Although it gave good Korea and featured a muted pallette of CNN greys, deep down, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction contained all the geopolitical seriousness you could find in a game of knockdown ginger. And rightly so. A brutal - if basic - ball pond filled with loud things to drive and big things to drive them into, Pandemic's noisome openworld private military disco always knew exactly what it wanted to be: dumb and fun in equal proportion. It's a shame, then, that time moves on - a quick session with the forthcoming sequel, World in Flames, suggests that Mercenaries may struggle to find a place for itself in a post-Crackdown world. It's not that the franchise has an out-of-date agenda, it's just that there are other people around now who have shown how to be a bit cleverer when it comes to the serious business of being stupid.
Not that Mercenaries 2 isn't trying. As narrative justifications for cutting a swathe of semi-righteous destruction goes, getting a cap popped where the sun will, hopefully, never choose to shine, is arguably up there with having your parents gunned down in front of you in a dark alleyway, and World in Flames' knockabout revenge set-up rigs the stall for the cheery carnage of missile launchers and destructible buildings that will inevitably follow. Equally, the shift to a Latin American setting, though undeniably at least registering a solid four on the Geiger Counter of gently troubling racial stereotyping, certainly promises enough sunshine and colourful foliage to wrap any amount of napalm around.
Indeed, when watching the game demoed by a developer, everything seems to be present and correct: there are grenades to lob, buildings to bring down with a single shot, missions to complete, and enough jumps, stunts, boats, bikes, tanks and helicopters to keep you busy until the US finally invades Venezuela for real and Pandemic reveals itself to be the undercover CIA agitprop team we somehow always knew it truly was. And while Mercenaries 2 is visually rather weak (whether it's just the demo build or the worrying prospect of the PS2 version on the release roster, this jungle paradise has polygon leaves that could take your arm off) the game is capable of containing all the carnage you can create without dropping too many frames.
But a subsequent hands-on leaves us wanting more. Although there's never that much fun to be wrung from the limp prospect of playing through a game's tutorial, our demo mission - from speedboat to jeep to posh mansion to smoking rubble in under ten minutes - is distinctly underwhelming. Whether it's the invisible walls which surround even the meekest sprouting of foliage, or the way the game not-so-subtly tells you when to get out of your speedboat by suddenly fencing off all available paths with hefty swathes of suspiciously specific anti-speedboat barricades, your options seem a little charmlessly dictated. It's fiddly, too. As in the first game, large gates blocking your route can only be destroyed by calling in an air-strike, but this time, the QTE mini-game that accompanies the action is both awkward and unenjoyable.
It's strange that the mini-games should get a brush-up when things like the AI remain primitive: the tutorial's guards clearly attended the prestigious University of Standing Around and Getting Shot, yet missed the crucial, "But Not When Lurking Next to an Explosive Barrel" lecture.
Most worryingly, from the start, it's clear that Pandemic has a strange fixation with micromanaging this particular bloodbath: missions explain your tasks with a Rainman-like granularity, not only telling you what to do, but precisely how to do it, too - right down to how many guards to kill to proceed to the next objective. The developers are promising this is just an awkward whim of the tutorial's, but when we're shown a later mission, things are still looking a little too controlled. Given the task of taking down a local warlord, you're not only told that first you'll have to lure him out of hiding by trashing his territory, you're then shown precisely which parts of his territory to trash, a selection of bright yellow targets appearing on specific buildings to save you from any discomfort you might experience by embarking on even the smallest slice of freeform inventiveness during a mission.
Destroying the buildings still looks like a lot of fun, particularly after hijacking a tank, and there's no chance that Mercenaries 2 will fail to make you feel like you're in the demolition business when an explosion goes off, but it's likely to make you feel like a lowly contractor in that business, clearing patches of carefully marked-out ground, as if laying the foundations for a new Tesco, rather than mixing things up like a freeform badass who lives fast, dies in flames, and has a funeral attended only by special ops generals and enigmatic prostitutes.
There's still plenty of promise here, however: the ability to recruit specialists to give you new abilities as you progress through the game should provide the requisite sense of RPG-like expanding empowerment, and there are five colourful factions to make friends with and play off against each other. Most crucially, although it may occasionally look like it was constructed from nothing but egg cartons and good intentions, the Venezuelan environment has a tangible sense of life going on, too. Driving to a mission while spontaneous gunfights between factions erupt around you will go a long way to keeping the game fresh, particularly if your choices with the factions will have a tangible impact on the world.
And besides that, if you choose to skip the missions entirely, Mercenaries 2 should rival the best sandboxes when it comes to the delicate business of orchestrating a quick rampage: cars are loose and springy to drive, there are plenty of people to grind under-wheel, and everything in the game is designed to look good in pieces. One thing the demo build was already very capable of delivering is that flush of Hollywood excitement as you stumble from a smoking car wreck seconds before it explodes, blasting you through the air and taking out a large section of roadside signage.
It's hard to imagine someone who won't find at least a little bit of fun here, but for a game like this to match up to the go-anywhere nonsense of Crackdown, Pandemic still has a considerable way to go. Mercenaries games should feel like larking around on someone else's mobility scooter, its world of explosive japery turning players into gleeful morons who can only express themselves in the universal language of flames and rubble. This may be throwaway fun, but it's yet to approach the perfectly-pitched airheadedness of a genuine guilty pleasure. Mercenaries 2 may have given itself a shot in the bottom, then, but perhaps what it really needs is a shot in the arm.
Mercenaries 2 is due out on PS3, 360, PC and PS2 on 5th September.