At first glance Mercenaries 2 reminded us of a lot of other games; Just Cause, Crackdown or even (surprise, surprise) Mercs 1. But once we jumped into the carnage on Xbox Live, we discovered it's taken the best elements of the above to create possibly the next great free-roaming co-op game.
The Venezuelan environment is a proper (cough, cough) playground of destruction, with choppers, tanks, petrol tankers and more at hand to send entire skyscrapers shaking to the ground, and you can do it all with a buddy in full-on drop-in co-op. Crackdown; watch out.
We caught up with senior producer at Pandemic, Jonathan Zamkoff, who was happy to field our questions.
How important is co-op to Mercenaries 2?
Zamkoff: Critical. It's one of the features that's just untouchable in the game. We have to make it work, it has to be great and we have to make it balanced, so that another player can hop in and out and it feels like the difficulty is adjusted.
How unique are the three characters in the game?
Zamkoff: Mechanically they're very similar, because we didn't want to unbalance the game for a fictional standpoint. It's really a lot about what their humour is and how it plays out with Chris being a little serious, Mattias being a smart ass and Jen using her female charms. It's a lot more story-based.
We're toying around with the idea of playing in character and rewarding that. Like Mattias getting an award for big explosions, Jen getting an award for headshots and Chris getting an award for no civilian deaths.
But we haven't implemented the feature yet, it's something that if we don't feel like we can get right, we don't want to tack it on. We have so many features in the game that the idea of doing something half-assed or getting it in just to have another bullet point on a box isn't worth it.
There are rumours of a fourth character...
Zamkoff: All lies! We were toying with the idea of a fourth character but we felt that instead of spreading ourselves too thin, we wanted to take the three characters we had and make them really developed. It's something we felt we could've executed better in Mercs 1; depth of the characters - especially the main badguy.
So we've dedicated a lot of energy to making sure each character has a distinct voice and feels different to play. That's kind of why we abandoned the idea of a fourth character.
In addition to the co-op, are there any plans for a more traditional multiplayer mode?
Zamkoff: We talked and we bantered about it and if possible we'll add those on, but again we don't want to do tacked-on features and we don't feel that deathmatch really gets to the heart of the game as much as co-op multiplayer.
At the moment it's just co-op online and that's as much from a design standpoint as it is from a tech standpoint. We really feel like that's what sells the fantasy and because Mercs is such an open-ended game we want you working with your friends, to come up with a thousand new things we didn't even think of at the beginning.
How on earth has Pi Studios managed to shoehorn the game onto PS2?
Zamkoff: That's kind of part of it; we didn't ask them to shoehorn it. What we did was give them the Mercs 1 tech and so they were developing content from day one. The idea was that they needed to keep with the high-level fiction, have the main bad guy and contracts, but all the side-quests we've given them complete creative liberty to do whatever they want.