Despite suffering from numerous delays that pushed it from a late 2007 to Q3 2008 release window, Mercenaries 2 has been high on the most wanted list for a lot of gamers. The original Mercenaries on PS2 and Xbox proved to be a highly entertaining sandbox action game that differed from GTA thanks to developer Pandemic's focus on destruction. With an army of fans and a fair amount of hype we had expected Mercs 2 to rank up there with the most entertaining games of the year, but numerous gameplay issues and technical problems have made for a game that doesn't feel as good as the first game did on its release in 2005.
Mercs 2 sees you playing as one of three mercenaries (Mattias Nilsson, Chris Jacob and Jennifer Mui), working in Venezuela (a country on the northern coast of South America) setting up a private military company. Mattias regenerates health at a faster rate, Chris carries extra ammo and Jennifer runs faster, but the storyline remains more or less the same no matter who you choose. They take on dangerous missions for big money, usually from the five leading factions in the country (The People's Liberation Army of Venezuela and Universal Petroleum appear early on, with the Rastafarian Pirates, the Chinese Army, and the Allied Nations arriving later in the game). These missions vary from taking out single targets to blowing up massive buildings. It's similar to the kind of stuff you were doing in the original game and should in theory make for exciting gameplay that never provides a dull moment. Sadly there are plenty of dull moments and numerous annoying problems.
At the start of the campaign your primary goal is to recruit members for your new company. You need a mechanic, a helicopter pilot and a fighter jet pilot to work alongside yourself and an operations overseer who remains at her computer and occasionally offers info on your current mission. These early missions which see you having to complete favours for people are among the worst in the game and get things off to an extremely poor start. The way missions are handled and explained verges on terrible, with the game doing its best to confuse you before you've had a chance to get to grips with what you're meant to be doing.
Take the way your helicopter pilot is called in to pick up tagged items that you find. The game simply doesn't make what you're meant to be doing very clear. For a good while we were tagging items and our pilot wasn't budging from his comfy seat back at HQ. It wasn't until we realised that we had to tag items and throw a smoke grenade in order to call our guy in that we were able to pick up the valuable resources scattered throughout the large map. This runs true for many aspects of the game, with the in-game tips not giving you enough information on how certain aspects of the game work.
There are essentially two currencies in the game: money and fuel. Money buys you things and allows you to bribe factions in order to ease tensions, whereas fuel is used for large-scale aerial strikes on targets. Money is pretty much always in plentiful supply, even at an early stage in the game, but fuel is limited by the size of your reserve. To begin with you can store 300 units, which is the number required to launch a Bunker Buster missile. This means that after each of these you have to wander the map looking for fuel that your pilot can pick up. It's possible to buy larger reserves from contacts within factions, but this doesn't help you early on.
Vehicles play a large part as they did in the original game, not only for a quicker way to move from point A to B, but also to help you blend in with the faction forces. If you're able to enter a vehicle unnoticed you'll be able to drive about in areas controlled by that faction without being attacked, just as you are if you're on friendly terms with a faction after working with them or paying a hefty bribe. Vehicle handling is heavily on the arcade side of the fence and feels pretty good - it's just a shame that the draw distance is so short, with the game repeatedly planting cars in front of you as you speed down city streets.
You're not limited to cars either. Tanks are good fun, able to blow up small buildings and huts; Helicopters can be grappled onto and hi-jacked while in mid-air; and numerous water vehicles such as boats and jet skis are available. When hi-jacking the better vehicles you're asked to perform a rudimentary QTE, pressing a few buttons in time with the on-screen prompts. They're so simple it's hard to see why they were included in the first place, and start to grate almost immediately.
Mercs 2 is an action game with a focus on destruction, so thankfully the destruction in the game is impressive. Towards the beginning of the game when you're able to take down small buildings with remotely detonated C4 charges you'll get a smile on your face, but later on when you're blowing up massive buildings with air strikes, causing explosions so big that the sky fills with a bellowing plume of smoke and the light dims, that smile will run from ear to ear. Even the way large vehicles smash through huts and trees catch on fire impresses, but it's not enough to counter the problems seen elsewhere.
One of the fundamental problems is the AI of enemies. We've seen plenty of action games with dumb enemies, but those in Mercs 2 rank very near the bottom of the list. They show almost no signs of intelligence other than raising alarms or occasionally moving to a vacated gun emplacement. We regularly saw enemies stood motionless between buildings, firing RPGs at us from touching distance and driving into each other. In most circumstances enemies can simply be casually approached and killed with one melee attack.
Sadly the list of problems go on and on. You'll encounter huts full of RPG carrying goons, poking their heads out and blasting you in the face from point-blank range, with their bodies glitching through the surround of the windows. Unless you completely devastate the building they're in they'll simply re-spawn, which is infuriating if you're out of the required explosives. Travelling around the map is also a complete chore. Quite early on you gain access to helicopter lifts, but the pilot can only take you to designated landing sites. Why can't we be dropped off where we like?
Pandemic saw fit to include two-player online co-op play, which works but seems like a slight waste of time. It raises the fun factor slightly when you're able to run around and cause mayhem with a friend, but we can't help thinking that more polish elsewhere would have been more worthwhile. As it stands it's unlikely you'll find many willing comrades a few months down the line.
From a purely technical point of view Mercs 2 is a massively mixed bag. At times you can see where the next-gen muscle went, with the biggest explosions looking brilliant. The rest of the time, though, things look rather rough and occasionally quite ugly. Female character models are the biggest offender, falling into the man-ish trap that we thought we'd moved past a year or so ago. Graphical glitches are all over the place, the aforementioned draw distance is abysmal, and some of the effects look incredibly dated. The heat effect on the back of the tank is particularly bad, as is the water that looks like it has been ripped out of a game on the original Xbox. A decent musical score adds some much needed ambience, but the voice acting is poor and NPCs re-use phrases far too often.
It's actually hard to be so negative about a game we were so looking forward to. Somehow, despite the extended development time, Mercenaries 2 feels rushed, which simply isn't good enough when it's going to be directly compared to the ultra slick GTA IV and the high quality of the original game. Once you get past the terrible opening missions and start blowing things up with massive explosions there's a game here that is worth a look, but it's criminally unpolished and as such will leave many gamers rather unsatisfied.