(Watching an episode of Jordan Underneath's web series GameUnderGame, where Jordan takes two games (usually of similar genres, console platforms, or quality) and thoroughly examines them to determine which one is fundamentally better, inspired me to come up with my own comparison piece, so here it is.)
If I was to name the two genres in particular that explicitly defined this era of gaming, they'd be the shooter (duh) and the wide-open sandbox, and it's the latter that we'll be focusing on today. Ever since the Grand Theft Auto series made its mark with the third installment, companies have tirelessly attempted to bring the sandbox genre into a staggering amount of new scenarios, from war zones to city scapes and even the darkest reaches of outer space. Out of all of these, however, two games stick out in my mind: Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction and Just Cause 2.
Mercenaries was released in January of 2005, right around the turn of the seventh console generation. Just Cause 2 was released substantially later in 2010.
"But pray tell, MananaFoab, why on this bloody Earth are you making comparisons between games released a whole generation apart from each other? Wouldn't the logical conclusion be that Just Cause 2 blows the pants off of Mercenaries 1?"
That might be the case, but I don't let release dates or the advancement of console hardware sway my opinion. After all, there are plenty of people who would say that Smash Bros. Melee is better than Brawl, or Ocarina of Time is better than most other Zelda installments, so why wouldn't that be the case here?
"But why are you comparing the original Mercenaries to the sequel to Just Cause? Shouldn't you be comparing both prequels, or both sequels? Why is that?"
Because Mercenaries 2, while not bad per se, was bug-ridden and unpolished to Hell, and I never laid my hands on the first Just Cause, although critics seemed to lash that one for being repetitive. I'm focusing on what I believe are the better games in each respective franchise.
To summarize each game...
Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction takes place mostly in a fictitious, war-torn North Korea. Tensions between China, North Korea, South Korea, the United States, and the Russian Mafia swell up when the leader of North Korea's military forces, Choi Song, disagrees with his father Choi Kim's decision to attempt to reestablish peace with South Korea. Thinking North Korea's power will plummet, Song decides to order his army to rebel against Kim's rule by assassinating several large North and South Korean political figures across the nation, including Choi Kim himself. You are sent in as one of the three hired hands tasked with eliminating Song's closest comrades-in-arms, dubbed the Deck of 52, and resolving conflicts between the factions before nuclear war erupts. Not only does Mercenaries come out swinging with a sturdy narrative, but it most definitely has hours upon hours of exciting gameplay to back it up. The game gives you complete freedom to explore the massive overworld at your leisure; you can drive the game's many unique vehicles, engage in skirmishes with North Korean military forces, invade enemy strongholds, capture or kill any of the HVTs in the Deck of 52 at your own pace (except for the higher suites like the Jacks and Kings, which must be unlocked through completing missions) and search for secret munitions crates and weapons along the way. Mercenaries 1 certainly did take its subtitle and run with it, and with a vast multitude of collectibles, side missions and endings to uncover, the replay value for Mercenaries 1 was absolutely astounding, especially for its time. It received mainly positive reviews from most gaming-related websites and magazines and continues to thrive today as one of the PS2's most underrated gems.
Just Cause 2 seems to take itself much less seriously than Mercenaries, although many of the game's plot threads are eerily similar. You fill in the role of Rico Rodriguez, a longtime operative of the Agency, who is sent to the also-fictitious island of Panau to remove its ruthless dictator, Pandak "Baby" Panay, from power after he shuts off all of Panau's ties to the United States. In order to acquire more intel about Panay's whereabouts, Rico goes undercover and allies himself with one of three of the game's main factions, the Roaches, the Reapers, or the Ular Boys. The plot twists and turns all over the place, and it's clear that it wasn't focused on as much as the gameplay, because the actual feats you can pull off in Just Cause 2 are an absolute blast. Using his wrist-mounted grappling hook and parachute, Rico can pull enemies from a distance, scale large buildings in record time, tether objects together to make deadly traps, hijack vehicles and even travel at a fast pace without the limitations of using a vehicle. The possibilities with the grappling hook are damn near endless, but that's not this game's only defining feature. There is allegedly over 1,000 square kilometers of island to explore, making Just Cause 2's overworld one of the largest sandboxes in any game to date, and the extraneous amount of buildings and structures to topple, resources to gather and side quests to complete give Just Cause 2 an immense amount of replay value, to the point where absolute 100% completion can take weeks if not months to acquire. There's always, ALWAYS something to do in Just Cause 2. Reviews for Just Cause 2 were much more positive than its predecessor, and Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, most famous for his intensely-critical web series Zero Punctuation, gave it the honor of being his Game of the Year for 2010. Considering his usual vocabulary and low tolerance towards faulty game mechanics in recent history, that's a pretty damn dubious honor.
Critical reception and generalizations aside, both of these games are rather parallel in terms of premise and content, but which one of these goes above and beyond the call of duty and truly outshines its competition? Let's find out by examining each of the games' individual strengths and weaknesses.
I plan on judging both games in a set of respective categories: Content, Story, Art Direction, Gameplay, and Best Overall. Normally I would include Graphics as a category, but seeing as how Just Cause 2 is a generation apart from Mercenaries 1 it would seem rather unfair to compare the two games in that department. So then, without further ado...
Mercenaries 1 seems to pride its storyline more than that of Just Cause 2's, and for good reason. Just Cause 2's plot is fairly substandard and even immeasurably wacky at points, such as the part where part of Panay's special forces turns out to be a team of highly-trained ninjas with guns.You can't make that shit up without being drunk if you tried. So yeah, by this standard, Just Cause 2 hardly takes itself seriously, but that might not be a very bad thing. Some critics have likened Just Cause 2's campaign to an emulation of an over-the-top B-movie, which completely fits the mood of the game. Mercenaries's approach, however, while not quite as dramatic as a Christopher Nolan film, seem to be more grounded to terms with reality and encourages the player to see the rest of the events unfold alongside the story. Not that you would be, but if you're playing the game's to get involved with the lore and the characters, I'd say Mercenaries has a slight edge over the latter.
Winner - Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
Rather than bringing up the subject of graphics, which, as I've previously explained, would invariably fall upon the title that is released on the console with better hardware, I've decided to look into the art direction that both games were taken in. I'm not particularly a stickler for polygons or post-processing effects, so I'm mainly looking towards the title that pleases my visual senses the most.
Unfortunately, I'm going to have to hypocritically disregard what I said above and say that Just Cause 2 has the upper hand in this situation. While I am definitely not a fan of some of the character designs and animations in Just Cause 2, which are hilariously one-upped by Mercs, it has a much, much more lush overworld. Panau features practically any type of climate you can think of, from swamps to snowy mountains and from deserts to oases, and each spec of Panau is littered with gorgeous color and detail. Compared with its opponent, it makes Mercenaries look like a gigantic dust bowl. While the graphics for its time are rather polished, most of the overworld is draped in gray-brown shades and filters, which makes even the game's unique landmarks seem lifeless and dull. Point goes to Just Cause 2.
Winner - Just Cause 2
Mercenaries and Just Cause 2 are similar in terms of general mechanics but widely different in other fields. Mercenaries is pretty bog standard when it comes to its control scheme; you can run around, shoot, crouch, throw grenades and interact with certain level objects. Just Cause 2's controls are a little more involved with the use of Rico's grappling hook. You can climb obstacles, tether objects to each other, and do practically everything that I already covered earlier as well as running and gunning.
However, while Just Cause 2's difficulty is designed around crazy acrobatic maneuvers and using the environment to your advantage, Mercenaries's challenge stems from planning your battles and deciding whether stealth or combat tactics are appropriate. You can disguise yourself as a member of specific factions by entering a faction vehicle unnoticed, which can allow you to slip by hostile factions or North Korean squadrons undetected, or you can simply bomb the everlasting hell out of everything with a well-coordinated airstrike. There are also certain missions in Mercenaries that encourage stealth to subdue key targets instead of killing them for a cash bonus, and cooperation with allied factions to lead assaults on hostile territories.
When it comes to Just Cause 2, however, the only way you're going to get anywhere is to cause complete anarchy and leave a large crater of destruction in your wake. Stealth is impractical because of the lack of a sneaking mechanic and the omnipresence of the AI, the allied factions are practically useless in combat and mainly serve as walking targets for the enemy to shoot at, and the game is just designed around tanking damage and utilizing the grappling hook to zip around and mess with your opponents, although this doesn't completely erase any element of strategy. During battle in Just Cause 2, you're typically only allowed one or two chances to heal with one-time-use first aid cabinets, and your health only regenerates to the minimum health state before your screen starts flashing red and you begin to die, so you have to usually scout out the area for cover and other means to eliminate opposing forces, such as tethering soldiers to a propane tank and setting it off with a gunshot, dragging them into the air helplessly to their doom, or smacking two cronies together by attaching them to the same cable. Utilizing these environmental takedowns and hazards to your advantage is what makes Just Cause 2 so damn fun, and thanks to Rico's enhanced mobility and the wide spectrum of weapons to wield and upgrade each combat scenario feels unique as you can barely ever run yourself into a dead end even when surrounded on the harder difficulties by two choppers and a dozen infantrymen.
So which one wins this battle, Mercenaries's varied skirmishes or Just Cause 2's ridiculous gunfights? Well, in all honesty, as much as I loved the tactical battles involving allies in Mercs 1, I loved pulling off gratuitous, high-flying stunts in Just Cause 2 even more, especially since getting around isn't as much of a chore, so it deserves this category as well.
Winner - Just Cause 2
Oh hell, I'm going to get punched in the stomach for this.
You should all know of the substantially large hub that Just Cause 2 takes place in by now, with over 100 unique locations scattered around Panau, each with their own set of weapon/vehicle parts to obtain and Panay propaganda to obliterate. If you've played the game, you should also know about the crazy amount of side missions to partake in and the colossal heap of collectibles scattered throughout the game. There is so much content in Just Cause 2 that I can hardly believe it...
...yet most of it just feels so damn stale. There's no substance or reward for causing mayhem or collecting these boxes; most of the time the game just gives you cash and unlocks more items and missions to further the game's story. Blow up an entire military base by yourself with nothing but a pistol and some grenades? Congratulations! Here's some money. Trekked across the globe and located a truckload of a faction's collectibles? Congratulations! Here's some more missions. Completed those missions? Congratulations! Here's more money and missio - seriously, do you see where I'm going with this? You can pad out a game with an entire warehouse full of content, but if it's the same crap over and over again how do you expect people to be surprised, or even sustained? A fine example of this are the stronghold takeover missions; each and every single one of these missions literally follows the exact same pattern. You guide a technician through a reinforced fortress, unlock a gate with a quick-time minigame, take out a couple of mounted guns and snipers, and finally protect him from reinforcements as he hacks into the base's mainframe. The rewards for completing this mission are the same each time, the character models are the same each time, and the only real differences between the missions are the places you shoot up. It certainly doesn't help Just Cause 2's, er, cause that a lot of the environments look similar, have similar names and are pretty devoid of interest for the most part, and the faction system can barely be considered one, as deciding to pour all of your time and effort into helping one faction won't detract your moral standings with another.
I'm not preaching to Mercenaries's choir here, but the way I remembered it, there was more depth to the rewards you obtained from capturing bounties and doing work for specific factions. Applying for certain missions can and often will affect your standing with another, so advancing the plot in the way that you see fit takes actual thought as you have to think about which faction could be considered the bigger threat or asset. Collectibles this time around include cash bonuses and unlockable supply drops and weapons, including airstrikes and vehicles, which are airlifted by a chopper that you have to protect. In addition, choosing to advance your standing with certain factions nets you certain unlocks related to that faction, like machine gun-mounted pickup trucks for allying with the Russian Mafia. There are multiple endings, secret codes, an ever expansive and unique arsenal, and even three playable characters to choose from at the beginning of the game. Every choice you make in Mercenaries feels like it has a more lasting impact than the choices you make in Just Cause 2. As ugly as it sounds, Mercenaries is just more varied, and therefore wins my vote in the Content category.
Oh, and you can demolish every single supported structure in the game, minus the local fauna. Not really a counterpoint or anything, I just thought I'd mention that little tidbit.
Winner - Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
Ooh, we're tied up 2-2 in the categories. This cannot end well. Time to find out which one of these suckers truly beats the other to the punch.
So we've established so far that Mercenaries and Just Cause 2, as similar as they are, seem to revel in their own separate accomplishments over the other. Mercenaries has a dramatic and controlled narrative that somewhat ties in with real-world events and houses a plethora of content behind its comparatively small frame, yet Just Cause 2 brings exciting gun play and combat to a whole new level with its innovative grappling hook techniques and prides itself on a massive landscape and a superior catharsis factor.
It's such a close call. My brain is frying itself trying to come up with a conclusion here. Sometimes I just wish one of the games had a(n OFFICIAL) multiplayer co-op mode or some other grand feature so it would be easier for me to choose. If I was to play the games in short spurts, I'd go with Just Cause 2, and long-term I'd go with Mercenaries 1, but we're not talking specifics here, so I'll just go ahead and say...
...that while Just Cause 2 will always have a special place in my heart, Mercenaries is just such an engaging game. I can't rationally measure how much fun I can have playing Just Cause 2 after booting it up, but the carnage often begins to roll over itself after about 20 minutes of playtime because of the repeated objectives, the lack of tactical gameplay styles, the zig-zagging difficulty and the atrocious voice acting, among other minor flaws that always seem to tarnish the experience for me. Mercenaries may not lack all of those problems, and it certainly has its fair share of errors, but I can definitely see that LucasArts (R.I.P.) did put plenty of compassion into the creation of the faction system, the story arc and the overall sense of freedom due to the enhanced inventory systems, added goals and down-to-earth tone.
You can have the largest canvas in the world to paint on, but if you can only fit so many ideas on it then it's almost pointless compared to using a more reasonably-sized easel. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction wins the Superiority Showdown.
Winner - Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
Check back soon if you want to see more of this, more Retraux-Spectives, and periodically-updated lists! This is MisterBananaFoam signing off!