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The playground of destruction is back, except now it's more of a theme park...
Amidst heavy competition in the run-up to Christmas from the likes of Halo 3 and GTA IV, Mercenaries 2 is setting up base and preparing to launch its own offensive on a market rife with strong contenders. Early signs suggest, though, that it has enough munitions in its inventory to hold its own.
The original game won critical acclaim from many camps and managed to nestle itself amongst the top few GTA-style sandbox games on the market. The mix of a satirical plot with its finger firmly on the pulse, a slightly comical gameplay style that complimented the story nicely and an arsenal of insanely powerful weapons at your disposal, made Mercs 1 a rollickingly good experience.
While Mercs 2 was billed as a PS3 exclusive earlier in its production, it has since taken the familiar turn on the next-gens of also being available for the Xbox 360 (PC and PS2 games will also be released). The developers are still Pandemic for this sequel, although publishing responsibilities are now in the hands of EA rather than LucasArts, who published Mercs 1.
And this is where our story begins: an EA press room (Chertsey, England), a room full of games journalists, Senior Producer Jonathan Zamkoff (controller in hand), and a huge screen displaying Mercs 2.
The first noticeable thing in Mercenaries 2 is the graphics. I have been let down by next-gen visuals so often that I've stopped counting, but I was instantly blinded by the brilliance of Mercs 2's graphics a bit like a frozen bunny rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car. In keeping with the original, one of the best things about Mercs 2 is the explosions. We saw a commandeered helicopter begin to fire rockets around willy-nilly. The resulting explosions were better than I've ever seen in a game. Actually, no, I take that back. They made the explosions in other games look like Andrex puppies. HDR effects at the centre of the explosions were bright enough to reach for the sunglasses; orange blooming effects around the edges produced a surface of the sun type of feel; beautiful textures created a billowy cloud-like appearance; while the sheer size and physical destruction that's caused was awesome (in the non-colloquial sense).
The environments are impressive too. A large part of the map is jungle and the Mercs 2 development team has got the feel of a jungle down to a T. Classically, the jungle environment in games has not had great success. Making the dense surroundings convincing and expansive without being too sprawling is a significant challenge. Rest assured though, Mercs 2 has nailed the hot and sticky tropical environment. Also, flying across a body of water and seeing the sunlight reflect differently on each shimmering wave crest is equally as impressive.
But enough about the graphics. The other instantly stunning thing in Mercs 2 is how destructible everything is. Very literally (and there is absolutely no PR hype in the following statement) every object is destructible in Mercs 2. That means buildings, vehicles, every single tree on the map and even an oil-rig. Yes, that's right, an oil-rig. A fly-by of the oil-rig revealed the sheer size of the thing, which looked as big as a small village. The demonstrator then opened fire with some rockets and each warhead took a sizeable chunk out of the rig with individual parts collapsing in mushroom clouds of flame. Even more impressively, there was very little slow-down even on this early build of the game.
The oil-rig leads me to the story behind Mercs 2. In Mercs 1 there was a war going on in North Korea because a dictator with loads of nukes had gone a bit megalomaniacal. In Mercs 2, warring factions are brought together because of an oil crisis. It takes place in Venezuela where a power hungry narcissist called Ramon Solano (he has his face painted onto priceless works of art) who sees himself as a bit of a man of the people, has got a little big for his boots. Hmm... just who exactly do you think Pandemic are referring to?
Anyway, Solano screws you over at the beginning of the game's story and apparently this is going to form the basis of much of the plot. Pandemic have decided not to use their innovative 'deck of cards' format from Mercs 1, where you had to capture or kill enemy leaders whose importance was denoted by the number and suit they were given on a symbolic deck of cards. We're yet to see exactly what Pandemic have done to fill this gap in the gameplay, but let's hope it's just as original.
As for the factions, they have changed a little bit since Mercs 1. The allies and Chinese remain on the books, but the Russian mafia and the South Korean's have now been replaced. A group of Jamaican Rastafarian pirates take on the role of the Russian mafia. There's also the People's Liberation Army of Venezuela (PLAV) who, I'm told, are a Mad Max styled jungle army. Finally, another new faction is Universal Petroleum (UP), which has an HQ in Venezuela and is there purely to profit from the conflict. Contract objectives with UP will include tasks such as saving their marketing executives from a sticky end etc. Yeah, I think I'll choose to fail that mission.
Similarly to Mercs 1, doing jobs for these factions will give you money which you can use to purchase an increasing inventory of military options. Drop-offs and airstrikes are but a couple of examples in a wide range of destructive capabilities that will gradually open up to you as you forge closer allegiances with the various factions.
On top of the steps forward for the next-gen systems, Mercs 2 has also brought some new gameplay features on board as well. A drop-in, drop-out multiplayer co-op mode will be available online which should bring even more freedom to the ways you can approach a task. So, for example, it would be brilliant if one of you could perform an infantry assault while the other player attacks with rockets from a helicopter, but whether this sort of freedom will be integrated into the co-op feature is yet to be seen. Given Pandemic's aim to provide a 'what, not how' gameplay experience with Mercs, we can only expect that this sort of versatility will be on offer.
The already eccentric physics from Mercs 1 is now schizophrenic. In the demonstration we were shown how a helicopter's winch could be used to airlift a fuel tanker and then drop it from a great height. This is, of course, all in keeping with a game that doesn't take itself too seriously and wants players to be able to do anything they want more than it's concerned with conforming to the laws of mechanics.
Your character will now be able to swim and, speaking of characters, players of the original game will be on familiar territory as the same three characters will be on offer. Another new feature that was shown during EA's press day was a mini-game for commandeering a vehicle. It basically involves pressing buttons at the right time to instigate your character smacking the driver's head against the bodywork and throwing them aside - nifty!
I did get a chance to have a go on a PS2 build of Mercs 2 and it was a very different experience to the next-gen game. The PS2 build looks and feels very similar to its predecessor and appears to have only a partial similarity to the next-gen games. However, that's not really a criticism as all it shows is how far Pandemic have come with the development on the Xbox 360 and PS3.