Mercenaries 2: World in Flames
I really wanted to enjoy Mercenaries 2: World in Flames. I like third-person shooters, I enjoy blowing stuff up, I'm quite happy to abandon strategy in favour of all out assault and I'm partial to games that let me drive loads of vehicles too. On paper I'm pretty much the target audience for Mercs 2. So, when I sat down with the game for the first time was the experience that followed one of unadulterated gaming joy, with Pandemic's perfectly polished game proving to be rich in finely balanced shooter action?
Can you see any winged pigs? Can you?
At the start of the game you get to pick from one of three mercenaries: Mattias Nilsson, Jennifer Mui, or Chris Jacobs. There are small differences between each one but really, whichever one you pick isn't going to change things much. The plot, such as it is, starts off with you doing a rescue job for a wannabe Venezuelan politician called Ramon Solano. Once you're done he proves his baddie credentials by promptly double crossing when you turn up wanting your money. It's actually the worst, most pointless double cross in history and makes no real sense when you stop and think about it (if the filthy rich Solano had just paid you as agreed I doubt you'd have cared what he'd got up to in his own country; you're a mercenary after all). However, not taking kindly to being screwed you grasp the big looming cliché and vow to take revenge. Kafka its not, but then Kafka never included rocket launchers in his work so we'll try not to judge.
As you embark upon your mission for vengeance you'll find yourself operating in a huge open world depiction of Venezuela, populated by five warring factions. Each faction has different missions on offer to you and completing these missions will move the story along taking you step by step towards a showdown with Solano. The thing to remember is that none of the factions like each other, so working for one inevitably involves doing the dirty on another which causes upset and means their soldiers will start shooting at you on sight. The aim is to try and preserve a balance that lets you work for all factions. A nice idea in theory, but these relationships are far too easy to sway even when you've angered them so your actions never have any real lasting impact on the game world or the missions, making it feel like something of a missed opportunity.
Talking of the missions themselves, they're generally pretty uninspiring, often falling into the 'go there, kill everything' trap although there are some well thought out side missions (vehicle racing, target practice, etc.) that spice things up. There are also over a hundred different vehicles (cars, jeeps, boats, motorbikes, choppers to name a few) to be found in the game, all completely usable and almost all good fun as well. Some of the vehicles require the use of an annoying quick time event to hijack, as ever with these things you'll either love or hate them depending on your tastes.
One of the game's big selling points is the destruction you can cause to the environment. So it's a shame to find that while the claim is indeed fulfilled by an engine that does exactly what it says on the box, the game actually discourages you from having too much fun with it. Aimless destruction and stray bullets can cause damage to civilians loyal to friendly factions which tends to annoy their leaders who hate their people being killed (it doesn't help when the aforementioned civilians throw themselves in front of your vehicles kamikaze style). It's at this point where the whole idea of factions gets annoying and you start to wish it was just you against everyone else all the time.
Disappointingly suicidal civilians are just one example of the dreadful AI in Mercs 2. Bad guys sometimes ignore you even when you're stood next to them shooting them in the face, enemies will helpfully destroy the very things they're supposed to be protecting if you simply stand near it and NPCs you're trying to rescue will sometimes run into water and drown themselves. The list doesn't end there either; baddies rarely move around, much preferring to stand still and be shot, support troops have a habit of being dropped off on rooftops where they're unable to find a route to the ground and end up falling to their deaths, friendly soldiers shoot you for no reason and enemies spawn unfairly from places they can't possibly have been.
As if they were actually trying to cripple the game, Pandemic has also managed to turn another of the game's selling points into something of a curse. The vast size of the open world environment is the cause of much frustration because travel between locations is made as irritating as possible. Not only does your GPS never seem completely reliable and friendly soldiers have a habit of trying to blow up your transport (worst is the choppers which seem to come under fire from seemingly unavoidable missiles), but death spawns you back at the start of your journey meaning you have to do it all again.
To be fair, the combat itself can be genuinely enjoyable when everything is working as it should. There's something decidedly old school about wandering around heavily guarded compounds guns blazing with explosions going off all around you. Imagine an interactive Schwarzenegger film, 'Commando' for example. There are some quirks even here however; having to press a button to pick up ammo is annoying, especially when other pick-ups like health and money happen automatically when you walk over them. It is also a shame that for a game so far outside the realms of realism you're unable to carry a larger number of different weapons at a time, however implausible it may be.
There are balancing issues too, it's often faster for example to run up to a baddie and send him to meet his maker with a single punch than it is to shoot him to death with a high powered gun. It's not only the damage you dish out that seems oddly balanced either, take a tank and run over a load of other vehicles causing explosions galore and you'll find you take no damage at all. However, should you accidentally drive over a humble fire hydrant on your travels you'll find it causes your previously indestructible tank more damage than all those crushed vehicles put together. Not that losing health is a huge problem; you can heal by simply avoiding being shot for a while as in many other games. But in Mercs 2 the stupid AI rarely chases down any advantage it may have by going in for the kill, making it far too easy to simply hide behind a crate, recharge, then go back and finish the job.
There's some fun to be had playing online co-op although this is also hamstrung by the same bugs and balance issues as the single player game. Disappointingly the game doesn't adjust the difficulty level when played like this so the harder missions become much simpler when attempted with a friend.
The graphics are okay, well, better than okay at times to be honest. There's something undeniably spectacular about the huge explosions and collapsing scenery, but there are some painfully dodgy bits thrown in to take some of the shine off proceedings. For example, some of the models and textures look a little last gen when you get up close and there's a distinct lack of variety among the bad guys which feels silly pretty quickly. There's also a woefully shoddy script to suffer through, something not made any more enjoyable by the universally poor delivery the lines are given by the voice cast. To make matters worse you'll have to suffer most of the lines hundreds of times as they're repeated so often it almost descends into parody.
The thing is, despite all these problems there are still moments in Mercs 2 where you find yourself having a good time. It is dumb mindless fun for sure and you're often having it in spite of, rather than because of the game, but it's there none the less struggling to show itself amongst the wreckage. In fact, were my PS3 to have died after an hour I'd have been writing a far more positive review because at first glance everything seems like a lot of fun. There's something to be said for the simple pleasure to be found in blowing stuff up, something Mercs 2 understands and offers up in spades, calling in air strikes in particular never gets dull. It's not enough though and after a while, when the novelty wears off, you find that for every spark of fun there's a gamepad-throwing moment of frustration just around the corner.
You can see the core of a decent game in here if you ignore the problems, albeit one that would be let down by uninspired mission design and a dodgy plot. Unfortunately, the fact that it seems to have been released before the testing department even had a sniff of it means the whole experience is rife with bugs and glitches that ensure any real pleasure is sucked painfully out through the players ears on a regular basis. It is a real shame, and you wonder what Pandemic could have done with another few months more development time. But as it is, there's a whole list of other shooters out there far more worthy of your time and money... I suggest you play them instead.