An update and a bit of a different review: Poor Pandemic Studios

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Post-writing edit: This came out to be a really long one. But damn, do I ever love Pandemic.

Hello again all! It’s been quite some time, both TD and I have been quite busy over the past couple of months, but hopefully we’ll start picking this up again now. Since around the start of March, I’ve had some major computer issues and also moved to a new home in a different part of the country, so I’ve been unable to both play games and get onto the internet for some time now. But, that said, a new motherboard, graphics card, removal of a RAM stick, finally getting the internet up, and I’m good to go again!

But, I’ve come back with something slightly different to talk about, until I’m able to hop back onto some new computer games I think you’d all like to hear about.

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Who doesn’t remember this being the intro screen to Mercenaries?

So, I got a chance to play some console games given my lack of internet and poorly performing PC. I’ve not been a console gamer for years but, now and then, there are games you have on console that either aren’t available for PC or you just feel would be better on a console. In my case, it was a bit of both. But, that said, I got a chance to play through and finish a few games I’ve had for years but never completed: Way of the Samurai, Metal Gear Rising and The Saboteur. Heck, I even went back and had a play on Red Dead Redemption and Star Wars: Battlefront II.

A very keen gamer might notice something about two of those games; they’re by Pandemic Studios. The Saboteur, a game I’ve been playing bit by bit for five years, and Star Wars: Battlefront (both I and II), potentially one of the greatest game series to date. They are games that keep pulling you back. And when I noticed this, I decided to investigate, what exactly have Pandemic done?

In order of release, and ones I consider of note, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (perhaps not as popular as it could have been, the multiplayer was fantastically fun and could be considered MOBA style), Full Spectrum Warrior, Star Wars: Battlefront I, then II (just one year later!), Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, Destroy All Humans!, Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers, Destroy All Humans! 2 (just one year after the last one, again!), Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, Lord of the Rings: Conquest, and finally, The Saboteur. There are exactly four games on that list, the very first four they made, that I consider to not be noteworthy, but there are some other interesting things to note. Star Wars: BF II, Mercenaries: PoD, and Destroy All Humans! were all released in the same year. All very, very notable games.

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This is still a fun game to play to this very day. It looks dated, but is just as fun as ever. But… Why?

All these games are truly great in some way, and all are truly innovative. To this day, I still find it amazing that they could have such a wide array of different ideas in Battlefront. You had your standard infantry, but then you had actual star fighters in ground battles (in BF I, anyway), huge space battles, and droidekas that genuinely rolled up and deployed! And Destroy All Humans! might not have been the most mature game, but it was truly unique, I don’t think anyone else has come close to making a game where you fly a saucer, can literally destroy a city, abduct cattle, and probe humans. Mercenaries was a revolution due to the huge level of destructability of the environment, unheard of in a game at the time. I can’t speak for Full Spectrum Warrior, since I never played (but heard a lot about) those games, and we’ll come on to the other notable games shortly.

But from the ones I’ve noted above, a few things stand out. Firstly, they are all truly innovative. There are mechanics in each game that drove both the industry, and technical limitations. The strange thing about Pandemic is, their games have always felt they’ve been made under a tight budget, yet still come out great. Battlefront was never the prettiest of games, but it sure was engaging and they thought of everything, from the speed and precision of AT-ATs walking, to the droidekas, through to individual hero units. Mercenaries lead the way for destructable envrionments and sandbox gameplay. Destroy All Humans! was… Well… Quirky, that’s for sure. But undeniably, unique, to this very day. I can’t think of any game like it.

But there’s one other feature I’ve skimmed over. I want to go back and play all of them. They still feel appealing right now. Why?

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You could fly your saucer around, abduct people, then park up and wander round the streets using a disintegration ray. It really was something special.

If I’m blunt, I don’t know. They have a recurring appeal. Star Wars: Battlefront is slightly different, in that it has that first person shooter skirmish aspect, so every game is a different game. But Mercenaries? Destroy All Humans? The Saboteur? Why are they so appealing, when they’re purely story driven, single player games?

I’ll use my experience with The Saboteur as an example. About five or six years ago, I traded one of my PS3 games (might have been Mercenaries 2, actually!) with my friend for The Saboteur. It seemed great. Running around Paris fighting the Nazis, blowing things up and generally getting involved in the free roaming experience it was.

But I quickly got bored. After a few story missions and blowing up a few of the freeplay objectives (which are literally just scattered around Paris and require you to blow them up with dynamite), I got bored and stopped playing. A few months (or years) later, I’d pick it up again, do a few more missions, blow up a few more freeplay points, then stop. Finally, last week, I completed the stories, had blown up around 50% of the freeplay objectives, and have roughly called it quits now. So, why did I keep going back?

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It also had a cool style feature; fighting for the Paris resistance, every area you liberated became colourful, whilst areas still under Nazi control were greyscale, with only the red of nazis and explosions coming up in colour.

The story was lacklustre at best. You are an Irish race car driver in Paris trying to get revenge for your friend who a competitive Nazi driver killed. Or something. It’s been a long time, I don’t really remember the story. But the gameplay was engaging and felt different, if a bit repetitive. Blow things up and shoot Nazis in different situations, that’s about it. The whole thing had an arcadey feel, and you were left with relatively open paths in missions; you could be sneaky and use silenced weapons and distraction explosions, or you could go in guns blazing. It felt very arcadey.

That’s not really got us anywhere. OK, so why do I love Mercenaries? Again, the story was relatively poor an uninteresting, for both games. But it was chock full of free play things to destroy and do, with fun ways to do it; you could call in air strikes, vehicles, back up, loads of crazy things. The end mission of the second game sees you using a nuclear bunker buster. It’s exciting. But, repetitive. At the end of the day, a huge chunk of the game is similar free play objectives in different parts of the world. Yet it’s still fun, because that means you have to go about them all in different ways. There was an aspect of resource management, too; you could use that carpet bomb, but could you save it for later for a better use? This was both a blessing and a curse to gameplay, where the destruction aspect was one of the best parts, but you were limited as to when you got to use the best ones. The point is, you can run around in Mercenaries and accomplish nothing towards the story, but still have tonnes of destructive fun.

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Mercenaries: Need to sweep and clear a palace interior? No problem, bring in the tank!

So what really was it? What really made these games so fun after so long, despite the clunky graphics and the feeling of a relatively low production cost?

Well… They were simply fun. None of them took themselves seriously, there was a focus on raw, arcadey fun. You want that person’s tank in Mercenaries? Open the hatch, drop a grenade in, drive and shoot around happily. You don’t like the Nazis on Notre Dame? You’re The Saboteur, go kill one, steal his outfit, then sneak round the place dynamiting all their installations. You don’t think anyone wearing a white T-shirt should live? Adbuct them, disintegrate them, Destroy All Humans!! Even in Battlefront (and Lord of the Rings: Conquest), the overall game is the same but the actual combat is fun and just arcadey enough to be something you never get annoyed over, with a wide range of different things available for you; if I’m playing republic, I love playing as the jetpack trooper, but sometimes I’ll play as regular infantry, or a sniper. If I’m CIS, the droideka is a hell of a lot of fun, the magna guard has some awesome weaponry, and the super battle droid is just stupidly fun. Even LotR: Conquest had various classes and gigantic olifants to deal with!

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Not my favourite game, but I never owned it. Like Battlefront, this was a hell of a lot of fun with friends.

Maybe it’s just me, but you don’t get this much any more. Games are relatively serious, meant to be played to be the best. Perhaps it’s just the games I frequently play: Counter strike, Men of War, Red Orchestra 2… They’re not arcadey, they’re intense. The msot recent review we’ve posted regarding Magicka is an example of a game like what we’d expect from Pandemic: Insane fun, with little care to the actual story, that you can keep going back to for the raw experience of the gameplay itself. There are very few games that come close to that level of raw fun nowadays. Hell, the next most recent review that even comes close is King Arthur’s Gold, and that still feels like a relatively serious game! It’s not something you can just have pure, raw fun at. It’s not carefree run and gun, blow things up. It doesn’t make it a bad game, it just makes it less replayable, even for a game where multiplayer is all it really has.

Alas, Pandemic Studios are no more, so it is unlikely we’ll see such gloriously crafted games as frequently. Few games nowadays value gameplay so much over the initial appearance, with a keen eye to buck the trend. Pandemic knew graphics weren’t everything, and a storyline could only go so far for a replayable game. In 2007, they were bought out by EA, created Mercenaries 2, LotR: Conquest, and The Saboteur under their guidance (probably why they weren’t ever as highly received as their earlier endeavours), and disbanded in 2009, leaving unfinished projects Mercenaries 3, The Dark Knight and The Next Big Thing (genuine title) abandoned.

A quote from IGN on Pandemic states “where Pandemic once had made a pledge to release only polished products, Mercenaries 2 was rough and uneven.” And it’s true, Pandemic’s games may not have looked flashy but everything worked beautifully, and it was under EA’s guidance that Merc’s 2 struggled. The same was felt with LotR: Conquest, and the game was basically ignored. It’s a shame, then, that The Saboteur was the light flickering through the jarred door as it swung close, a light that was truly amazing at times but had clear moments when it wasn’t quite reaching it’s potential. And behind that closed door, the lights for what could have been three more amazing games remained off. Now dusty and abandoned, I wonder if people will still remember Pandemic in years to come?

Article written for Spirit of the Robot by Static.

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An update and a bit of a different review: Poor Pandemic Studios