Mercenaries 2: World in Flames Impressions
We hadn't seen Pandemic Studios' open world action game since E3 last year, but then the developers showed up at EA's recent press event to show us the latest developments.
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Pandemic Studios has been awfully quiet on the Mercenaries 2 front since last July when the game first impressed us with its large open world and high level of destructibility. Since then, other games, such as Red Faction: Guerrilla and Crysis, have also played on their highly adaptive physics engines, but our appetite for Pandemic's politically charged action game still hasn't waned. With the developer's mantra behind the game being "always say yes to the player," Mercs 2 is an incredibly ambitious project. Luckily, producer Jonathan Zamkoff recently took time out of development to show us more of the game, and we put our questions to him about what to expect from the finished product.
Zamkoff kicked off the demo with a little background about the different factions. The members of the People's Liberation of Venezuela are natives who have lived in the jungle for more than 20 years, and as a result, they have become incredibly resourceful. They can, according to Zamkoff, "make a bomb out of two sticks and a rock," but they've been persecuted by another group in the game, the Universal Petroleum Company. The game's representation of "big oil" is in the country to suck it of all its natural resources while giving little regard to the people who inhabit it. Then, there's the Allied Nations, the peacekeepers who want to help stop the raging civil wars, as well as a group of Caribbean pirates who are simply there to make money from all the carnage. Lastly, there's the Chinese, although we've yet to see exactly how they fit into the overall story. Every faction will play off the other and have its own enemies; it's your job as a mercenary to earn money from it all while seeking revenge on the tyrannical leader Ramon Solano.
Like any good businessperson you'll need to make contacts within the industry to further your career. Whenever you meet key people from these factions, you'll receive a contact card and then be able to choose whether to perform primary or secondary missions for them. While primary missions will drive the story forward, it's still worth taking part in secondary assassination missions to win money and fuel. Each contact will also have a store where you can buy products, including 140 vehicles and 30 weapons. Obviously, not all of these will be available to you from the start, but the developers have chosen to tease you by allowing you to view a list of all the things you can't yet afford.
The first mission that we saw was an outpost capture, which offered a $200,000 bounty and access to a light machine gun drop or an artillery strike. Jumping into a nearby monster truck, Zamkoff propelled himself off of a nearby cliff before an ally also jumped into the vehicle to act as an aide. After driving around showing off the impressive physics engine, he proceeded to show off the on-foot combat, equipping the main character of Mattias Nilsson with every weapon available in the game. Unlocking everything will apparently be a 40-hour feat, while the numerous side missions will add considerably more playtime for those who want it.
As well as rifles, rocket launchers, and grenades, you'll be able to call in air strikes to rain death from above. When you're low on resources at the beginning of the game, this means physically running into an area to tag it--therefore running the risk of being blown up in the process. As you acquire more resources, you can shell out for more expensive laser- and satellite-guided air strikes to flatten entire patches of land. While money limits what you can do in Mercs 2, fuel is an equally important resource that allows you to call in both air strikes and helicopter support. When you capture outposts and other enemy camps, you can harvest huge oil drums by calling helicopters to collect them or steal a tow truck and escort the drums to your base personally.
Once we got back to the actual mission, Zamkoff took the rather unsubtle approach of driving straight into the enemy outpost and blowing every last enemy up with a rocket launcher. He describes the main character as a "human tank," meaning that you can bound into enemy territory and withstand a fair amount of damage. After the first round of enemies was dispatched, he called in support from the faction that he was working for and it promptly arrived via helicopter. The allied AI is pretty timid and won't engage enemies in large numbers, but it will provide assistance when it sees you engaged in a firefight. With the area cleared and the base captured, Zamkoff was rewarded with a new helicopter landing pad and a new contact to add to his PDA address book.
With you running amok and generally causing chaos, it's not long before you get a reputation in the world of Mercenaries 2. However, you can stop word about your destructive tendencies getting out if you can kill key enemy targets. If you're attacking a base, for example, someone from the enemy team will be put in charge of getting the word out and calling for support. If you can get rid of that person (conveniently marked on your map), your presence there will go unreported. As with the first Mercs, politics play a major part in this world, and as a gun for hire, you'll often be working for one group one minute then against it the next. One way to get away with this is to drive allied vehicles because the enemy AI will automatically assume that you work for whichever group owns the car you're driving.
The second and final mission that we saw was an escort mission in which Zamkoff drove a Universal Petroleum executive around, helping him destroy some incriminating documents. It was a standard protection mission--while he was inside offices burning evidence, Zamkoff was outside fending off the attackers trying to stop him. These missions appear to drive the main story part of the game, but there's a chance the famous "deck of 52" concept from the first game (where you had to take out 52 key people) may make a return. The deck does actually exist in Mercs 2 right now--but that said, the missions appear to be more varied this time around, and Pandemic admits that the deck may not make it to the finished game.
No open world game would be complete without side missions, and once you begin to make contacts, you'll be able to complete optional tasks for them. Zamkoff showed us that acquiring more fuel and helipads allowed him to call on a helicopter to pick him up and take him around the world. Airborne vehicles seem to play a large part of getting around, and the helicopters look quite easy to control. They also interact well with the world, blowing tree branches around as they pass and obviously packing some firepower that can be unleashed on the destructible environments below. The game is looking graphically polished at this stage, and even better, it runs at a solid 30 frames per second, showing no evidence of slowdown when things get hectic.
Mercenaries 2 is looking like a more varied and explosive take on the original open world concept. It's also looking polished at this stage, with some nice graphical effects and a high level of destructibility that doesn't impact on the game's frame rate. We're hopeful of a chance to finally play the game ahead of its release and will be hunting down Pandemic Studios over the coming months to that very end.