ⓘ Mercenary (video game)

Mercenary (video game)

ⓘ Mercenary (video game)

Mercenary is the first in a series of computer games, published on a number of 8-bit and 16-bit platforms from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, by Novagen Software. The second and third games were known as Damocles and Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis respectively.

The games were notable for their smooth vector and polygonal graphics, vast environments, and open-ended gameplay which offered several ways to complete each game. All three titles were favourably reviewed when they were originally released, and the titles have a following in the retrogaming community.


1. Overview

The Mercenary series consists of three main games and a number of add-on datasets. While each game is self-contained, they make occasional references to other games in the series and are connected in terms of their freeform, open-ended gameplay, visual appearance and general ambience.

Within each game the player must explore a world rendered in realtime 3D graphics, completing a number of non-linear tasks in order to achieve a single main objective. The title of the series derives from the players role in carrying out tasks as a "hired gun". In Mercenary the player crash lands into an ongoing conflict and is able to play the warring factions off against one another to the players own advantage. In Damocles the player is encouraged to bargain the fate of a whole world for financial reward. However, in The Dion Crisis the player has a less selfish agenda, and must gain the support of voters against the plotting of a sinister businessman.

In all three games, the player is accompanied and advised by Benson, a "9th generation PC". This interaction is handled via a scrolling news ticker at the bottom of the display. As well as providing assistance to the player, much of the humour within the games comes from the occasional sarcastic remarks made by Benson.


2.1. The Mercenary series Mercenary

Mercenary also known as Mercenary: Escape from Targ is the first game in the series. It was initially released on the Atari 8-bit family in 1985 and later converted to the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and Commodore 16/116/Plus/4 platforms. Across all versions, the game environment was presented using wire frame graphics.

Having crash-landed on the planet Targ en route to the Gamma System of Damocles, the players main objective is to find a means of escape. In a trademark element of the Mercenary series, there are several ways to achieve this end. A civil war between two factions, the Palyars indigenous "good guys" and the Mechanoids invading "bad guys", affords the player an opportunity to earn money to buy their escape from Targ. For instance, each faction seeks the destruction of installations belonging to its rival, and the capture of material or other resources to support their cause. There are other routes to escape, and it is possible to combine strategies to both leave Targ and keep the wealth accrued there.


2.2. The Mercenary series Mercenary: The Second City

Mercenary: The Second City, released in 1986, is an expansion pack for the original game. Initially its major distinction is the new colour scheme, representing the other side of the planet. The ground is now red rather than the original green, and the sky is no longer blue. Instead, it is pink in the Amiga and Atari 8-bit and ST versions, dark blue on the Commodore 8-bit platforms C64 and Plus/4 and yellow on the ZX Spectrum.

However, after a similar objective, the substantive differences reveal themselves subtly: there is a more intricate underground complex, a new set of puzzles to overcome and several significant changes with game objects. It was later repackaged with the original game under the title Mercenary Compendium.


2.3. The Mercenary series Damocles

Damocles occasionally advertised as Mercenary II is the second game in the series. It was released on the Atari ST and Amiga platforms in 1990. Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum versions were originally in development but eventually cancelled as a consequence of the declining 8-bit market. Unlike Mercenary, Damocles represented the game environment using filled polygon graphics, allowing a both more realistic and colourful world. An improved, fully texture mapped IBM PC version was in an advanced stage of development and scheduled for release in 1995, but was ultimately cancelled when a conflict between its developers, Novagen and Psygnosis, arose.

Once again, the player is stranded on a planet, Eris, with an inoperable spacecraft. Unlike the first game, however, the scope of Damocles is considerably widened, offering the player an entire solar system to explore the Gamma System; the players original destination before the Interlude on Targ. There is also a race-against-time element to the game as a comet, the eponymous Damocles a reference to the Sword of Damocles, is hurtling towards Eris. The player is encouraged to both escape Eris and find a means to prevent Damocles from destroying the planet, if possible without destroying the comet. Although an obvious, but destructive, solution exists, Damocles has no fewer than five distinct solutions.

A notable feature of Damocles is its inclusion of orbital mechanics into the game physics. While also featuring less standard physics e.g. teleportation, it includes a detailed representation of the dynamics of the Gamma System and even includes a simplified form of special relativity. To cross the solar system in reasonable to the player time, time dilation occurs. However, given that the player has only a few hours to save Eris, extended periods at near-light speed are unwise. One of the games many solutions even involves manipulating various planetary bodies in order to make use of the changes in gravitational pulls to divert the Damocles comet. From an aesthetic point of view, the inclusion of celestial physics allows the player to experience attractively-rendered sunrises and sunsets while on planet surfaces as well as various satellite occultations.

Damocles contains many real-world references, particularly drawn from the UK in the 1980s. For example, the president of the planet Eris is named Margaret, after Margaret Thatcher British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990; and there is a bank called Lawson Bank, after Nigel Lawson British chancellor of the exchequer from 1983 to 1989; though a real Lawson Bank does exist. Some of the references are more elusive; for example, several stores are called "GUM Stores", after the real Russian Gosudarstvennyj Universalnyj Magazin department stores. However, the fictional planet of Eris is not a reference to the real-life dwarf planet of the same name, as the latter was only discovered in 2005, some 15 years after the release of Damocles.

Despite these references, the game universe has no actual connections with Earth, since the player is given information that the Gamma System was actively explored before the present day e.g. on approaching a particular moon, Benson informs the player that a space flight company was already present there in 1190. According to the poster that accompanied the game, the events of Damocles take place on 27 April 2099.


2.4. The Mercenary series Damocles: Mission Disks

Two mission disks for Damocles were released, known simply as Damocles: Mission Disk 1 and Damocles: Mission Disk 2 respectively. Each disk added a number of extra missions that could be loaded in as saved games, offering the player a few more tasks to complete within the game. Usually these tasks put the player in difficult or unusual situations from which they have to extricate themselves.


2.5. The Mercenary series Mercenary III

Mercenary III also known as Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis or Damocles II is the third and final game in the series. It was released on the Atari ST and Amiga platforms in 1992. Mercenary III is set in the Gamma System again and is based on an improved version of the engine used by Damocles: this time the roads of the various cities are populated by vehicles such as taxis and buses; observation and attack spacecraft are present in the skies; and interaction albeit to a limited degree with other characters is possible.

After Eris President Margaret steps down, the player becomes involved in a political crisis on the planet Dion, pitting their wits against a power-hungry politician running for president. The goal of Mercenary III is to prevent this politician from being elected to office. Similarly to the earlier titles, there are several ways of achieving this, with both straightforward and oblique solutions. No mission disks were released for this concluding chapter of the Mercenary series. According to the poster that accompanied the game, the events of Mercenary III take place on 15 January 2101.

The villain of this game is a character who appeared in Mercenary: PC BIL, short for the P alyars C ommanders B rother- I n- L aw.


2.6. The Mercenary series False sequel

In April 1998, the Italian gaming website Zzap! managed by the same editors and in the same style of the Italian edition of Zzap!64 published a review of a nonexistent sequel as an April Fools Day prank. The plot of this game, supposedly titled Mercenary IV: The Eleventh Planet, would have been about the invasion of the Gamma system by the inhabitants of a planet with an erratic orbit that entered the system once again. In reality, the plot was inspired by Zecharia Sitchins book The Twelfth Planet, while the images were doctored screenshots of a custom Duke Nukem 3D level and the unreleased PC version of Damocles.


3. PC port

During the 2000s, the three games were ported to PC with the agreement of the former Novagen team. The program, called MDDClone is freeware, includes all three games, selectable through a drop-down list. It features graphics and gameplay identical to that of the Atari ST versions of the games, with the additional option to fix some bugs that were originally present. To facilitate play, text in the games principally that from Benson has been translated from English into Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian and Polish in the MDDClone.


4. Reception

All three Mercenary titles received strong positive reviews from gaming magazines across all platforms, with the original Mercenary receiving a Gold Medal from Zzap!64 magazine. RUN reviewer Bob Sodaro noted the replay value of Mercenary for the Commodore 64, writing "Prior to marking up the maps, you should make a number of photocopies so youll have clean copies when playing subsequent adventures". Antic also advised making copies of the map and taking notes. It described the games size and Atari 8-bit versions graphics as "awesome", but warned that a color display was required. The magazine concluded that "Mercenarys video effects make it a good game overall. But if you arent in the right place to pick up the clues, youll get nowhere".

The ZX Spectrum version of Mercenary was voted number 15 in the Your Sinclair Readers Top 100 Games of All Time, while the Amiga version of Damocles was ranked the 21st best game of all time by Amiga Power.

STart praised Damocles s "stunning graphics", and stated that the "massively-detailed environment. is an innovation in game design". The magazine concluded that "Damocles is definitely a challenging race against time, to be tackled by all".

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