I was a big fan of the first Mercenaries game. Although there had been a few previous attempts to use and recreate the mission-driven, vehicle oriented, “Sandbox” style gameplay of GTA3, Mercenaries was one of the first to successfully transplant it into a radically different genre. It was a logical leap, but by turning GTA’s metaphorical urban war-zone into a literal one, it gave the player a wider variety of (mostly military) toys to play with, along with bigger targets to blow up. And instead of your amoral actions just pissing off an ever present police the player had to deal with their own shifting loyalties to the different factions that inhabit the world. While it was a little rough around the edges, it was a genuinely unique attempt to move open-world gameplay one step further.
Three years and numerous delays later we finally have the next-generation sequel: Mercenaries 2. And the game is big mess. Buggy, unpolished, and a little threadbare, the game has all the elements of a colossal failure, and yet somehow, when it works, it works beautifully. You can see the game’s ass hanging out in the breeze, and yet it’s impossible not to find yourself noticing that, for all that, it’s a pretty gorgeous ass.
There’s nothing in this game that’s truly polished: Objects often float in the air, and characters get stuck in the walls. The AI is bone stupid, weapons don’t work quite the way they should, and the interface is a disaster of non-standard choices, combined with pure moments of frustration. But here’s the thing: It bends like a hot rubber band, but it almost never breaks. Do whatever you want within its world, take advantage of the glitches, cheat your way to victory, but the engine doesn’t ever totally collapse. It feels like the whole world is tilting over into an inevitable crash or dead end, bit somehow the game rights itself and keep on chugging along. And for a game where 99% of all the objects in the world can be blown up, that’s no mean feat.
If GTAIV is a Ferrari, clean, smooth, and fast, then Mercenaries 2 is the old Dodge truck, complete with cheap Earl Sheib paint job. It’s dependable and tough, even if you can still see the rust underneath.
And the game does feel old in places. Despite the glossy textures, it has a decidedly last gen feel. Characters slide around the world, rag dolls go ridiculously limp, and things that should be fully animated just aren’t.
So why does it work? It’s clear that at some point the developers decided they’d make as much cool stuff as they could, then fix it just enough to make sure the game never breaks too badly. And while that sounds like a recipe for disaster I can’t help but wonder if it might be better if we didn’t have more games with this can-do aesthetic.
Don’t get me wrong, polish is important. And it’s probably true that for most developers failure on this scale would probably mean the game would never get released. But compare it to a failed AAA wannabe like Too-Human. It’s clear that at some point the developer of that game decided the best course of action was to simply remove what didn’t work, and the resulting game ended up being an obviously good idea that’s simply too full of holes to be fun.
In the end, there’s something almost magically old-school about Mercenaries 2. A kind of digital brashness that we see less far less of on the consoles than we used to on the PC. I can’t help but wish for more of it.