In the weeks that followed the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, most of its high-profile competitors - including Prototype and Saints Row 2 - had their release dates hastily and conspicuously pushed back to fall or later. Most of them, that is, except for Mercenaries 2: World in Flames. After a number of pre-GTA IV delays, the free-roaming soldier-of-fortune simulator is sticking to its August release date, with no sissy retreat in the face of Rockstar's juggernaut.
Why did Mercenaries 2 choose to stand its ground, after what GTA IV accomplished? It could be that, as its developers claim, the two open-world games offer considerably different experiences. Or it could be that Mercenaries 2 is packing a whole slew of not-so-secret weapons that will completely eclipse GTA IV's sense of depth and character with their sheer awesomeness. We got to see a few of those during our latest hands-on with the game - here's what stood out the most.
Nobody really seemed to notice this (or at least, nobody complained about it), but tanks - long a staple of Grand Theft Auto and an iconic, near-invincible haven for cheaters who wanted to rack up a lot of destruction - were completely absent from GTA IV. The closest thing we got instead was the Annihilator gunship, which - while pretty awesome - could be defeated by trees and power lines.
Mercenaries 2, on the other hand, will have all the military hardware you could possibly want to play with. You want a tank? Visit the right location or cause enough trouble, and one will come to you. When that happens, you can hijack it with a button-mashing quicktime event, and its armor and destructive power are yours. For that matter, you can jack everything from sports cars (including spy models with pop-up cannons) to massive, immobile gun emplacements. Even mid-flight choppers can be yours for the taking, thanks to the new grappling hook, although it's often easier to just knock them out of the sky with your awesome new tank.
Remember in the run-up to GTA IV, when everyone speculated that the game might feature destructible buildings? Yeah, with a few story-triggered exceptions, that didn't happen. But if the lack of wanton ruination disappointed you, then take heart, because Mercenaries 2 will enable you to destroy absolutely everything you see.
Above: Yes, even this
Are enemy soldiers spraying you with bullets from the safety of a concrete bunker? Squeeze off a rocket or two at its roof and cave it in on them - they'll take damage from the falling rubble, if not die outright.
That's just the least of it, though - during our latest look at the game, we watched as a couple of airstrikes and a few well-placed C4 charges were used to reduce a colossal old Spanish fort to rubble. It's even possible to flatten the game's representation of Caracas, provided you've got the patience and the firepower. And don't worry too much if you accidentally reduce the game world to a smoking ruin - after a while, it'll all discreetly come back, giving you a chance to smash it into dust all over again.
Cultivating a circle of friends in GTA IV was a lot of fun, even if their incessant calls and constant mewling for attention made them a pain in the ass. But at the end of the day, what good were they? Sure, having healthy friendships gave you cool perks, but it's not like they'd actively help you make your way through missions, or anything.
In Mercenaries 2, however, the people you meet don't want to hang out with you. They want to work for you, as members of your private military company. At certain moments during the game's story, you'll be introduced to new soldiers and support staff that you can hire to lend you a hand.
According to Scott Warner, the game's lead designer, each recruit will play a major role in the story, to the point that "their introductions are special beats in the story that highlight their character and function." That means that sections of the story will be devoted to introducing them and making their talents look indispensable to you, which should make them much more than just a series of faceless hirelings who'll run cannon-fodder interference during tough missions. They'll also never want to play pool, either; they've got more interesting things in mind.