Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction Cover
Platforms PlayStation 2, Xbox
Genre Destrutive third-person shooter
MtAMinutes to Action 7
Keep Playing? Not unless the controls improve
Buy from Amazon

Remember when LucasArts used to publish games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and every Star Wars game under the sun? Well, in 2005, they somehow ended up publishing Pandemic Studio's Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction on the Xbox and PlayStation 2. It's kind of an odd pairing, as Mercenaries is about as far from a point-and-click adventure game as one can get, but it's one of those games I've been wishing to play for a while now. Mercenaries is a third-person shooter about mercenaries, of course. There's a war going on in North Korea, and what better way to cash in on a lot of money than to drop in and play all the sides?

Here's a pro-tip for finding games you'd like to play for really cheap: while on vacation in a small town this past weekend, I was browsing the local library's book sale and lo and behold, Mercenaries was for sale for one dollar. I also picked up Legend of Dragoon for the PlayStation for another buck. I've found quite a few deals like these over the years and usually in the most random of places. While Mercenaries doesn't go for that much more on eBay, it's a bit thrilling finding it in the wild when you least expected it.

Mercenaries received a sequel released last year to quite the memorable media campaign featuring the "Oh No You Didn't" music video. I laughed out loud quite a few times when it aired. The series has also received a bit of criticism for its realistic scenarios and mercenary involvement. South Korea even banned the first game for its depiction of a hostile theater of war in its backyard. The Venezuelan government accused the U.S. government of funding the second game, crazy stuff. But I digress, this review is about the original, and just the first hour at that. Well, let's get into the first hour of Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction.

Minute by Minute

(minutes are in bold)
00 - I select New Game and the first hour of Mercenaries begins. First I need to choose my agent: Jacobs, Mui, or Nilsson? They're all members of ExOps, and American, British, and Swedish respectively. What's hotter though than a girl named Jennifer Mui with a British accent going covert in North Korea though? I select the experienced female agent. A news cutscene begins, a violent coup has been committed in North Korea, and a nuke has gone missing. Troops are pouring across the DMZ!

01 - The President is also posting bounties on 52 major bad guys? That's kind of crazy, though I assume it's all covert stuff. We're looking at a PowerPoint of the Song Initiative, an ExOps proposal to head into North Korea.

02 - There are four major factions in North Korea: Allies, Chinese, South Koreans, and the Russian Mafia. Well, not to mention the North Koreans. ExOps is also after the bounty money for taking out the "deck of 52".

03 - This is a major mission for them, and Jennifer Mui is going to be the lone agent on the ground for ExOps. Looks like they're here to identify the new political and military leader, Song, and find the missing nukes. The game is loading and showing me some info about the world and tips on what to expect.

Mercenaries Jennifer Mui Firefight

04 - Another cutscene, we're over the DMZ now in a giant airplane. Mui is inside and preparing to drop. The operator, Fiona, and Mui have some history together in Iraq. I get control in the airplane.

05 - I walk over and pick up a PDA, it pops up a radar with some yellow dots on it. Walking towards one grants me some frag grenades, the other is a carbine rifle. Jennifer seems experienced with both. I open the cargo door.

07 - Mui keeps saying "Five by Five," not sure what it means. Woah, her reward for the mission is 100 million dollars! I hop into the vehicle, she checks the mirrors, and reverses it onto the Korean landscape. Man, that airplane was close to the ground. I regain control in the scout vehicle.

08 - I'm supposed to head to Allied headquarters and try to blend in. I ram a lightpost and it doesn't budge, though the lights do go out.

10 - I ram my way through a road block, but I wish I knew how to shoot the mounted gun. Pressing L does hop out of the vehicle though.

11 - This is all a bit confusing, I'm not sure if I'm supposed to get out of my vehicle and fight or just keep driving. Running into stuff really damages the scout, and it's down to half health.

Mercenaries Jennifer Mui South Koreans

12 - I finally make it to a guard and begin a conversation. A cutscene flips over to inside the headquarters, Jennifer wonders if they've caught the two of clubs yet. Heh, she knows her stuff. I accept their contract.

13 - Back in control, I'm supposed to verify the two of clubs. According to an email, verify means capture or kill the target. Kills are only worth half the bounty of a capture though, good to know.

15 - An explosion rocks the road and blows a hole into it, which I drive into... guess I'll be hoofing it from here out.

17 - Just got into a bunch of one-on-one firefights, taking out the bad guys without any problems. There's health packs around every corner, and here's an assault rifle. I pick it up but it has a lot less ammo than my first gun.

19 - I'm just trying to see if it's possible to equip my original weapon! The controls sure are awkward.

20 - As I approach the two of clubs, the game zooms in on him and recommends I take him out with the X button. Want to keep him alive, remember?

Mercenaries Jennifer Mui Exploding Car

21 - Another quick tip, first the X button to punch, and then Y to knock him out. The game automatically calls for a helicopter, and I'm supposed to drag him to the pick-up zone. Hope it is close. Heh, no dragging in this game like Hitman, Mui throws him on her back and we take off.

23 - Oh, I first had to throw a smoke grenade to show the copter where to land. I press Y to toss him in, "1 down, 51 to go!" Jin-ho Yong has been captured, and I bank $25,000.

24 - No rest for the weary though, as now I'm supposed to take out their artillery. I get something added to my support menu called Surgical Strike. A rocket? Oh, that's cool, just point and tell the jets where to toss their bombs, like Call of Duty 4. But no where near as cool.

26 - The artillery is down, and I pocket $22,000 more. Next orders are for me to return to HQ. I slide down the mountain slowly without taking damage.

27 - I hop into a North Korean vehicle to try to save my time, but I'm then "disguised as a North Korean" and the allies shoot at me! Back at HQ, the contract is complete, and the Colonel is hoping to use me in the future. As long as the money is good, Mui is on board.

29 - Next up is meeting with the South Korean army advisor, some guy named Buford. The game recommends I save since you're not allowed to save while on contract, thanks for the advice.

Mercenaries Jennifer Mui Stationary Gun

31 - I hop into a vehicle, and a challenge is presented to me. Can I drive to the HQ in two minutes or less? $5,000 is my reward. Why not?

33 - Only takes me about a minute to drive there, but I'm glad I did, walking would have taken forever, plus there were hostiles on the road. I approach the South Korean HQ guard, and he speaks some Korean to me and we head inside. Buford at least speaks English, and is offering me cash, that's good enough for a mercenary.

34 - Mui accepts the new contract of defending some city or something, and the next loading screen begins. Back in control quickly though, after a bit of banter between Mui and Fiona, I'm told about the key points I need to defend. Seems easy enough.

37 - The first point has been defended. There was a morale meter for the South Korean troops and it stayed high the whole time. Heck, with my help on the stationary guns, things went easy. I also received reward money for blowing up vehicles, nice.

38 - Oh crap, I just ran over two South Koreans, the game tells me they won't offer contracts unless I fix our relationship. Well, that's probably done by killing North Koreans, so might as well keep going.

40 - The second point has been defended, this time with some very fun recoiless rocket guns that did massive damage. Next point is already on my radar.

Mercenaries Jennifer Mui Airplane Rocket

42 - I deal myself a whole bunch of damage by shooting the rockets at enemies way too close, but I heal up quickly after, and the north defense point is under attack again.

43 - My relationship with the South Koreans keeps going up as the blood of the North hits the ground. And that's it for that contract, $55,000 earned! I now have $150,000! Wow, that was fast.

45 - I get an email about the Five of Clubs... Tal-hun An, a major financial player in this war. Is this automatically accepted?

46 - Heh, another challenge: get to Mafia HQ in two minutes.

48 - Another easy ride, this time very little North Korean interference. I'm at the Mafia HQ, so might as well head inside. Sergei is the contact here. All of these conversations are the same, the main guy and his associate talk to me in a small room about what I need to do, same for all three factions so far.

49 - I accept the contract without really listening to the rest of the conversation, and the next mission begins.

Mercenaries Jennifer Mui Tank Walk

50 - Need to destroy some machine guns, sounds pretty simple.

52 - I hop into a Mafia vehicle and start planting C4 by the machine gun turrets to take them out.

54 - Pretty straightforward stuff, the guns are gone, now I need to return a transport truck back to Mafia HQ. Oh man, I'm disguised as North Korean in this thing!

55 - Umm... I accidentally flipped the truck. Now what?

57 - I have no choice but to blow up the truck, have to retry... The game's loading screen then tells me if I get stuck, select the Medivac option from the main menu, I wonder if that would have helped?

60 - Back in that unlucky truck again, let's see if I can make it in time. Yep! Made my cash and finished the contract! And that's the end of the first hour of Mercenaries.

Mercenaries Car Jump

First Hour Summary

Minutes to Action: 7

What I liked: The entire game's concept seems like a novel idea, like a mix between Grand Theft Auto and Hitman. Pick up contracts, head out into the world and perform them. But you can also play driving missions, or take out one of the 52 bounties. All while collecting money. Money is always a better reward than points or other collectible. People love money. It's especially fun to earn so much so quickly, even if there wasn't anything to spend it on (though there was a shop menu when I paused the game, it said I couldn't buy from it yet).

While plenty of games have some sort of faction-based gameplay (Grand Theft Auto 2's first hour quickly comes to mind), something about Mercenaries' system was particularly enjoyable. Maybe it was the idea that the minute you jump into a faction's vehicle, you're disguising yourself as them, whether you like it or not. You've got to balance things well, and if you feel like you have the need to jack a North Korean tank, you'd better be prepared to take some friendly fire. The risk of being a mercenary I suppose. I'm curious though if they'll pit the "friendly" factions against each other. Will I ever take a contract with the South Koreans that has me killing the Allies or Mafia? Or even being contracted by the North Koreans? Definitely has some great potential here.

What I didn't like: Halo had been out for years, the Hitman series had been pretty successful, but yet the developers still hadn't figured out the proper third-person controls in Mercenaries. Maybe I'm just too used to Gears of War or Mass Effect, but nearly every time I hit a button, it did something completely unexpected. The L button hops out of a moving vehicle? The Black button switches guns? I couldn't even tell you what the B button did right now. I fumbled around a lot, and it doesn't help that driving even a bit unsafely can damage you quite a bit. Speaking of driving, who ever approved that the A button should accelerate? Just try to drive and change the camera at the same time with the right stick... Yeah, need more thumbs.

Since there didn't appear to be an aiming button, shooting felt really awkward. You just make sure your giant aiming reticle is red and hold down the R button, hoping you hit something. Usually you do, but it doesn't feel natural or intuitive. It feels like the game is trying to make things more difficult just to make up for the enemy's meager health.

On my final mission, I accidentally flipped an important truck that I needed to deliver to headquarters to complete the contract. A well-designed game would have immediately given me the option to retry, or at least mentioned that I had blown the mission, or given me some way to flip the truck back upright. Oh well, can't have it all.

Gameplay: Unintuitive controls hold Mercenaries back from being really good in my opinion, I like the concepts it served up in its first hour though.

Fun Factor: 52 contract kills to take out? Lots of explosions? Big firefights with destructive guns? Yeah, this game has got it all. I was enjoying myself when not trying to figure out the controls.

Graphics and Sound: Things are rather brown in North Korea, I hope we get to travel to some cities or villages. Military bases with a forest in between might get a bit boring with how big I expect the scope of this game to be. The character models look quite good though, can't complain about that. Mercenaries is also ripe with big explosions and gunfire, it all sounds good on my television.

Story: A war across the demilitarized zone is nothing new, but idea of playing as a mercenary in the theater is a really great idea. Instead of playing the standard soldier who saves the world, you're a cash-hungry soldier of fortune. Playing the rogue never felt better.

Would I keep playing? Probably not. Mercenaries seems like a great game with tons of depth, but the controls bothered me too much. Maybe it will all just click after a while, but I'm not sure if I have the patience to give it the time it deserves.