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Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (PS2)

Rated: 16+.

Story: You're a mercenary who has been double-crossed by Venezuela's new and devious president. Various factions are fighting for control of the country's oil reserves and you must sell your skills to whoever is paying in order to gain the information and resources you need to exact some payback.

These skills are shooting things, blowing things up, stealing things and being able to take three tank shells to the head before dying.

Gameplay: Imagine Grand Theft Auto in the jungle with tanks (well, more tanks than normal) and you're pretty much there.

You get to guide your mercenary round a large area of Venezuela using whatever cars, trucks, jeeps, tanks or helicopters you can lay your hands on. Contacts are dotted about the place, offering missions. Some of these missions are optional, rewarding you with cash and different kinds of supply drop, from health packs, guns and vehicles to air strikes and gunship support. Other missions advance the story.

Jobs mostly involve reaching a target of some kind through a mass of enemies, destroying/rescuing/stealing it and making a quick get away. On a good day, this involves blowing up something really big.

There are also plenty of bonus items hidden around the map, along with thirty rogue military officers to capture.

The one major difference between this and most open-world games is that your actions affect your reputation with the different factions competing for control of Venezuela's oil. Send some capitalists a message from the rebel guerrillas and the freedom fighters will offer you support but the oil company won't be happy; help the American 'peace-keepers' and they'll be grateful but the Chinese 'observers' will be upset. Annoy anyone too much and they won't work with you without a hefty bribe. On the plus side, it's possible to disguise yourself as a member of a particular faction by stealing an appropriate vehicle and keeping a low profile. Then you can travel through their territory without getting into trouble.

Save System: You can choose to save at any time while not on a mission but loading the save transports you back to home base. Since it can take a while to get to places and some missions are half an hour long, there's no point switching the game on if you don't have a decent chunk of time available.

Comments: The opening mission of Mercenaries 2 really doesn't paint the game in a good light. The linear trek through a horde of daft soldiers seems to highlight almost all the game's faults in one go: poor enemy AI, short draw-distance, repetitive dialogue snippets, your character's miraculous inability to be killed by normal gunfire and some occasionally drab graphics.

Then, just at the end of it, there's the option to blow up a huge building with a tank. Things pick up after that.

Generally, the missions provide plenty of opportunity for experimentation and there's lots of fun to be had working out a sneaky way of pulling off a precision strike without upsetting any potential allies. Sometimes flying in low below the radar pays off, other times taking a jet ski to the back entrance is the way and then, of course, if nothing else works, there's always blasting through the front door with a rocket launcher and air support.

Unfortunately, mixed with the fun, there's plenty of frustration thanks to some horrible difficulty spikes and a complete lack of checkpointing in the missions. For instance, one contact requires you to steal three different vehicles and buy some tires. This is easy but time-consuming. Bring them all to her, however, and she requires you to transport a monster truck to a distant destination past lots of angry people with guns. If anything happens to the truck, it means ten minutes of rounding up vehicles again before getting another crack at finding a way through the roadblocks.

There's no reason for this, other than to pad the game out to make it a bit longer. (There are only around fifteen story missions.) As with so many parts of Mercenaries 2, it feels like someone eventually went, 'Oh, this'll do...' It's the same with the almost superfluous story which is merely an excuse to cause explosions and with the artificial intelligence which makes enemy soldiers run out from behind cover. Even the final mission gives the impression of ending halfway through.

Mercenaries 2 just doesn't have the same level of polish as the Grand Theft Auto games. That said, it does have lots of blowing stuff up and an easy to traverse world. The open, uncomplicated towns make a welcome change from the confusing bridges and overpasses of Los Santos and Liberty City. Mercenaries 2 is more accessible than either San Andreas or GTA IV. The simple map and varied vehicles make travelling around more fun. Since each hidden item is instantly useful and there's no need to find dozens of them to gain any benefit, there's also greater incentive to explore.

The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game have more features and better graphics but they also have more competition. There are any number of good games coming out in the next few weeks for those consoles. Choice is more limited on the PS2. As such, Mercenaries 2 is worth a look. It's flawed but has greater substance than Just Cause and is no more frustrating than GTA.

Besides, any game which asks you to steal a bus and go pick up some pirates, deserves to be given a chance...

Conclusion: Wanting an accessible open-world PS2 action game with plenty of explosions?

This'll do.

Graphics: The towns feel a little empty but the graphics are generally competent and atmospheric. The short draw-distance is an issue, though, since it can be hard seeing targets and going up to any height at all in a helicopter makes the entire world disappear. Using binoculars doesn't help - they merely bring the fog closer.

Length: Medium.

Rating: 3/5.

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