Mercenaries 2: World in Flames makes a really good impression. If this review was based on just the first hour of gameplay then I would be sitting here wholeheartedly recommending Pandemic's long-awaited sequel to one of the best games on the original Xbox. But that's not the case, because the longer you play Mercenaries 2 the more annoying the whole thing gets. It's not just the minor bugs and the repetitive gameplay, it's also the big design decisions that turn what should have been a fun take on the Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox game into one of the most disappointing games of this generation.
But let's push pause and rewind the tape a little. Mercenaries 2 is best known for being one of the first games announced for a next-generation console. I can remember sitting there looking at the screenshots wondering if my TV would even be able to handle such beautiful detail. The idea of having an entire country to blow up was certainly intriguing, and coupled with these amazing graphics the combination felt like it couldn't fail. Fast forward almost a few years and what we're left with is an ugly game full of technical problems. This isn't the game I was drooling over all those years ago. What did Pandemic do to that game I've been waiting to play through?
Unfortunately something very, very bad happened on the way to finalizing Mercenaries 2. What we have here is a game that feels a lot like the first game, but is full of strange design choices and some ugly graphics. There are still good ideas found in this game, but in order to appreciate them you are going to have to put up with a lot of repetitive gameplay and clumsy controls.
At least the basic premise of the game is sound. You play one of three mercenaries, private contractors who fly into a dangerous locale and perform military-like actions for money. On paper this is a premise that can't lose, since it allows you to work both sides, meet all sorts of sleazy characters and sneak into enemy outposts. How can this not be the plot to one of the greatest games of all time?
The three characters consist of Mattias Nilsson (a chaos-loving crazy man who can regenerate health faster than anybody else), Chris Jacobs (an African American action hero who can carry a lot of ammo) and Jennifer Mui (the fast walking woman). Outside of those very small personal traits, these three characters are essentially the same. Worse yet, they are utterly forgettable. It's as if every character has been made with the idea in mind that there needs to be at least one thing about them that makes them unbearable.
The reason everybody has such fond memories of the first game was because it managed to mix the Grand Theft Auto-style of gameplay with the ability to blow up every single thing in the world. You can't ignore the appeal of blowing up buildings, especially when its you in a tank trying to take out the back guys shooting at you from windows. I'll admit it, what the first game allowed you to do was a welcome change of pace. Sadly the same cannot be said about this messy sequel.
Mercenaries 2 takes place in Venezuela, a real world location that is full of forests, hills, cities and more. In fact, some might argue that the country is a little too big, but we'll leave that argument for later in the review. As it is, Venezuela is a promising location with more than enough diverse environments. It's what you do in that world that is so disappointing.
In the first hour or so you'll play through a lot of really exciting missions, killing all sorts of nasty bad guys, ordering air strikes and blowing up enormous buildings. It's all enough to get your blood pumping, which is why it's easy to fall in love with this game early on. However, like a whirlwind romance, it's just as easy to fall out of love with Mercenaries 2. I found myself spending the rest of the time playing Mercenaries 2 trying to get the feeling of the first hour back. Sadly it never comes back, and you are ultimately left with an action game that doesn't even come close to hitting the mark.
It all starts the moment you have to fire your guns. It doesn't seem to matter which gun you use, each and every one of them is practically useless. For whatever reasons, all of the guns feel underpowered. When it comes right down to it, there's really no reason for you to use your gun outside of killing the mindless soldiers that are roaming the countryside. When it comes to destroying anything big you might as well find something other than your gun to get the job done. Worse yet, for whatever reason the game actually makes you push a button to pick up ammo and items dropped by fallen enemies. They couldn't just allow you to run over the item and pick it up? It's this sort of problem that permeates throughout the entire game. They may sound like small things at first, but after awhile you'll notice each and every one of them and they will drive you right up the wall.
As you play through the game you'll eventually unlock some friends, including a mechanic, a helicopter pilot, and a jet pilot. It's these three unlockables that are among the most useful. For example, the helicopter pilot can drop of supplies and vehicles no matter where you are. The jet pilot can be summoned to drop and air strike, but you rarely get to do this in the course of the single-player campaign. On the other hand is the mechanic, which is completely pointless. In theory you're supposed to find trash and hidden items that she can use to piece together interesting devices and vehicles. But it's not worth looking around for the trash and she rarely gives you anything worthwhile.
When you first get to Venezuela it looks like you have a lot of freedom to move around, but that just is not the case in Mercenaries 2. Sure you can go where ever you want, but there's nothing for you to do or see. The country is covered with a number of different factions, each with their own set of missions. The problem is that most of these missions are nothing more than you going to a spot on the map, killing as many people as you can and then bringing your team in to secure it for that faction. And when you're not doing that you're wasting to on lame escort missions, assassination missions and racing mini-games. Even worse is that you'll do these missions over and over again.
Perhaps the biggest insult is when the game suggests that you can beat these missions in a number of different ways. The truth is that there aren't that many ways to complete a level, you're often limited to just going in guns blazing. You can bring a vehicle or take to the air in some instances, but it's not as wildly varied as Pandemic would have you believe. I suspect that this accounts for a lot of my frustration with the game; I found that as I played through the game I felt like I was just doing the same things time and time again.
When it came right down to it I found that the only fun I was having with this game was blowing up buildings. I didn't care that most of the buildings are repeated dozens of times throughout the game, there's something cool about blowing stuff up. The problem here is that when you blow stuff up it annoys the factions that surround it. So if you want to get to the end of the game you basically have to be a nice guy. Even if you choose to be bad (forsaking the campaign altogether) you're still going to get bored of blowing up the same building over and over. With such a promising premise it's a shame that Pandemic couldn't come up with a more compelling story.
Unfortunately I haven't even gotten to the biggest problem yet. Believe it or not, the bugs in this game are even worse than the repetitive missions and ugly graphics. How bad are they? Have you ever been flying a helicopter and had it disappear on you? Have you ever run your car right through a building? Have you ever had the people you're trying to save drown themselves? The game is riddled with some of the worst gameplay bugs I have seen all year. And that's when the game is running smoothly. My brand new Xbox 360 froze several times while playing the game, a problem that a number of other people are having with this title.
If you're looking for something positive about Mercenaries 2 it's that it does offer online support for co-op play. I'll confess, this is probably the best way to play through the game. However, even with another player I couldn't get over the repetition. Eventually you just want to run around and have some fun, but when you do that it just annoys everybody else and then all hell breaks loose. In short, this is one game that doesn't want you to have a good time.
The truth is I could keep going about all of the things that are broken and annoying about Mercenaries 2. At this point I have barely mentioned the awful graphics, the groan inducing story and the terrible, terrible music. But this isn't about piling on, because deep down I really wanted this game to be good. I can't believe that after all these years this is the Mercenaries 2 that Pandemic delivered. This isn't the worst game of the year by any stretch of the imagination, but it is the most disappointing.