With Killzone Mercenary, Guerrilla Cambridge has delivered an FPS that, unlike most big-name Vita shooters, looks stunning and feels natural on a handheld.
Unlike the platform's last signature blaster, Resistance: Burning Skies, Mercenary successfully captures the essence of the PlayStation series while properly utilising the Vita's horsepower. The end result is a game that stands on equal footing with its PS3 counterparts, but ultimately fails to distinguish itself from genre peers.
Mercenary is set just after the events of the first Killzone and overlaps with the story of Killzone 2. It casts players as the work-for-hire merc Arran Danner. In the ongoing war between the ISA and the Helghast, Danner is willing to take up arms for anyone with the coin to pay for them. He's the typical voiceless soldier we're all too familiar with, but serves his purpose as a baggage-free cipher well enough.
Although Danner's role in the narrative doesn't evolve beyond running and gunning his way along whatever path is laid out for him, the story takes a few turns. Unfortunately, the twists are all a little cliché and the game mostly squanders the opportunity to explore both sides of the struggle with more interesting missions. It's all "go here and blow this up" or "defend this area".
"The twists are clichéd and the game mostly squanders the opportunity to explore both sides of the story"
Danner's fleeting allegiances do create a nice variety in enemies for players to gun down . The Helghast offer up a mixture of standard soldiers, heavy machine gunners, flamethrower units and drones. These units are usually combined in a way to encourage the player to use dynamic strategies and switch up weapons. The ISA, meanwhile, will throw in stealth camo snipers and mechs to amp up the challenge.
Impeccable visuals are a hallmark of the PS3 Killzone titles, and in this respect the portable release certainly lives up to the standard. The iconic crimson-eyed Helghast troops are chunky and covered in fine details. The ISA, though less visually interesting, have been given just as much attention, as have the various mechs and vehicles they employ. From a technical perspective, the visuals are super sharp and the textures look great, provided you don't stop to take too close a look.
The environments are a particular highlight. Although you spend the majority of the game gunning through futuristic labs and enemy bases, where gleaming metals, bright lights and blinking LEDs are the decor du jour, the occasional detour through earthier mansions and buildings are equally as pleasing on the eye.
Overly industrial interior stylings aside, every now and then players will spy some truly stunning vistas in the background: futuristic cityscapes that stretch far off into the distance, buildings being bombed by airships or a really bleak, oppressive slum area. And all of it seems lavished with the same visual flourishes seen in Killzone 3. It all looks very, very pretty.
It can't be understated how trouble-free and satisfying the actual experience of playing Killzone Mercenary is, given the genre's murky history on handhelds. Although the inclusion of a second stick on the Vita certainly contributes significantly by making movement and aiming smooth and responsive, Guerrilla Cambridge also deserves credit for faithfully recreating the feel of Killzone. Characters are weighty and guns feel powerful, offering a satisfying sense of impact when nailing enemies with bullets.
Environments are relatively open and designed to accommodate multiple play styles and equipment loadouts. For those who favour all-out assaults, there's lots of cover to move between and paths to use for flanks. Stealth types can use vents to sneak through, with plenty of opportunities to stay hidden, before silently dispatching foes. Most areas can also accommodate those who prefer long-range sniping.
The diverse playing styles is complemented by weapons and equipment available to purchase. Money is awarded for killing enemies, hacking intel terminals, completing objectives and finishing missions. Cash can be used to purchase anything from assault rifles to submachine guns, rocket launchers, pistols, flashbangs, gas grenades and body armour.
Van-Guard items are perk abilities that can be used during combat. These function much like Call of Duty's killstreak rewards and encompass offence-heavy equipment like remote-controlled killing machines, shoulder-mounted missile launchers and laser strikes.. For the combat-shy there's the Ghost, a camoflague that will make a player invisible while moving slow, a drone that maps enemies and equipment, or the Carapace, a shield that will stop incoming bullets. The Van-Guard items are a much needed wrinkle in an otherwise by-the-numbers gameplay experience.
Thankfully, Guerilla Cambridge has also exercised measured use of touchscreen, tilt and rear-touch features. In addition to menu navigation, pulling the occasional leaver, guiding targeted missiles and a match-the-pattern hacking mini-game, front-touch is used primarily for QTE executions during melee combat. Successfully swiping the screen as directed results in broken bones, knives in faces and snapped necks; it's quick, simple and rewarding.
Gyro, meanwhile, can be used as an alternative way to aim, but it's off by default and is never forced on the player. The back touch is used mostly to zoom with a sniper rifle. All in all, the Vita's unique functions are implemented in elegant and unobtrusive ways, if non-essential to the experience.
Killzone Mercenary's biggest potential issue is the brevity of its campaign. Its nine missions can be completed in under five hours which, depending on how much value you place on longevity, could be a deal breaker.
Although the campaign is brief, it delivers everything expected from a modern day shooter, and does it well. It has a short and sharp story, tense combat scenarios, and thrilling set-pieces. Nevertheless, it can still be completed in one or two dedicated sessions.
For those willing to return to old missions, there's potentially more hours to sink in, as Mercenary provides new objectives based on specific playstyles.
For sneaky players this may involve reaching a point in a mission without arousing suspicion or executing a certain number of backstabs. Assault players may be tasked with scoring a particular number of headshots, while demolition-style players may need to use a specified weapon to unleash chaos. Completing these challenges yields much more cash then usual. Since money is shared between single-player and multiplayer, the funds can be used acquire items for use online.
The online side features three modes: Mercenary Warfare, an all-against-all battle to secure a top three placement on the scoreboards; Guerrilla Warfare, a traditional team-based deathmatch mode where the first team to score 40 kills (or finish with the most) wins; and Warzone, a mixed-objective mode that cycles between racking up kills, extracting intelligence and hunting down VIPs.
If you're a fiend for multiplayer, the four-versus-four skirmish will definitely give you a good fix, provided you're able to get into a game. It may be nothing more than initial teething problems, but we spent more time in the lobby screen than actually playing Killzone Mercenary online. When we did manage to get into a game, very often we'd be dropped due to connection issues (we tried different WiFi access points) or inexplicably kicked from games.
It'd be nice if Guerrilla introduced additional and more creative modes. The portable nature of Killzone Mercenary presents a perfect opportunity to experiment into the quirkier game types, perhaps drawing inspiration from the way the Halos and Call of Dutys have experimented on consoles. With any luck, these will be introduced via updates or DLC, but as it stands multiplayer suite is quite bland.
Killzone Mercenary's other big issue is how stringently it sticks to the modern first-person shooter blueprint. Make no mistake, when we say it's just like Killzone on PS3, we mean it. The emulation is so successful that there's almost nothing unique about the game. There are no new ideas here, but many old concepts executed well.
Killzone Mercenary is a shining showcase of the Vita's power, but also a very short, by-the-numbers first-person shooter.
- Looks stunning
- Plays and feels great
- Touch screen is used well
- Very short campaign
- Missions aren't very creative
- Multiplayer modes are bland