The action takes place in North Korea. War has broken out and local the Allied Command has enlisted the help of a freelance military contractor named ExOps. As one of three operatives, you're enlisted to help out the different factions in the combat zone- all for a price. From here, you get to choose one of three characters, each with a speciality ranging from stealth to heavy weapons.
In game and the gameplay centres around an idea that surfaced from the recent war in Iraq - the premise of a “Deck of 52 cards”. Each card in the desk represents a bad guy with the Ace's representing the big cheeses. The levels are all geared towards acquiring the cards. To get them, you have to jump through a number of different hoops for a number of different factions.
Similar to the gang warfare model in GTA, there are a number of different countries, or sides, involved; Allies, South Koreans, Chinese, and the Russian Mafia. As a mercenary, you decide whom you want to take work from and each contract you take will affect your standing with a different faction. Start killing too many Allied forces whenever you see them and your "friendly" status will turn to "hostile" rather quickly.
This idea of free-roaming gameplay where you're not tied to a specific faction is where the game's strength lies. Everything is interactive, every vehicle and weapon available and even the scenery is destructible if you want it to be. Better still for the cash-hungry is that everything has a price and the more loot you rake in, the more money you have to buy bigger guns. This, like GTA, means that you can control how you want your levels, gameplay and even hostile rating to be played out.
Controlling all this is thankfully very simple, vehicles are easily accessed and the controls, including a PDA interface to missions, the shop and other useful information mean that you don't get confused. In the same vein, the graphics are very impressive. LucasArts has used the BattleFront engine from its Star Wars games and militarised it, so you're not reminded of stormtroopers and lightsabres.
This is a very good game with plenty to give. Maybe it’s us, but our only concern was that the opening levels were far too easy compared to other titles like the Ghost Recon 2 from Ubisoft or the Black Hawk Down series from Novalogic. We haven’t completed it, but so far we haven’t been killed. Compare this to Ghost Recon 2 where it took us about 20 attempts to get through the first level alone and you can see a strong difference.
Perhaps the need for players to get through the vast amount of missions - there are more than 52 - has meant a dumbing down of the toughness of it all. It’s not a bad thing but one that hardcore diehard fans should be wary of. The only other fault, and one that won’t apply to all involved, is the lack of online play. Strategically, that’ll probably turn up in the sequel.
Overall then, Mercenaries is a worthy purchase and one that will have you battling through the night. The boxes are certainly ticked. The graphics are good, the gameplay great and the controls and learning curve easy to master. Top marks.