STAFF REVIEW of Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (Xbox 360)

Sunday, September 7, 2008.
by Stacy Code

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames Box art Author Leo Frankowski once wrote that there are two kinds of mercenaries in the world ? there are those who are forced to fight to defend family and country, who may not have a standing military to turn to in times of need. And then there are those with not only the skills and training for war, but an appetite for it that they are all too happy to employ for cold cashy money plus the thrill of the kill. ?These are scary people,? Frankowski writes, ?and you would not want one living in your neighbourhood.? Pandemic?s Mercenaries 2: World in Flames is exclusively focussed on this second variety of merc, and is your chance to play out a fantasy of destruction where you blow the country of Venezuela to hell and back, and turn a dime doing it.

Sequel to 2005?s Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, Mercenaries 2 follows Mattias Nillson, Jennifer Mui and Chris Jacobs to Central America where the opening cinematic leaves Mattias betrayed by his newest employer, Ramon Solano, who has established himself as the de facto ruler of Venezuela and controller of the country?s contested oil supply. Six factions are dominant in the country and are competing with each other for position in the country?s new order, and as one of the three main merc characters (all of which play relatively the same, with minor differences ? Mattias heals damage more quickly, Jen runs faster, and Chris carries more ammo) the player will take jobs for hire from the different factions, generally blowing up valuable structures, reclaiming stolen/occupied stations or verifying (or killing) HVT?s, or Highly Valued Targets. Working for individual factions in the game will increase your standing with them, allowing the purchase of items and services for your mercenary company such as airstrikes, bombing runs, and vehicles ? however, repeated aggression against one faction will lower your standing with them, and potentially cut off whole plot sections or mission strings. Consequently, players will want to maintain a balance and play each of the factions off against each other if they wish to see 100% of the game. Factions you can take on work from in the game include Universal Petroleum, a large oil corporation with a small standing armed force to protect their local interests. The P.L.A.V., or People?s Liberation Army Of Venezuela, are a backwoods guerrilla insurgency force attempting a retaking of their country in an armed coup. The Venezuelan Military are also represented, fighting on behalf of new dictator Solano, as well as a pseudo-UN prescence in the part of the Allied Nations, whose peacekeeping forces present in the country are generally better equipped. Rounding out the cast of players in Venezuela are the Jamaican Pirates, who being pirates have no loyalties to any local faction and are in the local hotspot for financial opportunity, and the Chinese People?s Liberation Army, returning from the first Mercenaries game to add a thread of story continuity.

Gameplay in Mercenaries 2 is relatively open-ended and affords the player a great degree of freedom. Players can pursue missions and complete objectives for cash and equipment rewards, or may freewheel around a relatively hostile country in which they may be attacked randomly at any given turn of the road. Weapons and vehicles are plentiful and are ready to be ?plucked from the trees?, and vehicles range from motorcycles to helicopters, civilian vehicles up through heavy military weaponry ? there are literally well over a hundred different kinds of ride to be stolen in this game. The missions are short and simple, most involving simply driving to a location on the country map and blowing everything up or killing a specific person, making this a great game for a quick fifteen-minute sit-down if needed, plus the co-op of the game plays exactly like the single-player, with the ability for a player to jump into another player?s campaign quickly and easily, much like Contra of old. The physics for explosions and destruction are an absolute treat, and buildings and vehicles blow apart with a very Hollywood cinematic flair ? smoke trails, flying debris, and shuddering audio (plus your character?s quips and jokes) make wrecking Venezuela a very guilty pleasure. The physics engine is a bit inconsistent, in that the destructible environments and objects seem to have genuine real-world mass and heft, yet the driving physics seemed overly greasy and very arcade-like, with vehicle collisions and accidents causing your ride to tumble through the air in a very cartoonlike fashion. As well, vehicles have a health counter which supplants your own when driving, and for cars that bounce through the air like Hot Wheels thrown in a tantrum with nary a bent fender, they succumb to bullet and rocket fire extremely quickly ? players may be frustrated as ride after ride is blown out from under them. This is a minor gripe, though, as your character even on the medium difficulty can withstand damage that would send Arnold Schwarzenegger home crying, and left alone for a short time, health will automatically and quickly regenerate. Control in the game is also a little clunky. The basic control for moving around in the world and switching/reloading weapons is simple enough and is standard third-person habit, but the subsystem for calling in support such as vital life-saving medivacs or mission-saving airstrikes and bombing runs involves standing while fiddling with the d-pad and clicking through a sub-menu, often resulting in getting shot to pieces which standing on the spot. As well, the lack of control remapping is especially frustrating when it comes to the vehicular controls ? why, when packing a controller with dual analog triggers, am I driving vehicles using the ?a? button for throttle and the ?x? button for brake/reverse, especially with the frustrating driving physics? Though I understand the game was co-developed for PS2 and PS3 and they do not feature the same controls as the Xbox 360, it seems unforgiveable that the provision wasn?t made to at least allow the remapping of controls for personal preference. That being said, the game is still simple to play and players will be able to pick up a controller and dive right in with a minimal or nonexistent learning curve.

Graphically the game is a good polish on the first for old-gen systems, and yet still has the look that it was developed for PS2 and then layered with as many visual effects as possible for the Xbox 360 version. Character animations are a bit clunky, the environments feel very open and a bit cartoonish, and there is a fair bit of pop-in in the rendering that seems very out of place on this next-gen console. Grass suddenly appearing a few yards ahead is mildly distracting, especially when you tilt the camera to an overhead view for traffic awareness, but utility poles or even civilians are especially frustrating ? dropped weapons and ammo from slain enemies can be lying on the ground only metres away yet out of sight until you run by. Additionally, those same aforementioned civilians are abysmally stupid (likely shellshocked from their country?s political upheaval) and will run screaming in front of your speeding vehicle, killing themselves and costing you money in collateral damage. Lighting and textures are pretty, but overall the game is visually less than impressive until you start blowing things up ? which is fine, if you are perpetually blowing things up. Incentive, perhaps? There doesn?t seem to be a day-to-night cycle or any kind of local weather effects, either ? the closest thing to any kind of atmospheric effect is a fogging effect when entering certain areas of the country; unfortunately, the fogging hearkens back to the late nineties of game rendering when fog was the game rendering equivalent of Vaseline on the camera lens. Still, though the game seems to be locked in a perpetual time-of-day, it evokes 4 p.m. muggy, humid Central America pretty effectively and the game still feels like a violent summer vacation with guns. Co-operative play is a nice treat, and is painless and easy ? I had friends randomly drop into my game, jumping in the back of my vehicle, manning heavy weapons and giving me the little bit of extra edge I needed to finish tougher missions ? co-op characters can run up and revive you when fallen, Gears of War style, and being able to coordinate by voice is much more helpful than having to rely on the somewhat inhibited A.I. of friendly forces. On one particular mission, I called in troop support via helicopter, and several times the A.I. pilot flew into trees and surrounding buildings, incurring damage against himself and flying away to repair without having done any help. The good news is that the Venezuela heat seems to have addled the bad guys as well, who will sometimes hang themselves up on building corners trying to attack you, or trees, or oil drums, or piles of rubble ? everyone seems a little stunned south of the South Mexico border.

Where the game disappoints is in the audio ? NPC and even character audio is an incessant repeat of the same lines over and over ? you will rapidly despair of hearing the same lines of incidental dialogue over and over ? and over. ?It?s the merc!? or ?It?s the enemy! He?s hiding? are a perpetual refrain, relieved only by some great character dialogue from Peter Stormare (you might remember him as the crazy Russian Cosmonaut from the movie Armageddon) who voices your own character, refraining his role from the first game. Having to hear the same lines over and over again from enemy characters is alleviated somewhat by the hilarious commentary from your own character crooning love haiku to captured AK-47 rifles or quipping on his own questionable driving ability (?Ooooh, BUMPER CARS!!!?). The music is exaggerated, bombastic action movie fare,invisible and nonevocative ? I found my enjoyment of the game leaped significantly when I began piping loud, obnoxious rock overtop, AC/DC and Def Leppard being top bill. (Ironic surfer fare such as the Mysterons also had me cackling with glee.) The game is a chance to star in your own Michael Bay explosionfest, so cue your tunes accordingly and rock out.

The good news for gamers is that for players looking to pad their gamerscore, Mercs 2 is the biggest treat since Peter Jackson?s King Kong ? over the course of three days, I unlocked 14 achievements and padded several hundred points onto my gamerscore. The game practically awards you for turning your controller on, with a nice 50 point achievement just for having joined a multiplayer game, and with 20- and 30- point achievements falling into your lap left and right for playing the first three or four hours of the game and meeting factions, beating the first few basic missions, and just for committing the basic mayhem that the game encourages. Some of the achievements are practical giveaways and are not even hidden secrets ? 10 points for pushing gas and brake at the same time in a vehicle is an example. Consecutive headshots and consecutive destroyed buildings also gave good achievement awards. Blowing stuff up and killing people, which is supposed to be the modus operandi of the game anyhow, all result in generous gamerscore awards.

All in all, Mercenaries 2 was, despite certain shortcomings, a lot of visceral fun and a great catharsis of destruction. There isn?t a lot of story to absorb, there aren?t a lot of play mechanics to master, and there are enough little nooks and crannies to explore and exploit that the game will keep you picking up your controller every odd weekend to let off some steam blowing stuff up, cooking off ammo and driving a swath of destruction through poor war-stunned Venezuela for a long while. It?ll feed your Appetite for Destruction until Gears of War 2 shows up in late fall, and though not a game you troop out to show off your Xbox 360 to your non-gamer friends, it?s easy enough to pick up and play that you might get those same friends to pick up a controller and join you in the noisy, explosive fun.

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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