Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, PS2 - Xbox 360 version reviewed.
It's been a long two years since our fearless leader first clapped eyes on Pandemic's Mercenaries 2. In that time, the open world game has blossomed on the next-generation consoles, giving us such gems as Crackdown, Just Cause and – of course – Grand Theft Auto 4, not to mention the hybrids that have adopted the open world approach for other genres; a roster including Assasin's Creed, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Viking: Battle for Asgard, Crysis and Burnout Paradise.
As a result, it's getting harder and harder to be impressed by huge, explorable environments, optional missions and sandbox gameplay these days. And this is one of Mercenaries 2's big problems. When it was first showcased such things seemed like gaming's rich future. Now it arrives at a time when we expect more. What's worse, Pandemic's game now seems hugely reminiscent of Just Cause – a game released nearly two years ago. You can't help wondering “why the wait?”
You see, like Just Cause, Mercenaries 2 is an open world third-person action adventure with most of the emphasis on action. It shares a similar Tropical South American setting – here a not too flattering caricature of Venzuela – crammed with jungle, beach and mountain scenery, and involves playing several establishment, criminal and revolutionary factions off against each other by tackling missions and taking over outposts. In Pandemic's defence, the original Mercenaries did an awful lot of this stuff first, but anyone who played Just Cause and now plays Mercenaries 2 will have more than the odd spot of déjà vu.
The more serious charge against Mercenaries 2 is that it doesn't feel all that polished for a game that has spent so long in development. In fact, that's an understatement. I've yet to come across any of the game breaking bugs that other gamers and reviewers have reported, but I've seen my share of weird visual glitches and absolutely bewildering AI mistakes. Driving, for instance, seems to be beyond the capabilities of the poor CPU-managed population of Pandemic's Venezuela; you'll regularly see tanks stuck driving into rocks or vehicles trapped against each other at junctions, and the drivers will just carry on moving forward without a hope of getting out of their predicament. Objects and even people hovering in mid air are not an uncommon sight, either. Unfortunately, all this stuff makes the impression of a virtual world wobble like a cheap set in a daytime soap.
Poor AI is an issue throughout. With a game that focuses heavily on combat, you'd have thought more effort could have been made to make enemy soldiers use squad tactics or even a little common sense. Instead, we're back in the days when enemies have two modes - rush and attack or hide and snipe - with neither proving all that effective. It's true that there can be a lot of AI characters on screen at any time, and that there are often troops of different factions fighting against each other, but compare Mercenaries 2's Venezuela with Liberty City or even The Holy Land of Assassin's Creed and it feels like a cardboard-thin facsimile of a living, breathing virtual world.