This gun's for hire: 'Mercenaries' lets you create mayhem for money
By Sid Lipsey
CNN Headline News
(CNN) -- Pretend you're a nameless worker in a generic office. You've decided that Jack, the office jerk, needs to go. Unencumbered by such inconveniences as morals and a conscience, you plot to break into Jack's computer, sabotage his work and celebrate silently as he gets fired, your co-workers rejoice, and you take over Jack's lucrative job.
But you can't do it alone, and here's where things get sticky. Jack's assistant, Ann, has promised to alert you the next time Jack leaves his computer unattended. In return, you've agreed to escort her to the upcoming office Christmas party. But socializing with Ann will put you at odds with Helen, a co-worker who's hated Ann ever since Ann "borrowed" Helen's now-ex boyfriend, Sean in I.T. Helen works in Human Resources and you'll also need her in your corner for your "Get Jack" scheme. So now you have to do Helen a favor as well: Steal Sean's beloved iPod, which Helen had given him as a gift during happier times, and return it to her (Helen's the vengeful type). But don't get caught, because you're also going to need Sean's computer expertise ...
Okay, so dirty workplace politics don't really come into play in "Mercenaries," an addictive new action game from LucasArts. Still, "Mercenaries" is all about managing tenuous alliances, practicing delicate diplomacy and committing dirty deeds that are anything but dirt cheap -- you know, stuff you probably already know about from work.
In this game, you're a soldier-for-hire in a fictionalized North Korea. A coup has left the nation divided into five factions, including the South Koreans, the Western-led Allies, China and the Russian Mafia. They're all united against the fifth and most dangerous faction: The remnants of the North Korean military, led by the despotic General Song. The other factions are neither willing nor able to move against Song on their own, but each of them will happily provide you with the weapons, intel, vehicles and cash you'll need to eliminate Song and his cronies.
But in return for their help, each faction expects you to perform "favors" -- e.g., fighting off attackers, stealing enemy blueprints, looking for weapons of mass destruction and carrying out the occasional assassination. Although they share a common desire to have someone sing General Song a permanent lullaby, relations between the factions range from cool to downright hostile. Sometimes, one of the favors you do for a faction puts you at odds with another faction (early in the game, for instance, the Chinese ask you to secretly take out a Russian Mafia heavyweight).
A client will sometimes have you act against another client. For these tasks, long-range sniping is the smart way to go.
In short, you need to do enough favors for enough factions to get the help you'll need to get Song. But if you anger a faction enough times -- either by killing its soldiers, harming a civilian, or getting caught helping a rival -- it may withhold aid or, worse, order its troops to shoot you on sight.
With all the choices you have to make, the game play in "Mercenaries" is extremely open-ended. There's really no set storyline; you're free to accept and reject missions at will. All the while, you're roaming in an expansive, vibrant facsimile of a Korean countryside that's brimming with soldiers, mobsters, officers and innocent civilians -- all of whom sport vehicles and/or weapons you're encouraged to steal "Grand Theft Auto"-style. And some of the graphical flourishes -- like the burnt-orange hue of the sunset that peaks through the mountains as you pilot a helicopter -- truly are amazing.
Of course, one does not buy an action game to gaze at sunsets. Blowing stuff up is a crucial component of "Mercenaries," and this game offers a variety of cool ways to do just that. There's the standard assortment of weapons you can buy, borrow or steal. And once you accumulate enough cash, you can even call in air strikes!
The ability to wage mayhem in a less-than-organized fashion within a lively, hyper-realistic landscape makes "Mercenaries" a game that could easily occupy you for months. And if "Mercenaries" sharpens your ability to play opposing factions against each other for your own personal and financial gain -- well, maybe you could consider it a work-related expense.