One of the common knee-jerk reactions from reactionary parents and politicians to Grand Theft Auto 4 (John McCain famously called the game “a sin against God”) was that the game depicted and even encouraged people to steal cars, kill prostitutes, mug strangers — in short, it glorified a world without morality. But those that actually experienced Niko Bellic’s narrative in GTA IV soon realized that behind all of the murder and mayhem lay a deep sense of moral ambiguity. Niko would sometimes let slip the regret he felt for the dirty deeds of his past, and the player got to sometimes see the unfortunate consequences of his mistakes.
So if our crusading culture-warrior leaders really wanted to go after an uber-violent, morally vacuous sandbox type game, they really should have aimed their crosshairs at a game like Mercenaries 2, whose subtitle World in Flames pretty much tells you all you need to know about its anarchic nature.
In Mercenaries 2, you are encouraged to do things like destroy a shanty town full of shacks with a tank (to take down a few military targets) or hire a drunken Russian pilot to flatten an entire downtown of a city, and it’s all handled with a casual but brutish humor.
The overarching theme in Mercenaries 2 is a simple, Machiavellian one: Kill people to get paid, and if you don’t get paid, kill the people who don’t pay you.
This message is hammered home in the very first mission, where the mercenary you choose agrees to do a job for Ramon Solano — a fast rising Venezuelan politico — who double crosses you instead of paying you for extracting a kidnapped associate for him because he is tying up loose ends before setting himself up as dictator by way of political coup.
So what do you do as an honest mercenary? Seek revenge and kill him, of course. That’s the main crux of the plot.
Sure, there is some political intrigue going on in the background — Venezuela is in the midst of rebellion, with oil the central focus of the conflict, and its army is doing its best to maintain control of the country, but there are a number of factions looking to take control: Universal Petroleum, the People’s Liberation Army of Venezuela, the Chinese army, the Allied Nations (aka the US), and the Rastafarian Pirates. However, it feels like it’s all just window dressing for your hunt for Solano.
On an interesting sidenote, then Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez publicly condemned Pandemic Games in 2006 for making Mercenaries 2 not because of its violent content, but as propaganda created to drum up support for an invasion because the game depicts the virtual invasion of Venezuela, the overthrow of its government, the destruction of the country’s major cities and rural areas, and the takeover of the oil industry.
Chavez would probably laugh if he actually got his hands on the game, because even government propaganda would likely have better dialogue and characters than Mercenaries 2, which features more cringe inducing one-liners than almost every Schwarzenegger action flick from the 80’s. The main playable mercenary Mattias looks like a combination of a Hell’s Angels biker gang member and Mad Max post-apocalyptic thug and spouts out sub-Duke Nukem quotes with a hilariously bad Australian accent after shooting down his enemies. The second of the three mercs, Jennifer Mui is a Lara Croft clone from the good looks down to the droll sarcastic putdowns doled out in a high British accent.
But things like plot, moral compasses, characters and dialogue are all secondary concerns in Mercenaries 2. When you have to lay serious waste to Venezuela, who has time for anything else? And it’s in the action and in the sheer destruction that the game really shines.
The first few missions let you get used to the game’s third-person shooting action. From the start you’ll shoot various guns and missiles, use grenades and explosives, drive cars, boats, and other vehicles and you’ll find that it’s entertaining to see all the things that you can make go boom. Entire trees crash to the ground when hit by rockets, fences topple when you run them over, and bodies and shrapnel fly through the air from explosions.
The faction system is simplistic enough that it almost resembles something like World of Warcraft‘s faction system. Kill a faction’s enemies and complete missions for them and they begin to like you, eventually allowing you to land at their outposts or buy air support. Kill members of a faction or do them ill will and the opposite happens — they begin shooting you on sight or close their shop doors to you. The concept doesn’t completely work because it never feels like you can play one group against each other, but it’s an interesting attempt at making you feel like a double or triple agent.
Each mission is classified as either a contract or a bounty. A lot of the contracts involve traveling to a destination and destroying the opposition, but there are also escort missions, destruction-based missions, firefights, and others. The bounty missions consist primarily of seeking out HVTs (High Value Targets) and taking down targeted structures. Retrieving HVT’s alive is worth more but it’s much simpler to kill the target, then snap a picture and take fifty percent of the money.
Mercenaries 2 is at its best in co-op mode, where blowing up Venezuela with a friend is always more fun. In co-op, friends are able to join your game, or you can hop into someone else’s at any time.
Overall, Mercenaries 2, especially in co-op mode, is a fun diversion for a few hours, but there are too many small bugs, feelings of repetitiveness, crappy dialogue and ludicrous plot points to make it feel like a top action title for the 360 — not to mention the feeling that you have to check your sense of morality at the door.