Much like GTA, there's incentive to spend time exploring the environment and doing with it as you see fit, because it's during these times extra money can be earned and secrets unlocked. But, unlike GTA, Mercenaries doesn't quite possess the panache to keep free-roaming play engrossing. We thought there could never be enough destruction but whereas GTA gradually layers on the intensity, Mercenaries just barfs it up in your face. There are near-nuclear weapons at your fingertips from the beginning and very little consequence for using them. Financial penalties are no kind of punishment for going crazy so there's no real incentive to spend that much time on a rampage. Having a fleet of Black Hawks or swarms of heat seekers on your tail would have upped the ante, but there's none of it. This is consequence-free gaming and, as a result, free-roaming can get dull.
The missions themselves more than compensate for the free-roaming aspects though, thank goodness. They are varied enough to encompass tasks that require belly-crawling through undergrowth to plant C4, and then there are those that push the beautiful physics engine to its limits as cars, fuel dumps, and passenger jets all explode into the sky in a wash of flame and smoke. If there's one thing that easily surpasses the standard set by GTA, it's the physics. They're stunning.
Mercenaries, despite not quite hitting all the goals it aims for, is a superb effort nonetheless. The score is reminiscent of the old John Barry Bond themes, and there's a genuine menace in the DMZ thanks to the all saturating mist. The subversive thrill of destroying just about everything you clap eyes on is ingenious within the context of a mission too, yet the game is a bundle of contradictions. Where it excels to brilliance in parts, it also manages to be indescribably daft. Hijack an armoured car by killing the driver and the soldier in the gunner's seat will then instantly forget it ever happened and lend you a hand. We got the sense that everything in the world was placed there for the sole purpose of being destroyed, without enough consideration to the fact that, just maybe, they should be protecting themselves from you.
The three mercenary character types are different on the exterior only, with nominal strength and stamina differences. If you like the way a character's ass wobbles when she walks, you might just as well choose her for all the good it does. All three characters are ridiculously hard to kill, being capable of surviving chopper crashes and exploding vehicles without a scratch. Again, this just reinforces the idea that Mercenaries is all about venting anger and smashing up whatever the hell you like. It succeeds perfectly in that respect.
As an exercise in showing off explosion physics and brainless fun, Mercenaries is a faultless title. An over-the-shoulder rocket launcher and access to a helicopter is all you need to get stuck into the most overly gratuitous, superbly silly game we've seen in ages, and if you can stand to gasp and giggle at a barrage of destruction for longer than quarter of an hour, then you're a great man indeed. However, 'sandbox' games need to strike a balance. Freedom to do what you want is a good thing, but not when it comes at the expense of characterisation, plot, AI, and gameplay. If Pandemic had just reined in the obvious fun it had developing Mercenaries, we gamers might have had more fun playing it. It's sturdy, it's explosive, and in short bursts it's a stupidly enjoyable, C4-charged rolling death machine of a GTA-beater. Beyond that though it never stretches itself to the obvious cult classic it could have so easily become.
A truly amazing effort. More plot and fewer meaningless explosions would have shaken GTA's iron grip considerably.