At its core, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames is a game about cruising around and blowing stuff up. Sure, you'll find all the trappings of a modern game, such as detailed characters and a plot driven by the harsh realities of geopolitics, but with as much wide-open terrain and potent weaponry as Mercs 2 offers, you'll want to take advantage of every last bit of it. Until recently, however, we've only been able to witness the game's destructive capabilities in certain sectioned-off areas of the new Venezuelan setting. All that changed with our most recent look at the game. With a nearly finished version of Mercs 2 at our disposal, we were handed a controller and told to do as we please. With this newfound freedom, we took the opportunity to explore as much of this fictionalized Venezuelan sandbox as we could, taking every chance to exhaust our weapons cache along the way.
We've previously covered the first few missions and how they relate to the overall story (you're a mercenary who's been stiffed for payment by the new dictator; thus begins a tale of revenge), as well as a general overview of the various weapons, vehicles, and enemies you can expect to encounter. But this was our first time seeing the game in a virtually finished state. Pandemic is currently at a stage with Mercs 2 where it's completed the process of implementing features. All that's left for the team is to add some polish and fix any remaining bugs. So far, it's looking like the team is doing a fine job of it. Our last look at the game was a little rough around the edges in certain areas, but this time around, things are looking a lot prettier. Whether it's the character models of the warring factions that make up the game's chaotic populace or the lush vegetation flanking the sprawling roads, there's a nice clarity and diversity to the environments around you.
Of course, Mercs 2 isn't all about taking in the scenery; it's also about destroying it. Explosions were looking convincing before, but this time around, they seem to play in a much more fluid frame rate. The combination of blinding fire, the billowing dust clouds that quickly follow, and crumbled chunks of building toppling down to finish it off is a process that runs rather smoothly. Using some of the more powerful weaponry (like, say, a tactical nuclear bomb in place of a grenade) results in more slowdown, but even our ambitious attempts at taking down entire buildings by calling in a powerful airstrike didn't result in significant visual stuttering. And once you've taken out a building, it'll stay destroyed until you begin your next mission. You can cruise across the entire map and come back to see your handiwork still in ruins, but once you take on a new job, it'll return to normal. That might not help the overall realism, but it certainly helps when you get to a mission that requires you to access a building you shot to hell a few hours ago.
Our primary goal this time around was to acquire an anaconda helicopter (think of an AH-64 Apache) to get a feel for Mercenaries 2's approach to the increasingly popular open-world setting. We had the option of either hijacking an enemy chopper by aiming a sweet grapple hook at it or calling in our buddy Ewan to drop one off for us. Calling in Ewan requires fuel, while hijacking a helicopter forces you to pass a quick little minigame that pits you against the reluctant pilot. Once in the pilot's seat, you'll get a good view of the world around you. While the first game took place in North Korea, this time around, Pandemic has swapped political hot spots in favor of Venezuela. The whole setting looks much more vibrant with a nice amount of variety to the sometimes-lush-sometimes-arid-but-always-differing landscapes. You might begin in sunny midday Maracaibo and fly your way over to one of the many industrial oil facilities hidden away from urban life. The most noticeable part about this transition is the change in atmosphere. You go from having a clear view of everything around you to being engulfed in a hazy smog when you get to the industrial area. And depending on which industrial compound you're hovering over, it might be sunset, giving the area an eerie orange haze.
That last part is due to the fact that the world of Mercenaries 2 doesn't use a clock to replicate the normal 24-hour cycle of the sun and the moon. Instead, depending on which area of the world you're in, the time of day changes. So while that oil facility will always be shown during sunset hours, other areas might be permanently set at night. One such example is the headquarters of the Caribbean pirate faction. They're a rather scary bunch, but they're also pirates who like to party (as evidenced by the festive lights hanging from their beachfront huts), so it makes sense that their area of operations is set in permanent nighttime. In fact, each of the game's various corporations, armies, and militias you work for throughout the course of the storyline has a base set in very different parts of the world to help set each other apart. The rebel freedom fighters have a mountain camp, the oil company has a downtown office complex, and the Caribbean pirates have their beach resort.
The environment is about 8x8 kilometers in size. That's already pretty big, but these subtle atmospheric changes that occur as you move about help make the whole place seem even bigger, by virtue of giving everywhere you go its own unique character. But it's not all about traveling by air. By vehicle, you'll find yourself driving from areas of urban sprawl to dirt roads that weave through the expansive jungle. The game includes cars, monster trucks, motorcycles, and boats. Many of these can be equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers. We were shown a flashy blue sports car called the Urban Commando with rocket launchers that popped out of hidden panels. We're told you can buy that one from one of your many shady contacts, which is all the more incentive to take on the numerous side missions.
Of course, it wasn't all about taking a leisurely stroll through Venezuela during our session. One of the cooler tasks we got to experience had us taking out a target inhabiting an old fortress out at sea (a fortress filled with dozens of guards, as it so happens). Rather than taking out the entire castle with a well-placed airstrike, we decided to hop out of our chopper and go the precise route by shooting our target and only our target. Big mistake. Not only did one of the soldiers on the roof make off with our chopper, but once we took out the target (thereby completing the mission) the soldiers were still swarming on us like angry bees. This wouldn't have been so bad were it not for the fact that the fortress also had ample fuel tanks nearby ripe for stealing. We tried calling in our helicopter friend Ewan to airlift the fuel for our own later use, but the poor guy was shot out of the sky in a blaze of failure. It seems that sometimes it pays to take out as many enemies as you can.
Overall, we're quite impressed with the sandbox for destruction Mercenaries 2 offers. One of the most critical elements in an open-world game is the world it's set in, and so far, this one is looking good. The game is fast approaching its August 31 release date, but before then, you should expect to see some details on the one big feature we've yet to cover: co-operative multiplayer. Stay tuned for more.