By checking the CIA Work Factbook we discover that North Korea has many environmental problems including water pollution, water-borne disease, deforestation, soil erosion and degradation. The climate is temperate with rainfall concentrated in the summer and the whole country is slightly smaller than Mississippi. According to Mercenaries, North Korea also has an atmosphere as clear as a fish tank that gets cleaned annually by a muddy boot. We’re not going to say that this game suffers from fogging issues – it positively revels in them. This isn’t a problem – it’s just very noticeable and since you’ve already seen the screens and thought ‘brown’ we thought it probably warrants an explanation.
So you’re in North Korea, it’s a bit brown and a coup has turned an unstable political situation into one that enables foreign military factions to set up camp, and you, as the titular mercenary, to make money. You’re not just in it for the Benjamins though. Your mission is to hunt down the ‘deck of 52’. This deck denotes a set of wanted people who belong to the old regime and hold information pertaining to the countries Weapons Of Mass Destruction just like they had for Operation: Freedom in Iraq. You hunt these cards by working for each faction in a way not dissimilar to how you work for various gangs in Grand Theft Auto 2. Kill members of one group and you’ll lose favour with the others. Do some jobs and you’ll discover information on the locations of the members of the deck and so completing sub-missions will lead to the completion of your main goal. These jobs vary from just escorting informers, to destroying gun emplacements, individuals or even entire city blocks.
San Andreas didn’t need too much fog, you’ll be thinking. No, but then Mercenaries has something that no GTA game has ever had – it’s the Havok physics engine, as seen in Midway’s pretty spiffy Psi-Ops. This makes for some stunning action and an award we’re just inventing for this review. Yep, Mercenaries has our Awesome Award™ for Best Explosions In A Game Ever. Truly these are billowy beasts of fiery corpulence and only such poncey language can do them justice. Shoot an armoured car with an RPG and you’ll see the grenade spiral toward the target, strike, and it’s as if Satan himself has just popped a pimple. And because the RPG behaves like it should, there’s no guarantee that round will make a connection. It spirals as if travelling through real air and could easily verge slightly off course and go straight through the two front windows. This happened to us a lot and although it means you’ve lost some ammo it still means you get a pretty delectable detonation somewhere. And you know what we think of the explosions.
Of course, this isn’t all just a question of getting missions, going to location and killing or collecting, as there are disguises to take into account and here’s where the game starts to lose the plot in a slight and partially forgivable way. Get into a vehicle that belongs to one faction (say, the Russian mafia) and you’ll be disguised as one of their cohorts. Honk your horn and you can get those factions units to jump aboard as passengers, or gunners just like your homies in San Andreas. Out of the three selectable characters we decided to play as a Swedish guy who looks… well… Swedish. And a little bit like a WWE character. But because we’re in a jeep, we now pass as whomever we want and can therefore go through areas of the map hospitable to our cause. Drive near a captain, however, and he’ll notice that you’ve hoodwinked his men and raise the alarm. Honk your horn or knock into a ‘friendly’ vehicle and you’ll blow your cover. It’s just silly. Why not just take a uniform? You can’t. And you couldn’t look any less like the other factions if you were dressed as Widow Twanky.
Actual combat is similarly clunky. Your melee attack, for example, fixes your orientation so that subduing alert members of the deck can be a random affair as your target zigzags and you’re glued to the ground for a second as the attack animation plays out. Gunfights that would have been exceptional if you could crawl into position and use the map’s abundance of cover to your advantage rely on you hoping the enemy doesn’t have a hidden rocket launcher aimed at you. If a missile that strikes from an area you can’t reconnoitre doesn’t zap you then you’re best off Schwarzeneggering your way in while hunting for some of the many health packs. The potential for waging a one-man war in North Korea is immense and Mercenaries’ engine goes a long way to realising this dream. Shame that the fighting isn’t more Rainbow Six than it is Commando. At its best, this is a fiery action adventure, at its worst it relies too heavily on pootling around a map while the sense of combat is halved the moment you use any weapon that doesn’t cause a massive explosion. It’s also really quite brown.