is ongoing.



Replay Ability:

The pursuit is ongoing because once you complete the game you unlock Playground of Destruction mode, which is basically Pandemic dropping you back into the game from the start with the $100,000,000 + that you earned from taking down Song and his band of not so merry men. You no longer need to hunt down the entire deck of 52, just the cards that appear in any of the missions you get assigned (so the face cards and the 2 of clubs, which is the card mission that starts the game). I can’t really say I like this decision, as I”d gotten used to being able to transfer at will between the two maps that make up the majority of the game at this point, so forcing me to play through it again (even if I DO have access to all the cool toys this time and the money to not care if I carpet bomb everything in North Korea) is just irritating. Does it give the game replay value? That depends. If you want to get back to the fun stuff, all the cool tanks and helicopters, you have to beat at least two suits in the deck before you will get back North. If you prefer your games to let you have access to everything you’ve already gained access to once you’ve finished it, then this may just put you off.

You do have three characters you can choose from to play the game with, with each possessing their own unique characteristics, but the story in the game doesn’t change if you choose the Swede instead of the American, it just changes some of the in-game dialogue. Mostly the dialogue your own character speaks, which really only makes sense. Each of the main characters understands a different language, so you’ll be able to listen in on what the factions are saying while speaking in their own language, but whether that and the different abilities each character possess are enough to finish the game three times over might be pushing it a little bit.



Appeal:

I’ve avoided comparing this game to Grand Theft Auto (3, VC & SA) in this review on purpose up to this point, as I feel the game should be allowed to stand on its own merits, rather then having me constantly saying oh but GTA did it better. Just read through the review and you’ll probably be able to figure out where I think that applies. In any event, I do have to compare it to GTA here because that is the game this is most like, and so it is the game player who enjoys the freedom that GTA allows who will probably enjoy this game the most (and who will also find the shortcomings so aggravating when comparing the two). While GTA allows a lot of freedom, it doesn’t really give you access to a lot of the big toys that you gain access too in Mercs. You can jack cars and you can do taxi missions in Mercenaries, just as in GTA. Where it differs is this: You can’t call down a Tomahawk strike on anything in GTA. At least not yet. Mercenaries really feels like an extension of GTA, but where the military only comes out to play when you really tick off the game in GTA, in Mercenaries you are in it the whole time.



Originality:

Much of the appeal of Mercenaries, for me at least, is the ability to play with so much of the current military hardware that exists in the world today. Be it calling in an artillery strike or taking command of a tank and participating in a pitched battle, many of the things I experienced in Mercenaries were things I’d never really done before, even if they could have been made more gamer friendly. So in that regard the game is very original. I want every game I play from now on to give me the option to plant plastic explosives on something so that I can when I choose. The idea that at any given time I can just go nuts and destroy a city block and not just a murderous rampage (ala GTA) is very cool, in a strange psychotic kind of way.

The game is inspired by GTA, like a few other games before it. Unlike previous GTA clones however, such as True Crime or The Getaway or even Spiderman 2, Pandemic and LucasArts have taken the free gaming world in an entirely new direction, away from crime or crime fighting and squarely into the military environment. So in that regard it’s very original. I also liked the addition of bribing people into liking you again if you managed to lose their favor. For me it seemed like I was always angering the South Koreans, but whomever it is for you, if you have enough money, fear not because you can and will be able to resume friendly relations with them if you have the dough. It gets really expensive later on in the game, but by then you should be able to afford it.



Addictiveness:

There is a certain addictiveness to this game for me that forced me to swallow all my complaints and continue playing on; that would have forced me to do this even had I not been required to finish the game to write this review. Most of that addictiveness comes from getting to play with the cool toys and playing in some very unique missions, but a portion of it is also seeing the story progress, and seeing the various factions become more and more hostile, all of it thanks in no small part to my own actions.



Miscellaneous:

There are a lot of great ideas in this game that really weren’t thought out far enough, and could be improved upon greatly if there is a sequel. Planting plastic explosives, for example, is cool. Being able to plant them on walls and the sides of tanks, would have been even cooler. And while I loved everything that the game offered, with its fairly realistic approach to military things, I’d really like to know why there are no mines or minefields in the game. The DMZ (which separates North and South Korea and which is where a portion of the game occurs) is supposed to be one of the most mined areas in the world, so where are all the mines? Where is the option to set booby traps or ambush oncoming convoys using Claymore mines? C4 lets you do some of that, but not enough. Speaking of C4, you’re limited to just how much you can plant and detonate at once. You can carry 4 sticks, and order more, but you can only plant 8 at any one time. Kinda sucks if you’re supposed to be able to do anything. The range of the transmitter to detonate is also kind of limited, so perhaps giving you the option to have a timer might have been included.



Ratings:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Controls: BAD
Balance: GREAT
Replay Ability:GREAT
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GOOD
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE

FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE

Short Attention Span Summary
A very good first effort from the team at Pandemic and LucasArts, but an effort that has some glaring dents in it’s armor. If you can look over some of the problems you will find a very solid gameplay experience, especially if you are the type to enjoy making things go boom in bigger and badder ways. I hope for and will look forward to a sequel where these things are fixed. Until then I will continue to find ways to spend that $100,000,000.