With a career that involves negotiating with warlords and avoiding a near-constant hailstorm of bullets, mercenaries live by a simple but reassuring motto: "Everybody pays." But occasionally, a client will fail to abide by this creed. That's when things turn sour and business partners become enemies. So begins Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, the sequel to a game that earned critical acclaim for its unabashed focus on sandbox mayhem and real-world political themes. We were recently able to play our way through a handful of Mercenaries 2's introductory missions. While brief, it was enough time to see that the formula that made the first game so appealing has been preserved nicely despite the 14,000 kilometer move from North Korea to Venezuela.
The first mission in Mercenaries 2 finds you working for a mysterious but undeniably charming man named Ramon Solano. He's asked you to rescue a military officer who's recently been taken captive by some of the renegade troops running around this fictionalized Venezuela. You start out the mission in style: cruising through the open seas on a speedboat. Pandemic has decided to introduce you to your newfound ability to hit the sea from the get-go because, perhaps, these new maritime vehicles will become a common sight in the game. The world map, which is said to be 8x8 kilometers in size with a 2.5 kilometer draw distance, is covered by a hefty amount of open sea. When not running through condensed versions of such major Venezuelan cities as Maracaibo, Caracas, and Valencia, you'll be bouncing through the waves in between the game's several islands.
After navigating your way through a narrow passageway of seaside cliffs, you'll wind up in a calm bay isolated from the dangers of the high sea. But it's not isolated from soldiers armed to the teeth with assault rifles, so just as you step off the boat, you'll immediately need to engage in some heavy warfare. From here, it's the familiar Mercenaries style of run-and-gun combat. Those who've spent much time with this year's other big sandbox game, Grand Theft Auto IV, may find themselves instinctively reaching for the cover button. But unfortunately, a cover system is not one of the features Pandemic has added to Mercenaries 2. With heavily destructible environments operating under the Havok physics engine, Pandemic decided it wouldn't make much sense to give you the opportunity to hide behind objects that would just get blown up anyways. Still, in our time with the game, we felt like we could really use it.
But one thing Pandemic has decided to work toward is--to quote creative director Cameron Brown--the "world's biggest explosion." A lofty goal, to be sure. And while that may be pie-in-the-sky thinking, you can really get a sense of Pandemic's dedication to ramping up the chaos that made the first Mercenaries so appealing. Even in this first mission, we were given the opportunity to call in an airstrike when met with a tall, stone gate. Once you've unlocked everything there is to get, you'll be able to call in airstrikes using the likes of daisy cutters, manually laser-guided bombs, tactical nuclear bombs, and even a little number called the Mother of All Bombs--or MOAB for short.
Once we got past this gate, it was time to hijack a jeep. We could have had the chance to test out the new Quick-Time Event minigame required to hijack a nearby tank were it not for the fact that our poorly aimed airstrike took out the gate in addition to the tank. But no matter--we were off and on our way, still on the lookout for that captured officer. Cruising through the windy dirt roads of mountainous Venezuela, we ran into several pockets of armed soldiers. Eventually, we found a shanty town up in the hills, divided several times over by a series of switchback roads crossing through the village. Rather than take the road, we decided to test out the destructible environments by putting these shacks in an unfair fight against our jeep. Sadly, the shacks lost. But it's not just the shanty towns that can be taken down. Later in the game, when you make your way to the big city, you'll be able to knock down entire buildings. The explosions in the game look really nice, too. From the sweltering fire effects to the way buildings topple over rather than burst into pieces, the attention paid to making the environment more fun to destroy seems to have worked out well.
Finally, we found our man. The officer, Carmona, was being held in an underground jail cell. We managed to rescue him and bring him back to Solano. But unfortunately, Solano's idea of a reward is to have you killed. He'd been planning on staging a coup to assume control of Venezuela, and with you having just Ramboed your way though scores of armed soldiers, he sees you as a potential threat down the line. But just as the gun is drawn, you take off running and manage to escape no worse for the wear--except for the bullet lodged in your posterior. This opening sequence plays out a little differently depending on whether you choose Mattias, Chris, or Jennifer, but the basic gist is the same: You've been wronged and now you're out for vengeance. This tale of revenge is one of the themes Pandemic has added to the storyline to give it a personal touch rather than having you play the cold-blooded mercenary who's only out to get paid.
In the next mission, you need to find a center of operations. You then kill two birds with one stone by ambushing one of Solano's estates to take it over. While racing to this location, you may discover a few things about the roads: There aren't many pedestrians because most of the locales are occupied military zones and the few there are can't be run over without losing money. It isn't terribly grisly when you do run someone over. This seems to fall in line with Pandemic's focus on exaggerated, over-the-top violence to help maintain the Teen rating for which it is aiming.
But eventually, you'll get your compound and start on a journey that will align you with several warring factions in a war-torn Venezuela that's just about ready to fall apart at any moment. In our demo, we really enjoyed the scope of the new setting. The visibility was surprisingly in terms of distance, especially from elevated terrain. While the visuals displayed some hiccups common in unfinished builds, the actual explosions and demolitions looked great. We'll be looking forward to future coverage so we can further explore the diverse Venezuelan terrain--not to mention some of the more intriguing new features like the ability to create your own private military company and online co-op.
Mercenaries 2 is scheduled for release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC and PlayStation 2. The primary difference among them--besides the obvious visual disparity--is that the PlayStation 2 version will not support co-op multiplayer like the current-gen versions. You can expect to see the game arrive on August 31.