The near future, it seems, is a great place to have a pretend war these days. Mercenaries marks the second imaginary modern military conflict that Pandemic Studios has cooked up over the past six months, though Mercenaries is a much more action-oriented, hands-on experience than last year's Full Spectrum Warrior. It's also a much better game overall, partially because its rather grim premise comes along with a nod and a wink, and also because it provides fiery, visceral thrills at a breakneck pace.
The North Korean government cannot be happy about this game.
Mercenaries looks an awful lot like a Grand Theft Auto knockoff at first blush. While it does share some elements with Rockstar's free-form criminal action series--such as the third-person perspective, the ability to hop in and out of any vehicle you see, and an irrepressible enthusiasm for explosive chaos--Mercenaries is much more linear and mission-based, though it's up to you to decide which missions to accept. Your abilities don't stray too far from the norm for a third-person action game, and the basic controls all feel pretty familiar and responsive. You'll be driving (or flying) a bevy of vehicles over the course of the game, and though there is a world of difference between how a light jeep and a heavy APC handle, most of the ground-based vehicles feel a little too floaty. The trade-off here is that the exaggerated physics that account for the odd handling of the vehicles also make the game's many, many explosions much more thrilling. The contents of the missions are pretty standard, requiring you to fend off enemy forces from tactically important locations, steal or destroy enemy equipment, assassinate enemy officers, level enemy structures, and the like. But the immersive nature of the game's world keeps things interesting, and around the time you find yourself getting comfortable with the game, it'll start cranking up the challenge, bombarding you with enemies and introducing multiple-part missions.
The game takes place in a ripped-from-the-headlines version of North Korea. After North Korean president Kim begins to see the upside of democracy, he's quickly assassinated by his son, General Song, in a coup. General Song then gets busy starting up a bevy of WMD programs and dealing the weapons they produce to terrorists. As soon as this comes to the attention of the rest of the world, North Korea quickly finds itself infested with Allied Nations forces looking to dismantle Song's dictatorship, Chinese forces looking to incorporate the war-torn country into the People's Republic, South Korean forces (under the unofficial guiding hand of the CIA) looking to reunite the halves of the fractured Korean Peninsula, and Russian Mafia forces just interested in getting paid.
You play as one of three mercenaries working for a company called Executive Operations, each of whom has a specialty--the lithe British agent prefers covert ops, the lone-wolf American can sustain more physical damage than the others, and the crazy, gruff Swede has a propensity for using excessive force. These differences can impact the action in a minor way, but a more interesting difference is found in the various languages they are able to speak, as this can affect whose conversations they're able to understand, and what you know can be a big factor in deciding how you'll align yourself with the different factions.
Though you're given the basic ethical guideline of not murdering civilians (it's bad for company PR), you're free to play the field however you see fit, doing jobs for the different factions--sometimes against North Korean forces, sometimes against another faction, and often a little bit of both. Your primary objective is to collect the bounty on General Song, though you'll need to work your way up through the "Deck of 52," a series of North Korean officials, military officers, and businessmen that the Allied Nations forces have assigned playing-card designations to, to get to him. It's amazing how close the game scrapes to reality without actually breaking through, and its use of a slightly fictionalized North Korea as a setting can be a little unsettling at times. But despite the game's commitment to a quasirealistic scenario, the action is fast and loose.
The GTA comparisons are unavoidable, but Mercenaries has a pretty original pastiche of influences.
One of the more unique and interesting aspects of Mercenaries is the nature of your interactions with the different factions. Though you'll often be acting against North Korean forces, which are always hostile toward you, there are missions where you'll have to attack one of the four factions you've been working for. Your working relationship with each faction is represented by a "mood" meter that ranges from friendly to hostile, and a hostile faction won't be as interested in offering you assignments as it will be in riddling your body with shrapnel. Who you choose to keep happy will not only affect how you gather your intel on the Deck of 52, but it will also determine which missions will even be presented to you. Luckily, Mercenaries exists in a world of moral flexibility and short memories, and you can always put yourself back into the good graces of a faction that's upset with you with a healthy bribe. There's extra incentive in keeping the Russians happy, since they run the Merchant of Menace Web site from which you can purchase equipment and vehicles and have them air-dropped to you in the field, as well as heavy weapons support from artillery and bombers and the like. If they're mad at you, they'll cut off access. With three different characters to play as, four different factions to piss off, and 52 bounties to capture (many of which are optional), there's a great amount of replay value to be found here, though playing through the game once is a good 20-hour experience in and of itself.