Mercenaries Updated Hands-On

We take a look at LucasArts and Pandemic's upcoming third-person action game for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

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Mercenaries is an upcoming LucasArts game that marries the GTA style of gameplay with a modern-day military setting. The Pandemic Studios-developed title has been on our radar for quite some time, since we first got word of it earlier this year. After several glimpses of it at various press events, we've finally gotten our hands on a work-in-progress version of the Xbox and PS2 game to see if it's living up to its potential.

Mercenaries casts you as one of three mercenaries dispatched to North Korea's demilitarized zone after a political upheaval.
Mercenaries casts you as one of three mercenaries dispatched to North Korea's demilitarized zone after a political upheaval.

The game's story casts you in the role of one of three mercenaries dispatched to North Korea's demilitarized zone after the political situation in the region takes some unpleasant turns that snowball into a rather nasty state of affairs. It seems an attempt to bring about peaceful reunification between North and South Korea went very wrong, as General Choi Song decided he wasn't behind his father's efforts to bring the fractured country together again. Unfortunately, Song's father was the president of North Korea. We say "was," because, well, a little patricide goes a long way in situations like this. Following the coup, the general established a good old-fashioned dictatorship, which has understandably rattled the world. As is usually the case in awkward situations, the nations of the world uneasily waited for word as Song cut off all communication to the outside world. Unfortunately, when information finally did leak out, it wasn't what anyone wanted to hear-- the world was told that North Korea would have nuclear warheads ready to launch in three weeks. This naturally spurred the Allied Nations to action, which is where you come in. Your goal is to go into the region, go through the AN-provided list of the most-wanted individuals--offered in handy playing-card form, much like the system used recently in real life by the US military--and bring all 52 of them in, which should help restore order.

As we mentioned, you'll choose one of three mercs to tackle the job, each with his or her own specialty. Chris Jacobs is an American ex-soldier whose physical training allows him to withstand bullet wounds and shrapnel that would take out the other mercs. Jennifer Mui is a former member of England's MI6, with a knack for stealth and covert ops. You third choice is Matthias Nilsson, a Swedish soldier whose agility makes him a gifted sniper. While the core game objectives are the same regardless of which character you choose (you'll still have access to the same missions and side quests), the overall experience will be very different, due to each character's unique handling.

As far as structure goes, Mercenaries is very much a do-it-yourself kind of game. By that we mean that while there is an obvious route to your goal of collecting all 52 of your most-wanted baddies, how you get there and what you do on the way is entirely up to you. You'll find four different factions to suck up to in the game: the Allied Nations, the Chinese, the North Koreans, and the Russian Mafia. Making nice with the various factions will let you take on jobs to earn valuable money, as well as give you access to some slick toys to help you in your endeavors. Unfortunately, kissing up to four different sets of groups can get tricky, as your actions on behalf of one may tick off another, so you'll have to be sure to be careful about the jobs you take on. You'll keep tabs on everything via a handy PDA.

Think of Mercenaries a little like Grand Theft Auto with military hardware.
Think of Mercenaries a little like Grand Theft Auto with military hardware.

The gameplay in Mercenaries is arguably its best feature, which is saying something, given its other merits. The game uses a standard third-person perspective, but dresses it up with some flexible gameplay mechanics. You'll be able to shoot, drive vehicles such as jeeps, tanks, and helicopters, and engage in melee combat, depending on the situation. Your arsenal will include a functional mix of grenades, rifles, and rocket launchers. You'll start out with a basic assortment of weapons and gain access to better ones as you become closer to the various factions. While this may all sound pretty standard, the freedom you have in Mercenaries helps set the game apart from the average third-person action game. The abilities we just mentioned are best thought of as a basic set of tools at your disposal--you can use them in any way you like, improvising as you go. If you're being assaulted by waves of ground troops, you can either mow them down individually with your rifle, or take advantage of anything that's handy, like nearby jeeps that explode when sufficiently damaged. Don't feel like using C4 to take out gun emplacements? Not a problem--just send some vehicles plowing into them with some well-aimed shots at their drivers. The inclusion of a physics system lets you have all sorts of fun with explosions and momentum.

Despite all the freedom, the control in the game is accessible. You'll be able to swap out weapons easily and hop in vehicles like a pro. The controls are laid out pretty well, and while you can't customize them much beyond the basic setup, you can tweak the Y axis and your aim speed. The camera could be a little better, but otherwise there's not much to pick at in Mercenaries' control.

Mercenaries is looking pretty good visually at this point, on both platforms.
Mercenaries is looking pretty good visually at this point, on both platforms.

The game's graphics look sharp on both platforms. The main characters feature a solid number of polygons and a good amount of detail. The non-player characters, while not quite as showy, sport a respectable amount of detail. The environment--a massive seamless world that features a commendable amount of variety--is a rich playground for you to explore. Beyond the hidden paths and shortcuts peppered throughout the world, you'll see plenty of little touches thrown in to give the environment life. Weather effects such as wind, fog, snow, and rain will add some atmosphere to your surroundings, while smoke and particle effects help accentuate the pyrotechnics for the explosions and gunfire. Mercenaries makes use of an impressive graphics engine that capably handles the craziness that can break out during your adventure.

Breaking down to specifics for the platforms, it can be said that the graphics engine in the PS2 version of Mercenaries ranks among the best seen on the PS2. The frame rate is generally high, although there are some noticeable hiccups during action that's heavy on the explosions. The texture quality is also quite good. However, as well done as the game is on the PS2, the Xbox game runs better overall, with a smoother frame rate that rarely wavers. Textures and effects look more solid than on the PS2, and the Xbox version has less fog and a longer draw distance. While there isn't much loading when you're out and about in the world, the loads you do come across are noticeably long on both platforms.

The audio is one of the highlights of the game's presentation, thanks to a rich mix of layered sound. You'll hear some ambient effects specific to the area you're in, including vehicle noises, explosions, people chatting, and wind. A score by Michael Giacchino that features dramatic flourishes and an eclectic mix of musical styles is layered on top of the background noise. The dynamic tunes change depending on your situation and which faction you're working for. The sound effects for the various vehicles, weapons, and explosions are extremely satisfying, which is a good thing, considering how often you'll be hearing them. Finally, the voice acting in the game is very well done, with nary a stinker in the cast. The nice mix of accents and foreign languages is generally understated, with a few bombastic touches to sell you on the experience.

Even the voice acting for the different factions in the game is authentic.
Even the voice acting for the different factions in the game is authentic.

Based on what we've played so far, Mercenaries appears to be fulfilling its potential. The visuals are impressive on both platforms, and the dynamic gameplay is solid. Best of all, the game is just plain fun. From what we've seen, the open-ended gameplay and linear objectives are balanced well. The only quibbles we have involve the lack of two-player or online options, but their absence doesn't detract from the engaging experience already offered by the game. If you're looking for some open-ended GTA-style gameplay with some wicked explosions, you should keep your eyes peeled for Mercenaries. The game is slated to ship early next month on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. For more, check out the direct-feed footage and producer interview on our media page.

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