PlayStation 2
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Developer: Pandemic Stuidos
Publisher: LucasArts
Rating: Teen for Violence and Mild Language
Released in: January 2005

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is a very entertaining game by Pandemic, the makers of Star Wars: Battlefront and Destroy All Humans!, featuring gameplay that is, in the most basic terms, Grand Theft Auto meets the military. However, that simplification doesn’t do the game, or any of its elements, justice. Not only is this game just as entertaining—possibly even more so—as the infamous crime sandbox, but it features gameplay that is truly open-ended, and lets you play with explosive military tech along the way. Let\'s not even mention the nearly twenty hours of gameplay and possible replay value. Yeah, it\'s good.

Mission Intel

In Mercenaries, you are an employee of \'private military company\' called Executive Operations, or ExOps, for short. The story is that the whole situation in North Korea has taken a turn for the worst, after a NK ship is intercepted and is revealed to be carrying nuclear weapons for sale to terrorists. After an official resolution from the UN, the Allied Nations of the world (apparently in the game that constitutes as the US and the…well, the US) invade North Korea with the help of the South Koreans and remove the dictator, Song, from power. However, Song and his men have gone underground, and have effectively started an insurgency/resistance sort of thing. The danger here is that Song still has access to the nuclear weapons stockpile he created during his reign; naturally, this is a bit of a worry. Therefore, the AN (the US) has issued a \'Deck of 52\', a playing card deck that features a North Korean fugitive as each playing card, along with a bounty in the event of their capture or death (similar to the Deck of 52 issued in Iraq in real life). The Ace of Spades, the ultimate bounty, the dictator Song himself, is worth a whopping $100 million. ExOps, a capitalistic company that’s always looking for a profit, sends in you (thanks to the suggestion of you mission controller, the ever charming Fiona) to start collecting bounties. You start with the small fry, gaining intelligence information with each capture or kill as well as bounty information, and then once you have enough intel to pinpoint the location of the big fish—the Aces—you go and fight through heavy NK forces to nab them.

Mission Area Overview

To get the intel for the smaller targets—and for a steady stream of cash to re-supply yourself—you have to work with the different factions on the battlefield for side \'contracts.\' Two of these sides I’ve already mentioned: the AN and the South Koreans. (The North Koreans count as a faction, but they always hostile towards you, and therefore you’re not allowed to work with them; only fight them.) You’ll also be able to work with the Chinese and the Russian Mafia. Each faction gives you missions (known in the game as \'contracts\') that are well-designed and unique. Nearly all of them are very open-ended in nature. Pandemic has stated that their design philosophy with Mercenaries was to give a mission to the player that told them what needed to be done, but not how to do it. They’ve largely succeeded in this, and the missions can be tackled in almost any way that you can think of. Indeed, creativity in the problem-solving during these missions can be very satisfying, although unfortunately not exactly rewarding; the game doesn’t give you any kind of reward or cash bonus for accomplishing tasks with style and creativity. (Thankfully, this is something that looks to be corrected with the upcoming Mercenaries 2.) Also, occasionally missions can be restrictive because of certain objective requirements or the equipment and support options that are available to you.

The types of missions that you’ll play are pretty varied in and out of themselves, and the ones you receive from different factions usually suit the different \\'personalities\\' of each faction. You’ll get missions where you have to assault enemy positions, defend friendly positions, assassinate faction officers (you may be friendly to all four factions, but they aren’t necessarily friendly to each other), participate in surgical strikes, steal an enemy vehicle, escort a reporter through different hot-spots on the battlefield, destroy a shot-down CIA plane and rescue its pilot, infiltrate faction territory and rescue friendly prisoners, and more. It also helps that the set-up of each mission (where and over what terrain it takes place, what enemies will be present, what options are available to you, etc.) also keeps things fresh between different missions. For example, a surgical strike against tank bunkers will play out differently than a surgical strike against a bridge or incoming cargo ship. It should be noted though that the missions are generally only as diverse as you make them: If you attack mission objectives in similar ways with each contract, things will feel more repetitive than it will if you try to tackle objectives according to the plot situation at hand or in a creative manner each time.

Support Options

During the game you’ll have option to support items that you can use to help even the odds or to give yourself an extra boost whenever the situation calls for it. Generally, each mission that you receive will give several support options that can be used for free so many times (then you must pay for them), and sometimes you will also receive support options that you’ve never used before (but can then use for the rest of the game whenever you want or need to). You can also call in even more support from the ever-friendly Mafia (friendly for a price, that is) through their \'Merchant of Menace\' online black market store. The types of support options available are as diverse as almost everything else in the game. You are able to call in different types of vehicles (at least one type of vehicle for each faction, including the North Koreans), supplies of every nature (that is combat related), and—everyone’s favorite—air strikes, which range from laser-guided surgical strikes to carpet bombing to the brilliantly destructive bunker busters.

Equipment Check

The theme of destruction continues with the weapons available in the game. There are a lot of them: Think of any ground-based weapon (besides a SAW-type or pistol) and it’s more than likely in the game somewhere. There’s the Assault Rifle (AK-47), Carbine (M4), SMG, Covert SMG, Shotgun, RPG, Anti-Tank Launcher, Anti-Air Launcher, Anti-Tank Rifle, and the Sniper Rifle. (There are also fragmentation grenades, flash-bangs, and C4 packs as well.) Most of these weapons are well designed and are satisfying to use. They are also varied and mostly balanced in terms of functionality. For example, the Kalashnikov has more ammo and more of a punch than the M4 Carbine, but the M4 is more accurate and is easier to make headshots with, increasing its power potential and ammo conservation. The RPG carries more ammo and is widely available on the battlefield (making it easier to keep going with it without fear of prolonged ammo depletion), but the AT and AA launchers are more powerful and more accurate (against their respective types of targets, that is). The SMG fires very rapidly and is devastating at short-ranges but looses its accuracy at range. The Sniper Rifle has a good zoom functionality that gives you full control of the scope magnification, and while its deadly if you can nail the headshot at any range, you’ll be hard-pressed making a shot in close quarters.

My beef here is that while some of the weapons are good, a few others seem poorly implemented. The Shotgun is more difficult to use than it should be due to its seemingly decreased ability to aim. (Also, there is a weird sound glitch—or possibly an actual omission on the part of Pandemic—where the Shotgun doesn’t make any sound while firing, thus making it so very much less satisfying to fire.) The Covert SMG, while definitely quieter than its cousin, is pretty much useless in that the so-called covert sections of the game are pretty much impossible to complete covertly anyway.

Lastly, the AT Rifle is pretty much pointless: I have yet to discover what makes this weapon different from the basic Sniper Rifle. The available vehicles in the game are also fun to use. You have three basic types: Your light vehicles, such as the ever trusty HMMMV (also known as the Hummer), which are useful for high speed situations and for taking some extra troops into the fray with you; the heavy vehicles, which include APCs and tanks, are good for bringing some extra firepower onto the battlefield; and the helicopters are able to zip across the map quickly and rain deadly fire onto ground enemies. Each type also has its disadvantages to keep things balanced: Light vehicles are easy to flip and take damage easily; heavies are slow and vulnerable to other heavy vehicles or to rockets fired by pretty much anyone; and helos can be shot down easily by AA vehicles and AA launcher- or RPG-carrying soldiers. Each vehicle is appropriate for different situations, and it’s fun to try and figure out when to use them and how to use them in creative ways.

IFF - Identification, Friend or Foe

The faction system is well set-up. You must keep each faction happy in order to continue to receive contracts from them. How you do this is simple on the surface: Just do things for them and don’t kill or KO their troops. However, things get tricky when factions give you a mission that involves you taking hostile action against another faction. The challenge then is to accomplish your mission objectives without making the other faction mad. For the most part, this is difficult but doable, creating a good level of challenge. You are free to disregard factions’ attitude towards you, but be careful: Make them too mad and they’ll turn completely hostile towards you, like with the North Koreans. However, unlike with the NK, factions don’t have to remain hostile to you. A bribe system has been set up where you can approach the guard of a faction headquarters and give them money in order to get back into their good graces so you can start doing contracts for them again. Thankfully, while there is potential for this to be overdone to a point where the motivation and challenge of maintaining faction attitudes is lost, Pandemic manages to avoid the pitfall. Bribes are expensive, and seem to increase the further you get into the game (meaning they’re directly proportional to the money you’re getting), and a bribe will only get you just into the good graces (so if you don’t watch yourself you’ll slip right back under), so you have plenty of incentive to work to keep all factions either happy or at least tolerant of you.

Personnel Profiles

When you start the game, you can select one of three different characters of different nationalities. First, there’s the African-South Korean-American (that’s a mouthful) Chris Jacobs, a former Delta Force soldier who retired after several of his comrades were killed by poor leadership further up the command ladder. Second, there’s Jennifer Mui, a British-Chinese woman who has apparently had a lot of experience in international issues due to her diplomat parents. Finally, there’s Mattias, seemingly everyone’s favorite mercenary, who’s a Russian-Swede motorcycle punk who frequently gets in trouble with the law for his appetite for destruction.

Each character has an entertaining personality, whether it’s Jacobs’ sarcasm, Mui’s uptight and aristocratic view of the battlefield, or Mattias’ darker, almost sadistic (at times) humor. Unfortunately, with the exception of the good-enough character bios on the loading screens, there is little character development or back story to each mercenary. For that matter, there’s not much of a driving narrative or compelling plot for the whole game. Some parts approach compelling, such the North Korean willingness to use artillery and such—even nuclear weapons later in the game—against innocents, or the inner-politics of the different factions, but none of these feel very fleshed out, and it sometimes seems like Pandemic wasted a good opportunity for the game here. The characters do play different from each other; however the differences aren’t as defined as they should be. Chris Jacobs is more hardcore and can take more damage, Mui can run faster and is \'stealthier\' (again, there is little stealth in this game, so whatever ability this is, it’s pretty pointless), and Mattias is more of a cross between the two (and can supposedly throw grenades farther). Really, when it comes time to pick your character, the main factors are really the bios, their appearances, and their personalities. Hopefully, Pandemic will see fit to make the play styles more distinct and more of a factor in the game’s sequel.

Visuals

The visuals in Mercenaries are good, especially for a PS2 game, and good even for an Xbox game. While the polygon count and draw distances aren’t exactly mind-blowing, the particle effects and overall atmosphere is well-done. The explosions in the game are easily some of the prettiest and most spectacular on the last generation of consoles, and even rivals some on the current generation of consoles. The atmosphere of war is very well done here; as you travel the North Korean countryside, you really get a sense of the devastation that has been wreaked on the land. There always seems to be some kind of battle going on and the layout of the cities and military bases seem genuine, which adds to the feeling of a real world. The landscape renders are certainly acceptable, though they seem pretty low-res, and could have definitely used some work in that area. Animation is good, though not quite top-notch, and the main characters are all modeled in good detail.

Sound

Except for a few minor things, the sound in Mercenaries is really good. The weapons all have the right sound to them, giving them a satisfying rapport but nothing that sounds too exaggerated (unless you’ve used them in real life, though, I’m sure). The vehicle motors are all appropriate and really do lend to the overall feel of each one. The characters are all well-voiced, though Fiona’s voice-overs sound a bit too high-pitched and can get annoying at times. Also, her voice-overs are recycled with each mercenary; only the responses of each merc are unique. This doesn’t get too bad however, and on your first mercenary the conversations should always seem natural anyway.

The music is epic, and while the chorus vocals and orchestras seem a little out of place at first, you get so used to it that after a while it just wouldn’t seem like Mercenaries without it. (Here’s to hoping that Pandemic keeps it around for the sequel.) The one glaring flaw in the audio department is the Shotgun glitch/omission I mentioned earlier. Half the fun in using a shotgun is because of the sense of power you get from its bang and kickback; since kickback is difficult to simulate in a third-person shooter like Mercenaries, a good replica of the bang is paramount. But because of the glitch or whatever, there is absolutely nothing here, and it really ruins the feel of what could’ve been a cool gun.

Controls/Interface

The controls in the interface are well laid-out, responsive, and intuitive. Apparently, GTA-style games have suffered from an effective targeting system, but even if this is true, it certainly does not apply to Mercenaries. For movement, aiming, and camera control, the game uses a combination of free-moving third-person (left analog stick for turning left and right and well as moving forwards and backwards, and the right analog stick for adjusting the camera angle) from games like the Jak and early Ratchet & Clank games for basic running-around, and standard shooter controls (left analog controls moving forward and back and strafing, while right analog controls aiming) for when the player is firing their weapons. The game smoothly transitions between the two control types whenever there is combat (again, when players are firing their weapons) and back again when the player stops firing. Like I said, they’re responsive and well implemented.

The interface is functional, and has the visual aesthetic of a PC-style GUI. All the options are available here—control adjustments, sound and visual options, and save/load game features—but unfortunately the save game only works outside of contracts. If you are in the middle of a contract you are not allowed to save or have a checkpoint of sorts; a questionable design decision given the length and challenge of some missions.

Stability

For the most part, Mercenaries is stable. I don’t recall any real glitches besides the Shotgun one, nor were there any frame rate slowdowns that I recall. There are some issues with the load times, as they can be rather lengthy and frequent. I haven’t timed any of them, but on average I would estimate the load-times are about half-a-minute on average. It also doesn’t help that they happen every time you load a game, restart a mission, enter a faction HQ to receive a contract, and leave the HQ to start up the contract.

Violence

- People killing people in cold-bloodeda murder (-5 pts) Mercenaries is without question a pretty violent game. While not as bad in this area as its inspiration, Grand Theft Auto, it still falls into several same pitfalls. There are several assassination missions that the player can undertake throughout the game, often against people that generally do not warrant such killing. The ability to kill innocents is certainly possible, however it never is encouraged nor even mentioned really; it simply is a side-effect of the open-ended game design. There is a lot of war violence, with different factions battling over territory, and the player participates in many of these battles. There is, however, no blood or gore that I could discern. When someone is shot, they kind of…well, flash, I guess. It definitely is anything but graphic.

Language

- Swear Words Acceptable for Prime Time TV are used Once or Twice (-3 pts) Mercenaries has its share of bad language; and as with many games it’s more swearing than sexual dialogue. There is nothing that you wouldn’t here on Prime TV or in an extreme PG-rated move, however. Characters throw around \\'d---\\' quite a bit, a few of the H-word, and the donkey is referred to once or twice as well. Nothing too bad, and it’s something that most teenagers should be able to deal with pretty easily.

Sexual Content

None really to speak of. There are plenty of women in the game—mostly North Korean civilians—but they are all dressed modestly, with the closest thing to an exception being Jennifer Mui, the Chinese-British mercenary character.

Occult/Supernatural

There is about as much of this content in the game as there is in news coverage of war on the news (and not even things like religious terrorists to boot).

Social/Ethical

- Game requires rejecting authority figures or laws. (-2 pts - Poor value decisions are promoted through the game, but not required to progress. (-2 pts) Well, things were going good for two categories. *Sigh* Anyway, Mercenaries, again by its nature, has a good bit going against itself in this category. As a mercenary, you basically commit acts of violence for the highest bidder, and sometimes you’ll even be turning against factions you’ve been friendly with before. You’re going to break international laws at times, by working with crime rings (the Mafia) and doing things like stealing from opposing factions and assassinating enemy officers. However, it should be noted that technically this is all optional: If there is a faction you don’t want to work with, you generally can avoid them and still progress through the game. This means that if for moral reasons you want to avoid working with the Mafia, you can, for the most part.

Overall

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction as a game is plain and simply good fun. There are a good bit of issues, but in the end they are pretty minor, and do not get in the way of the game’s overall quality. It may not be high on the art end of things, but Mercenaries does bring back the pure sense of fun that is what video games are all about in the end. It does suffer from several appropriateness pitfalls, such as ethically-questionable acts of violence in the game, but if you are mature then do not let it stop you from enjoying the sleeper hit of 2005.

Final Score

Game Quality Scores Gameplay – 18/20 Graphics – 7/10 Sound – 9/10 Controls/Interface – 4/5 Stability – 4/5 Total Game Quality Score 42/50 Appropriateness Scores Violence – 5/10 Language – 7/10 Sexual Content – 10/10 Occult/Supernatural – 10/10 Moral/Ethical – 6/10 Total Appropriateness Score 38/50

Overall Game Score 80/100

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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