After well over a year since release, the PlayStation Vita still sits patiently in the corner, slightly disgruntled that it’s still having to wait for a truly decent first person shooter to fulfil its original conception. Having teased with previews and enticed gamers with multiplayer betas, Guerrilla Cambridge’s Killzone: Mercenary has certainly been making itself heard over the past month in an attempt to fill that void, but have Vita owners finally got that must-own shooter they’ve been yearning for? Read on to find out.
Game: Killzone: Mercenary
Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
If you’ve played past Killzone games, you’ll be familiar with the seemingly endless struggle between the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance (ISA) and the outcasted human descendant race, the Helghast. Killzone: Mercenary gives you a breather from the ISA uniform by slipping you into the boots of freelance gun-for-hire, Arran Danner. The mercenary role offers an interesting perspective on the war between the two factions and encourages a fervent taste for credits. Infact, the entire ethos of the game and how you’re asked to approach it could be summed up in that need for credits; right through the single player campaign into the multiplayer, money is everything. No more are you ordained to be invested in the plight of rivaling factions, all that matters is yourself and where the next payout is coming from – accept that’s not all entirely true.
The single player campaign cleverly throws up missions and storyline that purposely causes you to question your own purpose as a callous mercenary. Initially, Danner embarks on several contracts to aid the war effort including saving an Admiral, extracting encryption codes and taking control of AA cannons – mostly routine work. That routine is slightly scuppered though, when you’re asked to evacuate an Ambassador and his family from Helghan. As you’d expect it doesn’t play out quite as intended and you’re left guiding his son to safety whilst realising just how important your actions could be to the outcome of the war.
Veterans of the series will feel like they’re on the outside looking in at important moments of the raging conflict they’ve become so familiar with over past titles. As a result the entire backdrop and story feels fresh and interesting and allows opportunities to see the perspective of both sides throughout the campaign. Whilst the story isn’t mind-blowing it manages to keep a steady pace and holds a lot of relevance to your given occupation and outlook. It does a great job of making you feel important to the narrative when, in the beginning at least, the overall premise of the game insinuates that you should probably be anything but.
Whilst the perspective may have changed slightly from Killzone: Mercenary’s console counterparts, what remains emphatically comparable is the visuals and gameplay – and that’s a big deal for PlayStation Vita owners. I’ll start straight off by saying that you’ll know you’re not playing a console version as some distant gradients and extreme lighting does appear slightly pixelated at draw distances a console version wouldn’t have any problems dealing with. What I’ll immediately add is that it won’t raise too many concerns; it’s one of the best – if not the best – looking game of its kind on any handheld to date.
Killzone’s murky, dull grey colour tones and futuristic industrial backdrop make a return throughout the game, so if you’ve never been a fan of the visuals you should know this iteration hasn’t deviated a great deal. That aside, animations are close to console-like in detail and textures are similarly excellent thanks to the use of a modified Killzone 3 engine. You really will be blown away by how well the game presents itself for a handheld title. Same goes for the level design; whether you’re scaling mountainous reaches on route to an industrial market area or sneaking through an embassy full of tight rooms and corridors, Killzone: Mercenary feels spacious and open, even in spite of the direction you’re heading being a forgone conclusion.
Although this isn’t Killzone’s first foray onto handhelds thanks to the mildly popular Killzone: Liberation on PSP, it is however its first attempt at a fully fledged first person shooter – the result is exemplary. You can feel the high production values that are often easily lost on handhelds right from the animations through to the general feel of gunplay. The Vita’s twin sticks have made FPS games tenfold more enjoyable than they would have been otherwise, but other shooters haven’t managed the dead zones quite as well as this game does; soft touches to the sticks are as responsive as the big ones and the reflected movement and sensitivity on screen (even on default settings) feels more natural than you could have hoped for.
If you’ve played older console titles you’ll instantly notice that the weapons seem a little more powerful due to enemies dropping a little easier than expected – not necessarily a bad thing but it does quench a little of the balance that complimented the customary Killzone ‘weight’ which thankfully is present and correct. Just as well too, as there’s plenty of gameplay to sift through with the nine missions in the single player campaign. Despite mainly evolving around gunning your way to the end point there is some variation to gameplay that keep things interesting. Hacking terminals via a unique mini-game that has you matching configurations of shapes is challenging, whilst the change in locals from distant sniping viewpoints to fending off waves of incoming enemies in a small bar keeps you on your toes with your load-out selection.
One of the game’s main details is its access to different load-outs and not just from the get-go but during the missions as well. You’ll find an arms dealer strewn frequently throughout levels that allows you to purchase new guns, change your load-out to match a given situation or simply resupply your current equips with ammo. However, buying one of the many weapons on offer from silenced side arms to RPG’s and Vanguard robot systems to fight alongside you will all depend on how many credits you’ve acquired – as mentioned before, credits are what makes Killzone: Mercenary tick.
Everything you do throughout the game fattens your virtual wallet, from your gameplay style and kill types to completing missions and competing in multiplayer. One of the most interesting aspects to the game is how you’re encouraged to experiment with your approach to missions, which has not always been a prominent feature of the series. For example, head shots will obviously grab you more credits than shooting them in toe several times. More relevantly, moving through a section of a level without alarming the enemy through assassination style melee strikes and silenced kills gives you a nice chunky bonus come the end of it. It’s nice to play a game that not only allows you to experiment but rewards the player for it as well.
Enemy AI is pretty good for the most part, dodging and weaving and mostly sticking to cover with a wariness of your bullets. Unfortunately, there was a few awry moments. On the odd occasion you might take some twisted joy in watching the Helghast troops jump in and out of cover trying to find optimum position to shoot you, as if they were stuck in a loop. Or even experience sheer frustration in a wave of enemies refusing to join the action from a roof above you, leaving you trapped in the area and forced to lose 20-30 minutes of gameplay due to restarting the mission. Granted, they were rare occurrences but both were problems that set me back a little during gameplay.
Additional modes include the ‘Contracts’ mode and a fully online multiplayer. Contracts mode seriously kicks up the longevity by inviting you to partake in objectives other than the original goal of the main campaign. Tabbed up as Precision, Covert and Demolition, each demands a specific gun load out and asks you to play in particular way. ‘Precision’ for example wants head shots, hostage rescues and a quick mission pace, whereas ‘Covert’ needs you to destroy cameras and smoke out buildings to pass silently. With all the different contract styles, the intel to collect and the difficulty completion all accessible from this screen, the game mode acts as an addictive hub for play through records and literally adds hours of enjoyable challenges you’ll want to keep coming back to.
Of course, there’s nothing more distracting from a main campaign than an addictive multiplayer and its possibly the greatest aspect of Killzone: Mercenary, even with some minor gripes taken into account. The six maps on offer are chaotic mish-mashes of war-beaten locals that are fun to play but lack a little character and might not be as memorable as they could have been from a design perspective. Also, the only included game modes are renamed versions of free-for-all, team deathmatch and objective changing modes – they’re probably all that’s needed but it would have been nice to see a few more such as one-on-one or small team games as the maps can become a bit overly frantic at times.
What makes the multiplayer shine however is the same aspects of the main single player game – none of which have been watered down to compensate for extra players. Animations are still as fluid, the feel is equal to any Killzone multiplayer you’ve played before and the satisfaction of kills is just as sublime and addicting. The whole idea of currency earning throughout also works perfectly, not only as a method of progression but because it’s a pick-up-and-play handheld title – jump in, earn some credits, play some contracts, shoot some friends, jump out. It’s a simple but ideal implementation that brings the entire game (and system) together excellently.
It would be easy to wax lyrical about how the game looks; it’s great visually and one of the prettiest titles available on handheld. But Killzone: Mercenary is more than just a pretty face. Sure, a few more additions to multiplayer and a bit more attention to immersion kicking niggles wouldn’t have gone amiss. However, with strong gameplay, lots to do and a genuine console feel, even those who dislike Guerrilla’s shooter series won’t find a better outlet for their mobile shooting needs. Killzone: Mercenary is the new gold standard for handheld shooters, and what other developers will have to match from here on out.