Mercenaries, Pandemic's ninth game since they were founded in 1998, was a well received open-world game for the Xbox and PS2. Similar in a lot of ways to Grand Theft Auto, the player is tasked with performing a number of missions (both key story missions and optional side quests) but is not pressured to do so. The sequel doesn't stray far from the formula so if you're not familiar with the earlier game but have played GTA, you'll feel right at home.
At the start of the game, your selected Mercenary (there are several to choose from) is double-crossed after completing a mission - something of a no-no within the world of guns for hire. Not prepared to let bygones be bygones, the remainder of the game follows your progress to hunt down and pay back this nefarious deed.
Action is third person, with your character able to interact with other key NPCs by way of branching cutscenes, and the ability to steal vehicles as necessary. This latter skill extends to the ability to hijack enemy tanks (by way of a quick time event, where the player must press the correct button in a short cutscene to successfully complete the hijacking), which come in extremely handy when destroying enemy installations. Yes, that's right, you can blow up buildings - not just mission objectives either: Mercenaries 2 prides itself in allowing you to blow up anything in the game! Sure, you might need a big gun to take out a big building but there's not much quite so rewarding as, Sledgehammer-style, you pull a building out from underneath an enemy sniper!
Mercenaries 2 is heavily focused on maintaining a reputation with the various factions that are currently warring in Venezuela, where the game is set. You'll start out with default reputations with each of the factions but over the course of the game, you'll either improve (or degrade) your reputation level with each faction by doing missions for one of the other factions or killing members of a faction.
There are numerous side quests available from each faction to help you change the reputation as you desire or to simply acquire cash which you'll need to buy weapons, airstrikes and the like, which come in handy all the time - particularly during the story missions. Each faction has a different set of items that you can only buy from them so it pays to think long and hard before getting offside with someone. Just who your friends and enemies are during the game is something that's in near constant flux...
Vehicle handling doesn't have quite the same feel as the recent GTAIV so if you've played a lot of that, it will take a bit of time to adjust to this. It's not bad, per-se, but it is different. The graphical effects that are employed to express speed aren't quite as polished as those used in GTA either but you can still go quite fast with the right vehicle and each vehicle has fairly distinct characteristics. There's no popup in Mercenaries 2 either so feel free to travel at high speed without fear of something immovable materializing right in front of you, like you'd expect to have happen in Rockstar's game, which is nice.
There are loads of different types of vehicles to use, including the standard cars and motorbikes, with a whole assortment of military vehicles at your disposal - including tanks, which are almost plentiful! Hopping into a vehicle is nearly essential - while in one, you cannot take any direct damage yourself so the enemy will need to destroy your vehicle before they can inflict any direct damage. Additionally, if you manage to get into a vehicle without the enemy seeing you do so, you will become camoflaged as whatever faction that vehicle belongs to - which includes "civilians", meaning that you'll be ignored by the warring factions whilst driving a civvie car.
The third person gun fighting stuff is pretty decent but again, GTAIV felt better here in most cases. There's no formal cover system here (which makes sense in some ways, as cover can easily be destroyed by weapons fire during the course of a battle) and the lockon system, whilst appreciated, isn't as easy to use as that in GTA. What is nice is the (extremely "videogamey") way in which incoming enemy fire takes time to travel to you, giving you time to both see it (and the direction it's coming from as a result) and avoid it, if you're quick enough. This one mechanic alone helps make the firefights entertaining as it allows you to run around out of cover and still have a fair chance of achieving your desired result.
Graphically the game can be pretty seriously uninspiring. A lot of the console's processing power is put to work managing the huge environment, a task far more complex than that of GTAIV as you can not only run around the environment, you can also destroy it. Even so, the low resolution textures and polygons constructing the environment can look pretty garish - which is doubly disappointing when the framerate occasionally dips or the image tears (fairly rarely). There are nice bits but there are visual bugs, too, with occasional Z-fighting and character's costumes slightly clipping through their skin, etc.
The controls can be a bit overwhelming - there's a lot of stuff you can do, including handling primary and secondary weapons, calling in for airstrikes / support and much more. What this means, however, is things don't always go as you'd expect them to - typically in the middle of a firefight. It can be quite complicated driving a vehicle, aiming the guns and getting the camera to go where you want it to - a combination which doesn't make for the most enjoyable of experiences when attempting to navigate a speedboat through a mine-infested river whilst being chased by gunboats, for example. Mission briefings too can be a little on the light side when it comes to explaining what to do, telling you to use the chopper to drop relay stations, for example, when what they actually mean is make your own way to the target then use a signal flair to get your chopper pilot to come in and drop off the station. Much time was spent looking for the helicopter in this situation when an extra couple of words in the mission briefing or followup help text could have made things much clearer.
The sound is pretty good for the most part, with solid thumps and bangs when you want them and a real sense of urgency in the middle of a firefight. You get great audio cues for things like incoming heavy weapons fire, you can always tell if there's enemy aircraft about and the sound alone is often enough indication of an enemy close by. Where it lets the side down somewhat is the repeated use of fairly stupid dialogue - your character saying "ooh an enemy tank", for example, when you just parked it there - really, this shouldn't surprise the player. The fact that they say the same damn line of dialogue every time (a problem with all general NPC chatter, not just your character) makes it pretty hum-drum and you can't help but wonder why they bothered having them say anything at all.
It might sound so far like this review is fairly negative - it seems important at this point to stress to those of you who haven't skipped ahead for the score that Mercenaries 2 is a good game. Not just good, but very good - excellent, even. Sure, it lacks polish in a number of key areas and it sounds like GTA kicks its ass in the fundamental gameplay breakdown but Mercenaries 2, unlike Too Human, really is much greater than the sum of its parts. The huge visceral pleasure you get from destroying objects in the world just cannot be overstated and the massive gameplay variety this destruction gives you (such as approaching enemy bases from any angle and blowing your way in through the walls, for example) is pretty much exactly what gamers have been dreaming of.
There's heaps to do, to, with loads of side quests and general destruction just waiting for you to pull the trigger on it. Online mode looks promising, with players allegedly being able to just drop into your game at any time (if you want them to). Unfortunately, as is often the case with games pre-release, we were completely unable to test multiplayer. Despite multiple attempts to find other sessions to join and leaving our game open to all to join at all times throughout the review, at no time did we see anyone else playing it online at all. It sounds cool in theory but until we can find someone else to play it against, there's nothing to report on multiplayer mode at the moment.
So, as long as you're not looking for something to show off your huge TV and expensive console system to your friends, Mercenaries 2:World in Flames is something that any serious open-world gamer should add to their collection immediately. Even if you're not normally into these sandbox games, you should check it out - the ability to approach missions as you want to or just cruise around town in a tank, blowing stuff up is something you can't get anywhere else and simply must be experienced.