Version tested: Xbox 360
After the occasionally inspirational chaos of the chart-topping Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, the least anyone would reasonably expect is a more polished and entertaining sequel. Bafflingly, three and a half years on, Mercenaries 2 comes up short. Just like the original, it desperately struggles to get going, and the first few pre-sandbox missions are the worst possible introduction to what the game has to offer. But it's not just that, because - as we discovered at the preview stage - the game is irreparably hamstrung on a fundamental level.
We'd now go a little further than that: apart from some cool explosive effects and solid controls, Mercenaries 2 is utterly mediocre in almost every sense that matters. From the initial sorties onwards it's bogged down by the worst kind of brain-dead cannon fodder enemies, lead-you-by-the-hand level design, arbitrary boundaries, and some technical howlers. It lacks challenge, excitement, personality and any real verve whatsoever. Just thinking back on time spent negotiating the stupider bits of Mercenaries 2 is enough to cloud our sunny disposition.
Exactly two years in the future, the game kicks off with a playable vignette where you end up double-crossed by the hateful Ramone Solano, a man curiously obsessed with straightening his tie. Turns out it's yet another cod drama where everyone's chasing the world's rapidly depleting oil reserves, from grubby corporations to local resistance forces, except this time in Venezuela. You sit on the outskirts of all this squabbling, but with your own morally bankrupt agenda: to build a private military enterprise up, do everyone else's dirty work for big sacks of cash, and chase down the sickeningly slick Solano. As gung-ho narratives go, it's by no means the worst, but you'll very quickly cease to care about who you're mercilessly slaughtering and why. Blow stuff up. Blow it up some more. And then again to make sure.
But in spite of this - as with the 2005 original - the actual gameplay structure is well thought out, with 51 missions split between the five factions forcing you to try and keep onside with everyone. Maintaining a friendly relationship with other factions is almost essential so that you're able to traverse the map without getting into an unwelcome firefight, and, of course, so can use them as allies during specific contracts. If you end up with a hostile relationship with a faction, you'll be forced into paying an expensive bribe to be able to do any more work for them, which is a bit backward, obviously. In addition, the more contracts you get under your belt, the more hardware you can unlock. The more hardware you unlock, the more badass you end up, and the better prepared you'll be for when the game starts cranking up the challenge.
This political balancing act, and the ever-increasing tools of destruction at your disposal, are arguably Mercenaries' big point of difference in the crowded openworld genre - as it was last time out. Rather than merely hopping from one mission to the next, the need to think about the consequences of your destructive antics makes a refreshing change. Also, by giving the player three different lead characters to choose from, each with subtly different abilities (faster health recharge, faster reload, or faster movement, essentially), there's a chance to experience the game in a way that suits your preference.
Or so the theory goes. The central failing is simply that the core combat is hopelessly uninspiring. Having laid the groundwork with standard two-stick third-person controls, Pandemic steps on its own landmine by failing to provide a semblance of artificial intelligence. Enemies are, to a man, content to take up their pre-scripted positions and stand comedically until you blast them away - Driver 3-level in its obligingness. One level near the start of the game continually respawns jeeps to infinity. The design of said level itself isn't much better, presenting players with arbitrary barriers such as locked gates and shrubbery that's impervious to grenades. This, combined with the aforementioned respawning nonsense, eventually inspires desperate exploration, where, lo and behold, you discover that this supposedly fortified mansion is, in fact completely exposed around the back. This is an extreme example of level design stupidity, but it's a fairly regular occurrence.
If the game's not busy sticking its oar in, telling you exactly which enemies to take out (with laughably patronising targets above their heads, in case you weren't sure), you'll often get a blow-by-blow commentary from your cohort back at base. This can be quite useful if it means running from one gun emplacement to another to ensure enemies don't flank you. But quite often it's just completely useless advice. On one occasion you're tasked with protecting a defenceless exec while he destroys valuable data, advised to make a 'tactical retreat' up a nearby tower, but it turns out you're better off at just running around like a gun-toting Olympian during a lap of dishonour.
Thanks to the game's recharging health system, you're also practically invincible. Blessed with the ability to sprint around even at two points of health, if ever you're in danger of dying you can pretty much guarantee that running away for ten seconds or so will 'run off' those massive shrapnel injuries. With your health guaranteed to rise back up to 60 or 70 per cent in no time, you can simply return to the battle, pick off the stragglers and carry on unimpeded. And if not, the massive amount of health pick-ups scattered with staggering generosity will get you out of a jam. There's a fine line between removing frustration and completely removing any challenge whatsoever, which Mercenaries 2 doesn't so much cross as burn down and stamp on imperviously.
With the odds so stacked in your favour, chipping through the contracts becomes a tedious war of attrition as you make your way to another building you need to occupy. Rather than skillfully marshaling your forces and tooling yourself up with awesome levels of destruction, you can just run in like a supercharged Rambo, safe in the knowledge that even an RPG pointed at your face from three feet away can be survived as long as you sprint around the corner and wait for a few seconds. Meanwhile you call in reinforcements (by cycling through the d-pad and hitting the right trigger) and let them do a lot of the dirty work.
And if surviving being hit in the face by a rocket doesn't sound ludicrous enough, you'll love the approach Mercenaries 2 takes to hijacking the bigger vehicles such as tanks and helicopters. We can just about deal with the idea that a man could run up to a moving tank, jump on the top it, flip open the lid, drag out the driver, headbutt him and lob a live grenade into the cockpit. But any vague suspension of disbelief is shattering the minute you grapple a moving helicopter, remove the pilot, shut his head in the door repeatedly and jump in to continue the journey - mainly because it's yet another boring excuse to shoehorn a QTE into the game. While it might seem mildly amusing the first couple of times, this is not true of the third, fourth and beyond.
Sometimes, though, the game doesn't let you run around like you're in God mode, preferring that you unleash a 'bunker buster' or other type of aerial assault to remove a specific obstacle. But that's really about the extent of the external help you need. Things get more hectic and a tiny bit more strategic as the game progresses, but getting there involves an incredible number of completely unchallenging tasks in the interim. The chances are you'll never see the better ones.
In keep with The Law of Openworlds, Mercenaries 2 is also rammed with side missions, including some relatively enjoyable racing, target practice and destruction challenges, and even one involving winching crates within a time limit. If anything, these show the game in its best light, seeing as they generally veer away from its combat and AI, but there's only so much entertainment to glean.
Indeed, a lot of people will be tempted to compare Mercenaries 2 to the other crop of sandbox titles around, and in that regard Pandemic's effort falls short of pretty much all of them. Even two-year-old games like Just Cause, Saints Row and even GUN provide superior thrills, and in a sphere now luxuriating in the greatness of GTA IV and Crackdown, Mercenaries 2's poverty is particularly apparent. But it's not only openworld titles that Mercenaries fares badly against; it's most of the third-person action genre as well, and when your game is falling way short of providing the thrills of the likes of Army of Two, you know you've got problems.
Some might reasonably argue that the inclusion of 130 vehicles gives Mercenaries 2 the edge, which is a fairish point. They're all easy to control, too. The problem is that unlike, say, Battlefield: Bad Company, the context in which you use them is overwhelmingly uninspiring. Likewise, the satisfying (and visually impressive) ability to blow almost everything to smithereens is a novelty that wears off in light of the ruinously poor missions and catastrophic AI.
Question marks, too, hang over the wisdom of designing the game in parallel with the PS2 version. In so many regards it bears all the hallmarks of a last-gen title with upscaled visuals, like horrifically low-polygon, low-detail vegetation. Sometimes it threatens to look quite good, as in the massive close-ups of the lead characters, but there's always something to drag it down, in this case the goldfish lip-synching. Even at its best, the generic art style fails to make a positive impact, and while the engine provides a smooth gameplay experience, it's hopelessly dated next to the competition. It's hard to think of too many experienced gamers gleaning much enjoyment here, and on balance it feels like a failure.
Given its troubled, delayed development, hope remained that Mercenaries 2 would deliver on the series' promise. Instead, the usually reliable Pandemic has produced a game that not only fails to compete with any current-generation openworld, but somehow takes a backward step from the original. With uninspiring combat contributing to a succession of desperately poor missions, the only remaining question is whether the developer will get a third chance to rectify matters.
5 / 10