Back in the mid-2000s, the open world genre was still trying to find its feet. Outside of Grand Theft Auto, which pioneered being able to muck about in a consequence free playground, the open world genre struggled to find its feet in the midst of pale imitators. Fortunately, one game took a more novel approach to open worlds, creating an ambitious and memorable thrill ride as a result: Mercenaries.
A bombastic affair, Mercenaries went as quickly as it came (stop giggling at the back), with only two released games in the series, but there were bigger plans to expand the franchise that unfortunately never saw the light of day. Currently, Mercenaries has been dormant for nearly 15 years, but with the Xbox Series X | S and PS5 offering new capabilities, we’re asking the question: will Mercenaries ever make a comeback?
The History of Mercenaries
Mercenaries was the product of Pandemic Studios, who might just have been one of the most underappreciated game development houses in history. While everyone loves their golden child of Star Wars: Battlefront 2, the team were also responsible for Destroy All Humans, The Lord of the Rings: Conquest and, of course, Mercenaries. The only bad thing about them from a hindsight perspective is their name, but that’s a whole other story.
The first game, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, would launch in 2005 on PS2 and the original Xbox, developed by Pandemic and published by LucasArts. The game saw players hotdrop into a fresh conflict between North and South Korea, with an Allied Nation coalition, China and the Russian Mafia all swooping into the area to try and pick up the pieces for themselves.
As one of the titular Mercenaries, you were given the task of hunting down the remnants of North Korea’s military and scientific leadership, visualised by the Deck of 52. Players would complete missions for the different factions and manage those individual relationships in order to gain money, weapons and, crucially, information on where the number and face cards of a certain suit were located. Once you’d captured or killed enough of one suit, the Ace would emerge, advancing the story.
While the gunplay and massive explosions were enough to attract fans of open world third-person shooters, the level of freedom players had in undertaking this mammoth task proved to be Mercenaries’ big unique selling point. Being beholden to a specific task rather than the people that occupied the world, favouring certain factions over the other in order to advance your own agenda, proved to be a liberating experience in a genre where you often follow set mission paths until the credits rolled. The irony of Mercenaries offering a “liberating experience” while being about taking down a dictator isn’t lost on me.
It’d appear that those aspects of the game were what initially attracted LucasArts to publish Mercenaries, as Pandemic were already developing the game when the publisher got involved. An unnamed LucasArts representative spoke to GamesRadar back in 2004, mentioning one of their favourite aspects of the project: “You can just sit back and be entertained watching the UN NPCs fighting the North Korean NPCs using cover vehicles and all sorts of weapons. And it’s up to you as a mercenary, since you don’t answer to anybody, to jump in the middle of that firefight and choose which side you want to be on.”
The success of the original game prompted Pandemic to develop a sequel, Mercenaries 2: World In Flames, which saw the action move to Venezuela with the player character attempting to take down the president who betrayed you. With the second game, the emphasis was on “more is more”, adding more vehicles, weapons and a bigger map for players to play around in, along with a two-player co-op mode for players who wanted to share in the carnage.
During the game’s development, Pandemic Studios switched publishers from LucasArts to EA, with Pandemic Studios head Josh Resnick speaking to Eurogamer back in 2007 about the switch. In the Q&A session, Resnick notes: “Lucas was a great partner for us on Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction and EA will be a great partner on Mercenaries 2: World in Flames. Each partner has their strengths, and EA is the best fit for Mercs2.”
Mercenaries 2 launched in 2008 to decently positive reviews on PC and the newer consoles of the time, the PS3 and Xbox 360, earning just above 70 on average on Metacritic. Reviewers enjoyed the game’s enhanced focus on having bombastic fun, but noted plenty of technical issues like glitches and poor AI design. The PS2 version is a different story, ported down by Artificial Mind and Movement and earned a 49 on Metacritic. The reviews at the time called it a buggy, watered down version of the original game, and a weak port of a decent next-gen experience.
Perhaps the most interesting reaction to the game came afterwards. Naturally, with the game’s contentious premise, Mercenaries caused real-life controversy. The first game was banned in South Korea for two years, which is understandable, but Mercenaries 2 invoked a whole new kind of hornet’s nest, with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez accusing Pandemic, and subsequently the US Government, of developing Mercs 2 as a means to drum up support for a real life invasion from US forces. Not like the US army had their hands full at the time or anything.
What Happened To The Mercenaries Series?
More to the point here is what happened to Pandemic Studios. Despite releasing some bangers over the years, the games just weren’t selling like they could have been, while the critical reception to most games seemed to be on the decline. As much as Jimmy and I seem to have fond memories of multiplayer brawler LOTR: Conquest, reviews averaged around 55 on Metacritic, while Pandemic’s latest open world game, 2009’s The Saboteur, earned similar reviews to Mercenaries 2.
The writing was on the wall with Pandemic in 2009, with their Brisbane office being shut down in February. According to a report from Kotaku Australia, who spoke to various members of the Brisbane studio, the shutdown came from the disastrous decision to develop a Dark Knight game, with the studio given 18 months to make it see the light of day before the rights expired. Brisbane assumed this meant EA would throw their weight behind the project, but that never happened, and the studio failed to produce a playable alpha in the allotted time. They were almost set up to fail, given the short turnaround time, but it contributed to Pandemic’s eventual downfall.
Josh Resnick, the now former Pandemic president, remained quiet on the subject of the studio’s closure for two years, before being interviewed by Gamasutra at the end of 2011. Resnick cited his reasons why he believed the studio shut down, making the suggestion that Pandemic were perhaps a little too ambitious too quickly: “We were growing our teams and taking on ever-bigger challenges. I mean, almost every project that Pandemic was working on at the time was a huge, unwieldy, massive world game. And they’re just really expensive, and really challenging from a technology standpoint.”
Despite all this, plans were in motion for a new game in the Mercenaries series. Before Pandemic’s closure, a third game in the series called Mercenaries 3: No Limits entered development, which would have seen the action of the series taken to Cuba in 2017. Not much is known about where this entry would have taken the series, as the only information we’ve seen is a small, two minute demo video released courtesy of Kotaku. The footage shows a new character going for a bit of a drive, before shooting at a combat drone.
There’s few details out there on what Mercs Inc would have looked like, but the trailer puts a heavy focus on the game being a multiplayer first title, with the ability to mess around with friends at the forefront. The trailer even showed players killing each other, so who knows how cooperative or competitive the game would have been, or if the lines would’ve blurred as the game progressed. It could have been an interesting take.
EA said that the game was being worked on internally by a team of former Pandemic members, which would be EA Los Angeles. The team then rebranded as Danger Close Games and set to work on making a rebooted vision of the Medal of Honor series, which likely put the development of Mercs Inc on hold. Medal of Honor and its sequel, Warfighter, would then underperform, leading to, you guessed it, more cuts and layoffs. It would seem like Mercs Inc, if it didn’t die before then, was killed during those layoffs.
The Future of Mercenaries
Will there be a future for Mercenaries? I hope so, because the new generation of consoles could really thrive with an open world game that allows for massive destruction. Being able to level any building you see, and doing so at 4K and 60fps, would be a great high watermark for the power of modern PCs, the PS5 and the Xbox Series X. No disrespect to the Series S though, as 1080p at 60fps on that little box of dreams is still impressive.
Right now, it seems that EA still retains the rights to the series, and if nothing else, they’re still renewing the license to own the Mercenaries 3 website domain. That’s not a confirmation that EA are doing something with the franchise, as they’re most likely wanting to keep the domain in their hands to stop internet trolls from buying it and linking it to meatspin or some other such internet nasty, but if nothing else, somebody at EA is thinking about Mercenaries at least once a year.
Recently, EA have proved that they’re no strangers to offering a full-blown remake, with the publisher confirming that they’re working on a new version of the iconic horror series Dead Space. You know, the series they killed off when they shut down Visceral Games despite them a) creating one of the best horror franchises of the modern age, and b) working on a highly ambitious open world Star Wars game. Apparently EA doesn’t get enough credit for how they work with acquired studios, but with a track record like this, the only thing EA deserves is scorn.
At least personally, it’s not about whether or not Mercenaries should get another game, but whether EA should be the ones to do it. EA seem to be comfortable with trotting out the corpses of their dead franchises like Dead Space and Skate — games that were killed off via their own decisions, no less — and then reanimating them live in front of the roaring crowd. As much as I love Dead Space and Skate, it’s hard to get excited when they’re bringing these games back after sacking pretty much everyone who was responsible for their success. I don’t want Mercenaries to go the same way.
As for who could do a game like Mercenaries, THQ Nordic would likely be the best bet, especially considering they’ve worked on previous Pandemic games before. Black Forest Games, a subsidiary of THQ Nordic, were responsible for the “better than it had any right to be” Destroy All Humans! remake. With it, the team proved that they understood how to make a Pandemic Studios game fun, while implementing some key quality of life updates to bring such a dated game into the modern era. There’s no reason why they couldn’t work that magic again on Mercenaries, if the opportunity presented itself.
Unless they’re already doing DAH! 2’s remake, in which case, as you were.
Another developer who could also do amazing things with the Mercenaries license is Avalanche, who’ve cut their teeth making the Just Cause series. In a way, there’s a lot of similarities between Just Cause and Mercenaries, with both seeing the player exploring an open world sandbox filled with toys, with the vague premise of overthrowing a dictator when you can be bothered/get bored of calling in airstrikes. While Just Cause focuses more on gadgets as opposed to Mercenaries revelling in destruction, Avalanche could easily make adjustments for a potential game.
Regardless of where the Mercenaries franchise ends up, it’s hard to escape the feeling like a new home would allow the series to actually reach the potential it was striving towards. A fresh start, with a fresh pair of hands, might be the best way to revive a franchise that holds some fond memories for a lot of players. Just make sure to rope Peter Stomare, Jennifer Hale and Phil LaMarr back in to voice the main characters again.
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