Originally created 02/28/05

Bring out your inner warrior in 'Mercenaries' game

For days now, I've been playing the Russian Mafia for fools, helping the Chinese and upsetting the delicate balance of power in the Korean peninsula.

Now that the mob's wise to my dealings, I'm cut off from its snazzy Merchant of Menace Web site. Now THAT was a handy place to buy guns, health and ammo.

Such is life in the alternative reality of "Mercenaries," a new video game for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox where choosing sides and blowing stuff up - LOTS of stuff - is exceptionally entertaining.

It's a free-form, action-filled jaunt that will take a long time to fully explore - and destroy. The subtitle is "Playground of Destruction," but "Grand Theft Rambo" seems just as appropriate.

The setting is the Korean peninsula, but not the one we hear about in the news.

In "Mercenaries," peace-seeking political leaders on both sides of the DMZ have been killed by dictator-in-training Choi Song, plunging the region into chaos. Worse, Song's got nukes and intends to lob them across the globe if anyone gets in his way.

Five factions are trying to impose their will. The Allied Nations Task Force is a feel-good U.N.-style group that wants nothing more than to oust Song.

The Chinese are part of the Task Force, but have sent in their own army just in case. The aforementioned Russian mob is in it for the money, while the South Korean Union is a CIA-run military that wants to impose a Western-style democracy once Korean reunification is complete. And let's not forget the North Koreans.

You parachute into this volatile setting to earn cash and ultimately to accomplish what all of these seemingly powerful groups can't kill Song and the rest of his minions in the Deck of 52 most wanted list. The bounty on Song alone is $100 million.

Fighting between the lines, you can jump from side to side to gain favor and access to special equipment like tanks, helicopters and anti-air missiles.

The political maneuvering is certainly fun, but the action is what takes center stage. Battles here are white-knuckle and calling in airstrikes to destroy a bunker is truly a satisfying accomplishment.

Soldiers generally have good artificial intelligence, but it's not always up to snuff. Crash through an enemy road block, for example, and the soldiers don't give chase. Instead, they camp out at the crossing, casually firing a few shots in your general direction as you blow by.

In the tradition of the "Grand Theft Auto" games, "Mercenaries" lets you decide how you want to get the job done.

When schlepping from one war zone to another, I often found that hijacking metro buses or delivery trucks was better than using military trucks. That way, I appeared to other factions to be a civilian and not an enemy combatant.

This $50 single player game includes several characters to choose from. I really wish there was some sort of multiplayer option too, be it cooperative mode or online.

Three stars out of four.

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