I’ve done my share of North Korea mocking. My favourite story? When I was living in the South Korean countryside in 1996, there had been a recent drama aired on South Korea’s KBS network that characterized North Korea in some way they didn’t like. The North Korean radio issued a response: they would kill all of the employees of KBS so quickly and so quietly that not even a bird or mouse would notice.
The folksiness and the violence were odd enough — it was the emptiness of the threat that struck me as crazy. And I’m not alone in thinking that. Everyone loves the North Koreans — even cynical hipsters find their kitschy groupthink hilarious. It gives the military a loose-cannon threat to point to. And Hollywood has bad guys that fit the bill for action flicks (Die Another Day) or comedies (Team America: World Police).
I can’t help wondering if Kim Jong-Il has played Mercenaries.
The game posits that a nuke-packing, terrorist collaborating junta has staged a violent coup and turned North Korea into a “playground of destruction,” as the game’s tagline puts it. Even without Jong-Il at the helm, loudspeakers fill the air with the same bombastic rhetoric. You are a mercenary, a free agent looking to collect on the bounties of the “deck of 52.” The Ace of Spades pays a hundred million dollars, and the game begins with you taking down the Two of Clubs — trussing him up, calling down a copter and loading him on board.
You have an option to choose one of three type of mercs at the beginning: a British lady who isn’t a team player, an American who quit the army after squadmates died under his command and a Swede who’s a badass. The first two characters are racially mixed, which is perhaps an attempt to make this game less straight-up Caucasian, but it’s hard to imagine a game more pathologically capitalist in worldview.
Ka-ching! goes your score as you destroy the Children’s Museum, where your intel has it the North Koreans are holed up. Ka-ching! the merry cash register rings as you rack up the bucks racking up the kills. Your female comlink cheers you on as you accomplish missions for the various factions — Russian mafia, Chinese, Allied forces — since she’s getting a percentage of the action too.
The game is also unabashedly mercenary in how it’s ripped off the Grand Theft Auto series — not that it’s alone in this, to the point that the phrase “Grand Theft Also” has been coined. Certainly, this makes Mercenaries an immediately playable game for anyone familiar with the GTA series, but where I take issue is in its slavish copying of the few flaws of GTA. Driving or falling in water causes you to die, in much the same way as GTA 3. What, you’re a homicidal commando made of sugar? C’mon. Also, having to switch between looking at the map and looking at where you’re driving sucks. Why not allow toggling between a corner map and a floating arrow-style direction-giving that lets you focus on your driving? The Getaway, a much more innovative Grand Theft Also, found a clever way of integrating this element by having the right tail light flash when you had to turn right.
Which is not to say there are no innovative or new elements to Mercenaries. You can call down an airstrike on targeted buildings, and how you treat the various factions relates to how much intel or how many missions they’ll give you. But the similarities are too overwhelming, to the point where the game can be read as a commentary about the similarities between criminals and soldiers: the only difference between carjacking in GTA and Mercenaries is that it’s called “commandeering” in the latter. The irony of the jobs in GTA you do for mobsters being called “missions” drops away when you’re doing “missions” for military factions in Mercenaries.
And of course it also commandeered the famous sandbox model of gameplay, where there’s a lot of flexibility to choose between missions and to run around and create mayhem. This model is starting to grate on my nerves. Perhaps because the novelty of it has worn off, but also because it’s compared favourably to the rail model. Sure, when you’re led around on the rail model from scenario to scenario, you have to give up a certain amount of freedom — but there’s also the potential for a deeper storyline and clear indicators as to the progress you’ve made. And as free-roaming as the sandbox environments are, there’s always some limit to freedom: there are only certain ways you can interact and only certain things you’ll get points for.
Life is like that. Capitalism’s sandbox model says, “Hey, you can do anything you want!” People run wild in their teens, but sooner or later, despite all our apparent freedom, most people end up playing the game. How else are you going to get to the next level?