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There's trouble in Venezuela. It seems a brutal dictator has shot a Merc in the arse and they're not too happy about it...
If you hadn't already heard, there's been an ongoing news story over the past year or two involving EA's Mercenaries 2 and the Venezuelan government. It seems the, shall we say, charismatic Hugo Chavez and his goons think Pandemic's follow up to Playground of Destruction is designed as a simulation for a US led invasion of the oil rich South American nation. We can tell you all right now that if their incredibly paranoid fears were realised, then they can at least take solace in the fact that the game is so feeble that any players it trained wouldn't get any further than the Venezuelan border.
To find out why, let's rewind to Mercs 1: Playground of Destruction. It won plaudits from the pundits for being an original take on sandbox gaming, with the most noteworthy features being its high value targets in the satirical form of a card deck, the ability to form varying allegiances with the game's factions, as well as the opportunity to blow the hell out of stuff with city block destroying munitions. It wasn't an open world masterpiece of GTA proportions - the repetitive gameplay that plagues many a sandbox game was still evident - but it received strong review scores for its new IP potential as much as anything else.
Fast forward to 2007 now and our First Look at Mercs 2, where we were enthused by the stunning visuals on display including some of the best explosions we've ever seen in a game (just check out the early screens). Add to this the promise of online co-op and an interesting concept behind the storyline and we bought a first class ticket aboard Mercs 2's bandwagon. It wasn't until earlier this year, when we got our Second Look at the game (curiously still no hands on) that we decided to jump off that bandwagon and walk suspiciously alongside it. The visuals appeared to have been toned down substantially and we were equally dubious that Pandemic hadn't moved the series' gameplay along sufficiently enough to make the next-gen jump.
This was all worryingly reminiscent of a game that had only just been released at that time, the decidedly underwhelming HAZE from Free Radical. Similarly, this shooter had suffered two long delays and the graphics appeared to have been put in reverse with the added development time. Having now played EA's review code of Mercs 2, we can say that it's eerily similar how both of these games have fallen from grace. We'll get onto our visual disappointments with Mercs 2 a little later, but first of all let's deal with the most important area of all, gameplay.
The thing with average sandbox games is that they demonstrate how monotonous the genre can be. The format seemingly offers more freedom than other shooters or action games, but paradoxically you end up doing the same crummy driving and base assault/defence missions in the majority of open world games. With 30% of Mercs 2 completed over 6-8 hours of gaming, we'd experienced little more than these repetitive exercises. Other good examples of the genre (ahem, GTA) use tools such as a well orchestrated storyline, mini-games, and the odd mission variation (e.g. photography or a touch of parkour) to break up the basic gameplay structure. This is what immerses the player in the game world and breaks up the tedium that sandbox games can otherwise suffer.
Mercs 2 rarely throws these sorts of tricks into the mix. It's a shame because Pandemic actually laid a good base on which to build from with Mercs 1. For example, the high value targets in Playground of Destruction were nigh-on inspired. Delivered in the form of an Iraq War satirising deck or cards, there were 52 of these HVTs dotted around North Korea in the first game that you had to track down and kill (before photographing them to confirm the assassination), or you could detain and extract them for a larger bounty.
These HVTs are still dotted around the game world in Mercs 2 and occasionally they'll be included in the main campaign missions, but if anything their involvement in Mercs 2 has been downplayed slightly. Regardless of this, the format of actually completing an HVT side mission is identical to the last game (i.e. go to a well defended location, kill the surrounding soldiers and detain the bad guy). It's a real shame because there was so much potential here for fiery pursuits, stealth assassinations, or building up intelligence to reveal their location rather than just being shown it on the map.
As the game progresses, you'll gradually reveal more factions who you can do dealings with. This starts with Universal Petroleum (the Western oil interests in war-torn Venezuela), then the Marxist guerrilla P.L.A.V.s (or People's Liberation Army of Venezuela), before being introduced to some Rastafarian Pirates. The latter are by far the most awesome, hemmed in on an island base decorated with neon lights and voodoo styling. Later on in the game you'll come across some returning factions from the first game, the Allied Nations and the Chinese, who both have vested interests in Venezuela's political turmoil instigated by the not at all Chavez satirising Ramon Solano.
The way in which you interact with these factions has, once again, not advanced much from how it played out in Mercs 1 (i.e. go to a given faction for missions and bounties; complete those missions; get some money for being successful and stay in their good books at the same time). You can piss them off by killing their troops or really get their goat by taking out one of their top brass as an HVT. If you piss them off too much then you'll have to send a bribe over to unlock further missions. It's a basic system that really hasn't advanced much from its predecessor on the previous gens and Mercs 2 would offer the same gameplay without it to be honest. What could have spiced things up is if Pandemic had added a bit of subterfuge between your workings with each faction, but it's pretty limited as things stand.
Three Is Definitely Not The Magic Number For Mercs 2
The few trimmings that Mercs 2 boasts felt shallow for the most part. The story, in particular, starts off with an interesting concept (there's trouble in Venezuela... Let's go and make some money etc.), but quickly crumbles into a host of boring characters who send you on outpost attack missions. Occasionally you'll have a race mission or, if you're really lucky, you might even have a haulage mission where you have to deliver goods undamaged, but it all just feels like cheap Styrofoam padding. The story doesn't seem to mesh with the game world and missions particularly well, one base attack feels just like the last, and this all stops players from immersing themselves in the experience.
Perhaps this is being a bit harsh. We played through a couple of missions that were well put together, such as taking a Universal Petroleum pen pusher to get some dossiers amidst reams of Venezuelan Army attacks, or defending a cathedral from an onslaught of enemy tanks (calling in a tank buster attack was pretty satisfying). You'll have to wade through thick, sandbox sludge before you get to these sorts of extensive challenges, but what makes matters worse when you get there is the glitches, bugs, and generally deficiencies in Mercs 2's basics that ruin any possible fun you might have.
The most grating of these is the health system. Confused by the fact that whenever we seemed to get blown up by an RPG our health meter went down to 3%, we flew a helicopter up to a few thousand feet and jumped out. Low and behold, the same thing happened - 3%. The bugs continued in this area, such as a 10 meter jump into water taking 10% of our health away, or being flung from an exploding car and only taking a 15% health hit. Glitches included soldiers that flail around while half submerged in solid earth for some reason, or burning embers that seem to pop in and out of existence on the game's filters like zero point energy.
Add these anomalies to some truly uninspiring visuals (minus glitches and bugs), and you've got a disappointment of epic proportions. The only time we enjoyed the graphics was when we were flying a helicopter across the map when some dense fog had descended upon Venezuela. Masking the ugliness of Mercs 2's jungle foliage and water effects, the fog actually made us feel like we were flying a Huey down the Mekong Delta in the Vietnam War, which was pretty cool. Once the fog dissipated though, we were figuratively bought back down to earth by the blandness that omnipresently surrounded us.
The explosions in the game show where some of the games visual prowess once was. Setting off an airstrike or a sea mine, for example, shakes the camera mercilessly and brings a brilliant orange-yellow hue to all the objects surroundings you. However, the particle effects at work in the explosion's smoke are flat while the billowy, napalm like flames that we saw during our First Look have become flaky and bleached of their coronal glare.
In a further similarity to HAZE, the chatter system in Mercs 2 is both dull and repetitive. In hindsight, I think I'll play Mercs 2 in silence if I ever touch it again, what with Jennifer Mui talking about how much she likes money the whole time, or the Mercs' 'handler' telling me not to steal her car (parked outside your base) every single bloody time - what does she expect?!
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