Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Past and Times of Yore: Mercenaries, Playground of Destruction, a truly great sandbox RPG

Release Date: Aus 2006
Genre: Third-person shooter
Publisher: LucasArts
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Platform: Playstation 2, Xbox
Players: 1
Classification: T (Teen)

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction was originally a suggestion then a birthday present if I remember correctly from my housemate Brok who praised it as an awesomely fun modern combat style third person sandbox game which he had played on the original Xbox and then bought it for me on Playstation 2 which was very nice indeed. Mercenaries was a creation by Pandemic Studios an LA based developer with an office based in Brisbane who had created games such as Star Wars Battlefront 1 and 2 and Destroy All Humans! and interestingly published by LucasArts. I had never heard of this game before but was interested and said I would give it a go.

Mercenaries tells a fictional story of in the Korean Theatre of War called the Song Initiative where the president Choi Kim actually offers peace to South Korea which angers his son Choi Song who stages a violent coup storming the capital and killing his father before the country goes “dark” expelling foreigners and giving no communication to the outside world. After it’s discovered by the Australian Navy that North Korea is creating and selling Nuclear Weapons, the Allied Nations led by Colonel Samuel Garrett forms and heads off to North Korea on the offensive and is soon joined by the South Korean Union led in secret by the American CIA operative Agent Mitchell Buford, the People's Liberation Army led by Colonel Zhou Peng and the Russian Mafia led by Sergei Voronov.

The very epic title screen and intro

You are a Mercenary working for Executive Operations, or ExOps who are apparently the league of kick-ass mercenaries and you are basically tasked with capturing or killing the Deck of 52 for a handsome sum of 100 million dollars no less. The Deck of 52 is basically a full deck of cards each one representing a person of interest to the Allied Nations with the number cards being the lower ranked and the royal cards being the more powerful VIPs with Song himself included as the ACE OF SPADES! You have a choice of three different characters Mattias Nilsson, Jennifer Mui and Christopher Jacobs with Brok suggesting I use Jennifer as she has some pretty good one liners and also because I hardly ever use a female character so I thought what the hey.

The Deck of 52 from the Exops initial briefing screen, please excuse the subtitles it was the only one I could find.
This initial story is shown to you via actual live footage pieced together then has one of the most terribly acted dialogues between one of the officers in Exops and Fiona Taylor who is your main contact in the organisation though unfortunately she sounds like she’s come straight from an episode of Round the Twist as her high pitched lighthearted sounding Australian accent is annoying and not suited to the role, what I’d give for someone with a posh British accent either male or female similar to M in the Bond films rather than this bimbo who would be perfect on the set of Playschool. And having to listen to her updates every so often was still draining but anyway. As well as the Deck of 52 you also do various other mission for each faction sometimes attacking another faction that you were previously working for resulting in your standing to drop with them. The Chinese and South Koreans were the biggest enemies with the Russian Mafia antagonising both and the Allied Forces being enemies with no-one except the North Koreans of course which were permanently hostile.

The game intro was partly made of real-life footage
The game world is basically set up as a sandbox where you start at the Allied M.A.S.H, this is your default starting area for the game and also the place you end up when you die. From there you can basically go anywhere, “commandeer” a vehicle and go visit any of the 4 factions, search for the number cards or collectibles such as the national treasures, or just cause destruction such as destroying North Korean Monuments, South Korean listening posts or just random mayhem. One of the favourite things my friend Brok used to do was come across a group of NPC’s from any particular faction fighting and basically watched the action unfold, often with hilarious circumstances as this unpredictability makes up the beauty of the game. Some faction missions involved going after number and royal cards themselves though most show up as emails on your PDA which hint of their locations and you go and search for them. There are also some “Car challenges” represented as dollar signs on the map that you can enter and race to a particular area though most of the time I didn’t want to go wherever it went.

You're just driving along then all of a sudden you come across a heated battle
 Your PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) is basically your access to intelligence and support during the game featuring different screens including a map, your email inboxes, the Merchant of Menace shop which is provided by the Russian Mafia selling everything from guns, to vehicles to airstrikes. There is also screen which has four sections involving Deck of 52, bounties you have found such as Monuments, WMD blueprints, National Treasures and South Korean listening posts, and statistics of all the things you have done, such as soldiers killed, distance travelled, favourite choice of vehicle and other information about their exploits and a screen which shows the players diplomatic stance with the various factions. You gain this and two other generic weapons including an Assault Rifle and M67 Frag Grenade before driving backwards out of a low flying plane into North Korea’s southern province which provides the theatre of war for the first half of the game. So basically my goal was to just finished the game, being the first time I wasn’t going to go for %100 completion, it looked pretty good fun, sort of like a military version of GTA.

Your PDA screen showing you diplomatic stance
Unfortunately when I first started playing the game there was one major issue, as I’ve probably mentioned before I don’t play any first or third person shooters on console anymore with the exception of Red Dead Redemption which had the lock-on feature most of the time but still got annoying in the parts where you didn’t even if they were few. In Mercenaries you don’t have the lock-on feature at all and it makes aiming and shooting and general movement somewhat difficult and annoying when you are trying to shoot specific enemies. This was especially annoying when trying to use a sniper rifle and set aim on a  target but I couldn’t get the thumbstick to line up as the feedback made it move too far to one side or not far enough and this was even worse if you were under fire at the time, I often had to resort to firing the sniper rifle from the hip which was actually pretty effective with practice. Strafing while firing also took some practice too

Daring frontal assault on a roadblock
This led to me delving into the realm of PS2 emulation again which I had previously been unsuccessful at, I thought that If I could get the emulator to work I could then be able to configure the controls to aim with my mouse but unfortunately I could not get the game working properly. It had a setting to use either the system memory or video memory and every time I had it on system memory the screen would go all white with some sort of bloom issue and on the video memory it worked but had massive slowdown especially when there were a lot of particles (like dust) I made a video of my attempt to play the game like this and it’s pretty damn hilarious.

My attempt to emulate the game, it ran a leeetle bit slow XD

The other problem was in cars the button for accelerating was the X button and it was the same for reloading while on foot, so I couldn’t use the W key for example to both walk forward and accelerate in vehicles. So I don’t think I’m ever going to try and emulate PS2 anymore it just never works properly which is a shame cause there’s a heap of games on PS2 I’d like to get going via emulator to see what they look like. Failing this almost made me refuse to play the game altogether but I decided to soldier on (literally, or maybe mercenary on) and continue with the game, and I admit even with this flaw it was still pretty good. I did dabble at first with an invincibility cheat from the action replay but stopped using it when I realised it affected vehicles too, so from then on it was gung-ho going the way it was meant to be played… mostly. 

It’s hard to a judge a game that was made in 2005 by today’s standards but I’ve got to admit the gameplay was pretty good, even with my old worn out PS2 controllers and the slightly jerky gameplay and having to move and aim using the joysticks, I found that Jennifer the character I chose to play as moved quite fast, probably the fastest of the three. I did have a bit of trouble learning the controls as they were more complicated than most of the PS2 games I used to play, you can jump and reload of course, and melee using bash, which is one of the most important abilities I feel as unless you use a stun grenade it’s the only way to stun a number card in order to perform a takedown and handcuff them. There’s the action button which is mostly used to get in and out of vehicles, there’s the L1 and L2 button which are used to throw/select grenades which I managed to muck up under pressure several times and then there was the R1 and R2 button which was used to fire your current weapon or switch between them. The L3 and R3 buttons were for crouching and using binoculars/weapon scope and the DPAD had a variety of functions.

This guy's gonna get it
Pressing up and down on the D-pad cycled through you support options, these were often the difference between failing and completing a mission depending on the difficulty. Support options include supplies such as health, ammo, repair kit and weapons, vehicles inc jeeps, trucks and even tanks and helicopters further into the game, and finally artillery and airstrikes which were great fun to use. You obtained most of these when starting a mission as they were given free of charge or cost a certain amount but could pick them up on your travels or unlock them through completing the main game or various challenges. The most important support item is the extraction beacon as this is used to evacuate your subdued number cards. I found entirely by coincidence that you get credit for capturing the number card alive as soon as you get them on the chopper, if it is destroyed after it takes off you still get credit you just lose money for the destroyed support chopper this led to me being very sloppy and calling the chopper into some very dangerously hot areas though funnily enough it never got destroyed by the enemy on the way in just on the way out, I guess they just allow this so you can get credit for getting the number card in alive. Another problem I had was that bashing an enemy once stunned them bashing them while they are stunned kills them which led to me accidentally killing a number card on several occasions.

I swear getting them on the chopper was a huge relief most of the time.
Other common support items are the Medivac which sends a helicopter to take you back to the Allied M.A.S.H the mash is always your starting point when you load the game after having saved and it always has some jeeps and soldiers around to start you off again, this is also where you can change your outfit when you acquire new ones. Another item that you pretty much always have access to is C4, C4 is always useful for blowing up stuff provided you can get close enough to set it and works on pretty much anything. Most of the time I only brought in heavy vehicles and airstrikes when there was just too much military presence to deal with or too many things to blow up with C4 though it made things difficult when a number card was in the thick of it leading to me to decide it was just too hard to get bring them in alive and carpet bombing the area was the simpler solution. I must admit It was only the extra money that made we want to bring them in alive (you only got half the bounty for them being dead) it was pretty much always the easier option to shoot them or blow them up from afar but of course you want to strive for that record as every time to jail or finish off a  number card it is reported on the number card screen of the PDA.

A video showing some of the airstrikes and vehicles you can purchase from the Merchant of Menace shop. This player is using the unlockable North Korean Elite model

Pushing left on the D-pad toggles the flags above friendly and enemy soldiers heads allowing you to easily see which faction they are from which is useful in a few cases. Soldiers which have a flag on their heads permanently are officers who have the special ability of seeing through your disguise. You “disguise” as I put it is one of the most powerful and useful ability in the game I think, cannot count the number of times I used it. Basically when you get into a north Korean vehicle out of view of any NK soldiers or any kind of officers it shortly flags you as “disguised as North Korean” and you are able to travel safely among them without fear of being attacked, you can also do this in a civilian vehicle as the North Korean Army will not attack civilians seemingly no matter where they drive. This feature is obviously very powerful when used properly though there are a few things I could nitpick like I’m driving around in a jeep with no doors and windows and I’m still disguised apparently, and if I’m in a fully enclosed tank somehow officers can still spot me. And how can civilians drive almost anywhere they want, I swear I drove a civilian car into that many fortified military bases and even crashed into a tank at one point but still my disguise was safe.

I'm a civilian news reporter! yes really. In case you didn't know these journalist trucks were regularly parked inside the M.A.S.H and you could listen to the news reports of what you had accomplished.
Playing the game felt relatively ok once I got used to the controls and it did take me awhile as I had to have the instruction book open sitting there so I could refer to it, but once I got that down it was all good. The vehicles were quite fun to use with the ability to honk your horn to load up your vehicle with friendly soldiers and with three different options for example you could exit by yourself with everyone still inside, command everyone else to exit or everyone gets out at once which was really helpful especially when you were driving into the danger zone and wanted some cover for when you got out though often I just led my allies to their untimely deaths which is why I was glad the word doesn’t spread around and others refuse to get in for the next mission.

Having allies in your vehicle is helpful as they can attack enemies with the mounted guns available, Brok quickly pointed out that a certain type of the South Korean Jeeps had a rocket launcher mounted on the back and had unlimited ammo when used by an npc, this really came in handy and was a hell of a laugh when I was driving along and watching the trigger happy npc obliterate any North Korean vehicle that I drove past. The vehicles handle pretty damn tightly, those jeeps I swear have uncanny handling, I was driving like a bat out of hell and could still take corners like I was stuck to the road whereas if this was any kind of realistic car game I would have been wrapped around a tree long ago. Tanks and helicopters were easy enough to drive (and fly) apart from the joystick aiming difficulty of course, I must have driven dozens of tanks and heavy vehicles over the most ridiculous of terrain and used helicopters numerous times to try and speed up a mission or just make it easier. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t but it was all part of the fun in Mercenaries.

Hold the line friends!
 Accepting contracts and capturing or killing number cards is the main part of the game obviously, the missions ranged from destroying an enemy base to escorting or rescuing VIPs and even delivering a sports car to the docks. The different factions often plot against each other and many missions involve attacking another faction which is currently friendly to you, so it helped to do all one factions missions in a row though they generally increase in difficulty as you go on. If I had previously completed a mission that involved antagonising a faction and they could change to unfriendly or hostile and would attack on site. I had to somehow make a furious dash into their base and then go to the guard outside the HQ and give him a bribe of a certain amount so I could start receiving missions from that faction again.

Oops wrong tower
 Entering faction bases involve going up to a soldier outside the HQ and then you can go into the building/tent etc, the faction leaders themselves are generally quite funny to listen to especially if you walk around while they are talking. I noticed that they voiced their displeasure if you had previously completed a mission from another faction that involved attacking them. One neat thing I noticed was that Jennifer could understand what the Chinese were saying when they spoke in their native language. After a mission is passed you usually get a message of the whereabouts of another number card which can actually be found randomly on the map even if you don’t have the message, most of the royal cards are included in missions for the factions but some are also found on the map. 

"Well if it isn't the Mercenary who destroyed my tanks and killed my men, well that money helped so I'll instantly forget about it, here's some more missions. Oh and did you know you can press the Triangle button to STAND UP?"
Working through the Deck of 52 is obviously a long process as I took three breaks from the game while playing as it took a lot of playtime to get through, sometimes when trying to finish a hard mission I only got that done for the entire play session for one night. Capturing or killing a card can be as easy or as hard as you make it, often I tried going in with just what I had but obviously the more you spend on extra vehicles, supplies and aerial support the easier it is. I’ve had some trying times, losing cards to trigger happy allies, wayward bullets or explosions, poorly aimed tank shells or airstrikes, one of the most common ways I fudged it up at early game was accidentally smacking them twice killing them. Of course once you do have them captured and cuffed it doesn’t end there, getting the chopper down safely requires either escaping the area or ridding it of enemy presence, and even then you need to find a reasonably flat spot so the chopper can land, man the amount of times I saw that freakin “landing zone not clear” warning was hella annoying, I’ve even gotten impatient and sloppy at times and ended up getting credit for the capture then seeing the evac copter blown to bits because I hadn’t made the area secure. Going After the Aces is an entirely different kettle of fish as when you start an Ace contract you are helicoptered to a different location as the Ace’s have their own area which count as one big mission.

I was impressed with the amount of weaponry and vehicles and general resources available in the game, you’re able to carry a primary and secondary weapon, most of the time I had an automatic weapon such as an M4 in the first slot and an RPG or Sniper Rifle in the second and man did I have times where I wished I had one or the other, at least at times when I had the sniper rifle I usually had C4 to use. I spent most of my time purchasing jeeps and helicopters from the Merchant of Menace as I often found tanks or knew where the friendly factions kept theirs but man those airstrikes were oh so fun to use, the smaller ones like the surgical strike were great for blowing up things such as tanks while the larger strikes were for when you were just like screw it I’m, just gonna blow everything to the moon. The way these were called in varied, the airstrikes were usually way of satellite or ground laser. With the satellite strikes you took control of a birds eye view camera to pinpoint the location and were very accurate, the ground laser was done by a vertical laser aimed from your location that you had to make sure that nothing was in that way to block where you were pointing. The artillery strikes however had a very dangerous way of marking as they were done by throwing a beacon onto the ground, and did I mention that you couldn’t throw particularly far and after that beacon was thrown you had to get the fack out of there fast as it didn’t take long for the bombs to start falling, I hardly used artillery because of this.

Calling in a surgical strike via ground laser.
 The size of the map in mercenaries was fairly impressive, there was heaps to explore intentionally or unintentionally. Mercenaries is a true sandbox in a way that there’s so much stuff happening around you, more so then Red dead redemption and GTA for example as in those games the random events seem to revolve around you, but in this game it seems you’re just driving along and you all of a sudden drive into a full on pitched battle between two factions with tanks and everything, sometimes I just screamed and got the hell out of there as fast as I could, this was usually when I was on a difficult mission and didn’t want to die, but other times listening to the recommendation from Brok I just sat at a safe distance and watched the carnage unfold and it was lots of fun to see out, who’s going to win? etc There are places on the map that are permanently under control of one faction and you are attacked no matter what you’re standing with them, there are places on the map which seem to be constantly besieged by conflict, and then there are the edges of the map where if you stray too far are identified as a deserter and are bombed by allied planes. Goddamn that was annoying as it was usually by accident and I was all like “Wait sorry, NO I’LL GO BACK NNONONONONONO AAAHHH! ‘BOOM!’ resulting in a  failed mission. Random things happen on missions too, mostly scripted but they are still good, like when I was delivering that sports car for the Russians, you’d think it’d be easy but no the game throws everything under the sun to try and block your path and there’s also a lot of random funny things happening like npcs crashing helicopters and falling from the sky.

Oops that wasn't supposed to happen
Regarding the collectibles Brok had to continually remind me to look for them as sometimes I was just so intent upon completing the missions I didn’t think of it, I ended up collecting a few though, enough to unlock some extra features like new weapons and supply drops and the ability to use other characters models such as Agent Buford of the South Koreans and even Indiana Jones for some reason. Had a lot of fun with that and also destroying the statues was pretty fun. Sorry if I spoil it but for those who don’t know it there are actually two maps, you start off in the relatively warmer southern province with more vegetation and then after the first two Ace contracts you move to the colder more snowy northern province. The map change doesn’t change too much, just continues the story with new missions in a different environment and the bases are all in different spots to change things up a little, also there seems to be a bit more warfare happening then the last map and of course more collectibles to er, collect.

Your PDA showing part of the Southern Province, you can see the South Korean base on the map.
The Ace contracts as I said before are each set in entirely different instance on islands away from the main map, I was impressed by the scenarios as they had some pretty impressive moments which I’ll describe. In the Ace of Diamonds contract I was running through the jungle then the a nearby car exploded and I was ambushed by covert jungle marines in camouflage and at the end of the mission I had to blow up the base as it was the only way to kill the Ace and a crane actually landed on him. Another moment was when I was doing the ace of Hearts contract and had to fight through all these enemies around cargo crates until from watching a video I realised I could just summon an enemy jeep, put on a disguise and drive all the way to the end bit, several moments like that got me shaking my head at the way you could make things indefinitely easier with just a small change.

The Ace of Diamonds mission done on Xbox360, which features the covert jungle marine ambush i mentioned, though this player manages to get the Ace of Diamonds out alive even with enemy soldiers and tanks shooting at him no less, whereas I just blew up the base with him in it.. Interestingly enough someone made a comment on the video saying "The cheat way is to clear that base first, where the ace will appear.  Then go up and destroy the supergun, then you find the ace on his own" *facepalm* wish I'd thought of that.

The graphics in the game obviously look dated by today’s standards, but it looked pretty damn good for a game made in 2005 as when the PS2 was released the industry thankfully had gotten over that awful transition to full 3D phase in the late nineties and early 2000’s, sure textures were muddy and the view was blurry and hard to see into the distance but it was workable.  I didn’t have too many qualms with the interface, the icons were relatively easy to see and things such as circles which showed you where to get into vehicles which really helped. The game’s graphics were fine not much more to say, I liked the little details like the soldiers milling around in the faction bases and things like the miniature map of the area in the Chinese base and some of the explosions were pretty spectacular with almost no slowdown.

Good time to leave I think
The sound and music was pretty good, the soundtrack at the start was quite memorable and the sound effects were spot on apart from a few annoying voice actors and some acting in parts. I swear there’s this bit in the final Ace Contract the Ace of Spades General Song who I’ll add is fleeing with the codes for the country’s nuclear arsenal and a captive you’ve saved says “you must stop him!” and she’s like “stop who?” and I’m like “fackin General Song the Ace of Spades you dumb bitch! who do you think?” and then the guy is like “he has the codes” and she’s like “the launch codes?” Fuaaaarrrr! but yeh anyway otherwise it was fun to listen to. The troopers themselves yelled different things and the allied were the funniest obviously being in English telling you to get moving before they were even in the vehicle and other things like “let’s see what this tin can can do”.

"Stop Who?"
Despite my issues with the game is was enjoyable overall, sure there was the stick aiming using my slightly worn controllers, the confusion of which button to press resulting in me flailing around, the sometimes muddy graphics making long range sniping difficult and the fact that I just don’t think I could go through that again for fun. Despite all this the game damn fun and entertaining enough as Brok sat down with me to watch almost every session I did, this was the beauty of this particular game, as if he was watching me play Star Wars the Old Republic for instance he’d probably be bored shitless. Having him there helped a lot though, having played the game through before had a lot of advice which helped immensely, I never thought how useful it was to have someone watch you play as they saw and suggested things that you would never think about.

On to plan B!
 A sequel Mercenaries 2: World in Flames was created in 2008 though Brok claimed that it was not nearly as good apart from the upgraded graphics. I was talking to Brok about the ideal situation where Mercenaries Playground of Destruction was remade on PC with full mouse and keyboard support and how awesome that would be, if this actually happened I would be ecstatic and would definitely try go through it again and would place it in a much higher regard then I already do. Though we can dream can’t we?


Mercenaries Playstation 2 Trailer

Just another day in the North Korean Army

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