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Developer: Pandemic Studios
Platform(s): PlayStation 2, Xbox
While it seems that these days “Grand Theft Auto” is the unopposed king of sandbox games, especially as it seemingly goes strength to strength with each new entry, perhaps only the “Just Cause” trilogy is providing a challenge to its throne with sheer overkill lunacy. However back in 2005 this game seemingly looked to take GTA’s crown as it took the GTA model of freedom to essentially go anywhere and do anything to while at the same time essentially giving the player GTA Warzone as it more than lives up to its titular promise of a “Playground of Destruction”; More so as anything and everything can be blown up or reduced to rubble, often in spectacular fashion as you’re given access to a whole toy chest of military grade hardware to complete your missions. You generally tackle each mission with enough firepower to make even Rambo blush.
Playing as one of three “Executive Operations” Mercenaries, you are dropped into the middle of war-torn North Korea, which has been thrown into chaos due to a coup carried out by General Song, who has bounty of $100,000,000 set on his head, a prize your chosen mercenary fully intends to claim. Once you hit the ground you are soon required to pick up jobs from the four factions currently operating in the area which consist of the Chinese, South Korean, Russian Mafia and Allied Nations with the completion of each job, rewarding the player with cash and additional support options as well as intelligence to aid in locating General Song (as well as the other targets which make up the “Deck of 52” whose capture also rewards the player with further unlocks).
While the three Mercenaries largely play the same, they do come with minor differences such as Chris the former Delta Force member can take more damage, Former MI6 agent Jennifer is stealthier, while the Swedish former Navy Artillery officer Mattias moves the quickest. These minor advantages never really make a huge difference to gameplay and tends to come more down to the look you prefer, unlike the language each of them specialises in which enables them to understand private conversations in that language which remain untranslated to other characters and encourages players to play through with all three characters to fully unlock all the games secrets.
However, due to the factions also being in competition with each other, by completing a mission for one faction it will in turn cause you to lose respect with the other factions. When respect gets too low with a faction, its members will eventually turn hostile and attack the player on site as well as refuse to give them any further work. Players can of course regain the respect of said faction by either attacking their rival faction or just bribing the guard to allow you access to the faction leader to pick up more missions.
The missions throughout are varied enough to keep things interesting even if they largely fall into variations of hunting down key targets or destroying enemy buildings or heavy artillery sites. The story meanwhile doesn’t contain much in the form of plot twists and generally comes off like a military game of hide and seek as you hunt down the various criminals who make up the “deck of 52”. Despite the lack of substantial plotting it never detracts from the fun, especially when your constantly given somewhere to visit or something to find with the character interactions all proving satisfying, especially the conversations you have via your earpiece with your intel support Fiona, whose permanent sunny attitude and lust for making cash frequently provides many of the games highlights.
When it comes to weapons, there is a large variety of rifles, shotguns, heavy machine guns and explosives available which the player can carry two of at one time in a refreshing change up from the usual one man army model, where characters can carry a small armoury with them. That being said, it’s unlikely that most players will change up to their weapon load up past a Heavy machine gun / RPG combo. More so when you consider that these two weapons will cover anything you might encounter during the missions or generally driving about.
Like with GTA any vehicle can be stolen with a large variety of both military and civilian vehicles available to be used, while some vehicles such as the Humvee and APC have turrets which can be manned by allies from the local factions and in turn provide you with additional cover, especially when faced with trying to get past any of the North Korean groups in the area. Unlike so many of the other GTA clones, especially “Saints Row,” the vehicles here are all fun to drive and handle with some semblance of realism, though due to questionable sound design for some of these vehicles there is no real sense of acceleration. That’s especially true with the civilian vehicles which appear to top out in the first few seconds of being driven, sound-wise, despite never appearing to get past a steady cruising speed. The tanks meanwhile are a lot of fun to trundle around in and while perhaps not suited to covering long distances, are still satisfying to rumble around in any of the towns.
As well as any weapons / vehicles the player finds, you can also call in for supply drops from your local Mafia arms dealer via the “Agents of Death” website accessed via your pda. They can also be used to purchase a variety of airstrikes to aid them from Tactical strikes which are guided in via a laser, through to carpet bombing for those times when you just really want to destroy everything on the screen. All of the airstrikes look impressive when unleashed as buildings crumble into dust clouds and vehicles impressively explode, making the urge to unleash over-the-top firepower on your enemies all the more harder to resist, but then this is hardly a game about subtlety.
Even now, this game is still a lot of fun to play, though sadly it would be followed by the inferior sequel “Mercenaries 2: World In Flames,” which wrongly tried to tweak the already great template resulting in an inferior game compared to the original. Meanwhile it would seem that the “Just Cause” franchise has taken its place. I would personally love to see a Mercenaries 3, which outside the test footage we saw before the closure of developer Pandemic Studios, would appear to be the closest we currently are to a part 3, however with the continual popularity of “Just Cause” I can’t help but feel that this isn’t the last we have seen of this series.