'Mercenaries 2: World in Flames'

Innumerable games strive for a cinematic vibe, but most fail to pull it off when they take themselves too seriously and overburden the gameplay with content better left in movies.

Innumerable games strive for a cinematic vibe, but most fail to pull it off when they take themselves too seriously and overburden the gameplay with content better left in movies. “Mercenaries 2″ is the rare videogame that gets the balance just right. Fusing over-the-top Michael Bay-style action with an expertly designed open world in which gamers can create their own mayhem, the result is a wildly entertaining blockbuster with the potential to be a major action hit.

From camera angles and music to flick-style dialogue, “Mercenaries 2″ establishes its mood from the start and never slows down. As a blood-red sun sets over military-governed Venezuela, a killer for hire crosses Venezuelan waters in a speedboat, on his or her way to liberate a captive general. Players can choose to be one of three mercenaries — a blond, braid-bearded misanthrope; a snarky but pragmatic ass-kicker; or a ruthless woman in it for the money. Each has different abilities, but all follow the same personal quest for revenge against the fictional military dictatorship.

Though Venezuela’s government has complained “Mercenaries 2″ is part of a U.S. agenda against it, the game’s action is so overtly bombastic that nobody could take it seriously. As players gun down enemy factions, collect cash and attempt to recruit mercenaries from other factions, they’ll find the fun is in collecting weapons like machine guns and rocket launchers and jumping in any car, truck, tank or helicopter they find. Developer Pandemic Studios has created a completely destructible environment where almost everything can be crashed, burned or blown to pieces via nuclear air strike. It’s a highly polished, glee-inducing toy-box experience — and since a friend can join online at any time, there’s even the option of doubling the insanity.

Many games have tried to ape the size of “Grand Theft Auto’s” sprawling world and the dizzying freedom it offers, but few succeed, making “open-world” somewhat a dubious selling point these days. In “Mercenaries 2,” however, the mission structure is perfectly balanced — there’s freedom of movement and endless options for how to complete objectives without being so large as to make the experience feel directionless.

But what makes the game a true standout is how streamlined its design is — the controls are extremely approachable and players are trained slowly in their use. Rather than inserting endless fill-in dialogue, “Mercenaries 2″ makes in-depth data on characters, locations and story elements available for optional reading through an intuitive menu interface. The overall effect is that players can concentrate on everything there is to do in the game world without getting stuck in an overburdened story or overcomplicated controls.

Some eyebrows were raised last year when Electronic Arts bought Pandemic and sibling studio Bioware for a record $860 million. But if “Mercenaries 2″ is an example of the level of polish, as well as the potential for sequels, that the two studios can deliver, they may have been well worth the price.

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames

Production

An Electronic Arts presentation of a game developed by Pandemic Studios for the PC, PlayStation 2, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360. Reviewed on Playstation 3. Rated T. $40-$60
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