Killzone: Mercenary is the Vita’s third chance at a first person shooter worthy of being the killer app its two stick control system requires. Does it stand tall aside the franchise that spawned it, or are the skies burning yet again?
There’s something extraordinarily special about Killzone: Mercenary. It’s that feeling you had when you first played GoldenEye 007; the same sense of awe you had playing through Call of Duty 4; it’s the opening voiceover of Killzone 2; it’s all of your favourite things about first person shooters in one neat, handheld package.
And it is that feeling that carries on throughout, that which has you smiling at the incredible, meticulously designed quality of a game on a system which can fit in your pocket. A game, which by all means, allows you to experience one of the finest first person shooters around – across both single player and multiplayer – anywhere and everywhere you go. To put it simply, Mercenary is an incredible feat, entirely unmatched in its handheld field, and one that you’ll be playing for a long, long time.
It would be rude not to take a moment to acknowledge just how incredible this game looks. While the visuals aren’t Mercenary’s only killer feature – or even its best – they are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. No one has ever matched the solid quality that this game has managed to achieve on a handheld device – it’s actually easier to believe that there’s something going on to do with Remote Play here, allowing you to stream the game from a home console to the Vita.
That is until you open the first door only to be met with a Helghast trooper, deftly disposed of with a tap of the triangle button and a swipe of the screen as your knife enters his abdomen, before thrusting the blade into his masked skull. Yes, there are touch screen controls, but they work perfectly here, allowing for an added level of immersion without complicating things.
Controls, in fact, are one of Mercenary’s real strong points: along with the melee, there are some intuitive buttons on screen for switching weapons, using grenades and even activating new Vanguards – we’ll get to them later. The fact is that the controls are tight and weighty as Killzone should be and ultimately responsive, dispelling all doubts that this had to be coming from an outside stream. It’s all quite standard, with L to look down the sights, R to fire, sticks to move and aim and even the delightful rear pad double tap for sprint.
While it’s not the visuals or controls that necessarily make the game, there’s no need to worry about the other elements such as the plot, the gameplay or even the pacing; Mercenary’s single player campaign is a finely-tuned, perfectly crafted slice of gaming that avoids the shortcomings of Killzone 3, instead matching that game’s high points with its predecessor, and adding in a heavy dose of new mechanics.
And there are a few unique twists on the Killzone formula: you’re not an ISA trooper, you’re the titular Mercenary, Arran Danner, who is rewarded with cash rather than pride and morale. This makes the game feel somewhat more fast paced, yet a lot more expansive, with opportunities to buy weapons, armour and equipment from the Arms Dealer rather than simply picking them up, levelling up as your new weapon’s bullets meet enemy flesh. You’re even able to view a short demo of these weapons before buying, and the cash you’ve earned and items you’ve bought carry across from single player to multiplayer in the most natural of ways.
It’s as if they’ve checked every single box here; everything combines impressively to create not only a genuinely fun shooter, but one that has some impressive, brave storytelling. And while the story falters at some points, it’s completed with a fantastic villain to rival Radec, plenty of surprises throughout and some well-voiced dialogue. While it can be played as a much more stealthy game at times, you’d be forgiven in the heat of the action for getting this game mixed up with the upcoming PS4 title Killzone: Shadow Fall due to the way it plays out.
Even the sound design is quite phenomenal, from the pre-menu title screen to the centre of the action. While the Vita’s speakers are hardly well suited to pumping out sound quite like this, a good set of headphones really lets you feel the grunt of your weapons, hear the perfectly suited music and completely sets the tone for the game.
Mercenary features a total of nine missions, each of which have plenty of surprises and incredible moments throughout, lasting around half an hour to forty minutes long each, if you’re not rushing through. While that might only equate to around four or five hours on one run through, the game offers plenty of reasons for you to come back aside from experiencing the story again.
Beyond the three difficulty levels are intel – which you’ll find by interrogating enemies with a quick time event, or by hacking into computer systems with a brilliant hacking mini-game – as well as separate contracts for each mission. It’s these contracts that really extend Mercenary, each giving you four objectives to complete in the level, with three additional styles of play.
Along with the standard Primary contract, there’s the Precision contract, which to complete you’ll have to accomplish tasks such as achieving headshots and speeding through the mission; the Covert contract, requiring a more stealthy approach; and the all-guns-blazing Demolition contract, which involves achieving multi-kills or even taking separate routes to destroy enemy equipment. These are fun, more arcade-styled ways to play that offer plenty of longevity.
And yet we’re still barely scratching the surface of the new mechanics on offer. Valor playing cards are awarded daily – personal achievements which appear next to your title, with opportunities to collect full decks, and Vanguards bring a fresh power-up system to the series. These Vanguards, purchasable from the Arms Dealer or obtainable from Vanguard Pods, offer a variety of limited-time perks, akin to killstreak rewards in Call of Duty, including a missile launcher, a remote-controlled drone, a jammer, a proximity tesla coil and even a stealth suit, which is brilliant for those who like to sneak around.
There’s plenty to do across the nine single player levels, then, and while the story stays the same, the gameplay often changes with these different contracts.
That’s not where it ends though, not at all. Now is where Killzone: Mercenary plays perhaps its best hand, as you step onto the multiplayer battlefield for one of the most refreshing and fun team-based shooting experiences you’ll play this year.
Each lobby allows for a maximum of eight players and there are three modes, the former two being free-for-all and team deathmatch variants, while the third, Warzone, offers something perhaps familiar for Killzone fans but at the same time, something that has undergone a bit of a change. Instead of teams winning a point unfairly by a single kill or capture, each singular point counts towards the total. So, instead of a round of 20-18 equating to 1-0, it will now show up as 20-18, with further rounds adding to the points total. Similarly, the free-for-all mode is judged by balance rather than kills, so it’s as much about which way you perform these executions as it is about getting them.
In Warzone, the game essentially switches between five different objective modes every five minutes or so. These objectives include a standard team deathmatch with Body Count; a mode which utilises the new melee mechanics with points for interrogations (also revealing the opposing team’s locations – neat); one which you must hack into Vanguard Pods which drop from the sky, giving you a personal Vanguard; and one which is very much like Kill Confirmed, awarding points for picking up the Valor cards foes leave behind.
This retooled Warzone creates a brilliant and varied way of playing across the six (and only six – eight would have been the magic number) well designed multiplayer maps, offering countless hours of on-the-go multiplayer action for anyone with a Vita. With online gameplay like this, who needs PS3? It’s really impressive stuff, and it plays better than the majority of home console shooters manage. It looks stunning too, there’s no worry of poorer graphics in multiplayer – in fact, due to the nature of some maps, it even exceeds some of the visuals found in single player.
It’s entirely well-balanced, there’s plenty to unlock and it’s perfectly integrated into the game without at all feeling like an afterthought; if Killzone: Mercenary’s single player campaign isn’t considered essential, then the multiplayer certainly is.
And – remember – this is on something that isn’t much of a change in size from the GameBoy Advance. What a difference a decade can make.
So, while Mercenary might not be the best shooter in the world, in its own field – as a handheld title – it’s almost perfect; there’s no other experience like this on a device as small as this. And, judging the game from that perspective, it’s an experience that will stick with you for a long time, much like GoldenEye, Call of Duty 4 and other revolutionary shooters have managed in the past, and one entirely worthy of its acclaim.
This isn’t just a game you need to buy if you own a Vita, this is the game you buy a Vita for.