Ah yes, the early 2000s, a time when every game tried to replicate the success of Grand Theft Auto. Some of these presumed copycats were actually quite good. Some provided high-octane action, like True Crime: Streets of LA. Others, like Mafia, were superior in the story department, but lacklustre as a pure sandbox experience. But one game, released in 2005, stood out among the rest – Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction.
Many games at the time, including those already mentioned, offered vast environments ripe for exploration. However, games like Mercenaries, with a spotlight on spectacle and destruction, were few and far between. Add to this a fairly engaging narrative supported by an epic orchestral score and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’re taking a look at evil North Korean masterminds, shit-talking Swedes and giant explosions in Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction. Booooom!
Big Bada Boom
Starting off, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction offered a selection of three distinct characters. And distinct not only because of their nationalities. For one, we have Chris, a rather typical buff soldier. Jennifer, a female merc of Chinese and British descent, is the complete opposite. And finally, we have Mattias and he’s, well… he’s Mattias. A foul-mouthed and totally insane Swede who just so happens to really love explosions.
Each character was voiced by a prominent actor. Chris was voiced by Phil LaMarr, whom you might know for his role as Vamp in the Metal Gear Solid series. Or, perhaps, you remember him as the pirate Reddas from Final Fantasy XII. Jennifer was voiced by another Jennifer, actress Jennifer Hale notable for her roles as Naomi Hunter in, once again, the Metal Gear Solid series, as well as female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect.
And finally, who could voice a Swede better than another Swede? No, I’m not talking about Dolph Lundgren or PewDiePie. Mattias was actually voiced by none other than Peter Stormare himself, the crazy Russian guy from the Armageddon movie. You know, that movie where Bruce Willis dies. Oh, right… spoilers! But even outside of the main trio, certain characters, like Colonel Samuel Garrett, were voiced by exceptional Hollywood actors, including Carl Weathers AKA Apollo Creed AKA “Dillon, you son of a bitch!”.
It’s more common now for someone like Keanu Reeves to be featured in a video game and tell you that “You’re breathtaking”. But back in 2005, not many games could boast about having such an impressive cast of actors. Not even the Grand Theft Auto games. Admittedly, it all probably came as a result of the publisher’s – Lucas Arts – prominent status within the industry. And it also provided the game with that big blockbuster tone.
Not So Lost in Translation
The plot centres around taking down the ruthless general Song, the son of the fictional leader of North Korea. Song has overturned his father’s rule and is now threatening the rest of the world with nuclear war. It’s a surprisingly good story that follows the tried and tested template of the action movies from previous decades. It won’t blow your mind with intricate plot twists and philosophical dilemmas, but will keep you engaged nonetheless.
Beyond the mere visual appeal, each of the main characters provided unique gameplay boosts. Chris, for instance, had much more health; Jennifer was superior in stealth tactics and Mattias was an expert in blowing things up. Each of them was also proficient in a particular secondary language, making some segments understandable for one character, yet leaving the others completely ignorant to the same conversation.
Chris spoke fluent Korean and could interpret conversations between members of the South Korean faction. Being of Chinese descent, Jennifer could interpret conversations in her native tongue. And the crazy Swede, Mattias? Well, for some reason he understands Russian, so the local mafia could hold no secrets from him. Characters also had different lines and jokes which made the story highly replayable for the dialogue alone.
Regardless of the chosen character, your goal was simple – locate and capture the leader of the North Korean army, General Song, also known as the Ace of Spades. By far the biggest selling point of Mercenaries was its military commanders and generals. Each one of them was assigned with a card, with the most elite being the aces of each suit.
Throughout the story, by undertaking tasks from various political and military factions, you acquired intel on their whereabouts. Afterwards, you could proceed with either capturing or killing them. But there’s an interesting catch. Many of them were very well armed and protected and this was even truer later on. Killing their whole entourage, getting in close, punching them in the face and tying them up was no easy task.
However, live targets often awarded double the money than those deceased. Naturally, you could call an airstrike on a particularly well-guarded target, but lose out on a hefty amount of profit. And profit directly affected your ability to acquire new tools for causing mayhem. Much like the incredibly popular Just Cause franchise, Mercenaries featured an impressive amount of military weapons, vehicles and special tools.
From your typical assault rifles to bulky rocket launchers, you could really experience what it feels like to be a commando. Available for hijack from an unsuspecting pilot or for purchase at the local black market, vehicles consisted of humvees, armoured trucks, helicopters and even huge tanks. And with such a wide range of vehicles and destructible environments, there was a multitude of exciting options for completing any given task.
Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction combined an unmatched destructible sandbox environment with a satisfying progression. With a rather satirical approach to warfare and a galore of additional content – like blueprints, hidden stashes of money and unlockable character skins – it kept you engaged for hours on end.
Sadly Pandemic Studios, the studio responsible for developing the game and its sequel, closed its doors in 2009. Moreover, the sequel wasn’t received as well as the original, so getting a third entry at this point is highly unlikely. But rejoice, because Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is available on the Xbox Store via Backward Compatibility.
With visual enhancements, like 4K support on the Xbox One X, it’s the ultimate option for reliving childhood memories or experiencing this explosive masterpiece for the first time.