Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, one game which may just have undeservedly snuck under your radar over the past six months. First spotted at Activate last year, Mercenaries intrigued us more than a little way back then, but didn't really show enough of its true colours to capture our undivided attention.
That all changed just a few short weeks ago when almost final preview code rumbled through the C&VG letterbox. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction was an absolute revelation, even seducing us away from the traditional C&VG lunch time game of Pro Evo 4 to explore its many explosive delights.
The first real challenger to San Andreas' open ended combination of sandbox and mission-based domination? Could be. And so it was with great anticipation that we caught up with LucasArts' Chris Susen, who was able to give us the following full mission briefing on the game.
Mercenaries is obviously a completely new series. Where did the inspiration for the game originally come from?
Chris Susen: Well we wanted to do a game where the character could play against a lot of different sides. We were kicking around some ideas with Pandemic and we came down to ...a mercenary.
A mercenary plays all sides against each other and his only allegiance is to himself or to the bottom line, money essentially. We thought that opens up so many different options, you can do so much with that. Not only that but it helps you establish a new brand, you can take mercenaries and bring them anywhere and they can create havoc anywhere in the world. That's really why we chose them.
It fits the open-ended nature of the game we wanted to make and the open-ended nature of the characters themselves. Each character is unique, the American is a black ops guy, the Swede, well, we don't tell you a whole lot about his past, and then Jennifer Mui's parents were in the Secret Service and she's ex-Mi6. So we could build stories around these people, obviously they're very highly trained - who else could hijack a helicopter in mid-flight? So we thought with these great characters and a completely open universe, it's a formula for success.
The open ended nature of the game and the free-form game world is obviously going to draw comparisons with the GTA series. How do you feel about that?
Chris Susen: I think it's a good thing. I think GTA has introduced a sandbox style of gameplay which is very unique to the videogame world. What they've done effectively is allow people to drive around and have fun when they're not on mission. My problem with GTA is that when you're on mission, everything is very linear, you can only do things one way.
What we've introduced in Mercenaries is not only can you take missions in any order you want and go about playing through the game in any way you want, but when you're actually in a mission, you can complete that any way you want. You can drop rockets down on someone, drive a jeep through them, you can do it a hundred different ways. I think the open-endedness not only in the mission, but in the world, that's what truly makes Mercenaries unique.
What's been the biggest challenges you've had to meet in designing such an open ended game world?
Chris Susen: Allowing people to go about objectives any way they want. You have to plan that the player is going to go about it in the most crazy, asinine ways. We had an enormous test team who were constantly breaking the game. They were going about things in off-the-wall ways, dropping jeeps on people's heads, blowing people out to sea so you couldn't capture the bodies. In approaching a game as open ended as this, you have to anticipate you'll have those problems. I think we rose to the challenge though, we actively encourage people to meet the challenge in any way they want.
What were your ambitions for the branching missions and the way the game's been structured?
Chris Susen: Well we wanted people to play the game anyway they want, but introducing the deck of 52 criminals allowed us to add structure in how you would go about eventually capturing General Song [the game's chief villain]. You to go through the clubs, the diamonds, the hearts and then the spades, getting to the ace of spades, General Song. You're allowed to play through as many missions as you want to get to the ace [of each suit] and that's essentially the end of a chapter. We figured it was a really good game mechanic, not only that but it's very seamless, players can interact with it and not know they've just completed a level, because we don't break the immersion, we don't take you out of that environment.
After you've completed the whole pack of cards, you open up a free form mode. Could you tell us a little more about that?
Chris Susen: When you complete the game you unlock what we call the Playground of Destruction mode, which is also the game's tag line. What that allows you to do is that it unlocks all weapons, air strikes, vehicles, everything that's in the game becomes available. You can then go back and play through everything with the most powerful weapons from the outset - you can literally blow the shit out of anything you want.
How does your interplay with the various factions, the UN, Chinese, South Koreans and even the Russian Mafia work?
Chris Susen: When you enter the game, you soon realise it's not just the North Koreans who are there but the South Koreans are helping out, the Chinese are pitching a hand, the Russian Mafia are there and they're selling anything that's not nailed to the ground. You as a merc get money and intelligence on different enemies by aligning yourself with these factions.
Now if you get too close to the South Koreans, the Chinese won't give you any missions, and if you get too close to the Russian Mafia no-one will give you any missions. You've got to play off one against the other, keep yourself in good standing with everyone and they'll all offer you different missions and intelligence.
How different is each character really? Are the differences significant enough as to encourage different play styles?
Chris Susen: Sure. Jennifer the MI6 agent, she's very stealthy, she has the ability to sneak up on people and they're not going to see her coming. I played as her the first time I played through the game, she's fantastic. I'm a very stealthy type of player anyway, I'll sit back and pick people off with a sniper rifle and call in air strikes from really far away.
If you're like my brother, who's playing through as the American character Chris Jacobs, he's very in-your-face, he has a ton of hit points, so he can walk into the middle of a fire fight and just gun people down. He can take a lot of hits without getting hurt. The Swede is by far the fastest character, and he's more of a balance between the other two. Each character also has their own reason for being a mercenary and so their stories are very different, and why they took this job on is very different per character.
The different characters backstories are filled in through their interaction with Fiona who is your ExOps controller. She's the one you hear through your PDA, it gets revealed through your conversations with her and there's a lot of banter back and forth, also through the cut scenes and things like that.
One of the things we were most intrigued by is seeing that Han Solo and Indiana Jones will be playable characters in the game. Why did you decide on them and how do they get involved?
Chris Susen: Well when you think mercenary, when you think of that attitude, two people come to mind: Han Solo, I mean he's a smuggler, he did shoot Greedo first, even if it's not that way in the movie. He will betray everyone for the bottom line; okay, so he becomes a smuggler with a heart of gold in the movie, but originally when you think mercenary, you think Han Solo.
Also you think Indiana Jones, he's out there finding these precious artefacts and ultimately it's for the cause of good, but... so when we thought mercenary, we thought of these two characters. Not only that of course, but those are two characters that only LucasArts could bring in, so it just seemed a natural fit for us.
We'll be revealing more information on how to unlock them as time goes on [smiles], but simply stated: you want to find everything you can in the game.
Presumably they're radically different to the three existing characters?
Chris Susen: They are and they're a lot of fun.
You've made a particular point of highlighting the game's AI as a key feature, could you expand a little on that?
Chris Susen: Well we wanted your enemy to feel like soldiers, so they don't really think independently, they think as if a general's controlling them. So they move in groups, they're going to try and engage you in different ways. We spent a lot of time on their reactions, so that if you throw a grenade they're not going to just stand there and wait for it to go off but they'll run for cover, and they'll try and lure you in when you engage in hand to hand combat. We spent a lot of time trying to make the AI think and act like a human being but we also understand the player is killing literally hundreds and hundreds and thousands of troops so if you make them too good, then the game's not as fun. We want it to be balanced for fun, so made them intelligent but we didn't make them super smart.
In terms of Easter eggs and hidden stuff, what sort of things can people discover and with such a huge game world how will players track these goodies down?
Chris Susen: A lot of it is going to be through exploration, you're going to see different things on the ground, you walk over them, oh you found an artefact. Uh-huh, who else looks for artefacts in this universe? Indiana Jones, so obviously you find enough artefacts and you unlock... those are different ways, it's very logical as well as there's a lot of other secret stuff out there. You find X number of blueprints, you unlock new skins for the characters. The Swede for example, his alternative outfit is hysterical, it's a brown t-shirt with a bull's eye on it and he's got a blond mohawk with a brown streak on the top.
Although it's not in this version, multiplayer Mercenaries would be a dream come true. Is that something you'd like to do in future versions?
Chris Susen: Absolutely, multiplayer would be the first thing we'd explore in possible sequels. We were really sad when we had to cut it from the original design, but we thought we needed to concentrate - especially it being a new IP - on the single player experience. By putting in multiplayer we'd have had to cut a key feature from the single player game, physics or maybe helicopters or something like that and we weren't willing to do that. We wanted the single player game to be really phenomenal - which it is - so in future iterations, multiplayer is one of the first things we'd add.
Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is released on PS2 and Xbox on February 18. We'll be bringing you the full and frank review extremely soon.