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Score: 95%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: LucasArts
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Mission-Based Driving

Graphics & Sound:
The phrase “…like Grand Theft Auto, but...” has become a staple of game designs in the past year or so. Games from all genres, from platformers to even some sports titles, have, in one way or another, felt the influence of GTA’s free-form gameplay elements. Mercenaries is one such title that owes a lot to the GTA series, but don’t dismiss it as just another GTA wannabe.

Presentation is one of the many high points in Mercenaries. As you go about your business across the Korean landscape, it’s hard not to be drawn into the game. Environments present the whole scope of the conflict, from locked-down cityscapes to run-down farming villages. The texture work is a little muddy in some areas, adding to the game's dirty, war-torn feel. War zones are dark and cloudy, giving the feel that there’s really a much larger conflict going on around you. Wars can spring up at literally any moment in the game, sparking fantastic firefights, complete with all the explosions you could ever want in a game. Mercenaries also offers completely destructible environments, giving you even more options while dealing with missions. Why go around a building when a well-placed smart bomb can remove it for you?

Audio isn’t quite as expansive as the visuals, but still fits the game’s mood. The main score is perfect and represents a wide variety of music, from sweeping military scores to relaxing choral melodies. The music doesn’t always fit the situation, such as when the previously mentioned choral music began playing while I launched missiles at a Chinese convoy. But the quality is so good it just feels right. In fact, I’d probably put it up against most Hollywood scores. LucasArts, or at least Pandemic, should really consider offering the soundtrack for sale or download since they’ve already made one sale.

The rest of audio package is great. Most of the voice work you’ll hear is chatter from your mission op who drops clues as to what you should do next. All mission briefings are fully voiced, with each character showing off their own personalities. One element that I thought could have been pushed a little more was the news reports. After you capture/kill one of the 52 generals, new reports will play (when you’re standing next to news vehicles) announcing the news. The reports repeat the same capture in an endless loop, so it can get annoying if you choose to cruise around disguised as a journalist. It would have been neat if the news reports could have been expanded, offering a broader view as to what was going on in the region.

Like the GTA series, Mercenaries is a sandbox game where just about anything can happen. Set against the backdrop of a North Korean coup and an impending nuclear confrontation, Mercenaries places you in the role of one of three operatives who must go behind enemy lines and resolve the conflict. The entire operation boils down to a $100 million manhunt for the leader of the coup and his supporters, all of which are denoted as one of 52 playing cards.

In order to capture the general and his cronies, you have to perform missions for the other factions that have taken an interest in the chaos surrounding South Korea. These include government agencies like the Allied Nations (a U.N.-like peace-keeping force), the Chinese and South Korean governments, and underworld interests like the Russian mafia. Performing missions for each faction earns you clues as to the whereabouts of “cards.” As a mercenary you owe allegiance to no one faction. However, the closer you get to certain factions, the better the support. Of course this means that you also have to tick off other factions, creating a unique dynamic within the world. Playing nice with the Russians ticks off the Chinese. You can ride the fence for awhile, but will eventually have to make a choice as to which you will work with.

Factional “brownie points” are gained by running missions for people or destroying a particular side’s enemies. This usually involves helping out a side during one of the many skirmishes that randomly erupt during games. Even if you manage to completely ruin your standing with a group, you can still find your way back into their good graces though bribes.

How you go about completing missions is completely up to you. Most mission briefings offer one path to completion, but you are free to deal with things as you see fit. Options include storming the front gates, sneaking around, or even calling air strikes. Some have specific requirements that must be kept like the Russians insistence that they get their helicopter back, but for the most part you’re free to do whatever you want.

Running missions also nets you money, a key component during the game. Not only can you use it to bribe your way back into a faction’s good graces, but it serves as the backbone for all of your field operations. Money allows you to purchase support items like supply drops, as well as air strikes and vehicles deliveries. Prices are kept low while payouts are high, so money management doesn’t become too much of an issue. However, money mismanagement is still possible, so calling numerous air strikes is not the best of ideas.

Beyond completing missions, several challenges are scattered throughout the South Korean landscape, offering a reprieve from the main goal of the game. The most common challenges are checkpoint races or other beat the clock activities. Completing these tasks usually bolster your bank account, allowing you to buy more equipment in the field. Also scattered in areas are collectable items like WMD blueprints and National Treasures. Collecting these unlock new items in the game such as weapons or hidden characters.

As with most open-ended games, Mercenaries is really what you make of it. If you stick to the beaten path, you’ll usually come out on top -- especially when you consider the weak A.I. you go up against. It’s when you start taking risks that the game gets much more interesting and difficult. Choosing to not use an air strike and to instead take out a base on foot presents a new set of challenges.

Game Mechanics:
What good is a big open world if you don’t have vehicles to drive through it with? One of the first things you’ll notice about Mercenaries is the number of different vehicles you can hijack and use during missions. Not only can you grab civilian vehicles like cars and trucks, but you can also grab jeeps, tanks, and even helicopters. Vehicles differ depending on which faction they come from. For example, the Allied forces have access to humvees while the North Koreans have older-style jeeps. The differences between the two aren’t just visual either. Thanks to the Havoc physics engine, all of the vehicles handle with distinct differences. Tanks handle like lumbering monstrosities while jeeps can nimbly dart around the countryside with ease.

With the variety of vehicles offered in the game, some control issues do pop up. This is due partly to the realistic physics engine and the arcade-like control scheme. The systems used while on foot or in a car have a familiar feel that is really easy to get used to. Tanks and helicopters on the other hand have a small learning curve. The game is really good about giving you a pop-up box describing how to use certain functions, which is a real plus. However, the schemes are still different enough that they can cause a problem the first time you try them out.

In addition to vehicles, you also have access to sizeable arsenal, which includes all types of rifles and explosive ordinance. Part of what makes Mercenaries such a blast is figuring out the little strategies involved with each mission. Why stand around shooting at guys as they come out of a building when you could just blow up the building with C4 or a shot from an RPG?

Despite a few minor hiccups, Pandemic has once again proven why it is one of the hottest developers out there right now. Mercenaries has everything an action fan could crave: big explosions, open environments, and the ability to do just about anything you want. This is a must buy for action fans or those craving the GTA experience without some of the more questionable aspects of the series.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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