Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (Xbox 360)
When it originally announced Mercenaries 2: World in Flames back in 2006, Pandemic Studios promised a buffet of fun: a massive world in which players would have the freedom to hop in any vehicle they want, GTA-style; a new fire engine that would allow users to set fire to large areas; seamless drop-in-drop-out cooperative play; and heaps upon heaps of destructible environments. Even though the team didn't completely deliver on the first three promises, blowing up stuff in this game is even more fun than it was in the original.
Moving locales to Venezuela, World in Flames doesn't change up the Mercenaries formula too much -- kill bad guys, destroy everything, make mad cash to buy new toys -- repeat. The backstory isn't all that deep, and basically your character is out for revenge after getting stiffed on a payment, screwed over by a partner, and shot in the ass by a drug lord turned power monger. Needless to say, even though the story touches on oil resources, overthrowing governments and such, it doesn't take itself all too seriously.
From the game's outset, you choose from three characters, each of which has one distinguishing special ability: Jennifer Mui (runs faster), Chris Jacobs (holds more ammunition) and Mattias Nilsson (regenerates health quicker). The story and character interactions are the same regardless of whom you pick, and from the get-go you're a gun-for-hire that's working towards building your own private military company. As you play through the numerous recon missions, base infiltrations, fetch quests, high-value target evaluations, assassinations and destruction missions, you'll build your core PMC members. By adding a mechanic, helicopter pilot and jet fighter, you'll be able to build vehicles, drop in supplies, and call upon airstrikes. Each of these members will give you more information about assignments as well as challenge levels that will test a variety of skills and unlock different items to purchase.
Even though Mercenaries 2 takes place in a GTA-style open world where you can jack almost any vehicle of your choosing, this world isn't quite as polished as Rockstar's. First off, the NPCs and faction members you team alongside are not the brightest. Beeping your horn to have them hop in your vehicle is an exercise in frustration, and the moment you step out of your vehicle, they'll jump out, too -- instead of manning turrets --and promptly get killed. Plus, they'll utter the same lame phrases over and over and over.
Enemies, on the other hand, alternate from having superhuman vision from 200 yards out, to being deaf and blind from 10 feet out. It's more or less humorous that the members of the Venezuelan government were up in arms about the plot of this game; they should have been more concerned about how their own people were being portrayed. At least I don't feel all that bad about blowing up everyone in this game; rather, I'm probably doing the in-game population some justice.
Throughout Mercenaries 2, you'll have work alongside different factions that don't necessarily like each other. You can't just pick one faction and stick with them -- you'll have to side with each of them to progress the plot, open up more of the world, and unlock different vehicles and weaponry. However, work with one, and you may piss off another. It's pretty simple to get back on good graces with a faction that you upset by paying them off with a bribe, or pulling off a mission or two. The annoying part to this is that each faction offers different items in their shops -- so even if you unlocked a certain item from a faction, you'll have to travel to their location to purchase it.
Most main missions will see you working to get from point A to point B to accomplish an objective or two. To do this, you'll probably be jacking a vehicle or having one transported in from your arsenal. Jacking vehicles is no longer a standard cut scene, and depending on how valuable the vehicle you're trying to swipe is, the more context-sensitive controller moves you'll need to pull off. There is a wide variety of vehicles for you to pilot, from cars and jeeps, armored transports, tanks and helicopters to jet skis, mopeds and monster trucks.
Mercenaries 2's rides are often as humorous as they are devastating. For the most part, even though I could have a tank or boat airlifted in, I found it more fun to go into a situation without a vehicle and find one myself -- especially if there's an enemy helicopter whipping missiles at you: grappling up into it and tossing out the pilot is ever so satisfying. But one confusing rule that Mercenaries 2 leans on is that vehicles act as armor. For example, say you're in a tank and your health is full, and an enemy blows it up. You'd think that you'd die instantly, but most of the time you'll barely take a scratch. Almost on the brink of death in a mission? Start a vehicle-jacking sequence or hop in an empty one and you'll most likely survive the situation.
But blowing up stuff is what Mercenaries 2 is all about, and explosions and destruction look commendable. With most everything in the world able to be obliterated, it's quite surprising that little things like tree branches and brush can restrict movement. The environments vary quite a bit and are populated by a lot of items that you can decimate, but ground textures and vehicle modeling are still simple. What about that new fire engine? Looks like it got cut. For the most part the game runs at a smooth clip, but we noticed a bit of slowdown when we were on the water and destroying a lot of real estate at the same time.
From the outset Pandemic has been boasting about drop-in-drop-out cooperative play, and for the most part it works pretty well. As long as you're logged into Xbox Live, the game can be joined by another player at any time. You can toggle your privacy settings to allow only your friends to join your games, or to allow anyone to help you tackle missions publically. However, only the host will get credit for completing missions, which is a letdown.
Friends joining games will receive cash and fuel that transfers to their own game, as well as multiplayer-exclusive Achievements, but even if you both start new characters and play cooperatively, only the host will reap all of the rewards. Another drawback is that you can't be too far out of range from your co-op buddy; you're tethered to stay within a certain distance. The leash is pretty long, but it's bothersome that you can't accomplish separate mission objectives if they're too far apart. All that being said, the game's netcode is solid, and we rarely noticed any hitches in our cooperative matches.
While we wouldn't normally complain about load times, we have to take issue with the constant loading times in the game. There's even loading time when going in and out of conversations with your PMC mates -- which doesn't seem all that necessary, especially since you're just calling up a simple menu. There's a lot of loading, period, which keeps you away from the action often enough to be annoying.
Even though Mercenaries 2 has pretty ridiculous artificial intelligence, an uninspired story supported by mediocre CG cut scenes, excessive load times, and not entirely perfect co-op, I'll still put up with it for how much fun accomplishing objectives and missions can be. The variety of ways you can accomplish goals, a huge arsenal of vehicles and weaponry, and all-out destruction can be a real immature pleasure. While it's not perfect, sometimes a little mindless annihilation is just what's needed to put a smile on your face.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game purchased by the writer.