Destroy It All, One Card at a Time
Powered by the same type of sandbox gameplay made popular by Grand Theft Auto 3 and a story that creatively borrowed from national and world headlines, Lucas Arts and Pandemic Studios’ Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is one of the best third-person shooters during the PlayStation 2 and Xbox era. While known more for games in the Star Wars Battlefront series, as well as Destroy All Humans!, the work done on Mercenaries by Pandemic shouldn’t be overlooked. Selling over 1.4 million copies across the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, it also spawned a sequel in Mercenaries 2: World in Flames which sold over 2.25 million units on the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and cemented its legacy. Over a decade since its release, the game remains a unique and fun take on the shooter genre. To this day it’s still as one of the most underrated and fan-appreciated franchises on the PS2 and Xbox.
Allowing the player to play as three different characters, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction immediately separates itself from the litany of Grand Theft Auto clones in 2005 by giving the gamer a ton of choices that spice up the gameplay. While far more linear than GTA, the depth of each character shines through. The ethnic backgrounds of the characters you play even influences the languages they can understand and which of the game’s four factions they operate best with. Add in a hearty helping of explosions, vehicles and witty dialogue and Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction has a winning combination that never lets up.
But perhaps the coolest part of Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is the way it sets up the carnage. Presenting its main objectives in the form of 52 bounties, represented by playing cards created by the Allied Nations and Global Satellite Reporting Network, players must take down the underlings of the evil North Korean general Choi Song, before taking him (represented by The Ace of Spades) out. Considering he killed his father (Choi Kin, who attempted to disband the North Korean military and reunify Korea before his death) to take control of the country, Song is a worthy adversary.
“General Song was always brash and saw force as the solution to everything, but his father never knew just how deep his son’s lust for power has taken root,” the game’s manual states. “General Song is not only a brilliant military tactician but also clever at hiding his true intentions, making him an influential dictator. However; despite his careful planning, there is one factor he didn’t consider; a warrior for hire with the determination and skill to undermine his leadership, One card at a time.”
With Song now in control of the country and eager to spread his power- and with the nuclear weaponry available to support his threats, North Korea cuts off all its communication with the outside world, forcing the Allied Nations to create the deck of cards to neutralize him. That’s where you come in. As a member of the mercenary group, ExOps, you begin your blood-soaked journey to the top of the North Korean government, General Song- who also happens to have a $100 million bounty on his head. Just like the rapper Drake, you’re on a mission that starts “from the bottom.” It’s a long and arduous journey with alliances needed and decisions that need to be made that’ll impact the world and your gameplay experience. Make no mistake, while there are clear causes and effects in Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, players have a unique opportunity to play the game in a variety of ways. All of the 51 other targets require a combination of strength, stealth, cunning and wit to get to. Agreements will have to be made and broken along the way. Lives will be lost in the process. It’s an experience that’s not just mindless shooting. It’s essentially a lesson in espionage and what it takes to maintain world diplomacy, behind the scenes, on the ground- with a gun in your hand. It’s also a ton of fun.
For Ron Pieket, the lead programmer of Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, just like Song’s coop was a planned one, Pandemic was at work on refining this sexy gameplay structure for years before it became a reality. “I was working at Pandemic Studios at the time,” Pieket said. “I had just come from 3DO where I had developed their PS2 rendering engine. Pandemic was developing Army Men RTS for 3DO and already using this renderer. They cut a deal with 3DO to use the same engine for Mercenaries.”
Truth be told, Pieket’s dreams of global dominance in video games started long before his time on Mercenaries as well. “My career path was inspired by games I played in the video arcade in the 1980s, such as Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga and Q*bert,” Pieket said. “I dropped out of high school, but by the time my classmates graduated and went on to study computer science, I already had a job as a game programmer. Go figure.”
While Pieket’s origin in the industry is interesting as there aren’t many High School drop-outs (or college graduates, for that matter) with a resume like his in the industry, the way Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction came to be is just as unique. “I think it is fair to say that GTA III influenced the sandbox nature of the game,” Pieket said. “But I’d like to think that most of the game design evolved organically at Pandemic. The project that eventually became Mercenaries began as something completely different. Electronic Arts pitched to us a 3D update of their 1992 hit Desert Strike. So we started with a faithful replica. You would control a helicopter, fight enemy installations, rescue hostages and so on. The original was already pseudo-3D, so it is easy to imagine what it would be like in proper 3D.”
But at some point in the game’s development cycle, it was no longer in Electronic Arts’ hands and landed at Lucas Arts, who not only published the game but also two of Pandemic’s most successful games, the original Star Wars Battlefront titles. Already with credits the likes of Triple Play 2002 for EA (2002), Star Wars: The Clone Wars for LucasArts (2002), Full Spectrum Warrior for THQ (2004) under their belts, the original Mercenaries game was further proof of the developer’s ability and appears Regardless of the decade and a half plus since the game’s original release, Pieket still understands why the game had and still has, such a dedicated fanbase.
“What makes the game special is the open-ended nature of it. There is always more than one way to complete a task,” Pieket said. “We encourage experimentation and creative solutions. I also think that the way that faction dynamics come into play was somewhat novel- although I’m sure someone will correct me. We deliberately designed the game so that there were no clear-cut good guys and bad guys and the choices you make are morally ambiguous.”
As the senior Engine Programmer on Marvel Spider-Man (2018), as well as the Senior Systems Engineer on Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, Pieket has a reputation for working on games that the player has unparalleled control over their surroundings. It’s fair to say that the original game in the series was the origin of that reputation. For the kid that played Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga and Q*bert, his games ended up just as fun, but far different in execution. “I like to think of the game as not only a game but also an activity,” Pieket said. “I hope people had fun spending time in our game world, not only playing missions but also just hanging out. Driving tanks and fast cars, playing around with the skyhook, stacking cars on top of each other, sticking magnetic mines to vehicles and sending them into enemy lines and so on.”
But the result of Mercenaries was something of an enigma and a series of events that ultimately created something special. What originally began as a game using a renderer from an Army Men real-time strategy game, before turning into a Desert Strike sequel, which morphed into a military Grand Theft Auto-inspired sandbox adventure. Because of that, before release, no one, Pieket included, knew what to expect from it. “I was never part of the sales projections part of the planning, so I don’t know what was expected,” Pieket said. “The game’s success was somewhat of a surprise to me.”
But with over 1.4 million copies sold, it remains a legitimate success story and one that changed the industry. While Pandemic was eventually acquired by Electronic Arts in 2009 and the Mercenaries series ended up with a canceled third entry in Mercs Inc, the success of Pieket, as well as the other members of the team, which includes Robert Djordjevich (Guild Wars 2, StarCraft) Mattias Kylén (Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Halo 5: Guardians) and Austin Baker (Call of Duty: Black Ops III), prove the game and its unique card concept was a success. While there may never be another sequel to the series, the fact that the team has their fingerprints on so many other amazing games will have to be enough, for the time being. “After Battlefront, Mercenaries was Pandemic’s greatest hit,” Pieket said. “It helped establish the name of the company. It opened doors.”