With its dual analog sticks and powerful innards, PlayStation Vita is tailor-made for great first-person shooters. Yet, over a year and a half after its launch, it’s been left with nothing but a couple of bad attempts at something resembling an FPS (Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified). On Vita, the void in the genre is noticeable, but thankfully, it’s about to be mercifully filled. EnterKillzone: Mercenary from Sony-owned developer Guerrilla Cambridge, a shooter that not only impresses in its single-player campaign, but one that flexes its muscles online as well.
Killzone’s native studio, Guerrilla Games, never bothered to take advantage of the potential of its series’ story, and with Cambridge taking over for a Vita one-off, Killzone has never strayed more from its central lore. Instead of taking the side of the ISA in its never-ending struggle against the Nazi-like Helghast, we are cast in the role of Aaran Danner, a mercenary-for-hire who’s perfectly willing to work for either end of the conflict, so long as he’s well-paid. Killzone: Mercenary’s everything-for-money slant is its main draw, and while it results in some comical dialogue that drives the point home a little too often, working for cash – and not Mercenary’s plot – kept me coming back for more.
The beauty of Killzone: Mercenary’s money system is that it transcends everything you do, regardless of if you’re playing single-player or multiplayer, whether you’re playing on a lower difficulty setting or a higher one, whether you’re completing a primary task or a secondary task. You get paid for everything, from killing a foe or scoring a headshot, to picking up dropped ammo or hacking a computer. The carrot at the end of Mercenary’s digital stick never recedes into the background; it keeps you endlessly moving forward, chasing more dough to spend on a litany of gear that can make your character stronger and more versatile. This results in almost constant on-screen reward popups that distract at first, but you’ll barely notice it (and may actually like it) if you play long enough.it in five hours – but there’s so much surrounding it that it’s easy to dismiss its brief playtime. Each of Mercenary’s nine campaign missions has three Contracts associated with it that require you to complete that mission under special parameters. Precision, Covert, and Demolition Contracts each mix-and-match a slew of directives – use this weapon, beat it in this time, save/kill this person, and on and on – that exponentially increase the overall campaign’s meatiness. These missions can be hard, and completing them will require quite a bit of skill. Either way, they’ll make you forget about the shortest campaign in Killzone history.
Sony and Guerrilla Games often note thatMercenary runs on Killzone 3’s engine, but PS3 is obviously more powerful than Vita, so don’t go in expecting the visual fidelity you see on console. What you’ll instead find is a pretty game in its own right, but one that suffers from occasional framerate dips and some awkward animations. Mercenary did lock-up on me a couple of times (once in single-player, once in multiplayer), and I even ran into a scripting error early during the campaign that forced me to restart. But from a grander perspective, Killzone on Vita is technically impressive. There are some really staggering scenes, like jumping out of a window or throwing a knife at a Helghast’s skull, that really help define Mercenary’s aesthetic. Likewise, the voice acting is strong, albeit over-acted at times, with the script narrowly walking the line between normal and corny.
Mercenary’s shooting mechanics are also on-point. It’s great to play a Vita game that really uses the hardware for all its worth, and Mercenary will push your handheld’s analog sticks in particular to the limit. As with any shooter, you can play with sensitivity settings to get the feel just right – and you may have to do this a bit more on Vita than your typical console FPS – but Killzone truly is a console-quality experience in how it feels. Aiming down the sights is smooth. Movement is clean and concise. Killzone: Mercenary does itself proud in how close it comes to triple-A console quality, and is perhaps only the second game on Vita that really does so (with Uncharted: Golden Abyss being the first).
Then again, the limitations of Vita’s hardware ever-so-slightly stilt gameplay. Vita’s sticks aren’t clickable, so running is mapped to the circle button or back touchpad. There are no R2 and L2 buttons, so little things like throwing grenades go from easy to cumbersome, since you have to select grenades as an active weapon before using them. Then again, Mercenary offsets some of these issues by creating a fairly dynamic experience compared to the series’ console iterations. I especially enjoyed the melee and interrogation systems, which require you to use the touch screen to unleash brutal execution moves (yes, you’ll stab dudes in the crotch). Additionally, overall movement isn’t nearly as heavy as it is in Killzone 2 or 3, enemies aren’t remotely as spongy, and playing with its loadout system is a blast.
That loadout system, based on money you earn for doing… well… just about anything gives Killzone: Mercenary real depth, especially when it comes to its single-player campaign. You don’t have to rely on finding weapons in realtime to use them; you can instead select a primary and secondary weapon, an explosive, armor, and more, and you can basically do it on the fly, mid-mission, by finding one of the many Blackjack shops. With 12 primary weapons, 12 secondary weapons, five explosives, and six pieces of armor, the permutations are many. You’ll just need to have the money to buy it all, which will require real dedication and lots of time.
The biggest wild card comes by way of the VAN-Guard system, a series of eight special abilities that can be purchased and equipped. VAN-Guards let you do things like attack enemies from afar with a remote-controlled robot, go into stealth mode, shoot powerful computer-controlled missiles, or call up a Resistance-like shield to protect yourself from enemy fire. Those abilities are integral to your success, especially at higher difficulties or while playing online, and they really spice up an otherwise fairly standard shooter experience. Unfortunately, their strong effects in single-player can unbalance and unsettle an online match.
Of course, like Killzone 2 and 3 before it, Killzone: Mercenary will likely find its legs (and its legions of dedicated community members) not through its campaign, but through its multiplayer. Multiplayer in Mercenary may be stripped down considerably when compared to its console counterparts – only eight players and three modes are supported over six maps – but what’s there is a lot of fun to play. I was never able to find a full match in the pre-release multiplayer environment, and I did have some connection hiccups when using the same router others are playing on, but multiplayer typically ran smoothly. The Valor Card system that permeates multiplayer – encouraging you to collect full decks of special cards found on enemies you slay online – simply adds to the depth. It piggybacks off of the reward system to give you two things to aim for instead of one.
Mercenary Warfare (deathmatch), Guerrilla Warfare (team deathmatch), and Warzone (objective-based free-for-all) are Mercenary’s three modes, and provide you with fairly typical shooter fare. I especially enjoyed Warzone, which revolves around accomplishing a series of five tasks – such as killing a certain amount of foes or interrogating a certain amount of enemies – with the highest-scoring team declared the winner. It emphasized teamwork and made it so that scoring kills wasn’t necessarily the name of the game. When put alongside Mercenary Warfare and Guerrilla Warfare, Warzone felt truly different, and I liked that.
Multiplayer also introduces random aerial drops called VAN-guard Capsules that introduce new VAN-guards into the fray, with the spoils going to whoever can get to it first. I loved that these are dropped during the heat of battle and can land everywhere. It provides a risk-reward system to those that are willing to hack the machines for the VAN-guards within while putting themselves in harm’s way for an extended period of time. This, along with the aforementioned loadout system that goes far deeper than merely choosing guns, gives Killzone: Mercenary’s online functionality a certain extra something that wasn’t there in, say, Resistance: Burning Skies. And that’s a good thing.