Review: Killzone: Mercenary Brings Console Quality Gaming to Handhelds Like Never Before
I am not a veteran of the Killzone franchise.
I have played perhaps two hours or so total of the entire trilogy, which was time spent largely on the Killzone 2 and Killzone 3 demos.
Besides knowing the now iconic look of the Helghast, I couldn’t tell you what the “ISA” stood for or whether Vekta was a character, or a town in some small Eastern European country I hadn’t heard of yet.
So when I tell you that playing Killzone: Mercenary on the PS Vita was my gateway to the Killzone franchise, I truly mean that I’m about as fresh to the world as a fish on land.
And this means two things: that I come with no previous expectations, judgements or affections for the franchise that could cloud my judgment, and that I played the game with the hopefully educated, objective opinion of your average video game journalist. All of this is to say that Killzone: Mercenary is, forgive the pun, hands down one of the best titles to grace the Vita’s small screen, and undoubtedly the handheld shooter the PS Vita has been looking for.
Having played a little of Resistance: Burning Skies before, I found the mechanics a little lacking for what I expected out of a shooter, handheld or not. When I previewed a level of Killzone: Mercenary back in July, I largely enjoyed it, but still had a few small reservations about it. Now, having spent hours diving into various missions in the game, I can confidentially say that the game has captured the essence of the console first person shooter extremely well, giving players an enjoyable, varied experience that they can’t find anywhere else on handhelds.
Killzone: Mercenary isn’t perfect, but it’s a damn good start to a new era on the Vita.
For those that haven’t kept up with our news on Killzone: Mercenary, the game follows Arran Danner, an UCA soldier turned mercenary who is willing to sell his services to both the ISA and the Helghast. After a “routine mission gone wrong” scenario involving the son of a Vekta Ambassador, things get hectic and with Danner often in the middle of it all. Missions will involve him infiltrating compounds, sabotaging military weapons, hacking facility databases, and defending important items or people from harm. While I won’t say that the story will bring you to tears or make you ponder the meaning of life during the course of its short campaign, it’s consistent enough to drive the narrative and give you an insight into the larger Killzone universe. Cutscenes are played out in-game, and mixed in so well that you never feel too far away from the action. One scene where my ally can’t hack a terminal fast enough while a Helghan interrogates and kills a Vektan official made me feel extremely immersed in Mercenary‘s world, especially as I tried and failed to find a way in to save the victim.
If there was any doubt to the presentation value of the game on the Vita, then there should be no more: while the game cannot compete visually with its more powerful console counterpart, it more than delivers with superb voice-acting and fantastic handheld graphics. Stages are not too large and complex to get lost in, and nor should they be for what Killzone: Mercenary advertises, but the layout does offer enough space to roam a little, find different ways to approach conflicts, and occasionally offer a slight deviation to the main path.
And while Killzone: Mercenary is set in yet another series of war-torn locales, there’s often enough effort made with each setting to make them all feel unique. One mission, for example, allowed me the option to climb up ladders and try to take out enemies from above, moving from balcony to balcony until I got to a chamber where my objective was. Another was more straight forward, offering me a large circular room where I could either stealthily take enemies out and then disappear into the edges, or let them run into the center and pick them off one by one. Killzone: Mercenary does a remarkable job at offering choice, especially with playstyles.
But the one thing that matters most to Danner and to Killzone: Mercenary‘s entire structure is the Valor system. Every action you make in Killzone: Mercenary results in Valor, which functions both as currency and a measure of ability.
Think of Valor as currency earned through reputation: for every headshot, for every melee kill, for computer hacked, Danner is increasing his skills and earning notoriety for it, which rewards more Valor. Valor can be rewarded for more than just kills, but how you play. Run into an enemy, for example, and just shoot him until he dies, and you’ll earn 50 Valor. Get through an area without raising an alarm and get a generous stealth bonus. Interrogate an enemy with a prolonged melee sequence and gain extra intel and Valor. Shoot an enemy from afar and you’ll get rewarded for a long distance kill. Make that a long distance headshot and you’re just asking for Valor to be thrown at your wallet.
And like all good things, there’s a cycle that plays in Killzone: Mercenary. Play well, earn Valor, buy new awesome toys, play even better, and earn even more Valor to buy even crazier weapons. The variety of weapons you’ll find in the game are varied enough that it can drastically change how you approach combat, with fully customizable loadouts that can favor stealthier players, more confrontational players, or a variation in between. The most interesting weapon in the game– besides the standard primary gun/secondary gun/explosive/armor set up–is the VAN-Guard system. VAN-Guard technology are super specialty weapons that also will appeal to different kinds of players for different uses:
Need to silently kill enemies? Use the remote-controlled Mantys System, which hovers around and covertly kills your foes.
Need to quickly destroy an oncoming barrage for soldiers? Use the shoulder-mounted Porcupine missile system, which lets you tap enemies on the screen to choose who to send their fiery grave.
Need to take out a foe hiding behind an insurmountable position? Use Sky Fury, which can decimate enemies with high-precision orbital particle beam blasts.
Want to just avoid enemies? Use the Ghost cloaking system to sneak past enemies while invisible.
To encourage trying out all of these combinations, there are Blackjack weapons vendors scattered quite liberally around in stages, caches where Blackjack himself communicates with you to authorize buying weapons on-the-fly that you can swap out for your loadout mid-mission. Sometimes he’ll even have a funny quip to add regarding your mission or your state of being, lending a little humor even between dire situations.
With so many choices all available from the start, the only thing that prevents you from getting too gun-crazy is the pricing, with weapons that are priced just high enough to be slightly unobtainable, but just low enough that a good playthrough in one mission can earn one or two new toys. This driving factor not only gives you a reason to want to keep playing and replaying the game, but also completely encapsulates what it means to be a mercenary. If video games are made to immerse you into virtual worlds and really make you feel a part of it, Killzone: Mercenary both excels at making you play and think like a mercenary. After all, what’s one more job if it’ll earn me a Carapace mobile shield?
But even a game with cool gadgets means nothing if the game doesn’t play well and on this, Guerrilla Cambridge also delivers. The control system is the smoothest first-person experience I’ve ever had on a handheld system, and more than outshines the two FPSs that debuted on the Vita so far. Grabbing headshot after headshot through Killzone: Mercenary‘s well-tuned aiming reticule made me feel like a professional, and it became just as easy to do on the Vita as it was on any other shooter for the PS3.
In fact, for a handheld that has less buttons than its console counterpart, the transition rarely registers in your mind (besides the need to praise the effort). Choosing your weapons on the edge of the Vita’s touch screen is a smart design choice, making it quickly accessible; using the VAN-Guard systems or hacking via the touch screen just feels natural. Even melee kills, which are done through swiping gestures, may seem gimmicky at first glance, but later only enhances the flow of the game.
Even better, everything can be customized to your liking: if you want your aiming to be a little more or less sensitive, you can alter it in the options menu. If you don’t want the touch screen as part of your gaming experience, you can turn it off. You have the choice to play as you like, and it’s the little things like these that gamers can appreciate, especially with features such as touch-screen integration forced upon consumers in the most arbitrary of ways.
Something applaudable for both the handheld and console space is the A.I., which ranges between your typical “run into my bullets” cannon fodder and your “I want to make it home to see my wife and kids” survivalists. During my time on the game, I ran into enemies that would wildly run at me while I had a gun aimed straight at them, easily adding to my killcount even when taking on large groups. But just as soon I would run into a soldier that decided to belly-crawl over and shoot from below my range, and then hide from behind a crate before shooting from another unexpected angle. I frequently encountered enemies who preferred to blindfire for maximum cover, or enemies that decided to swarm me from all sides while their allies shot from a vantage point. This little medley of A.I. types helped to mix up the action, which at times could be as (frustratingly) difficult as any other FPS out in the market.
All of these transitions work equally well into multiplayer portion of the game.
Multiplayer comes with three flavors: Mercenary Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare, and Warzone. Mercenary Warfare is your deathmatch mode, which encourages you to kill for more cash, place in the top 3 to win, and earn bonuses. Guerrilla Warfare is your team deathmatch mode, where teamwork is vital to success in killing enemies and completing objectives. Warzone is deathmatch with objectives added in, allowing players to win based on both their trigger finger and their cunning alike. Warzone takes places over five phases, offering changing objectives that include Bounty Hunter, where players have to collect Valor cards, Interrogator, where players have to extract intelligence from incapacitated enemies, Body Count, to kill as many enemies as possible, and two phases of Hacker, to secure the VAN-Guard systems that drop into the field.
Killzone: Mercenary‘s multiplayer, however limited in quantity, works especially well because of its small number. With the FPS genre unproven on the Vita so far, it was rather smart for Guerrilla Cambridge to keep the options limited to three core modes to maximize the amount of players that would show up in either one. Multiplayer is also easy to jump into, with fast respawn times, and the occasional VAN-Guard system airdropped in for a little extra firepower–for whomever can get there in time first or outwit their enemies into a trap.
Even more, the entire game cycles back into the Valor system, with players earning a Valor card once a day for how well they play in both single player and multiplayer modes. Players can then start to fill out an entire deck of Valor cards based on their actions, or even steal Valor cards from other players in Multiplayer. This adds yet another component to gameplay, to earn money and to complete your deck by playing smart and playing well.
If I haven’t implied it enough by now, Killzone: Mercenary is, by far, one of the best games to come to Vita, or any handheld for that matter. It’s not perfect: there are occasional times when you may get frustrated by a mission objective, or you may have connection issues here and there with online play. But these are few and far between, as well as trivial, when you compare it to just how big of a success Killzone: Mercenary is at fulfilling the one thing Sony has been touting about the Vita since day one: bringing console quality gaming to a portable handheld experience.
If you enjoy shooters, have a Vita, or want a reason to buy one, Killzone: Mercenary is the game for you.
Note: For a closer look at Killzone: Mercenary, check out the Gallery below, which shows off the first few missions and more. All pictures were taken via the PS Vita’s built-in screen-capture feature.