Looking back on the PS3’s Mercenaries 2, Zak Hughes discusses the highs and lows of replaying our favourite games

Written by Zak Hughes
Zak Hughes is a Redbrick contributor cursed to refer to himself in the third person until the sun swallows the earth. His most impressive achievement is getting through that tutorial bit at the start of Driver on the first try.
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Whilst it’s true that there’s no time like the present, many are unhappy with this constraint and choose instead to live in one of the other tenses. Some prefer to disregard their current situations and henceforth focus their attentions squarely towards the future, where new and exciting opportunities lie unforeseen, often unbound by the realities of life. Others hole up in a place more familiar to them, and even more subjective: the past. This is where I reside, taking great pleasure in reminiscing through my favourite rose-tinted spectacles about times gone by, where everything was just a little better than how it is now or will ever be again.

2008 was a year I remember (or likely misremember) fondly for a platitude of personal and menial reasons that I won’t get into; but one of the reasons that I will share was the release of Mercenaries 2: World in Flames on the PS3. Mercenaries 2 is a game unlike anything we will see again: partly because its developing studio—Pandemic—was shut down by disapproving and frequently abusive-parent company EA in 2009, and partly because it was actually quite mediocre and should receive little in the way of recognition from the people of today, deserving only to be locked away in the impenetrable nostalgia-vaults possessed by those of us who choose to give it the time of day.

Mercenaries 2 1A sequel to 2005’s aptly-named PS2 title Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, Mercenaries 2 was seemingly a last hurrah for the genre I like to call the Litterbox; that is, a sandbox game designed solely for the purpose of pissing around in, often with stories that serve only as a thinly-veiled excuse to shoot at more unique enemies or make bigger things go boom (a genre in which I’d include games from the Saints Row and Just Cause series, alongside Mercenaries 1&2). Litterbox-type games were unashamedly little more than fun for the sake of fun, and they were often ludicrously so, or at least they felt that way.

However, the age of seriously silly games seemed to be departing, a trend made notable by the undeniable shift in tone between the jetpacks and gimp suits of GTA: San Andreas to the much more grey and serious, but in my opinion equally-as-excellent, GTA IV. Saints Row was still in GTA’s shadow and had maintained its dumb but amusing style with Saints Row 2, while GTA opted for a darker tone and a dryer sense of humour. 

It was a game that didn't make you think about anything besides what you wanted to see erupt into fire and crumble into rubble next, yet it still famously managed to piss off the Venezuelan government

It wasn’t until the release of Just Cause 2 in early 2010, and Saints Row 3 in late 2011 that we saw the (limited) return of bigger-budget Litterbox titles which added some relative polish to the genre.

In contrast to the polish of these games, 2008’s Mercenaries 2 was a colourfully ugly third-person ‘action-adventure’ game (if your idea of adventure is an over-the-top yet still somehow generic story of revenge against a country’s corrupt president, as many of these games seem to have for some reason) littered with problems that would be considered deal-breakers for most modern titles—or most titles of 2008, for that matter. Many of these issues, however, were charming in hindsight as they didn’t break the game in any major way and lent themselves well to the slapstick action.

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The ridiculous way enemy gunfire crawled slowly towards their targets would look out of place in most games, but then so would the ability to call in a nuclear strike without forethought or remorse. In a game where pressing the nuclear button (R1 in this case, which as buttons go, is on the larger side if certain world leaders are reading) with such nonchalance is a genuine strategy, simply sprinting up to and elbowing most enemies whilst avoiding incoming fire by lazily weaving left and right makes sense too (and often becamea more effective way to achieve victory rather than the use of conventional weaponry or cover). It was a game that didn’t make you think about anything besides what you wanted to see erupt into fire and crumble into rubble next, yet it still famously managed to piss off the Venezuelan government.

While the game was full of so much complete ridiculousness, it wasn’t without genuine fault, of course: as framerates would drop to a stutter if you deploy a large bomb on more than a handful of the game’s identikit buildings at once. Awful AI would often result in a buggy enemy soldier failing to recognise obstacles as they pumped dozens of slow-moving bullets into the low texture rock you were once crouched behind, until you finally decide to put the poor sod out of their misery with a carpet bombing. It had a co-op mode, too, but both players were invisibly shackled together with a kind of tether that would only allow them to travel a few hundred metres apart, at the most; not a fun feature for a game with some serious potential for large-scale vehicular havoc.

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The vehicles available to the player in the game ranged from fishing boats to bikes to cars to armoured cars to APCs to tanks to fully armed-and-armoured gunboats to attack helicopters, each with a couple of different variations depending upon the faction they had been liberated from. This number of vehicles were fairly typical for this genre of game, even back in 2008; in fact, the original Just Cause released on PS2 in 2006 with all of the above plus the presence of flyable planes, which Mercenaries 2 mysteriously lacked. In all honesty, Just Cause was better in basically every notable way, besides being pipped slightly in the graphical department due to Mercenaries 2’s extra console generation and a further two years to perfect the graphical art of ugly vibrancy. Indeed, Just Cause was seemingly the better game overall. Not to me, though, and you know why? Because Mercenaries 2 is the one I played. It’s the one 12-year-old me happened to pick up from the shelf in my local HMV or Woolworths or Game or GameStop or Gamestation or any other now-failing or failed dispensary of such innocent excitement.

It was the one I happened to like the look of, and there’s no way anyone can force me to forget or diminish the meaningless fun that I had with it, nor will anyone convince me that it isn’t even worth remembering and reminiscing about because a game had come out a couple of years prior in the form of Just Cause that executed every element with slightly more polish.

Litterbox-type games were unashamedly little more than fun for the sake of fun, and they were often ludicrously so

I loved my ludicrous Litterbox experience, despite the dodgy controls and lack of any meaningful side activities. I’d had what seemed, at the time, to be endless fun, especially once I had discovered the infinite ammo and ordinance stockpile cheats. With these, I could call in as many nuclear bunker busters as the wheezing console would allow, with the implicit aim of creating a world resembling Fallout: Venezuela (which sadly never materialised as the landscape simply shrugged off my constant nuclear bombardment). It was a game that was fun simply because it was, no matter the glaring mediocrities. This is a sentiment that I find is oft-forgotten nowadays, as consumers become bogged down dwelling on the bad practises of big publishers or how a game’s progression system is unoriginal and therefore terrible. If a game is fun, there’s nothing wrong with simply letting it be just that.

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Of course, this isn’t to say that the aforementioned malpractice shouldn’t be chastised, nor does it mean a game should be completely judged—positively or negatively—purely on an individual’s experience with it. I can rant about what I perceive to be storytelling issues in Mass Effect: Andromeda for hours, but I can never manage and should never attempt to convince you not to like it if you already do. This is the subjective nature of enjoyment.

The songs in my playlist sound different to me than they do to you because of the attached emotions I am made to feel when hearing them, and the same is true with games. Similarly, insisting that an old game is objectively great because you hold it close to your heart is as stupid as saying an upcoming release will be bad or boring because you aren’t personally interested in the setting—or being told a song is bad just because the person listening to it doesn’t enjoy the tune. To me, the true measure of greatness comes from the attachment I hold, or the potential for it (though that can be difficult to judge). Quality alone doesn’t guarantee this attachment, nor does the lack of quality prevent it.

The ability to love games purely for what they are and the fun they bring us is one we should all strive to have

Old games are ‘better’ because we hold our memories of the time and the emotions attached to those memories so close to the games we played. Did you get The Simpsons: Hit & Run for your 6th birthday? Did you play Streets of Rage 2 with your dad? Did you look forward to getting home from school just so you could play the original Battlefront II or Modern Warfare with friends? These games were flawed, too, in their own ways (and sometimes in bigger ways than would be deemed acceptable today). Back then it was acceptable to like a game with issues. It was fine to take a game at face value, without analysing it to death. It seems that we’ve stumbled upon an age where fun or enjoyment of a game is seemingly only allowed if there’s a measurable quality (or even more obnoxiously, a likeable developer) to back it up.

Mass Effect 3 was a bad game because its original ending was crap. If you enjoyed Mass Effect: Andromeda, you don’t understand the subtleties of good characterisation. If you like Call of Duty nowadays, you’re simple-minded and essentially just playing a ‘3D shooting gallery’. Destiny is an inherently bad game in every single way and will always be so, and if you don’t love the Witcher 3 then that’s worse than murder in the eyes of many. It’s a sort of snobbish mentality that is thankfully counterbalanced by the fact that people generally don’t care about your opinion unless it directly contradicts theirs, or if you appear to be ‘rewarding’ publishers by buying the games these same people find objectionable.

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Mercenaries 2 was a poor game in nearly every measurable way, but I loved it for reasons that can’t really be put into words. I can’t convince you to love it like it somehow convinced me to, and it’s likely my fuzzy memory that helps me to look upon it so fondly. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and a fantastic one most of the time, if used right. That isn’t to say that games should be made to cynically and ham-fistedly seek to tap into the fans’ sense of nostalgia with little regard for originality or quality, as film franchise reboots so often seem to be.

Old games are ‘better’ because we hold our memories of the time and the emotions attached to those memories so close to the games we played

The ability to love games for what they are and the fun they bring us is one we should all strive to have, but the sad thing is that the mindset of judging a game’s obvious quality over the enjoyment it brings is a hard one to shake loose. Even after I’ve spent the last few paragraphs trying to convince you it’s wrong, I’ll likely criticise the next apparently mediocre game I play because the movement feels far too heavy or the menu system is a mess; or avoid it entirely because the game’s publisher isn’t even worth my time let alone my money.

Mercenaries 2 was the last game I know of where you could hold R1 over here and a building becomes engulfed in nuclear fire over there, but even that probably wouldn’t be enough for me to love a game nowadays. I preferred 2008 me.