Mercenaries 2: World in Flames Review
When Pandemic's action game Mercenaries was released on the Xbox several years back, critics enjoyed the game's open-ended structure and fun-oriented, explosive missions. The idea of putting money at the front of a game of this type was interesting, and the ability to work with various factions in North Korea made for some unique missions without the same old enemies you see in every shooter.
It's unfortunate then that Mercenaries 2 is so similar to the original in terms of how it plays, looks, and works overall - well, other than the change in venue to a peak-oil-scenario Venezuela and a fight over the world's last oil supplies. This game seems to have been made in a vacuum, one where the developers didn't see what made Grand Theft Auto IV or other recent open-world action titles so much better than the games released in the last generation.
The game starts off with you choosing one of three characters, each with a slightly different edge over the others (Jennifer Mui moves faster, Mattias Nilsson regenerates health faster, and Chris Jacobs can carry more ammo). Then an intro mission kicks off where you will get to help put a sleazy guy named Solano into power and at the end of the mission, get double-crossed by him and left for dead. Your goal for the rest of Mercenaries 2 is to build up the power base and cashflow to be able to take Solano head on. To that end, you'll go through many missions, most of which are sadly very derivative and chock full of brainless enemies who are content to stand there and watch you kill them most of the time. Hell, just trying to get allied troops to get into your vehicle can be a real pain.
Oh sure, this game does offer some of that wanton destruction that Rockstar held back on with Grand Theft Auto IV (who probably did it to ensure that the level of controversy went down rather than up). Since we're in Venezuela in Mercs 2, well, that's not a big issue, so here you'll get access to a huge amount of hardware to blow your enemies away with. Once the difficulty ramps up, you'll have to start doing some strange things to stay alive, like running away 30 feet and waiting for your health to recharge enough to take on the opposing forces again, or just charging enemies and meleeing them since it kills them faster than using many of the guns in your arsenal.
And that's probably the game's biggest failing: Pandemic didn't have the budget - or, possibly in some cases, raw talent - to make this game's story or characters really compelling or at the least comparable to other major titles, so they went for massive amounts of destruction instead. But you quickly will find yourself spending as much time out of combat, waiting for health to regenerate, as you do taking on the various factions vying for Venezuelan oil. Side missions that require you to punch through a guarded area to capture one guy quickly can be reduced to driving directly to the guy, grabbing him, and taking off. Missions are of the same type and style we've seen in so many action games, and there are no story elements or cutscenes to really speak of to keep players going. It feels like way too much was sacrificed in development in order to get the large amount of destruction going later on in the game, but if you'd rather have better-looking explosions than compelling dialogue, then you'll at least be happy with that here.
The money system does add a level of interest, and for those who racked up six figure bankrolls in GTAIV and found there wasn't much to spend the money on, you'll be happy to find that Mercs 2 has a ton of stuff for you to pick up at a usually hefty price. Of course, the developers didn't really put the effort into making each vehicle really feel or handle totally uniquely, and many of the guns wind up acting like many of the rest of the guns. Sure, we've got some mini-games that challenge your shooting and, yes, helicopter magnetic claw skills (don't ask) with money as a reward for finishing these bits, but that only lasts so long before you just want to leave your mansion and start blowing stuff up. Still, working the factions is some fun, as doing missions for a faction and killing their enemies gets them to like you more so you can use their bases and equipment. Randomly killing people in various factions will force you to bribe them to get them to like you more.
But all of that stuff is still secondary to the biggest draw of Mercs 2: once you've built up enough firepower, just going around and taking out everything you see, buildings and all, is really fun. The full range of weapons and vehicles makes it a great sandbox for you to just blow up, and while we'd much rather get to do the same thing in Liberty City over in the other guys' game, this version of Venezuela will do. It's just kind of depressing that you have to trudge through the actual game to get to the really fun stuff, and it shows that Pandemic after all this time probably didn't deliver the core game they originally planned to.
The actual look and feel of Mercs 2 is pretty decent, with solid controls and a pretty stable frame rate. The driving physics feel off, however: it feels like one of those action games that only has one car sequence in the entire game so the developers clearly didn't spend that many hours making the cars handle right. Of course, the issue is that you spend a lot of time driving in Mercs 2. Otherwise, some of the graphics appear like they came from the last console generation (I'm looking at you, vegetation) and the overall detail level simply doesn't match what we've been seeing on the 360 recently.
Mercenaries 2 has seamless drop-in and drop-out cooperative play over Xbox Live where every mission can be done together, but there's no split-screen action at all. Some gamers won't mind this multiplayer arrangement, as they've got plenty of people on their friends list who are ready to level the city with you over Live. But for others who want to do it from the same living room, this can be a serious deal-breaker. Another recent 360 title, Too Human, inexplicably also did the same thing and to me it really hurt the game's longevity. Here, the loss of split-screen play doesn't quite sting as bad, but it's still frustrating.
I've read that there were some issues inside of Pandemic during the years' worth of development on Mercenaries 2, and I won't speculate whether these problems caused the game - which admittedly looks awesome in trailers and seems great on paper - to have turned out only mildly good. I appreciate the online cooperative play, but they really needed to deliver more substance and higher production levels to make it work, and playing it together with a buddy doesn't magically fix the game's glaring (but not disastrous) problems. If you really wanted to get more out of rampaging around in GTAIV or want to go through an open-world action game with a buddy together over Live, then this one is worth your money. Otherwise, you might want to keep your cash and see what the rest of the holiday season offers us.