When I was a teenager and getting into Star Wars, I didn’t care whether Han shot first or not in the cantina.
You see, I knew better. I’d played Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction. I knew he’d use a bunker buster bomb to turn the cantina to a pile of rubble and dust instead.
Pandemic’s 2005 open-world explode-’em-up let you create capital-C Chaos as Han Solo. This in itself is a mark of a different time. Han was no microtransaction. Just a simple cheat code and you could run around North Korea as the space scoundrel (or a whipless Indiana Jones).
These were simpler times when plucky, beloved publisher LucasArts was approaching its end of days. But Mercenaries proved there was still life in the old dog yet. The game chucked you into conflict-heavy North Korea where warring factions could only agree on one thing: doling out cash for you to blow stuff up.
You play as one of three Mercs and, rest assured, they are generic enough to take their place in the Double-A Team protagonist pantheon. American tough guy Christopher Jacobs, slight English/Chinese former spy Jennifer Mui and metal band reject Mattias Nilsson are not much to write home about. No wonder a Solo skin swap proved so appealing to younger me.
But Mercenaries’ by-the-numbers characters and plot (Country’s leader bad, explosive revenge good), another Double-A essential, don’t matter because you’re a mercenary – you’re not supposed to care anyway. The real genius comes in the game’s mid-Noughties War on Terror-evoking use of the Deck of 52 framework to label the baddies.
Cruise around North Korea and you might stumble upon the Five of Clubs, chilling with his surface-to-air missiles-toting crew, just waiting for you to take him down, dead or alive, and chuck him into a chopper for a sweet, sweet payday.
Developer Pandemic is already in the Double-A Team hall of fame for The Saboteur and this forerunner is just as creative – and effective. In fact, Mercenaries set the template for an alternative taste of open-world play-it-as-you-want sandboxes different to that of the dominant Grand Theft Auto. Another Double-A Team classic Just Cause can tip its hat to Mercs for the innovation of ordering in supplies to be dropped from a chopper, though here it lacks the practical uses later perfected in Metal Gear Solid 5.
But the true fireworks came from the airstrikes. Oh boy, the air strikes! Mercenaries may have had you chasing playing cards as missions, but when the chips were down, it always left you a trump card.
Low on health and ammo, surrounded by enemy forces, thinks looking bleak – it can all change in a flash. Quite literally. For a hefty wedge of dollar, you can mark a target with a laser or a smoke grenade and seconds later, fiery cluster bomb explosions rain down from above, incinerating troops and vehicles in their path. Or for the headlining bunker buster bomb, a flash and a shockwave would see buildings spectacularly reduced to rubble in delicious PS2-melting glory.
But we wouldn’t be here if it was perfect. As you surveyed the damage from a distance with pride, all seems well. But jump into your floaty jeep for a closer look and happen to catch it on an indestructible tree and the illusion shatters. You can’t destroy it all. The Playground of Destruction comes with immersion-breaking limits.
I’ll think of Mercenaries with fondness every time a game drops something off in a helicopter. It opened my eyes to completing missions with daring, spontaneous strategies, pulled off with improvised bravado – just like Han Solo.