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Cry havok and let slip: Hands-on with Mercenaries

Exclusive: First impressions from Pandemic's dog of war

As you know, we've not long returned from Activate, Activision's annual gaming jamboree, which this year took place on the sunlit shores of beautiful Barcelona.

Although we were treated to a gaggle of gaming delights including Rome: Total War, Doom 3 and The Movies, one title which we hadn't seen a great deal of previously was Mercenaries, LucasArts' intriguing new third-person dog of war.

Currently tag-lined as 'playground of destruction', Mercenaries is billed as 'GTA meets World War III' and casts you as a near-futuristic dog of war dispatched to the new battleground of Korea. It's the eve of unification and just as North and South are ready to become one nation again, a rebel general suddenly seizes the opportunity to take control of the North's nuclear arsenal.

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With the threat of nuclear war imminent, the Allied Nations launch a task force to stabilise the ravaged Koreas, but with the Chinese also becoming embroiled, the region rapidly descends into chaos. With conventional forces proving ineffective, your unconventional mercenary methods soon earn you a call up and you're charged with hunting down a rogue's gallery of the general's associates before they succeed in pushing the world over the brink and into nuclear holocaust.

Phew, no pressure then.

Initially, you'll get to choose from one of three characters to perform your dog of war derring-deeds. Each has a slightly different emphasis and skill set, although you can only select one for the entire game, not on a mission-by-mission basis, which seems a bit of a shame.

Chris Jacobs is the Yank, an ex-Delta Force operative whose primary attributes are strength and endurance; Matthias Nilsson is an ex-Swedish Ranger blessed with speed and agility but for our money, the most intriguing is undoubtedly Jennifer Miu, the token Brit and ex-MI6 sniper who offers a more stealthy, covert approach.

Although we only saw Jacobs in action, there's every sign that developer Pandemic is trying to create some real distinction between each of the characters and perhaps using a spread of three, very diverse individuals will provide plenty of replay value.

Anyway, onto our sample mission itself. The word's gone out and for the purposes of the demo we've accepted a contract to level a troublesome North Korean base. Although Mercenaries is billed as an open-ended, free-form gameplay experience - where you can choose which missions and assignments you'll accept - a deal of the mission structure is apparently provided by a deck of cards system, with each card representing one member of the rebel General's notorious regime.

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You may remember a similar system from last year's Iraq War 2, the real-life first-person shooter currently under ongoing development by the US government.

Anyway we quickly launch into the action for an assault on the North Korean base and the early signs are very promising indeed. The game engine certainly looks great, and the inclusion of the Havok physics engine (as used in HL-2) means that you can use all sorts of objects and physics to enhance gameplay. Being a gung-ho kind of warrior, Jacobs is a firm believer in the full frontal assault and we were soon mowing down NK regulars with abandon on the outskirts of the base using quite a diverse arsenal of conventional weaponry.

One interesting factoid about Mercenaries is that your character also has a popularity ranking amongst the various factions populating the playground of destruction. So, your standing with the Chinese army, Russian mafia, North Koreans and Allied Nations will vary according to which missions you carry out.

Indeed if you're a particular flavour of the month with a faction, it will open up new missions and custom equipment for you to employ.

A case in point? The Chinese, being no lovers of the NK, were happy to provide us with various goodies. Even though we were carrying out an Allied mission and we were soon tooling around in courtesy Chinese armoured car, to bring down various heavy duty NK emplacements.

Penetrating deeper into the heart of the North Korean compound, resistance began to grow exponentially and so seeking cover, Jacobs rapidly flicked to the game's rather handy integral PDA. Here you can use cash you've earned from completing previous assignments to purchase goods and services from the various military factions. Scrolling down quite an exhaustive list, eventually yielded up the scary sounding "Merchant of Menace", which revealed itself to be a $100,000 plus air strike courtesy of the USAF.

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A quick cash transfer, a dip into the bag for a laser target designator and bosh, two bunker busters delivered right on the nose to reduce the North Korean base to its component atoms and earn us a nice cash bonus.

All in a day's work for your average dog of war and we have to say that the final explosion of the North Korean base, was probably as spectacular as anything we've ever seen on any console to date.

Okay, so although it is still relatively early in the piece, there already seems quite a lot to admire about Mercenaries. If the three main characters are suitably diverse, it should lead to some nicely varied gameplay and decent replay value and this, twinned with the game's impressive graphics and splendid physics system, plus over 30 vehicles and modern weapons, mean it should appeal to console heads who've got a real appetite for destruction.

The jury is still out on those claims of truly free-form gameplay though, because we've only see one rather selective mission. We'll have to see how it pans out with more mature code before we fully decide, but, given Pandemic's recent pedigree with the admirable Full Spectrum Warrior, we reckon there's every reason to be extremely optimistic.

Mercenaries, with or without its Playground of Destruction tag line, is slated for a PS2 and Xbox release in early Spring 2005.

We'll be sure to bring you more dispatches from the front line as they arrive.

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