Like its proto-Horde predecessor that debuted as an unlockable mode in Resident Evil 4, The Mercenaries is a time trial of violence, pitting the overmatched player against an endless stream of slow, relentless enemies. You shoot, you run out of ammo, and you spend the latter half of the round trying to escape via rooftops and catwalks, in a desperate attempt to avoid the zero score that awaits anyone who fails to survive until the end.
The trick to conserving the scarce ammunition is relying almost entirely on melee attacks. A single shot to the leg will hobble an enemy, providing a brief window of opportunity to deliver a punch to the face or a roundhouse kick that results in a clean kill. Reinforcing the idea that the most effective technique in this ostensibly gun-based game is in fact going hand-to-hand, five seconds are added to the clock every time you pummel a zombie. With the time pressure slightly lessened, it’s easy to settle into an immensely satisfying rhythm of shooting and punching that sees you rack up the combo multiplier and push ever closer to a high score.
As a standalone game rather than the bonus mode it once was, Mercenaries has been beefed up with extra characters and stages – eight of each, all taken from previous Resident Evil titles. Weapon loadouts can be swapped around, so one character with a preferred melee move can be combined with the superior weaponry of another, and there’s a selection of 30 different perks that can be upgraded in three steps. A single run through the game from start to finish can be completed in a worryingly short amount of time, however.
The eight stages are repeated over five different sets of missions, the first two of which are little more than training exercises. Only the final two sets offer a significant challenge, and in the entire game the wave-based formula defined right at the start of the tutorial is altered just twice – for a single boss battle and one, longer, wave-based level. However good the core mechanics may be, it’s disappointing to see them applied with so little variety.
Mercenaries shines as a twoplayer game, where an organised pair can extend the time limit and toy with the enemies well beyond the point at which sub-bosses with one-shot kills of their own begin to show up. It can’t entirely compensate for the lack of depth, but wading together into a throng of the undead, guns blazing and fists flying, leaving a trail of dissolving bodies in your wake, is without question a grisly pleasure.