Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis Is The Game Most Worth Saving From 1992

Every game released before 2005 is being destroyed. We only have time to rescue one game from each year. Not those you’ve played to death, or the classics that the industry has already learned from. We’re going to select the games that still have more to give. These are the Saved Games.

Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis is a first-person open world game with vast environments in which you can travel between multiple planets. That made it remarkable upon release in 1992. What makes it still remarkable today is that your goal is to stop a politican from being elected to office and your methods extend from bribing the press to building prisons.

Spanning not one but several planetscapes, Mercenary III [Wikipedia] lays forth a sprawling universe for its titular protagonist to explore and every planet offers potential for surprise by discovering and interacting with its inhabitants. Upon arrival in Eris, a “mix up” sees the Mercenary held in a detention cell. Things immediately seem off. You’re released, given a half-arsed apology and told to visit a chap named PC BIL.

It turns out the esteemed President Margaret has reached the end of her political tenure. There’s to be an election. You’ve been away for some time, it seems, and the sinister BIL character has risen to prominence in the interim. He’s now running for office, but you immediately suss him out. His guise of benevolence and boundless ambition is but manufactured pretense and the Gamma system, you discover, is going down the tubes by his hand. BIL’s at the heart of the downfall, twisting the screw to suit his perverse agenda. He must be stopped.

That’s where you step in. There’s a few ways to make this right but by far the most interesting and rewarding method involves you running as BIL’s opposition. Part of the joy is exploring the world on foot, by space shuttle, taxi or bus – the latter of which operates designated routes and timetables – and whilst there is an underlying set of objectives to be worked through, the open universe offers you the ability to approach each goal from multiple angles, depending on where you choose to head for or where you end up happening upon first.

From hereon unfolds a quest that uncovers BIL’s gross criminal activity whilst presenting you with the chance to stray from the path of righteousness yourself. BIL’s up to his polygonal neck in tax evasion, illegal mining contracts, and manipulation of the press to name but a few of his dark enterprises as he champions an implacable smear campaign against your best intentions. Suddenly, he knows where you are and where you’ve been. His fleet of privately-owned spacecrafts line the horizon, watching your every move. The newspapers print screeds of lies challenging your character. BIL’s got you in his back pocket.

So fight back. Pay off the press, the publishers, the broadcasters. Hire a private investigator to dig up some dirt on this bastard. Why stop there? Rig his casinos and bankrupt him; pay off a construction firm and planning executives, build a jail, and imprison him against his will; gather explosives and carry out an assassination plot. How far do you really want to go? Do you become as bad as him, or even worse still?

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship,” says O’Brien to the bewildered Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984.

So it is here. In this sprawling sandbox playground, it’s not so much understanding the rules of the world, as realising you’ve very little power to change or even influence any of them – unless you engage in criminal activity. And if you don’t, BIL will get to you. He’ll pursue you until you’ve nothing left. He’ll denounce your character and make you public enemy number one. You’ll be escorted to the same vacuous detention cell with the sloping black walls and huge spider’s web in the corner.

Back to where you started. The cruel cycle complete.

Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis is a video game that reflects our reality. It holds a mirror up to the dishonest and redundant aspects of our political spectrum. It questions the effectiveness of democracy and the complicated, and at times illegal, relationship politics has historically shared with the press. Superficial doffs of the cap to the real world have been confirmed in subsequent Novagen interviews – the departing President Margaret apparently a nod to ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who hadn’t long left office upon the game’s release; Lawson’s Bank a similar gesture to Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s chancellor of the exchequer until 1989 – but its fiction mimics western democracy and its political systems as much as it mimics Orwell’s 1984. You, the Mercenary, are as much Winston Smith as you are any other inconsequential pawn on Damocles, Oceania, or anywhere in the real world.

Without thought or reserve, PC BIL departs from the company line. He plots and lies and cheats in his quest to grow his public persona. He pursues agendas and vendettas behind the hollow facade of positive public opinion polls and high profile media appearances. His invisible web of lies, tax evasion, deceit and corruption spans Damocles’ inter-planetary system: he spins an invisible web of unscrupulous connections and corruption that strikes at the heart of his manufactured and finely tuned shadow state. BIL represents Big Brother, dictatorships, the misgivings of the NSA, Watergate, the MP’s parliamentary expenses scandal, the abhorrent practice wrought by the phone-hacking red tops of the British press.

Mercenary III is crude in many ways, but modern video games would do well to learn from its deep and complex themes, and the agency it offers you to engage in the politics and powers of its world beyond simple acts of violence.

What can we learn from Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis? If history has taught us anything, absolutely everything, yet absolutely nothing.

37 Comments

  1. JamesTheNumberless says:

    Yes! Definitely agree that this game is worth a mention, also the reason why I’ll never vote for anyone called Bill.

  2. Keios says:

    I remember getting the first two Mercenary games free when we got an Amiga back in 1990. Unfortunately they were more than a little in depth for my 9 year old brin, and as much as I enjoyed flying the paper dart ships about and making buildings collapse, I was far more into Rainbow Islands and Escape From The Planet Of The Robot Monsters.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      My favourite part in the first game was discovering that you could fly a slice cheese. It was very fast.

    • Maxheadroom says:

      Played 1 & 2 to completion (and I still vividly remember discovering you could fly the slice of cheese) but I had literally no idea there was a Mercenary 3 until now

  3. EBass says:

    Huh, wonder how I’ve literally never heard of this game? I guess probably because I really got into PC gaming about 1996 (I was born in 1986), and I guess it would be as likely as someone from the 2000+ era of PC gaming knowing about Terra Nova.

    • ansionnach says:

      Was surprised I’d never heard of this entire series… but I see it was never commercially released on PC. It debuted on 8-bit Atari computers and the second and third ones were released on the ST and Amiga. As well as the ST and Amiga, the original was ported to 8-bit computers such as the C64, Spectrum and CPC.

      There was a PC port done of the ST versions more recently, with permission from the original authors. Download it from here:
      link to mercenarysite.free.fr

  4. microtubule says:

    Guess the chances are pretty low this would make it to Steam or GOG?

    Vote for it on GOG:
    link to gog.com III

  5. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Ah, 1992. Back when devs were willing to dream big, because gaming genres and conventions were still being established. Worth noting that Ultima VII came out that year, too.

    I had never heard of Mercenary III, but what’s written here makes it sound wonderful. I’d love to see a modern open-world game where society is both your weapon and battlefield. Violence is fun and has its place (and in the game!), but I find that I get a lot more satisfaction from manipulating a system to suit my needs than from dropping an enemy squad.

    • ansionnach says:

      Funny that a lot of open worlds can seem quite empty, perhaps because there’s not a lot of interactivity. Ultima VII still has much to teach gaming in this respect.

      As to why you never heard of these games, perhaps it’s because they were only on 8-bit computers, the ST and Amiga?

      • Premium User Badge

        Harlander says:

        Both those computers were 16 bit. That’s a whole 8 more bits!

        • tentacle says:

          A good example of why the Oxford comma is a good idea.

        • ansionnach says:

          That list again:
          8-bit computers
          The ST
          The Amiga

          It was already clear in my previous, longer post as to what I meant. I’m happy with the sentence structure and wouldn’t edit it even if I could.

          • polecat says:

            This is a wonderful grammerfest and, like tentacle I love Oxford commas.

            Problem (very much a first world one): in “8-bit computers, the ST and Amiga” it’s not clear whether the comma means the first half is describing both components of the second (i.e. the ST and Amiga are both 8-bit computers) OR whether it indicates a non-overlapping list (i.e. 8-bit computers as well as the ST and Amiga, which by implication are not 8-bit computers because they are in a list alongside all 8-bit computers).

            Solution: use an extra comma before the final list item to make completely clear that it’s a list, not the first possible interpretation above which is what Harlander understandably read into it. Either that or use extra words / different structure to avoid the ambiguity of a list where you need extra knowledge to assess whether some items could be a subset of other items.

            Grammar! It’s so lovely…

          • ansionnach says:

            In this case I think that “on 8-bit computers, the ST and Amiga” would be erroneous if the ST and Amiga were an expansion of “8-bit computers”. Something like “on the 8-bit computers, the ST and Amiga” would suggest this. I’m happy to forego the Oxford comma and leave it up to the competence and goodwill of the reader to parse a perfectly legal sentence.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Ah, 1992. Back when devs were willing to dream big, because gaming genres and conventions were still being established.

      This is so true. There are a lot of factors which have influenced the direction of the industry, but quite simply the need to invent everything from scratch yourself lead to a huge amount of creativity. Now even most indies don’t think about this, never consider building from first principles.

      Worth noting that Ultima VII came out that year, too.

      And Darklands! These are exactly the games which *should* be setting the model for open-world RPGs, and yet here we are.

    • ansionnach says:

      While it didn’t get this game, the PC did get Ultima Underworld in 1992. Not really open world, but it was an impressive living dungeon. Its many children (e.g. System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Bioshock, Elder Scrolls) have failed to live up to its greatness.

      • TheAngriestHobo says:

        Both Ultima Underworld games were incredible, and have always felt a little bit like lightning in a bottle. SS2 (I never played the original) came close to capturing the experience, but I never felt the same sense of scale and life in that game. Not saying it’s not a marvelous game in its own right, of course.

        • ansionnach says:

          I haven’t ever gotten very far in SS2. Much preferred the two Underworlds and System Shock. Didn’t like the addition of RPG elements to SS2 and found its two control methods (i.e. having moving and inventory separate) jarring. Loved being able to move and interact at the same time in the older games (and the controls weren’t that hard to learn). SS2 and a lot of Underworld’s descendants were often good games but the complexity of the simulation suffered. Maybe Daggerfall was an exception but it lacked polish, let alone the amount of it Underworld had.

      • felsenmeer says:

        As somebody who’s only played Deus Ex 1 from that list and loved its relative freedom/systems, what is so great about Underworld? Not beefin’, genuinely interested! What did it deliver that future games have not?

  6. Joel Goodwin says:

    I only ever played the original Mercenary (and I wrote a ton of stuff on it last year) but I’ve always wanted to have a go at the sequels which have sounded more fascinating.

    Still, there’s a nagging part of me that wonders if I should keep the “Game I Imagined” alive rather than kill it with a dose of reality!

  7. ansionnach says:

    As someone who’s never owned an Amiga or an ST (friends had them; I was the PC guy), maybe I should get the ball rolling: because polygonal games largely depended on the CPU, the ST would have had a slight advantage here…

  8. caff says:

    The reason Mercenary 3 evoked brilliance was its bleak emptiness. Even though there was stuff there, most of it meant nothing.

  9. Stone_Crow says:

    In the year Dune 2 defined the RTS, and Alone in the Dark pretty much invented the survival horror you want to save Mercenary 3? Bizarre.

    • Saarlaender39 says:

      Someone didn’t read the intro:

      “We only have time to rescue one game from each year. Not those you’ve played to death, or the classics that the industry has already learned from.”

      ;o)

  10. nickylee says:

    I was in love with this game. I remember renting it out from the library for my ST (which sounds helluva weird today). It’s one of those games that has stayed with me and I’ve always wondered what a modern Mercenary game would be like with the technology we have now…

  11. Caiman says:

    The Mercenary series were so far ahead of their time that they haven’t actually been released yet. I look forward to them appearing on Steam and GOG at some point in the future when humanity catches up.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Somebody above your comment has a link to the freeware version of these games.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    How’s the interface for this game? I remember trying Midwinter 2 not too long ago and bouncing off it spectacularly because of the controls. Trying to cram most of a complex game onto a one-button joystick doesn’t make for a good user experience.

    • Menthalion says:

      There’s a pretty good modern port for Midwinter II : Flames of Freedom called Just Cause 3

      • LionsPhil says:

        Hah. Given how “good” I was at driving the snowcat in Midwinter, that’s a pretty apt comparison. :D

  13. GameCat says:

    This game is just one typo away from Dino Crisis.

  14. Morcane says:

    OMG Mercenary. I’m old. :(

    The Mercenary games were works of art, imagine that sandbox with 80ies and 90ies technology. Way ahead of their time.

  15. thekelvingreen says:

    The Mercenary series is the reason why I’ve never been that impressed with modern open world games. I have seen nothing in the modern era that is as open and flexible as Novagen’s series.

  16. Fnord73 says:

    Sad nobody makes open world puzzlegames anymore.

  17. MakeSkyrimGreen says:

    This sounds very interesting, wouldn’t it be good to see something like this done with the budget and production values of the GTA series?