By now everybody knows who Pandemic Studios is, especially after huge hits such as Full Spectrum Warrior and Star Wars: Battlefront. Having semi-successfully copied Battlefield 1942 with Battlefront, the obvious choice was to make a GTA-style game next, which is where Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction comes in. If you took GTA and plopped it down in a warzone, thatís pretty much the formula for Mercenaries.
As you might expect, you play a mercenary, and being the gun for hire that you are, you follow the money, which brings you to a wartorn North Korea. After you pick one of the three characters (strong American, swift British or medium Swedish), youíre dropped off in the midst of a large scale battle and briefed by Allied Forces on your task at hand. The 52 most wanted people in the country have classified ad cards, which makes it very convenient that theyíre called the deck of 52, with General Choi Song (the Ace of Spades) being the most wanted man in the world.
After all the preliminary mumbo jumbo, youíre unleashed onto the unsuspecting North Korean landscape. If youíve ever played GTA before, itíll seem very familiar, since its free roam gameplay seems to be all the rage today. Now, you can either do the missions, just mess around in the giant, seamless world or you can do side missions. The map is huge, has no loading and you can travel anywhere except for restricted areas, which are marked in red on your radar. Since a mercenary is a gun for hire, there are other factions besides the Allies who desire your services, such as the South Korean, Chinese and Russian Mafia. Depending on your actions, each faction will react differently to you. If you help them in a battle, they like you more. On the other hand,, if you kill one of them, they will not regard you very highly. Some missions require you to attack another faction, which can hurt your rating with them, and potentially turn them from allies into enemies. The missions themselves donít feel very engaging or immersive, as they seem to be presented and are over fairly quickly. However, the missions are more fun than anything presented in the GTA series, which makes progressing fun and not a chore. Also similar to GTA is the vast amount of fun just messing around can provide, especially with so much stuff you can do. The deck of 52 must all be killed or captured alive by knocking them out and calling for extraction. Since just shooting or blowing up a foe is easier, capturing an enemy card will net you double the amount of money than simply killing them would give you. Money is used for many things in this game, such as bribing factions into liking you, calling in air strikes, vehicles or supplies which are a necessity to help you finish the game as well as blow the crap out of everything. The immense amount of freedom offered is also sometimes mind boggling. If your heart so desired, you could make everyone hate you, but then you wouldnít be able to progress or get money, as no one would give you an assignment. There are many ways to do missions as well, such as using stealth or brute force, which comes into play especially in missions where youíre supposed to recover a hostage.
Of course a GTA ripoff wouldnít be possible without lots of vehicles, especially ones that you can steal, and Mercenaries provides plenty. One thing that makes Mercenaries stand out is the realistically controlled vehicles. Real life physics were implemented into the game to emulate realistic controls, which can sometimes be frustrating, such as controlling the tank, which doesnít resemble Halo at all. Since youíve probably seen the commercial or at least an ad, youíll know the game boasts that if you see it, you can drive it or better yet, blow it up. Well, thatís somewhat true, but also somewhat aggravating. You cannot fly planes, but cars, trucks, buses, APCs, tanks and helicopters are all fair game for you to steal and drive. Stealing helicopters as the pilot foolishly comes too close to you and tossing him to the ground are some of the best moments in the game, along with stealing a tank and wrecking havoc. The amount of destruction in this game is pretty sizeable, as you can blow up nearly everything you see, but some nondestructable things like trees and crates (unless you run them over with a tank) are puzzling. The strength of buildings and bunkers varies and sometimes they seem to never blow up, regardless of the amount of C4 and air strikes you use on them. Minor complaints aside, seeing enemy buildings collapse is a great sight and many times youíll be amazed at the sheer amount of destruction a single person can do.
Since youíre in a vehicle for pretty much half the game, the other half is obviously on foot combat, which has a varying amount of quality. Shooting enemies is pretty fun, but can get tedious, especially if youíre near a bunker or barracks, where they constantly respawn. You can only carry two weapons, which requires Halo styled weapon switching depending on the current situation. Melee combat is also available for breaking supply crates, as well as combat, and along with stun grenades are the only way to take down a foe (or friend) in a non-lethal way. One interesting thing is that once your health goes below 20% (a severe strike will usually leave you with one health) and youíre not being attacked anymore, you will start to heal yourself, but only up to 20%. Being on foot allows you to hijack vehicles, which can quickly turn the tide of any battle, especially if you steal a massive tank. The quality of the A.I. is mediocre, sometimes they will dodge your assaults on them or try to run you down, while other times, they will stand there and wait for you to run them over or fire an RPG at you at point blank range. Cars will sometimes go around a commotion, or sometimes turn and smash into other cars, which can sometimes cause people to be mad at you, because youíre blamed for civiliansí stupidity, which is irritating.
For a game on such a massive scale, Mercenaries looks pretty nice. The lead characters have very detailed player models and theyíre animated quite well. The same cannot be said for the NPCs however. The NPC models are frequently reused and they donít animate or look that good, but you probably wonít get close enough to notice. Whatís worse is that despite using the Havok engine, no ragdoll physics are present, which showcases a few choppy death animations. Textures are plain and ugly, especially the landscape, which is dull and dreary, instead of lush and full of life, like in other games. Most noticeably is the disappointing draw distance and use of fog to attempt to conceal popup. While the draw distance isnít bad, games like Halo and especially Far Cry easily put it to shame. However, some of the best parts of Mercenariesí graphics are the effects, which are some of the best Iíve seen yet. When you throw a smoke grenade to call for supplies or extraction, the helicopter will interact with the smoke to blow it away and dissipate it. Explosions and fire look exceptional, as do destroyed buildings, especially as theyíre collapsing.
Surprisingly, the voicework is well done and believable, especially during the introduction when playing as the American. Some of the accents sound a bit fake and forced, but those are the minority. There are four languages in the game, English, Korean, Russian and Chinese, all the characters can understand English and one more, depending on who you chose, which makes the factions understandable to you, which is a nice twist. Guns and explosions sound great, more realistic than amplified Hollywood-style ones found in other games. All of the vehicles sound great as well, from the tank treads to the helicopter blades whirring. The music is a subtle orchestral style and will change depending on your gameplay, if you go into action, the music speeds up to reflect the mood.
Since this is a third person shooter, it has the popular and expected Halo style of controls where the left thumbstick moves while the right thumbstick looks around. Vehicle controls are a bit different, since Pandemic opted for a realistic style of controls, which means that tanks control properly and not like Halo. Sometimes the controls can be a bit confusing, but after some extended play, they become more natural, although the tank controls certainly take a bit of getting used to. There are some minor things which will aid gameplay, such as if youíre driving and you hit L, youíll jump out and any passengers will stay in, but if you hit Y, everyone jumps out, and by hitting white, your passengers will just get out.
This is one of the longer games on Xbox, especially because itís so easy to get lost in side quests. Once you beat it, I donít see why you wouldnít want to go back, if just to mess around in the aptly subtitled Playground of Destruction. There is much to do in the game, as any GTA fan should recognize. Itís always fun to steal helicopters and shoot at anything that moves, and the game is just fun to play. There are parts in the game, especially driving the cars with mounted guns on the back which just scream for co-op. Itís a shame that there is no Xbox Live play at all, especially since it was originally planned to have sixteen players online. However, the single player adventure is just well done to keep you coming back for more.
Itís one thing to rip off GTA and fail, such as True Crime, but when you rip off GTA and make a game thatís better than it, you get Mercenaries. This game offers a lot more freedom, much more destruction and more action as well. There is a lot of freedom and the missions arenít too bad, but could be better, especially with a more cohesive storyline. Most of the graphics are great, especially the effects, but the textures could use additional work. I found the audio to be very impressive, even if the controls seemed too realistic for their own good. Many moments in the game can only be described as priceless, such as using the helicopter winch to pick up cars and swing them at people, planting C4 on cars and calling air strikes on groups of people. The game as a whole is very fun and very replayable, even if it isnít innovative, but hey, neither was Halo. With such a vast amount of stuff to do, this game is sure to be in your Xbox for a long time.
Gameplay - 8.6
Graphics - 8.8
Audio - 9.6
Controls - 8.2
Replay - 8.4
Overall - 8.5
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