This week Zero Punctuation blows stuff up for money.
There's an insidious thought that frequently goes through the minds of gamers, and I'm not talking about the ones you get when Ivy from Soulcaliber 's pants ride up and which are perfectly natural for growing young men. I mean the thought that goes, "But I might need it later," the niggling little doubt that prevents you from using all your most powerful insurance policies in case there's some kind of no-claims bonus at the end of it all. So we have scenarios where you're sitting on a nuclear stockpile to shame North Korea and are throwing peas at a giant robot crab on the off-chance that there might be a bigger giant robot crab just around the corner.
No game illustrates this phenomenon better than Mercenaries 2, or as I like to call it, Airstrikes 2: Hooray for Airstrikes. Mercenaries 2's plot is driven by an oil dispute in Venezuela, because all the other contemporary war games had already claimed the Middle East and there was too much of a waiting list.
You're a mercenary who helped some evil bloke take over the country and who made the mistake of handing him the bill while he was filling out his "treacherous douchebag" checklist. Surprise, surprise, he betrays you, and now you've got to spend an entire game doing jobs for various factions, hiring some lieutenants with hilarious accents, building up an arsenal of heavy armaments, then piling it all together and shoving it up his big, fat arse.
I’m hesitant to use the term “Grand Theft Auto clone” anymore, because open-world games are becoming so ubiquitous that the term feels hopelessly quaint, like how we used to call first-person shooters “Doom clones,” which might have been easier to say, but if you’re going to boldfacedly claim that, say, Half-Life 2 is essentially identical to a game that was only slightly more technologically advanced than a drawing on a piece of graph paper, then I’ll have to ask you to step outside. But while I could say that Mercenaries 2 is an open-world game in which you get around by stealing cars and doing slightly repetitive missions, generally involving at least one gunfight or escort, calling it a Grand Theft Auto clone would probably be a lot faster.
Well, perhaps that’s not fair. There’s a much greater emphasis on wanton destruction than in Grand Theft Auto, if you can believe that. You can destroy virtually every building in the gameworld, if you’re an extremely patient, passive-aggressive anarchist. And then there are the airstrikes.
Mercenaries 2 has a massive enthusiasm for airstrikes. They feature prominently in their tutorial, you’ll find them lying innocently by the side of the road next to signs saying, “Boy, I hope no one steals me, wink, wink,” and every time you die in a mission, the game throws up tips that are usually along the lines of, “See, if you’d listened to us and used an airstrike, maybe this wouldn’t have happened, you cloth-eared nonce!” The only explanation is that the game somehow gets off on airstrikes, because they certainly aren’t particularly necessary or useful. To use most of the airstrikes on offer, you generally have to be close enough to your target to fling a signal flare at it, and if you’re that close to the action, you might as well cut out the middle man. Hand-held rocket launchers are everywhere, as are tanks and helicopters, which are easily hijacked with a—oh, hoo bloody ray—brief quick-time event sequence.
Fittingly enough for a game whose main character is a man with tattoos and a mohawk, Mercenaries 2 is not as hard as it thinks it is. Often I’ll start a mission and my squeaky, Australian support character will nag my ear off about how I need to buy two more boats, three more tanks, and a few big ol’ whacking sticks, but none if it makes any sense. All the weapons and vehicles I need are one piss-easy hijack sequence away. I don’t bring desks to an office temp job; they’ve already got some there! And why two boats? There’s only one of me. Actually, this is something I’ve been meaning to bring up, miss: Why does the CEO of our private military company have to do all the missions personally, with no backup except for an Irish chopper pilot who abandons his mission when the enemy chuck anything larger than a scone at him?
Actually, working alone might be for the best. The AI’s so thick, it might as well be living in a cave. On one occasion, I called down a platoon of soldiers from a friendly faction to help me take over an enemy base. Every single one of them stepped right off the edge of the helipad, fell six feet, and died; unhelpful, but fucking funny.
Less amusing was an incident later on. I was supposed to destroy some anti-air cannons in order to land a chopper on the rooftop and rescue a hostage who was up there. Bollocks to that, I thought. I’ll nick an enemy chopper that they won’t shoot at, pick him up, and tear out of there before they know what the fuck. Sadly, they saw through my disguise around stage three of my master plan and shot me down. I was hoping my hostage would have the same presence of mind as I and jump out when we were close to the ground, but sadly I guess he couldn’t figure out his seatbelt and perished in the crash. So I tried the mission again, but he seemed to remember me now, so when I came within earshot of the building, he eagerly walked straight off the roof to join me. Hostage dead, mission failed, support character gets sarcastic, broken game gets to fuck off.
Mercenaries 2 is a game that raises a lot of questions in my mind. Why does firing from the hip seem to be more accurate than iron-sight aiming? Why, when a vehicle I’m in explodes, do I emerge with full health? Why does an enemy sounding the alarm provoke not concern but glee that soon there will be tanks and choppers to effortlessly steal?
All of these doubts point to a game with severe inconsistency problems, as if the designers of half the gameplay mechanics weren’t in communication with the designers of the other half. But a game review must ultimately boil down to one question: Is it fun? And yes, I suppose it is. Rampage showed us years ago that the freedom to cause enough civic damage to put fifteen state schools out of funding does make for the fun times. All you have to do is forgive the sloppy design and the fact that the lead character constantly parrots the same unfunny four or five quips with his disinterested-sounding old man voice. Forgiveness, however, isn’t a strong point of mine, so I’ll just conclude by saying that Mercenaries 2 can eat a dick pavlova.
You'd miss me if I were gone
Have fun blowing up buildings, kids, but remember that it only counts as terrorism if the occupants are white
Fuck, I can't think of anything to put here