Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction was developed by Pandemic and published by LucasArts in January of 2005 for the Playstation 2 and Microsoft Xbox. It is rated T.

Welcome to Grand Theft Auto: North Korea

Take Grand Theft Auto III, replace all the guns with bigger guns, replace the vehicles with military vehicles, and throw the whole thing in North Korea after a fictional military coup, and you've just about got Mercenaries.

As a mercenary, you are in North Korea to track down the 52 most wanted members of the revolutionary government, each of whom is represented by a playing card. From the Two of Clubs, a mere thug worth a pittance, to the Ace of Spades, leader of the North Korean forces General Song and worth one hundred million dollars, you've gotta catch 'em all. Of course, you're not the only person fighting in the area.

Rather than various gangs, as in the GTA games, there are four military forces vying for control of North Korea. The UN-controlled Allies, China, South Korea, and the Russian Mafia all have territory in the country. Each of them has a series of contracts they'd like you to complete (usually to the detriment of one of the other three), in exchange for cold hard cash and information on the locations of the Deck of 52.

The game has a wonderful throwback to GTA2. That game called it the "respectometer": a series of meters, one for each faction, which measure how much they like you. Each faction has another one they don't like, and killing members of that faction will make the one that dislikes them like you more. However, killing the Allies is a big, bad no-no (killing Allied troops is a $25,000 penalty; "bad press" they say), so you'll usually want to avoid getting in their bad graces. However, all four factions hate the North Koreans, and they are always hostile with you.

One curious feature that you end up using a lot is disguising yourself as a certain faction by driving around in one of their vehicles. If you get in someone's vehicle when no one is looking, or drive around for a while where no one can see, people will begin to assume you belong to that faction. This is either useful if you want to avoid conflict with someone or (for some reason) if you want to cause someone to attack you. As soon as you perform a hostile action or get out of the vehicle, however, the disguise is dispelled.

There's actually a sixth faction beyond those others: civilians. None of the other factions will fire on civilians, so disguising yourself as a civilian is generally the best way to get around without hassle. On the other hand, none of the civilian vehicles are armed (duh). Killing civilians, like killing Allied troops, gives you a not insignifigant penalty.

The Russian Mafia is an interesting faction. They aren't as big and powerful as the others, and they don't have the same range of vehicle types (no tanks, in other words). However, there is one very good reason to stay in their good graces: They are the arms dealers. You can buy things from them, and they will helpfully airlift it to wherever you are. You can buy simple things like guns, health, and ammo, or big things like tanks. If you end up in their disfavor for whatever reason, they will demand a hefty "donation" before they will sell to you again.

The range of weapons available to your mercenary is on the large end of the standard set of videogame weaponry. The smallest weapon you can get your hands on (apart from none at all) is a silenced submachine gun. Also available are two different assault rifles, a shotgun, an RPG, an anti-air heat-seeking missile, and a sniper rifle. Beyond all of these are a variety of "support" weaponry, which are all variations on the ol' calling in for an airstrike. These become unlocked as you play the game, and cost money each time you use them.

Since this is a battlefield, the range of missions you get sent on is impressively large. From simple missions where you just have to kill one guy; to vast campaigns where you have to take out all of the enemy's artillery by Any Means Necessary; to simply escorting a war reporter from site to site around the battlefield; to killing some South Korean troops that are busily fighting some North Korean troops at the behest of the Russians with the aid of a corrupt Chinese artillery commander.

Perhaps the single most fun part of the game is flying around in a helicopter and blowing shit up. The controls on the 'copters are very forgiving, in that it is impossible to flip the machine all the way over as you can do in (say) the GTA games. Consequently, hovering around and actually hitting targets while moving isn't merely possible but is actually fun as hell. The addition of heat-seeking missiles is just a bonus. Naturally, the disguise feature works on the helicopters, too, and nothing is more satisfying than sneaking up on an enemy anti-aircraft vehicle and blowing them out of existance before they know you're you. (And then proceeding to demolish whatever that AA gun was guarding is only icing on the cake.)

In short, the subtitle of the game is apt: this is a playground for blowing shit up. The controls are solid, the graphics know how to explode, and the missions are interesting. The game might be a tad short, but that seems to be par for the course these days. This game is easily worth the price of entry.

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