"World in Flames" may be a typically silly videogame subtitle, but with this one they're not joking. We've had sandbox action games that move beyond GTA's largely indestructible playground before - Crackdown gave us wings and let us toss cars around, for instance - but Mercenaries 2 escalates things to a degree that the PS3's vaunted SPUs and 360's multiple processors have been crying out for. "Every asset is fully interactive," says producer Jonathan Zamkoff as he flies a chopper over a bay. "It's either destructible, scalable or buyable. We do not put it in the game if you can't interact with it." Demonstrating this, he launches missiles into a 200m concrete bridge, taking out a central section that tumbles into the water, giving a few unlucky motorists a permanent bath. "There's no mission-specific reason for me to do this," he says, as a sort of explanation. Good then.
Like the original Mercs, you have a range of missions to complete that see you sowing destruction on the ground and in the air, or by combining the two. As you build up funds, you can call in expensive airstrikes and fuel-air bombs to take out entire towns. Standing nearby, having marked the target, the effect's a brilliant burst of red and orange that flash-fries the scenery, breaking it down believably in a roar of 5.1 surround sound. An oilrig, purportedly a centrepiece of last year's E3 demonstration, is nothing but scenery now. Which means you can land on it and rip it apart from within, or draw up nearby and blow chunks out of it until it's rubble. The more pedestrian bits of Mercs 2 involve using C4 to blow holes in walls ("to create doors", sorry), and stealing any of its 130-plus vehicles. Boooooring!
You want to be careful whose you nick and destroy, though, because central to progress in Mercs 2 is befriending (or at least equally evading) the five factions that occupy the game's facsimile Venezuelan setting, with the missions you complete impacting each relationship. It's a similar principle to Mercs 1, of course - Zamkoff emphasises the team's desire to maintain and elaborate on that game's "minute to minute" gameplay experience, rather than rejecting it in favour of something else. So this time you've got the Chinese, Allies, Jamaican pirates, the People's Liberation Army of Venezuela ("they're our Mad Max group") and Universal Petroleum. And that's "Allies", not "Americans", incidentally. "We don't want to be the big rah-rah, American-centric game," says Zamkoff, adding that most of the LA-based team is actually from outside America anyway. "The player's going to have their own moral compass, and believe what they want to believe."
You'll be befriending/offending them as one of three characters, too. There's mental Swede Mattias Milsson, ex-Army Chris Jacobs and "femme fatale" Jennifer Mui. "One of the areas we feel we could have delivered on a little better in Mercs 1 was our characters," Zamkoff explains. "We didn't feel like the humour and tone of the characters was as well developed as we'd hope to do, so this time around we want to make sure there's still the factions, there's still the sandbox, but we really want each character to feel unique, to feel alive. We want you to care about the character, and equally despise the antagonist." To this end a lot more effort's gone into the story side of the game, with a proper three-act revenge tale focusing on a "megalomaniacal" Blofeld wannabe called Ramon Solano.
The game begins as you're invited to Solano's to take on a job, rescuing one of his Generals from captivity. Sounds fair enough - and you're not one to ask questions - so off you pop, only for silly Ramon to double-cross you on your return. Hijinx ensue and you end up being shot in the bottom as you exit through a window. "Rule number one of being a mercenary is everyone pays. And rule number two is never question a mercenary's pride. The only thing a mercenary has is his pride and reputation...This guy has effectively stripped you down of everything you are." Right then. Naturally you to go the pub to shout about it (rendezvousing with Fiona from the first game, who is now a proper character rather than a voice-over), and end up heading back to Ramon's villa to sort him out. On the way you come to appreciate some of its gaudier trimmings - famous art defaced in his favour, like a Statue of David with a Solano head - and in any event he's not there. Some of his men are though, so you kill them, and use his former villa as a base of operations: indeed, you establish your own Private Military Company (PMC) in its lush surroundings. Act two begins.