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Mercenaries; The Punisher; AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition

Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page F08

MERCENARIES, LucasArts/Pandemic Studios

This game has all the open-ended fun of playing in a sandbox with army men. You start out as one of three hired soldiers sent to North Korea to take down a general hoarding weapons of mass destruction (along with 52 of his comrades in arms), then find yourself competing for additional work from the Russian mob, the Chinese and even South Korea, all of whom have their own reasons to see this General Song taken down.

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Once you start raking in some extra cash from these new clients, the fun begins -- the money you earn buys new weapons and vehicles and orders up air drops and air strikes. Like a kid in a sandbox, you can easily go ga-ga picking up such new toys as jeeps, tanks and rocket launchers from the enormous inventory here, but you should budget wisely to keep pace with a steadily bigger and more challenging selection of enemies.

Combat itself doesn't revolve around running in and blowing stuff up, however. You'll need to think through which weapons and tools to use at particular stages in a battle, which can be as short as two minutes or as long as two hours. This action is depicted in gritty, barren textures, with some of the best explosions and smoke effects we've seen in an action game. However, we also couldn't miss some outbreaks of pop-up (where scenery pops into view a second or two too late) and sluggish animations.

The lack of a multiplayer mode represents a much bigger missed opportunity for the developers. Although Mercenaries is still good for a solid 25 hours of game play, it could have offered so much more if it allowed you to battle other players online.

-- Tom Ham

PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50


Fans of the Marvel comic-book franchise who have had to sit through two horrible Hollywood movies finally have something to celebrate: THQ has done justice to Frank Castle, the vigilante hero of the comic. This third-person-perspective action game effectively puts you in the combat boots of this one-man judge, jury and executioner.

Although Thomas Jane, who played The Punisher on the big screen, lends his voice to the game, its visual style stays faithful to that of the original comics. In its story, written by Marvel scribes Garth Ennis and Jimmy Palmiotti, you'll battle numerous mobsters, terrorists and other enemies as you traverse 16 levels.

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