E3 06: Mercenaries 2: World in Flames Hands-On

The sequel to last year's great full-throttle free-roaming blastathon is headed to the PlayStation 3. We got our hands on the E3 demo and shot up the joint. Details inside.

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LOS ANGELES--Pandemic Studios, the experienced developer behind Mercenaries 2, is showing an early version of the game behind closed doors at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Like its predecessor, Mercenaries 2 will invite you to step into the combat boots of a number of different hardened bounty hunters willing and eager to get involved in the world's ugliest, most dangerous problems. Also as in the previous game, Mercenaries will let you throw in your lot with a number of competing factions, possibly playing them against each other in what's decidedly a dog-eats-dog sort of gameworld. But whereas the previous game in the series took place in the North Korea, Mercenaries 2 takes you to Venezuela, throwing you headlong into a crisis with big oil companies at the center of it. There are a number of great things about oil. One of them is that it blows up real good.

The producer for the game was on hand to walk us through the E3 demo that the company prepared. It starts off with the grizzled, heavily tattooed Matias Nelson exiting an outhouse in a Venezuelan village. An armed militia is loitering nearby, though Nelson's much more heavily armed with his AK-47 and shoulder-slung rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Nelson quickly received a mission from his nearby contact to demolish an offshore oil rig belonging to Universal Petroleum, a massive and presumably corrupt organization (though you'll be able to work for them if you wish). We watched as Nelson surveyed the situation--all in real time--by looking offshore with his binoculars. The oil rig itself looked heavily guarded, what with plenty of rifle-wielding soldiers patrolling the perimeter. Nearby was the real threat, though: a military base, complete with a tank. And in between the rig and the base, patrol helicopters kept a watchful eye for intruders.

This is the sort of mission that Matias Nelson would describe as "tough to solo." But that doesn't stop him from requisitioning a Scorpion buggy for the job. The vehicle doesn't appear out of thin air--Nelson tosses a smoke canister to mark his location and an Osprey transport aircraft ships it, pronto. The vehicle looks highly detailed and features fully articulated suspension, plus room for a passenger and a gunner. We later got our hands on the controls and confirmed what seemed like a good, responsive feel to the steering from our brief time at the wheel. The rest of the game's visuals seemed quite good at first glance, though the frame rate did tend to drop during particularly insane explosions. The South American setting was instantly recognizable, and the lush jungle environments made for a spectacular place to cause mayhem.

Realistic physics are put to good effect throughout the gameworld, and not just in the bouncing of buggies off of dunes. At one point, Nelson takes a shortcut through a village by scaring the local populace with gunfire, stealing a junker of a car, and then simply smashing right through a shantytown, straight into the military base seen previously. Such behavior is by no means necessary, but the fun of Mercenaries 2 will presumably come from being able to perform such actions at any time and for any reason.

To drive this point home, the producer reiterated that the goal with Mercenaries 2 will be to be able to say "yes" in answer to any question starting with "Can you..."? So, can you shoot rockets into your mission contact's back? Can you shoot a grappling hook into a helicopter, climb up the rope, crack open the chopper's cockpit, throw the pilot to his death, and then claim his aircraft? Can you swim? Can you drive boats as well as tanks? Can you play cooperatively with another player? Can you jump on the turret of a tank, climb your way up, and throw a grenade down the cockpit to kill the crew, so you can take it for yourself? Can you shoot an oil tanker, watch all of the gas spill out of it, toss a lighter over your shoulder, and watch as the fuel trail lights up, detonating the whole thing in a spectacular explosion?

Yes, indeed. That about summarizes the new features showcased in the demo we got to try out, which was running on a PlayStation 3 development kit and was already looking quite good. The game uses the Havok 3.0 physics engine, which is apparently being optimized for the PS3's cell processor, so expect to see far more complex geometry and bigger environments than in the previous Mercenaries games, and, more importantly, even more destruction than ever before. Some of the features that were emphasized in particular include the new grappling hook gun, which certainly looked like a lot of fun when used to jack helicopters; and the new hijacking minigame, which will force you to input a sequence of commands in order to steal a vehicle from its pilot. That helicopter pilot doesn't go down without a fight, so it was exciting to see the two characters struggle over the controls. We also spotted a new character, a female bounty hunter named Eva, hailing from Los Angeles. To that end, the cooperative two-player mode seems like another compelling new feature, especially since you'll be able to jointly use vehicles to obliterate your foes. Pandemic confirmed that split-screen co-op is presently the focus of Mercenaries 2's multiplayer offering, but admitted that an online option is being investigated.

We were also curious to know whether Mercenaries 2 might take advantage of the recently revealed tilt sensor in the PlayStation 3 controller, to which the developers said that they were certainly looking into it. The tilt sensor seems like it could make piloting vehicles feel that much more different than running around on foot. Also, we learned that the story would be a stronger element of the sequel than it was in the original. Expect to have to go after a sinister drug lord you've got a vendetta against. Oh, and no word on whether Han Solo or Indiana Jones will be unlockable characters this time around. That'll probably have something to do with whether or not LucasArts publishes the game. Just a hunch. Maybe we'll get Dog the Bounty Hunter this time instead. Pandemic did say it would like to stick some hidden characters in the game.

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames is slated to release sometime in 2007 for the PlayStation 3. Pandemic is still on the search for a publisher for the game, but from what we've seen, we're reasonably sure it won't be long before Mercenaries 2 finds itself a warm home on some big publisher's 2007 lineup. Stay tuned to GameSpot for further coverage of this explosive game.

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