With the popularity of GTA3 it's not hard to see why companies wouldn't mind a piece of the action with their own take on Liberty City. No one has really managed to crack the formula which made it so popular and San Andreas proves that it's going to be a while before someone does do it. Mercenaries however comes closest to replicating Rockstar's GTA3, and considering this game flew under the radar for so long, it comes as one of the best surprises from early 2005. Pandemic know their games and they know what people want. With that said, Mercenaries could be a top 10 game for 2005.
The game revolves around a fantasy storyline. North Korea is in turmoil after a coup takes over the country and begins to sell nuclear weapons. You as one of three operatives are sent in as a mercenary to make as much money as possible and clear the deck of 52. The fifty two people who are part of the coup, but the game doesn't completely revolve around this and the storyline for the most part is quite weak. It doesn't matter too much though as the gameplay shines and really makes it a must own Xbox title.
The game is played from a third person perspective. You choose from three operatives; a retired marine, former secret agent or a Swedish bounty hunter who just wants to get money. Once you've chosen your character you can't change midstream which is a bit of a shame but considering the way the game is structured it does make sense. The aim is to get in the good books of a number of forces currently occupying the country such as the Russian Mafia and South Korean forces. As you can tell, not a bunch you want to get angry. You do this by completing missions in a GTA-esque style.
This is why the game shines. The whole map is viewable and available from the outset and basically you can go where you want. Depending on factional differences, you may be shot at or welcomed in different areas and this changes throughout the game. So you really have three mission types; Deck of Cards (capture), money (to buy weapons) and missions which push the story along such as destroying guns. In another nod to GTA3 you can hijack any vehicle you can see; armored trucks, jeeps, vans, cars, everything you can take and it doesnt matter if they are already occupied.
The game just has this continuous flow which really gets you into it. You complete a mission and start another but rather than having to go to a store to buy weapons, you log on to the pda and order them with the money you have from completing missions. These missions are not exactly weak either with entire air strikes available to level houses quickly and this again offers different ways to finish the missions. This also makes no mission futile, you can always order more health and if you're in the happy column with factions they will help you out. The game becomes a balance of finishing missions for one side while keeping others happy and eventually getting the targets. The one downside to the game is the lack of variety in environments. While the map is huge and features many areas, it's really just destructive buildings everywhere, but everything can be demolished. There is also no multiplayer which is a shame because co-op could have worked really well.
The visuals are extremely good with a lengthy draw distance featured and everything highly detailed. The one thing the game does right is create atmosphere, you hear planes flying over, see choppers moving around, cars continuously driving around, media reporting on the war, and in general it does perhaps do the best warzone impression for a very long time. The Havok engine really helps. Sound effects also add to this with voice acting done well although the contact used to give information could have been done better but it's not that bad. Rather than just using english throughout the game, subtitles are used with foreign languages giving the game that little bit more authenticity. Soundtrack ranges from war style music to classical and it suits the game.
Mercenaries is a game that came out of no where and should still be talked about come GOTY 2005 time. It may only be coming into March but to top this, some game is going to have to deal a serious beating. If you ever wanted to see GTA3 done in a warzone environment and done very well at that, Mercenaries is the game for you.