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Submitted by Chris Leyton on February 18 2005 - 15:38

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction packs plenty of punch for your pounds...

â??Itâ??s fun to blow things upâ? as Guy Fawkes could possibly have mused back in the 17th century; which certainly appears to be the ideology behind LucasArts and Pandemicâ??s latest PS2/Xbox title, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction.

Set within the turbulent region of North Korea in the near-future, a landmark unification between the North and South regions is thrown into turmoil, when General Choi Song assassinates his father to prevent the peace agreement and further capitulating to Western demands. With the security codes to his countryâ??s nuclear arsenal and Armageddon at his command, Song is feared as the most dangerous man in the world; so itâ??s up to one person, namely you, an agent within Executive Operations to hunt Song and his associates down and bring about peace to the region and allay the worldâ??s fears.

Taking huge influence from the popular GTA series, Mercenaries is a third-person action title that is built atop an open-ended design, and presents the player with a phenomenal amount of freedom and choice within the game. The game world is populated with five different factions, namely the North Koreans, South Koreans, Chinese, Russian Mafia and the Allied Nations; each of which have their own set of objectives and issue missions for the player to complete. Completing missions for the factions will often provide you with the knowledge to hunting down Songâ??s associates along with a nice boost to your bank balance; however your actions with one faction could upset that with another.

The North Koreans are naturally â??hostileâ? throughout the game, however your alignment to the other factions begins as â??neutralâ? and will change dependant on your actions within the game; for example, completing a mission for the Chinese faction will often have repercussions with your relationship with the South Korean faction. This sense of â??cause-and-effectâ? is one of the gameâ??s more subtle touches of brilliance and takes the concept to the next level in comparison to other open-ended titles out there, as even the GTA series (excluding GTA2) never gave you the opportunity to pitch one gang against another based on your choice.

Beginning with the choice of three Executive Operations agents; namely Chris Jacobs, Jennifer Mui and Mattias Nilsson. Differences between the characters isnâ??t just down to whether you want to play as an all-round American, a sophisticated British female or a brutish Swede however, as each of the characters have slight differences such as Jenniferâ??s reliance upon stealth and reconnaissance or Mattiasâ?? preference with heavy-duty explosives to get the job done.

The main task is naturally bringing in General Song, but before that youâ??ll need to fight your way through his entire army, collecting bounties and gaining intel towards his location.

Despite its open-ended structure, Mercenaries contains a wonderful sense of structure within the game, encompassed by its â??Deck of Cardsâ? system. What initially sounded as a cheap gimmick inspired by the recent events in the Gulf War, actually does a great job of granting players the freedom to go about the game as they wish, but at the same time always ensuring you know what youâ??re doing and where you are in the game.

The game is essentially broken down into four different campaigns, each represented by a suit within the deck. As you would expect, each suit consists of nine peripheral members, with the face cards representing leaders and ultimately the Ace being the man in charge that you need to capture in order to progress through the game. Before youâ??re allowed to go after the Ace however youâ??ll need to build up sufficient intel, which is gained by capturing or verifying lower-ranked officials within the suit. Itâ??s not paramount to always capture your target alive, as photographic evidence of a fallen opponent will suffice, however your cash reward will be halved because of this â?“ and as we all know, thatâ??s the real reason why the Mercenary is involved, cold-hard cash...

Much like the GTA series youâ??re free to hi-jack or commandeer whatever vehicle you find within the game, ranging from civilian cars to tanks and helicopters to anti-aircraft units â?“ along with a number of surprise hidden vehicles that are well worth discovering. The game will never win awards for its realism or diversity when it comes to controlling the sheer amount on offer, but then that was never the purpose of the game; instead Mercenaries ensures that taking control of a YAH-56 Gunship doesnâ??t require advanced knowledge of flying helicopters, itâ??s just a case of fun, fun, fun...

The games subtitle â??Playground of Destructionâ? actually provides an apt description of the experience to be had with Mercenaries; whilst the game is set amidst a semi-realistic background, the emphasis (as Chris Susen Lead Producer recently explained to TVG) is most definitely on fun. To this extent the game incorporates the Havok physics engine to starling effect. The use of real-world physics within videogames is a developing technique that will continue with the next-generation of consoles; while Half Life 2 used realistic physics and real-world logic to solve the various puzzles throughout the game, Mercenaries takes the concept to extremes with hugely enjoyable effect.

The game provides you with enough firepower to bring about the worldâ??s destruction, regardless of the fear of Songâ??s nuclear arsenal; weâ??ll talk more about the weapons later, but for now just picture the type of destruction available to you with strikes such as Stealth Bombers and Cluster-Bombs at your fingertips.

With Havok physics every item in the game explodes and destructs with extreme effects; jeeps and small vehicles will fly into the air with a well placed rocket, whilst every building within the game can come crumbling down, no matter how big â?“ literally the only thing weâ??ve found that you canâ??t destroy within the game are the jet-planes that fly overhead! Labelled â??Merc Momentsâ? by Pandemic and LucasArts, the sheer intensity as a flaming jeep hurtles inches above your head provides a lot of the initial buzz when playing through Mercenaries, however surprisingly the appeal doesnâ??t wane too quickly â?“ blowing stuff up is incredibly fun and nothing does it with quite the same impact or panache as Mercenaries.

As we said before, thereâ??s a phenomenal amount of firepower at your dispersal. Whilst the huge range of vehicles provide the main source of firepower, the game contains a large selection of guns and explosives to get your hands on, ranging from sniper rifles to C4. In keeping with the open-ended design, the variety of weapons presents a satisfying assortment of ways to go about getting the job done â?“ try hooking up some C4 onto a vehicle, drive it into a hostile area, jump out and blow the encampment to smithereens.

The issue of freedom is prevalent throughout the entire game, which given its action orientated nature, is a particularly innovative aspect and provides depth which many average run-and-gun shooters sorely lack. Itâ??s not perfect however, as you will get moments when the game does begin to feel repetitive and is just explosion after explosion, although admittedly highly exciting ones at that.

Another particularly neat feature within the game and one that just oozes style is the PDA system. This little gem provides you with a wealth of information, including maps, progress through the deck of cards, mission information, faction alignment and a rather brilliant weapon-drop feature.

Once youâ??ve completed the first few missions for the Russian Mafia youâ??ll open up the Black-Market option, which allows you to receive weapon and supply drops, and access the almighty air-strike options. Simply choose whatever you want and a helicopter will drop it to wherever you are on the map (providing youâ??re not in a radar-jamming area); youâ??re then free to use these by bringing up the options via the d-pad. Itâ??s an absolutely brilliant system that ensures the action is constantly intense and you always have the opportunity to try another tactic if your current one is failing.

As you progress through the game, new items will become available to purchase from the Russian Mafia; however itâ??s the air-strikes that provide the main firepower within the game. After only a short time within the game youâ??ll have Cluster Bombs, Stealth-Bomber Attacks and Precision Bombing at your dispersal; these are often spectacular and help to get the job done quickly, particularly when it comes to bringing buildings down to the ground. Our particular favourite has to be the Bunker-Buster Bomb, which drops a huge bomb from the skies and then a cataclysmic wave shoots out from the explosion, whilst your character covers his/her eyes â?“ truly astounding...

Much like the GTA series thereâ??s plenty to sustain your interest if you want to get away from the mission progression for awhile. Specific vehicles on the map marked by a $ sign will provide a variety of challenges, such as racing from one end of the map to another or escorting journalists to where the action is happening. Thereâ??s also a large number of secondary quests to complete, which often include collecting hidden items or destroying objects such as the South Korean Listening Posts â?“ but again these have a consequence on your standing with the rival faction.

Having worked your way through the suit and gained enough intel to go after the ace, the game pans out slightly differently with the final missions. Rather then having to find the ace youâ??ll be air-lifted to his location, and the mission stands out on its own with the intensity rammed through the roof.

One particular issue is that the pacing of the game is rather slow to begin with, and as such you can find your interest dwindling before youâ??ve completed the first campaign due to the lack of challenge; but thankfully the difficulty curve soon notches up a level once youâ??ve completed the suit of Clubs and becomes damn tricky towards the end of the game. Thereâ??s so much packed into the game that Mercenaries will last considerably longer then most action-packed titles, a figure close to 20-25 hours should be likely for the vast majority of gamers interested in the title.

The game looks surprisingly impressive particularly given the sheer scope and size of the map. With the emphasis placed solely on destruction, explosions throughout the game look stunning particularly because of the use of Havok physics, whilst itâ??s satisfying to note itâ??s been used on everything throughout the game â?“ even walls buck realistically if you put a vehicle straight into it.

The Xbox version naturally looks more impressive thanks to the use of bump and specular-mapping techniques, although thatâ??s not to say the PS2 version is a slouch in the visual stakes â?“ in fact quite the opposite, itâ??s possibly one of the most impressive titles on Sonyâ??s machine that weâ??ve seen in recent months.

The music throughout the game is epic and definitely packs that movie feel, so much so that at times it feels a little out-of-place, but definitely nothing to complain about just slightly surprising. The various factions within the game all speak in their native tongue which is a nice touch, and as youâ??d expect sound effects pack a punch, particularly if youâ??ve got your console hooked up to a decent Home Entertainment set-up.

As we talked about in our previous interview with the Lead Producer, perhaps the only thing desperately missing from Mercenaries is multiplayer support, a feature that seems ideally suited to the game. Naturally when launching a new IP, LucasArts and Pandemic understandably wanted to ensure the single-player was as good as possible, although given the comments to TVG, we can fully expect online multiplayer featuring in a sequel if it were to emerge (given itâ??s success across America weâ??d take this to be a certainty).

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  • Graphics: 91%
  • Sound: 93%
  • Gameplay: 88%
  • Originality: 84%
  • Longevity: 84%
Overall Score: 8/10
Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is an unusual experience, an action title packed with clever touches, depth and plenty of variety. Sure it does suffer at times from repetition, but any game that tasks you solely with shooting and destroying stuff will throw this issue up – even the likes of Halo 2 can begin to get a little monotonous at times.

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