On August 31 (September 5 in the UK and Europe), Mercenaries officially becomes a franchise with the release of the second game in the series, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames. The early 2005 release of the original game, Playground of Destruction, feels like ancient history, and Mercs 2's path to shelves has been a long and winding one, with this year being the third year that the game showed up at E3. I recently got a chance to sit down with a practically final version of the game and play a bit of online co-op with Pandemic's Marky Domowicz, and now that I've seen both the co-op and the single-player, it definitely seems like you're going to want to play the final game with a friend.
Mercs 2 feels like it was built to play with a partner right from the get-go. As you're starting a game, you'll be able to choose if you want to make your session totally public, limited to your friends, or locked down to invite-only. This means that players can jump into your game at any time, depending on how you set it up. They'll also be able to jump out without disrupting your game or forcing you to quit back to some single-player version of the game. After seeing it in action, it definitely seems smooth--certainly smoother than most of the other games that have attempted to offer this style of easy-to-access co-op, anyway.
So what will you be doing when playing with a partner? Blowing up twice as much stuff, naturally. I played through a couple of missions that gave me and my Pandemic-based partner plenty of opportunities to destroy things, as well as opportunities to acquire more gear and munitions. The first mission had us sneaking onto an island by boat and calling in our chopper pilot to airlift some missiles out so we could use them to blow things up later. This mission mostly had us worrying about ground troops. The gun mechanics felt a little like Call of Duty 4 in that the left trigger lets you aim and snap to your target, making even long-distance shots fairly routine.
A second mission had us hot on the trail of some plane parts that needed to be destroyed in order to prevent whatever secrets they held from falling into enemy hands. This mission really showcased the personal touches of style that you'll be able to bring to the game. While it was very tempting for me to want to get in close and use grenades, or steal a tank and roll up on each plane piece with guns blazing, it's just as viable (and probably way easier) to sit back at a distance and call in airstrikes. Like the previous game, you'll be able to call in different types of support. If you want a vehicle, and you have the resources required to get one, you can call one in at any time. Airstrikes work the same way, but with a bit more instant gratification as you sit back and watch everything in front of you explode. There are even different types of airstrikes, letting you call in everything from your basic bombs to nuclear bunker busters. You... might not want to stand too close to the area of impact when calling in nukes. I learned that one the hard way.
The other reason to play co-op is that it can be handy to call in a friend when you need some help with a specific mission. While the game will scale in difficulty when you add a second player, the developers intend for the co-op to be a bit easier and more focused on you and a friend tearing up the world. Players that join a game won't advance their own single-player progress while in someone else's session, but resources earned while playing co-op will carry over into your single-player, making it handy if you want to stockpile a bunch of extra weapons and items.
If you've been following Mercs 2 over the past few years, you've probably seen some footage of the game that maybe doesn't look so hot in the frame rate department. There was a reason why people started derisively calling it "World in Frames." Between seeing the co-op and seeing the single-player running at E3, it seems like Pandemic has optimized things quite a bit. The game seems like it will always run at a playable frame rate and at a pretty decent speed. Considering the game lets you see quite a lot of the environment when you're doing things like flying a helicopter, it seemed pretty impressive, overall.
But we'll have to see the whole game before passing any sort of judgment on it. Luckily for us, that day is soon approaching, as Mercs 2 has already gone gold on PS3 and the 360 version isn't far behind. The game is also scheduled to ship on the PC and PlayStation 2 at the end of this month. It'll be especially interesting to see how the PC version can hold up on higher-end machines, because as good as those explosions look on consoles, they'd probably look even hotter at 1680x1050.