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LucasArts hires Pandemic to blow GTA out of the water...

Unveiled yesterday at a LucasArts press-entation in the heart of London, Mercenaries is one of many interesting projects currently underway at Pandemic Studios, and although we're beginning to detect a bit of cynicism for "GTA meets..." titles [no shit -readership], it's difficult to sound cynical about a game that offers as much destructive potential as this one, let alone a game built around the tagline, "If you can see it, you can steal it, use it, or blow it up."

Grand Theft Slaughter-o

If you've been paying attention, you already know plenty about this one: that it's an open-ended third-person shoot-'em-up set in post-coup North Korea, for instance, and that you've been hired by a private military company to go in and track down 52 fugitive members of the old hardline regime - yes, complete with deck of cards naming convention - before they can launch a nuclear attack and send things even further down the toilet. You probably also know that as one of three possible mercs (American or Swedish chaps, or a British female) you'll be able to freeform your way through the game in whatever manner you like, fighting battles according to your own morals and choosing which of the warring factions you feel like supporting on a mission by mission basis.

Early Xbox and PS2 screenshots point to a healthy amount of detail too, but the real graphical might of the game isn't wasted on things like high-res textures and ultra high-poly models. Instead we're dealing with a world where deliciously detailed explosions and towering smoke columns dominate the landscape. The Havok physics-powered environments crumble in the face of such aggression, leaving craters, cracked masonry and shattered just-about-everything-else in their wake. Audio isn't being neglected either, with Skywalker Sound on vocals (not to mention screams, groans, gurgles, explosions and plenty more besides).

A recent interview with the game's producer Peter Hirschman certainly points to an intriguing game in prospect, even if it's yet another game that seems to be going down the GTA route whilst vigorously protesting that it's not just ripping off GTA (a bit like Sly 2: Band of Thieves to name a recent example). "We're getting to a point where it's not 'GTA with this' or 'GTA with that', it's just a new, better genre of game pioneered by GTA," Hirschman told Gamesradar. Still, the similarities are certainly striking. The environment is all 'continuous load', with some areas remaining closed until you complete a certain number of the central missions (of which there are 52 in total; one for each of the 52 card-cads). You can also expect other side missions to pop up along the way as you explore and knock down walls...

Decisions, decisions...

However, the first game we thought of when we heard about the system of factions and alliances was actually another GTA, Grand Theft Auto 2, which first saw you making friends and enemies all over town by your actions. Here you can expect to see factions blowing one another up with or without your invention, such is the nature of the world around you, but it's the manner of your intervention in these situations that dictates their stance towards you. In one example, you might see the Russian Mafia stealing food aid and reselling it for profit, and while you could curry favour with the UN by halting them in their tracks, you also have the option of stealing some for yourself and carving out your own little black market...

It sounds like a distinctly open-ended game, and that's certainly the line LucasArts and Pandemic have been taking throughout development, right down to the choice of setting. North Korea was apparently chosen because it lends itself well to this sort of title. "You go from gritty Soviet urban environments," Hirschman says, " but then jump in your hummer, drive a few clicks and you'll be in a very lush and green river valley, then you go up into the mountains and it's snowing and you're among snow-capped peaks."

Your overall goal though is to track down those 52 fugitives, some of whom will be boss characters - like Ace of Spades General Song, the chief protagonist in the coup that caused the whole mess - and some of whom will be evil scientists and the like. However as with so much of the game it's all about your own personal approach, and as such you will just have the option of motoring in and blowing the hell out of each and every one, although - Hirschman notes - you'll quickly learn that money makes the mercenary's world go round, and "that's not the best way to go" as a result. "But it's up to them, they can do that." Money, of course, not only buys you new tools with which to blow people up, like rocket launchers, grenades, shotguns and the like, but also helps secure support from fellow mercs. We certainly like the idea of pinching a poorly guarded helicopter or tank and going for a joyride with newfound rentafriends.

Splice City

Pandemic has a strong pedigree on the war front. Apart from their current crop of titles - which includes Star Wars: Battlefront and Full Spectrum Warrior - they're also the folks responsible for Dark Reign 2, Battlezone II, and most recently Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which if nothing else certainly threw up some explosive battle sequences. Mercenaries looks like it could combine all of their talents into one product, and you can bet we'll be gunning our way towards it at this year's E3 trade show with all possible haste...