it takes balls to make a statement about the world’s continued decline based on financial and political corruption. (sarcasm, “The Wire” did it for five years. of course, no one listened to them.) idealism, hard-fought beliefs, and even care about international events are all impacted by the price to sell and the amount of money one can saunter away with at the end of the day. pile on top of that motivation bursting stress points like global warming and environmental tragedies, meaningless and directionless wars, the rise of the new world Communism (sprinkled with a little capitalism for good measure), and, of course, the impending denouement being brought on by the Large Hadron Collider. all of these are important issues. serious issues. but it’s always good to filter sociopolitical nihilism into the greatest satirical art form of our generation: the video game.

i have stated on many occasion that “Mercenaries” was one of the funnest gaming experiences i’ve had since “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” back on the PS1. i had so much fun playing any and every side of the boiling point in North Korea — Allies, China, Russian Mafia, South Korean Army — that it’s one of those games, even with all its faults, that i return to play at least once annually. in fact, it’s a game that falls into the weird realm of edutainment while remaining utterly sloppy, dumb action. it created a fictional story around a real crisis in North Korea, one which everyone is at least a little familiar with. upon that backdrop, however, is an amoral game design marrying the open world structure of “Grand Theft Auto” with the blow-shit-up attitude of a redneck military program (i’m looking at you “Future Weapons”). if you want an even better analogy, it was the “Rambo IV” of video games, a violent b-movie with an agenda.

having watched “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” for the umpteenth time recently, while at the same time finishing “Mercenaries 2,” i was struck by the similarities in both’s definition of “good” and “evil.” really, both have a “good” protagonist — Clint’s Man with No Name and whichever character you choose among Mattias, Jennifer, and Chris — but there’s nothing within the majority of that characterization to distance the One to Root For from the One You Hope Dies. the good guy’s a killer for hire, willing to ally himself with anyone, and kill anyone in his way, to reach the greedy goal of money. the end ALWAYS justifies the means. this isn’t your John Wayne or Gary Cooper; there’s no shining light, there’s no pure hero. Clint isn’t the bad guy because he stops to give a dying soldier his last cigar? the main character of “Mercenaries 1 &2,” whomever you choose, isn’t bad because they save VIPs, rescue WMD blueprints, and get cash penalties for killing innocents? that’s humanity peeking through on both counts…i guess.

both stories are heavily influenced by Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” in which a ronin plays both sides in a gangster feud in order to reap the rewards. and where Kurosawa’s classic was making a statement on a particular period in samurai history, as well as virtuous greed vs. immoral greed, the others deviate noticeably. Clint is as amoral as Angel Eyes and Tuco (the Bad and the Ugly, respectively), but his code decrees not hurting any innocents on the way to his fortune. i mean, he’ll definitely fill up some body bags with the outlaw sonofabitches, but they’ll all be gunning for him. and, where Mifune, the protagonist of “Yojimbo,” shows his true colors by almost sacrificing himself to save a family caught in the middle of the gang war, Blondie (Clint Eastwood) does good deeds only if they aid him in his quest; or, in terms of the dying soldier scene, if his stoic veneer is starting to chip in a momentary rest before the final showdown. i mean, this is a guy who blows up a bridge so that the North and South will go somewhere else to fight and he can get to the gold unimpeded.

now…in terms of “Mercenaries 2,” this attitude and fortune hunting has been taken to the extreme degree. again, just like in the original, you are playing all the sides in an unfolding conflict to reap lots and lots of money, and more weapons to make alot more money with. this time you’re in Venezuela, taking contracts and sub-missions from the Allied Nations, China, the Pirates, the People’s Liberation Army of Venezuela, and United Petroleum, a CIA-funded, mercenary-employed front for American colonial interests. see, the politics are already shining through. you can kill soldiers of one faction, or blow up their assets, or destroy their vehicles, or go on a homicidal rampage to appease the faction of your choice.

for example, rampantly killing the AN forces gains you Friendly standing with the Chinese Army. P.L.A.V. forces, fellow Communists, are friends with the Chinese Army, so taking a P.L.A.V. aircraft into Chinese territory won’t get you shot down. also, side quests like destroying Venezuelan Army propaganda billboards makes you a quick friend of the P.L.A.V. this is the type of tug and war you, as a mercenary, must compete in. you have to make wise decisions who you want to piss off and who will get you the best vehicles, artillery strikes, and weapons to kill the other guy with. but more on that later. some of the difficulty of the game comes in pissing off and making up, or bribing, factions to get back into good standing with. otherwise, you get no work. the only restriction in this mission-based open world structure is not killing innocents, which you get penalized as little as $5k for. more on that TOO later.

carried over from the original, you get to choose a character to play through the game with. Mattias Nilsson, voiced by the incredibly dry Peter Stormare (who is quickly becoming the new quotable Walken for the 21st century), is a Swedish mercenary with a biker attitude and a lust for destruction. Chris Jacobs, voiced by über-video-game-and-anime-voice-actor Phil LaMarr (of MadTV fame), is a tough ex-Delta Force operative. And, Jennifer Mui, voiced by video game queen and Samus Aran actor Jennifer Hale, is a half-Chinese/half-British ExOps agent known for her intelligence and athletics.

this time around, “Mercenaries 2” has a thin but labored revenge plot centering on hitting back at the President and General of Venezuela who — butt buddies as they are — tried to kill you — a shining beacon of heterosexual western ideology — and instead humiliatingly shot you in the ass. (i can just hear Alonzo from “Training Day” now. “you shot me in the assssss!”) it’s a good skeleton to the game and keeps it based in some constantly moving scenario. but the missions are so open world and faction-oriented, the only time the plot creeps back in is when you find evidence or a trail to the bad guys at the end of escorting, killing, or blowing something the fuck up. this isn’t much of an improvement in execution over the original “Mercenaries,” which had you capturing or killing 52 “cards” in a “deck” of terrorists, led by 4 “Aces.” what results in both scenarios, if you split your gaming up over more than 2 days, is the sputtering out of a followable story into chapters in a book with pages ripped out (a.k.a. the GTA syndrome). still, is plot necessary in a sandbox game? to each his/her own, i say.

what shines in “Mercs 2” is the sheer brilliance and awe of blowing shit up. it’s simple. it’s Summer Action Movie. it’s Michael Bay. but it’s fucking entertainment. there’s no bigger satisfaction as a gamer than taking down a force of a hundred or more soldiers, along with the helicopters, turrets, and RPGs they’re using, as well as their castle fortress, all with the steady laser of a targeting beacon. what results is a gigantic, sometimes nuclear-sized explosion, leveling shit like it’s Hiroshima. that’s 90% of the pleasure right there. and imagine, the only thing standing in your way is a) money and b) fuel, both of which are liberally dispensed, stolen, and won with the least engagement of a few minutes drive or a ballsy act of terrorism towards a faction you do not like. the ease of getting money and fuel guarantees having all the artillery strikes, vehicle fly-ins, and weapons crates dropped that your little villainous heart could desire. you want a Bunker Buster, a gigantic building-scattering bomb, to help you along? do it. you want a fuel-air RPG that hits a target with a donut of dust and, 3 seconds later, destroys everything in a hundred yards? jump on that.  this all keeps the fun up, and believe me, i have trouble wiping the smile off my face when “Mercs 2” is at its best, but it’s at the expense of any real challenge. it’s like showing a kid with A.D.D. bright, shiny colors, when you know it’s fleeting and unrewarding to both parties involved. if you sacrifice nothing, when does it mean something to you? still, the stories about that “one kill” or “one mission” or “one explosion” that totally rocked your world will be the centerpiece of conversations with friends for many a year to come.

besides the destruction, the many missions and variations on gameplay available, the challenges to unlock with factions, and the numerous vehicles you can utilize, the blemishes on “Mercs 2” make it look like a 16-year-old nerd discovering oily skin. The splashy controls are not tight and not nearly as responsive for a game that’s been delayed a year more than its original release date. Driving a car, a boat, a helicopter, or a motorcycle all feels the same. The only difference are the sports car and bike, which have acceleration to balance out the clunky movement and pivoting system. This is a hold over from “Mercs 1” which was based on the “Star Wars: Battlefront” engine LucasArts and Pandemic made popular. However, EA’s takeover of the franchise has not updated or changed the oft-lacking design. Vehicles hit obstacles and corner in a weird way that makes the player feel like they are controlling a box of matches on wheels (but not Matchbox cars, shut up!). On foot is not any better; you still jump and run like Boba Fett with a booster on your back. The gun aiming is an improvement, but that’s offset with a frustrating Grenade/C4 combo menu interface, along with an inability to fire most on-board vehicle weapons at 360 degrees, and a stupid vehicle acceleration using the A button which occupies the thumb you need for controlling camera panning. The result is a bumpy ride, driving blind into fire fights and obstacle courses hoping luck will save you 50% of the time. EA, take a note from “GTA 4” and “Halo,” copy their vehicle and weapon controls!

and don’t get me started on how hard it is to die in the game. you’re lucky if a point blank explosion takes you to 1% health. the only real way to die is getting overrun with enemies. one notable addition not in “Mercs 1” is the grappling hook, allowing your character to grapple passing helicopters. this adds alot to the gameplay since it’s just a matter of hooking on and completing a “God of War” type mini-game to hijack the ability to fly. in the first game, the player had to fire on and coax a helicopter to within jumping distance to steal. it’s still one of the most frustratingly fun aspects of the original.

the graphics are pretty, especially the explosions. light and fire are the strongest suits. but is it really polished enough for a XBOX 360 game in ’08? it looks like an awesome XBOX 1 title or a 360 launch title. the graphics are on par with “Hitman: Blood Money.” there’s no sign of night time like in “Mercs 1,” but if you’re cup of tea is sunsets and mid-afternoon, your chops will be salivating. things have a jaggedness about them. Building detail, because of the size of the playable world, pops in randomly. You’ll see odd shapes at 100 feet and defined grit at 50 suddenly. Clipping ahoy, too. Imaginary borders, getting stuck in walls and floors. It’s all fun to me. No, no, it’s not. But you can live with it. It’s abrasive but not completely offensive. Distance hazing is realistic as is the world and its components, like trees, wetlands, and dirt roads. Again, it’s sexy, but in a fat girl with nice eyes kind of way.

audio is good. the music is strong. the SFX are excellent. but that was the best part of “Mercs 1,” so i didn’t expect anything less. the voice acting is great but the repeat of lines is obscenely obnoxious. for the main characters, there might be an hour of dialogue in all the cut scenes, with another 2 minutes of extra lines they throw out during gameplay in the actual world. most of these lines are funny…the first 15 times. NPCs have a good mixture in the cut scenes, conveying the plot with attention to detail and playing over the top stereotypes. (again, this is like a b-movie in terms of characters.) the background characters have all but 5 lines recycled with different voices. you’ll tire of these after a couple hours. the worst offender is Fiona, the secretar…ahem…mission coordinator for the Private Military Corporation you belong to. imagine the same 10 lines spit at you, like the Voice of the Agency did in “Crackdown,” but with a more annoying, British posh attitude.

the game’s world continues the pokes and jabs at real world politics and events. you collect “Spare Parts” which end up being weapons, blueprints, secrets, and other “coins” just to open new vehicles with your resident auto guru. there are nods to real world scares, Chinese manifest destiny movement, colonialism, war ending the world, and even a little in-joke about Office Space’s TPS reports. The American soldiers of the AN forces all sound like they are auditioning to play Keanu Reeves, throwing around “dude” liberally, and speaking hippie/surfer idiot lines like “i just don’t understand why everybody’s so hostile.”

but with the good, is the absolutely terrible and frustrating. the A.I. is dumb as a brick mold. god save you if you’ve got an NPC on gunner in a vehicle you’re driving or helping you in a mission. they like the pawns, they get capped quick. one of the stipulations is you can’t kill innocents in the game without getting a penalty. it’s difficult to avoid them when they jump in front of your car randomly. in fire fights, i’ve had civilians just hanging around in the middle of crossfire. down they go, along with my bank account. in a mission i played with Dan, a VIP we were supposed to rescue went from being freed from his handcuffs to taking a 20-story dive off a building as soon as he got up to stretch his legs. it was impossible to get him in the helicopter with me and Dan. we repeated the mission more than 20 times before i was able to coerce him with blocking his ability to walk forward. he had no choice but to get in the chopper right behind him. missions come in two flavors: fun and fucking hell. either way, you’ll do a mission as little as once early on in the game and as much as 30 or 40 times in the latter half. even the ones you repeat…if they are fun, you’re cool with it. but it’s like learning Chinese while getting your teeth pulled to play a stupid mission over and over again because of the lackluster A.I.

in addition, side quests and escort missions are abound in “Mercs 2.” i hope you like delivering shit at least 3 times because there are 3 levels to unlock for each faction “challenge.” these CAN be fun depending on the goal. a simple delivery can be brisk, with thousands of ways to complete them.

Dan and I, for instance, had fun C4ing a bridge, only to realize it was the only bridge between our faction’s HQ and the destination where we were delivering human organs. we thought up a grand plan that involved driving to the gapped bridge’s edge, ordering in a helicopter, and winching over both trucks holding the said cargo. unfortunately the sensitive winch would jumble the contents sitting in the open truck beds, spilling them onto the highway or into the river. this resulted in many mission fails until we finally got it right, but it was a genius idea…on paper. hilarity ensued.

but escorting something or participating in a race can come down to cheap obstacles, cheaper enemy A.I. with rockets, and vehicles that you can swear are made from C4 with nitroglycerine in the gas tank, and sparklers in the rocker panels. for the most part, these sub-missions are busy work to unlock more fuel storage, a weapon, or a vehicle. they can be fun, but in playing, they were some of the most frustrating moments in the game for me. traversing the large world is only a smidgen better than sailing in “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.” the speed of helicopters and cars and boats all feel sluggish so i hope you like checking and rechecking your map for destination points, it’s the only variety you’ll get.

some of the best gaming i’ve had while playing “Mercenaries 2” has been playing 2-player co-op with friends, particularly with Dan recently. the game really creates a better 2-player, cover-my-back scenario than “Army of Two.” the best part tends to be devestating a faction and getting all the money and fuel saved to your character, even when you’re playing a friend’s game. with all the moments of destruction and hilarious turns in fire fights and missions, the only thing missing would be multiplayer with a larger team. however, even with an extra player, the game doesn’t scale up. it’s noticeably easier with 2 people but it’s not like double the amount of enemies come out of the woodwork. also, with all these great moments, “Mercs 2” would have jumped a grade in my book to have the Save Film Theater that “Halo 3” has. i want to watch those moments over again and share them with my friends.

all in all, it’s a fun time. not all that it could have been. certainly not fully realized or polished. but it has a lot of great gameplay that keeps your attention until the end. and it’s worth it just to see a bunker flattened with a mushroom cloud. for all its faults, “Mercs 2” is a game worth playing.

Grade (including +’s and -‘s): B