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The Best Sandbox Game of All Time (Is From The PS2-era)

Free-roaming sandbox-style games come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s no denying the biggest and best-known developer of the go-anywhere, do-anything chaos simulator is Rockstar. Whether they set you down in the middle of a modern-day city the size of New York or Los Angeles in Grand Theft Auto, a private prep school in Bully, or the 19th century American southwest in Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s flare for storytelling and mischief-making are legendary. But while I love cruising around Vice City looking for trouble and riding down into Mexico on the hunt for notorious outlaws as much as the next guy, Rockstar had nothing to do with the development of my favorite sandbox title. That honor belongs to Pandemic Studios who, with the backing of LucasArts, unleashed Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction on the PS2 and Xbox.

Released in 2005, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction‘s story looks positively prescient given the current political climate of south-east Asia twelve years later. Today in 2017, we have a North Korean dictator engaged in flagrant saber-rattling, long-rage ballistic missile tests, and stockpiling both conventional and nuclear arms in preparation a showdown with much of the rest of the world. Mercenaries takes place at a fictional point in time when that’s already happened. Leading a violent military coup, General Song has usurped control of North Korea from a president who was making overtures to the rest of the world to draw down North Korea’s belligerence and antagonistic rhetoric. The ousted president being Song’s own father means nothing to the power-mad general, who sees dear old dad as embracing corrupt western ideology and treasonously undermining North Korea’s strength. In the aftermath of the coup, North Korea goes quiet…until an Australian ship intercepts a transport on the way to Korea and discovers a cache of nuclear explosives in the ship’s cargo hold. A number of countries assemble and combine forces under the auspices of the fictional Allied Nations and blitz their way into North Korea on the search for General Song and his associates, depicted on a deck of 52 playing cards handed out to everyone on the ground. South Korea, ever wary of war with their northern neighbor, mounts their own offensive, pushing across the border and establishing a foothold (with the unofficial backing of the CIA) to keep North Korea off-balance. Not to be excluded, the People’s Republic of China pushes in from the west, grabbing some turf of their own while meddling with everyone else in the area. With much of the rest of the world already involved, Russia sees the opportunity to profit from this multi-way conflict and sends a cadre of hardened gangsters and ex-KGB officers in from the north to open a black market supplying anything to anybody willing to pay for it, and to sow enough chaos to keep the money flowing. Then of course there are the poor, beleaguered civilians of North Korea caught in the crossfire, not to mention the news teams sent in from Global Satellite Reporting Network embedded with the AN to cover every aspect of the conflict for the viewers back home. If ever the term ‘clusterfuck’ applied to a situation, the North Korea depicted in Mercenaries is it.

With the Allied Nations offering  bounties on North Korean military vehicles, General Song, and 51 of his cabinet members, staff, friends, bodyguards, and associates, there’s an awful lot of money sitting on the table. Top prize: a cool hundred million dollars for the live-capture of Song, and that’s where you come in. As a member of Executive Operations (ExOps), a private military contractor, you’ll be dropped into the DMZ with a car, a machine gun, and some frag grenades. Your job is to hunt down the Deck of 52 by any means necessary and collect your pay (with a 50% reduction in bounty for delivery of corpses, since you can’t grill a dead man for intel). Unencumbered by political stance or military codes of conduct, you can work with any factions to get the job done. Be helpful and you’ll be paid in both cash and intel on the whereabouts of people on Song’s payroll. Play nice with the Russians and you’ll get your very own login ID for their Merchant of Menace black market, letting you order up new wheels, new weapons, and even full-fledged air strikes with the touch of a button. Of course, sowing chaos has its drawbacks: while the AN will (mostly) play by the rules and send you after North Korean targets, the Chinese, Russians, and South Koreans will have you messing around with the other factions just as much as Song’s troops. You may need to rescue a South Korean intelligence asset who’s being held hostage in Chinese territory, bribe a Chinese officer to look the other way while the Russian mafia makes off with a tank, or assassinate a high-ranking Russian gangster who’s making deals that disfavor China. This might not seem like a big deal, but every faction knows you, and if you make a nuisance of yourself they won’t hesitate to turn you down for jobs or even order you shot on sight until you make amends in the form of obscenely large financial payouts. It’s always a balancing act, so be careful who you piss off — you never know who’s about to hand you the keys to a high-ranking face card in the Deck of 52, and it’s expensive to buy yourself back into their good graces. Finally, capping innocent civvies (or worse, reporters for GSRN) not only lowers your rating with all factions, but also gets you a bill from your employer for PR spin service on collateral damage. Just because you have all that firepower at your disposal doesn’t give you an excuse to behave like Song, so watch your trigger finger, especially in the cities.

If this was all Mercenaries brought to the table it would be plenty to cement its status as a great game, but Pandemic was just getting started. First, and most obvious, are the three Mercs you pick from at the start of the game. They’re all the same in terms of driving and shooting, but each has an advantage the others don’t, and this allows a player to match a Merc to his or her particular play style.

Chris Jacobs is American ex-military who cut ties with the US Combat Applications Group when he realized his skills could earn him far more money by playing the field. He speaks fluent Korean thanks to his mother who worked as an interpreter, and is built like a brick shithouse; of the three, he can take the most punishment.

Jennifer Mui is a former MI6 operative who speaks Chinese due to spending her formative years in Hong Kong. With her training in infiltration she’s the quietest character, able to stealth her way through situations where others would be detected immediately.

Mattias Nilsson is an Ex-Ops rookie who joined up after his military service ended (Sweden’s navy takes issue with people who are too anxious to punch others, apparently). An absolute terror on the battlefield, he not only speaks and understands Russian but runs faster than his counterparts, ensuring he can escape from a firefight when discretion turns out to be the better part of valor.

Those language skills aren’t just for show; during the game you will be privy to conversations between members of other factions prior to taking on jobs. Since each character only understands one language, you’ll need to play through as all three Mercs in order to get the full story of what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ with each faction. In addition, while each Merc can complete the primary objectives of all the missions, their skills often determine how difficult it will be to accomplish bonus objectives. Jennifer, for instance, will have an easier time remaining undetected during a sniper op, while Mattias can more easily run down a fleeing target on foot, and Chris has a better chance of surviving a full-on firefight.

Speaking of the missions, the game mostly gives you complete freedom when it comes to carrying them out: you’ll have one or more objectives, but how you deliver on those objectives is entirely up to you. If your task is to blow up a building, you can plant C4, blast it with a tank, call in a missile strike, request an artillery barrage from across the Chinese border, or a dozen other options based on what’s provided for you during the operation, what you’ve unlocked from the Russian black market, and how much cash is left in your wallet. If you need to rescue another character, delivering them to safety is all that matters — helicopter, APC, bus, jeep, cargo van…the method of transport is entirely up to you. If you stumble across a member of the Deck of 52 while exploring the countryside, you can engage them without waiting for the intel on their location. You don’t even need to bring in the entire group of any given suit, just bag enough of them to earn the intel necessary to find the Ace. The Ace contracts come straight from Col. Garrett at AN HQ, and each takes place on its own little map so you’ll never find them out in the wild. The Jack, Queen, and King cards likewise only show up for specific faction missions. The 2 – 10 though? They’re fair game anytime, anywhere.

To avoid cluttering up the map with too many Deck members at once, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction operates on a sort of chapter format. Chapter one has you hunting the Clubs, all of whom are members of Division 39, a state-sponsored organized crime syndicate. These guys are all back-room-dealing businessmen sorts with no combat experience. Once you’ve brought down the Ace of Clubs, chapter 2 sends you after the Diamonds. Diamond cards are ranking members of the North Korean military, so they have access to significant firepower and training. Bag the Ace of Diamonds, and it’s time to start hunting the Hearts, which involves a move to a second world map (turns out Korea’s bigger than it looked originally). The Hearts are all scientists responsible for working on Song’s various weapons programs: if it involves chemical, biological, technological, or nuclear arms, these guys know the score. While they tend towards brains over brawn, Song has these guys under heavy guard in out-of-the-way places, both for their protection and to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t think about going rogue. Harvest the Ace of Hearts, and it’s on to chapter 4 with the Spades, a cadre of elite bodyguards and NK Special Forces, with General Song serving as the Ace. To say these people are well-armed and dangerous is to state the obvious, and even the most money-hungry Merc will consider relying on head-shots over flash-bangs to take them down. Finally, each chapter has different endings. The one you receive is determined by which faction your Merc has the highest reputation with at the time you complete the Ace contract. This doesn’t specifically change anything in gameplay terms, but it’s cool your actions with regards to the other factions have consequences.

But Mercenaries is a sandbox game, which means there’s more to do than just take on the various missions. If ever you find yourself in need of cash, there are plenty of opportunities to earn money and other rewards just by keeping an eye open. First of all, the Allied Nations has contracted a reward with Ex-Ops for any North Korean vehicles and equipment you destroy, so just engaging with Song’s forces in the normal course of the game will earn you walking around money. This reward scales based on the danger involved in destroying it: wrecking a simple Sungri Scout jeep or cargo truck is nowhere near as lucrative as blowing up a tank or helicopter gunship. The bounty only applies to NK vehicles and gun emplacements though: wasting material belonging to Russian, Chinese, or South Korean forces only earns you their ire and a debit to your account for whatever you destroyed as ExOps foots the bill for your misconduct, so watch where you’re shooting those anti-tank missiles.

Beyond taking out North Korean equipment, there are other ways to pad your bankroll. Of primary interest are the scattered remnants and evidence of North Korea’s WMD research programs. Grabbing these small suitcases of intel earns ‘thank you’ money from South Korea via the CIA, and finding enough of them unlocks bonus items from the Merchant of Menace black market, or even a cheat code or two (not that a real Merc would ever feel the need to cheat, Carl…). South Korea also hates the statues and monuments to General Song that sprang up everywhere after the coup; wrecking them makes South Korea happier and you wealthier.

North Korea’s cultural heritage is up for grabs, as government forces and looters alike have liberated a number of priceless artifacts from their previous owners. China’s interested in adding these historical pieces to their own museums, and will pay you both in cash and the occasional addition to the black market for delivering them up. China also ponies up cash for the destruction of the listening posts South Korea’s set up all over the map. Strangely enough, crippling their spy tech doesn’t get you a bad rep with South Korea, but it does increase China’s respect for your work, so if you find something that looks like two speakers on a tripod with a blinking red light, blast away. A few rounds from any gun will do the trick, no need to empty the magazine or resort to air strikes.

Art and intel don’t interest the Russians, but the black market bad boys love anything they can strip, resell, or use for parts. Drive anything to the chop-shop located near their faction HQ, and they’ll pay based on the value of its parts and current condition. Returning Russian-owned vehicles just earns you respect; everything else earns respect and cold, hard cash. Delivering basic vehicles like cars and jeeps (even if they’re in perfect shape) only nets a few hundred dollars; if you’re looking to really line your pocketbook pull up to the garage in a tank, APC, or other piece of military-grade heavy equipment and enjoy your fat stacks.

Finally, it’s not uncommon to run across supply crates. These things are filled to the brim with guns, explosives, medical kits, ammo, and even parts to patch up vehicles and re-stock on-board weaponry. Occasionally you may even find giant pallets of cash laying around. While none of these is interesting to any of the factions in the game, they can mean the difference between life and death when you’re out in the field, under heavy fire, and unable to call the Russians for a supply drop.

But all that takes care of the first part of the game’s title. That subtitle, ‘Playground of Destruction’? It isn’t kidding. Don’t like that NK watchtower where the guy keeps winging RPGs at you? Order up an air strike and knock it down. Song’s troops keep pouring out of that underground bunker? Couple C4 charges and you kiss that tunnel goodbye. Alarm tower announcing to everybody in the DMZ that Merc-a-mania’s running wild all over them? One well-placed tank shell solves that problem. Buildings don’t become targets just because a mission says to destroy them, and if you want to engage in a non-stop orgy of vandalism that would shame even the most violent Visigoth, who’s going to stop you? In Mercenaries, you can wreck literally anything. Except for trees. Trees are immortal and indestructible, because…I don’t know, ‘tree-hugging hippies’?

Just shut up deal with it.

If you can stand to use the controller, the Xbox version of Mercenaries is the way to go, with its slightly sharper graphics. The PS2 version has a minor bug where the shotgun doesn’t make a sound if you fire it, but since the shotgun’s one of the worst weapons in the game, you could play it for years and never even notice. Otherwise, the versions are identical in every way and no matter which version you take home you’re going to have a hell of a great time either bringing order to a country in crisis, or turning all of Korea into a pock-marked wasteland.

Knowing you guys, it’ll be the latter, won’t it?

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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One Response to “The Best Sandbox Game of All Time (Is From The PS2-era)”

  1. Dennis says:

    I earnestly love this, as the game holds a special place in my heart! A really fantastic piece here.

    Only piece of advice is maybe have the article pop a bit more with images and subheadings?

    Otherwise, keep up the great work!

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