Review: Mercenaries 2:World in Flames (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Genre: Action
Release Date: 8/31/2008

The original Mercenaries game was released back in 2005 on the Xbox and PS2. It was created by Pandemic Studios who have created other critically acclaimed titles such as Full Spectrum Warrior and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series. It was received well by critics for its action-packed gameplay as a mercenary in war-torn Korea. However, the lack of hype and marketing did not help in the sales department, but the title built a loyal fanbase and became something of a cult classic. Eventually, it garnered enough of a fanbase to convince Pandemic to release a sequel across a wide variety of systems.

Note: This review is for the Xbox 360 version of the game.

1.Story

The story is pretty straightforward; you are a mercenary (one of three from the original games) who takes a deal from a Venezuelan IT tycoon, Roman Solano (who has links to the criminal underworld), to rescue General Carmona, an old generalissimo who has been imprisoned by the army for corruption. You duly accomplish the mission (the tutorial mission in fact) but instead of receiving your cash, you are betrayed, barely escaping with your life and swearing revenge on Solano, who has become Venezuela’s latest dictator.

A lot of things happen and a lot of characters become involved in the plot. While the story is decent for the most part, it never really becomes as engaging as some other “open world” games like Grand Theft Auto. The number of cut scenes and overall length of the story leaves much to be desired. At least the cut scenes and dialogue are scripted well (and might give you a chuckle here and there) despite their scarcity. This scarcity is probably due to the fact that the developers had to do seperate cut scenes for each of the three playable characters.

In the end, this game’s story definitely takes a backseat to the action and manages to be rather tongue in cheek.

Story Rating: Enjoyable

2. Graphics

Open world games tend to be less pretty then some of their more graphically intensive cousins such as the FPS. Though with the arrival of the Xbox 360 and PS3, the gap has closed considerably. This game’s general appearance is on par with other efforts such GTA IV and the upcoming Saint’s Row 2. Models are well modeled with fluid animation and have a good amount of detail to them.

The place where Mercs2 blows away the competition is in the explosive department. This game has the prettiest explosions in gaming, second only to World in Conflict. Everything from simple rocket powered grenades and C4 to the big boys like bunker busters and fuel-air bombs are a joy to look at – especially when combined with the unique ability to destroy nearly every building in the game!

Graphics Rating: Great

3. Sound

I think the most striking name in the voice actor’s list for this game is Peter Stormare, the voice of the cover-adorning Swedish mad man Matthias Nilsson. This is fitting since Mr. Stormare is Swedish himself, and is most well known for playing mob boss John Abruzzi in the hit TV series Prison Break. Alongside him you have the veteran Phil Lamarr, who played Samurai Jack and hundreds of other video game and animation characters. The prolific Jennifer Hale has been in everything from Metal Gear Solid (She plays Naomi Campbell) to Metroid Prime (as Samus Aran).

The reason I went through all the trouble of mentioning these voice actors is because the voice acting in the game is very strong. It’s definitely the best part of the audio and enhances the story quite a bit. It’s also probably why the game is so tongue in cheek. Nearly all the characters speak in an intentionally funny heavy accent (Irish, Russian, Jamaican…the list goes on). As a testament to the voice actors’ skill and the good scripting staff, it turns out funny instead of corny.

The music is good but nothing noteworthy. Most of the game is scoreless and as such, you’ll only hear it when you open the pause menu or in certain storyline missions. The music does its job well, but it never truly becomes amazing.

Sound Rating: Great

4.Control/Gameplay

If you’ve played other “open world” games, then you already have a good idea of what is in this game. You are free to explore the giant map of Venezuela (although half of it is locked until the latter half of the game) by hijacking cars, shooting people and accepting missions from various groups whenever you feel like it.

The main difference in Mercenaries 2 from other open world games is that as a mercenary, different factions will give you missions directed at opposing factions which will lower your reputation meter with those groups. Eventually it will get to the point that the groups you choose to do missions against will becomie hostile to you, meaning you will then have to improve relations with them. This will involve taking up missions for them again by either killing members of a rival faction, completing bounties for them, or just bribing them with large sums of cash.

If you’re battling any force, you’ll encounter an icon on your minimap and main screen as a 10 second timer. This is a soldier attempting to contact his HQ (You’ll hear a funny conversation between the soldier and his commander as well). If you kill him before he finishes his report (or you have a jamming vehicle) you won’t lose any rep with the opposing faction and won’t have to face any re-enforcements which usually include nasty tanks or helicopters. While this is a neat feature, sometimes the guy you have to kill is very far away or well hidden meaning you’ll never reach him in time. Even if you do manage to kill him, another grunt is going to call HQ 20 seconds later. This becomes really annoying. If it was limited to just certain officers in the opposing force it would have felt more balanced.

Unlike other open world titles where you exclusively obtain your vehicles by stealing or by jacking them, in Mercs2 you can buy things like ammo, weapons, trucks and tanks from your faction contacts. Every faction has unique vehicles that you’ll never be able to acquire in other games. Sure, GTA let you drive a Tank, but Mercs2 gives you no less than 9 different tanks to play with! The single tank in GTA is rare, but in Mercs2 jumping in a tank and blowing the crap out of everything is a common event. Add to that the thrill of several different types of attack helicopters, APCs, SAMs, Artillery and even naval missile boats or patrol boats along with civilian vehicles, and you’re looking at a lot of fun just driving around.

The game’s best and headlining feature are the destructible environments. Other games, mostly FPSs, have given us destructible environments before, but Mercs2 is the first game to give us an entirely destructible world. With the key exemption of some certain buildings, everything in Venezuela can be destroyed. Every building, tree, rock, or vehicle can be blown up or killed. This is truly the game’s best selling point. Combined with an entire military arsenal at your disposal, this game an arsonist’s wet dream. I literally leveled half the town of Guanare (look it up) doing side missions for the local communist guerilla faction.

This brings us to one of the game’s flaws – side missions. There are five factions you can work with in the game and not counting story missions they each have around five side missions. Simple math says that’s 25 side missions, which is a good number, right? It would be if all the factions didn’t copy each other’s missions.

All the factions have three missions that are the same. HVT (high value target) missions are bounties that each faction have ten of scattered around the map. You’re given half your fee if you kill them and the full amount if you capture them alive. “Destroy Targets” missions are a set of enemy buildings scattered around the map (ranging from 10 targets to 24 targets for some factions) that you can blow up whenever you feel like it. Finally, there are standing bounty missions which are simply counts how many enemy troops you’ve killed, giving you a cash bonus for each one. Here’s an example: the communist guerillas will give you $5,000 for every mercenary hired by the local American oil company that you kill. When you do these side missions, you unlock more items to buy in that faction’s shop. This leaves about two or three unique side missions for every faction. This is a shame since those cookie cutter side missions mentioned above would be quite fun if I didn’t have to do them five times over.

Another complaint is the combat system. While it is fun for what it is, it lacks two modern features: the cover system and lock on targeting.

GTA IV employed the cover system that we see in so many games today and Zelda introduced targeting around 1998, so their absence here is a little confusing. Mind you, I never had trouble aiming at enemies or getting behind a rock manually but it would sure have been convenient to have those features.

The final thing I could pick out in this game is fuel. You need fuel to warp around the map, drop bombs, or deliver vehicles to you in the field. The only way to get fuel is to steal it from somebody. This usually means storming a heavily guarded base and wiping out all the people inside while making sure the fuel tanks don’t explode. Then you can have your chopper pilot airlift the tanks out one by one. For some reason, you can’t buy fuel at any shop, even from the oil company faction! (Though you can buy fuel storage upgrades from all factions!) This forces you to stop advancing in the game and just steal more fuel between missions which gets tedious fast.

Despite all this criticism and how long I’ve ranted about it due to my nitpicky nature, the good greatly outshines and outnumbers the relatively minor bad.

Control and Gameplay: Incredible

5.Replayability

Despite the story being quite short, the game gives you three total playable characters. While the main storyline doesn’t change between the characters, you do get character specific dialogue and cut scenes as well as different abilities. Matthias regenerates health faster, Chris can carry more ammunition and Mui has a faster running speed.

Most faction missions have you targeting another faction. You can juggle faction relationships well enough with the first three factions, but once the final two factions arrive, you are forced to pick a side for the second half of the game. This means you have to go through the game two or three times to see everything.

In addition, Pandemic is releasing a free patch that includes skins of some of your supporting cast to play around with, though they are just skins and not full blown new characters.

Online play is included in the form of a “drop in drop out” co-op where anyone can jump into your game and ride shotgun with you (indeed, most vehicles have a gunner seat for co-op play), but the online play is limited and glitchy. There are some unscrupulous players who will help you during a long mission, only to shoot the VIP you were supposed to rescue in the face once you get to him. It’s just not worth it.

The low quantity of the game’s side missions also hurts replayability.

Replayability Rating: Good

6. Balance

Of the three characters in the game, I feel as though Matthias was a bit over-powered. His faster healing is simply far more useful than the other two’s abilities. While each of them is useful in their own way (Chris’ ability helps you avoid C4 and heavy weapon ammo shortages and Mui’s is useful for rushing enemy bases and capturing HVT’s) you can instinctively tell just by hearing about the three abilities which is more useful.

The final boss is also a disappointment. While getting to his lair is a herculean feat, once you’re there you don’t fight him to the death, you do a Quick Time Event. Yes, a minigame instead of a final boss. Awful.

Finally, one mission early on in the game for the Guerilla faction is pretty tough and I notice a lot of people on Gamefaqs asking about it (As of the time of this writing there is no FAQ for this game). Other than these very specific examples, the game is balanced fairly well and all factions have great weapons that are roughly equal to each other (though naturally the US Army and the PLC have the best).

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

I mentioned before the differences between this game and other open world titles are significant enough that you will definitely not think, “I just bought GTA again!”

However, while the destructible environments, unique setting and vehicles are all good and nice, they are all layered over a standard open world game. While GTA IV went and nearly renovated the core GTA experience, Mercenaries 2 lacks such basics as cover, lock on, and even a garage to store your vehicles (You have to airlift them in, even when you’re standing ten feet from your base.). Hopefully, the next game will reinvent the core gameplay concepts, as this one seems to be a realization of what the original Mercenaries wanted to be rather than a full blown new chapter.

Originality Rating: Enjoyable

8. Addictiveness

The main strength of the open world genre is this: if you get stuck on a particularly hard level in a different game, you have to finish it or you can’t proceed. This creates a psychological barrier towards that game. In games like GTA or Mercs2, you can goof off as much as you like. You can play long or short sessions so you always have something to do or somewhere to be, instead of just “finishing the level”. It’s this “pick-up-and-playability” that has led to the rise of games like Mercenaries 2.

Addictiveness Rating: Classic

9. Appeal Factor

With games like Grand Theft Auto selling like hotcakes, the fortunes of this genre are rising. The destructive glee of the vast variety of weapons and their ready availability instantly appeals to the vast action-hooked-Ritalin popping masses. Unlike last time, Electronic Arts have given this game a good amount of marketing (including giving away 40,000 pounds sterling of gas free in England). Add to that that Mercenaries 2 is available on four systems (PS3, Xbox 360, PC & PS2) and the game will most likely have fairly decent sales figures.

The release of Grand Theft Auto IV and the impending release of Saint’s Row 2 may diminish the game’s marketing hype somewhat as gangster culture seems to be more “in” than mercenary culture.

Appeal Factor Rating:Very Good

10. Miscellaneous

No doubt you have been heard about the abundance of bugs in this game (To the point my fellow staff member Nathan Birch refused to review the game until it was patched). While there is certainly truth to these allegations, I feel they are being too harsh. There ARE a lot of bugs in this game, but none that I define as game breaking (during my play time anyway). Most are just the physics engine spazzing out (usually in hilarious ways). All games from this genre suffer from this, Grand Theft Auto included. Even more so if a physics engine is included.

Perhaps I am more immune to this than other people since I have played PC games that refused to start up at all until I patched them (I’m looking at you Titan Quest).

The AI in Mercs2 is also quite stupid, but again , this is a complaint against all games in the genre. At least in Mercenaries 2, computer controlled characters have the sense to man unused weapons and vehicles or call for backup.

Everyone seems to ignore these issues while handing out perfect scores to Grand Theft Auto and then turn around blasting other games for featuring the same flaws.

Miscellaneous Rating: Average

The Scores:

Story/Modes: Enjoyable
Graphics: Great
Sound: Great
Control/Gameplay: Incredible
Replayability: Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Enjoyable
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
Final Score: Very Good Game


Short Attention Span Summary

Mercenaries 2 is certainly a game with many flaws and it deserves all the criticism that it receives for its bugs and weak AI. However the strong presentation, exciting core gameplay and fantastic weapons all combine to make a game that manages to shine through its faults and perhaps set up a more exciting and innovative sequel. A Grand Theft Auto IV moment if you will.

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