"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.
Zamkoff hopes that having the villa as your base of operations - a home for the people you recruit, your weapons stockpile, and fleets of cars and aircraft - will act as a regular reminder of the steps that brought you there, and help keep the story in mind. As you build up your PMC, completing missions and messing around in the world, you'll start to track Solano all the way up his operation, taking out endless lieutenants until you can hunt him down and - in the game's third act - take revenge upon him.
Whether or not the story grabs you the way Zamkoff hopes though (and it does sound a bit generic told this straightforwardly), the signs are positive that the rest of the game will. Apart from its monstrous scale (we pull up binoculars at one point and spy a radio tower on the distant horizon - and then head over there and blow it up), empire-building side sections and sandbox mentality, it also boasts depth in detail. There are the "action hijacks", where you can run up the barrel of a tank and hurl its occupants to the ground, or hijack a helicopter with a grappling hook. These elements call to mind Sony's overly hard but promising PSP title Pursuit Force, while the mission design principle of "what not how" - telling you what to do, but not how to achieve it - bring it back into line with Crackdown to some extent. As does some of the more brilliantly spontaneous entertainment. Every chopper has a winch, for example, and there's nothing to stop you using it to pick up cars or even oil tankers. Tossing an oil tanker with a friend in it over a cliff and then firing rockets at its backside strikes us as a particularly amusing way to make up for all those times Kristan "accidentally" shoots us in the back.
Which is of course also to say that Mercs 2 will boast drop-in co-operative play of the sort that we've come to expect from next-generation action games. That said, there will probably be limits. Partly to stop you losing track of your friend, and partly because there's so much going on in the game world, Pandemic's currently restraining you to a 500-metre bubble of co-op, although their ambition obviously stretches further. Indeed, we're told that Mercs 2 treats single-player and multiplayer as the same thing.
All of which leave us with just one question, really - why Venezuela? "One of the core ideals of Mercs is a ripped-from-the-headlines feel," Zamkoff starts by explaining. "Now, we don't want to be a photo-realistic war-game - we certainly don't want to give the impression that we take ourselves too seriously, that we're trying to sell war as hell - but we do like to give some pertinence to the game. And right now we feel like the big crisis in the world that's pending is oil." Well spotted. "So Mercs 2 is an oil crisis in Venezuela. We didn't want to do the Middle East - obviously it could have been an oil crisis in the Middle East, but we feel like the colour palette in Mercs was one of the areas we didn't deliver on as well as we wanted to. If we'd gone to the Middle East it would've been the same colour palette. So we did some research and discovered that Venezuela is one of the world's largest oil-producing countries, there's a lot of instability, obviously there's political drama going on there these days - in addition to just being a very sexy backdrop for a game."
So there you have it: a World in Flames with an eye for colour. For more from the man who wants you to "blow s*** up", flick to the next page for a fuller interview - including the latest (or lack thereof) on those Venezuelan politicians who thought the game was "a justification for an imperialist aggression". Yikes.
Eurogamer: Have you settled the problems you were having with Venezuelans about your choice of setting?
Jonathan Zamkoff: There was nothing to settle. It was a lot of rhetoric. It's an entertainment property - we don't go back and forth with these guys, we just kind of are the game that we are. They've been very quiet on the radar of late - I'm assuming they have bigger things, like kicking out foreign journalists and nationalising the oil supply to worry about. To me it's a lot of gamesmanship. We don't court the controversy.
If you look at the main character in our game, and look at the country we've made, it's really not photo-realistic Venezuela. It's much the same idea as making a movie set in some fictitious city. So we just don't really concern ourselves with it too much. We don't want to do anything horrific. We don't want to nuke a city. We're not going to do anything of that level. We don't encourage the death of civilians, there is no likenesses of any major landmark buildings. It's a setting, it's an oil supply, it's a headline feel, but we're not trying to court controversy.
We feel for our friends who worked on Resistance: Fall of Man and that whole to-do that's going on [Sony and Insomniac recently came under fire for Resistance's depiction of Manchester Cathedral]. We're being very careful - I worked on several Spider-Man games and had to do a lot of licensing work with the city of New York, and one of my big things was 'let's just avoid it'. We don't need the headache of trying to license buildings because there's just so much that gets wrapped up in that.
Eurogamer: Why do you suppose it happens? Is it, as Harvey Smith suggested, that games aren't really taken seriously as a form of sophisticated expression yet?
Jonathan Zamkoff: Yeah, we don't have the same level of advocacy, we don't have the lobbyists on our side the same way that the movie folks do. We're just not as mature an industry. Movies and Hollywood have been around since the '20s, and there's a lustre and a fame that's attached to them. I think we're getting taken seriously financially - we're a very big economic entertainment medium - but there's a sense still in people who don't understand games...it's the idea of xenophobia, that people who don't understand things can be very judgemental and afraid of them.
I think it will be another five-to-ten years before the people moving into executive positions will be the kids who were playing with Genesis and Dreamcast.
It's just not new for people to latch onto pop culture and blame it for society's ills. People are going to have sex, do drugs and commit crime no matter what the form of popular entertainment is at the time, and people tend to make those parallels, but we are who we are, and I really don't attribute games to the decay of society [laughs].
Eurogamer: What did you learn from Mercenaries that informed the design of Mercs 2?
Jonathan Zamkoff: On a positive side we felt that the minute-to-minute mechanics were very solid - we didn't want to mess with the 'secret sauce' so much. We basically have first-person shooter controls in a third-person game - we didn't want to change that.
What we did want to do - as I talked about a bit - was we felt we could have done a lot more with developing the characters and storyline with the humour and punchiness of dialogue. And that really has taken a big turn for us. It didn't really show in the demo because it was a lot of blowing stuff up and showing the cool stuff, but there's some really great writing this time around, some really funny cinematics. It's going to manifest itself through the contract briefings when you go to take a job, with these pretty cool interactive sequences where you're going back and forth with the head of a petroleum company or the guerrilla boss, and each character's got their own form of humour. There's some really cool FMV in it, there's a lot of chatter in the world. We really want to sell the character themselves and the three-act story with protagonist, antagonist, and a classic revenge fantasy.
With the writing style we try to draw from the Tarantino - the really punchy dialogue - and we like Bruckheimer's huge explosions and bridges blowing up.
Eurogamer: Last time out there seemed to be a rush to say "this is our openworld game, this is our GTA". What would you say distinguishes you and GTA most specifically?
Jonathan Zamkoff: I think it's the idea of the civilian versus the military. Where GTA excels is selling the fantasy of being a thug, being a gangster, but you can't take an Abrams tank, you can't take an attack chopper - the level of destruction that we do is really unprecedented in openworld games. You have a lot of destruction in games, but they tend to be level-loaded, very scripted games. There's no game out there that's doing the scope and the scale and the physics we're doing. The stuff that GTA's doing is fantastic, but we're trying to take the hill between military and civilian and cover the lifestyle - somewhere between Halo and GTA is really the fiction that we're going for.
Eurogamer: What did you think of Crackdown?
Jonathan Zamkoff: We were impressed. I felt personally - I was surprised at the complete lack of a story in that game - but we were so far in development by the time that came out that the lessons were just, it's cool, we liked their multiplayer, we thought it was a pretty interesting game, and we liked getting the Halo 3 beta out of it [laughs].
Eurogamer: Where could you go beyond what you're doing now?
Jonathan Zamkoff: We probably would be looking at underwater gameplay - submarines, scuba tanks and underwater action.
Eurogamer: That's traditionally been quite difficult to make entertaining, hasn't it?
Jonathan Zamkoff: Yeah, very difficult to make entertaining. Camera controls and so on and so forth. But I think it would be really cool in Mercs to do some more submersible stuff - take an underwater vehicle and plant some C4 at the base of an oilrig. We could maybe expand the co-op multiplayer into four, eight, sixteen player. Larger multiplayer. Maybe add some competitive multiplayer modes. There's always new features that you can add, but you also want to avoid, every time you make the game, going back to the well and starting over, because I really feel like the minute-to-minute of Mercs is cool, so for Mercs 3 we want to take the big stuff - it's been a heck of a time getting onto the next-gen consoles, we finally have a really cool looking engine - and expand upon it but in a sane fashion that we're not starting back from day one.
Eurogamer: Is there going to be a Mercs 3 then?
Jonathan Zamkoff: If I have anything to do with it, there will be [laughs].