When the PS Vita was first announced, minds raced and shooter fans rejoiced at the prospect of seeing their favorite FPS series finally play properly on a handheld device. Of course, games like Call of Duty: Roads to Victory and Resistance: Retribution were released to satiate the bullet-crazy appetite of hungry PSP owners, but the physical limitations of the device—both the lack of a second analog stick and its weaker processing power—drastically affected the way in which these games could be played on the go. Early on in the Vita’s young lifespan, we’ve seen a shooter released from both of the aforementioned series. Coincidentally, both Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified were developed by Nihilistic Software. Looking at that company’s track record (now under the name “NStigate Games”), it’s much less of a surprise that both of those games turned out to be underwhelming, with Black Ops Declassified universally considered to be one of the worst games on the entire platform.
Thus, gamers who had played either of those were wary when Sony announced that a third AAA shooter, Killzone: Mercenary, would be coming to the Vita, but early footage looked far more promising than any FPS on the system to date. In addition, the title’s development would be handled in house by Guerilla Cambridge, a sister studio to the creators of the console Killzone games. Perhaps it’s fitting that for a system struggling to climb out of a slump with shooters, Sony turned to what may just be the “most improved” series on the market today. Killzone: Mercenary continues that trend, as it’s one of the best-playing shooters to ever find its way onto a handheld.
As the name suggests, Killzone: Mercenary’s protagonist Arran Danner isn’t as overtly righteous as one might expect from a traditional soldier. After a horribly botched mission and the loss of a close friend, Danner’s work as a gun-for-hire quickly thrusts him into a massive war erupting between the ISA and the Helghast. Not only that, but after multiple hostage rescues end with complications, Danner’s morality and motivations are tested.
This exposition sounds like it would lead to a deep, political thriller following Danner as he attempts to stop the loss of millions of lives, but Killzone: Mercenary’s roughly seven hour-long campaign barely taps into its true potential. The plot moves forward at such a rapid pace that it’s almost impossible to gauge why some events are happening. We may know that an event has happened, but to truly place it within the context of an ongoing narrative (both within the game and the entire series), it would require a greater amount of time focusing on events and the characters driving them, but perhaps it’s best that the latter was not the case; Killzone: Mercenary features some of the blandest characters I’ve encountered in years. In addition to the completely silent Arran Danner, the many villains and all but one of the game’s supporting characters feel like caricatures as opposed to real people. Attempting to make the sensitive plot work in harmony with the characters would have been a sight to see, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
However, as mentioned earlier, Killzone: Mercenary is one of the best playing shooters available on handheld. Even with a fairly boring plot to drive Danner’s actions, the game feels very close to what one would expect from a full console release. Aiming and firing Mercenary’s assault rifles, pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, rockets and sniper rifles feels excellent, with a reduction in recoil to compensate for the Vita’s smaller analog sticks. Hit detection is also impressive, although a few unusual scenarios (one involving a tank gunner) led to some minor frustration.
To utilize the PS Vita’s control scheme to its fullest—and to compensate for some of its shortcomings—Killzone: Mercenary remaps some traditional shooter functions to places that feel a little foreign to longtime fans of the genre. Triangle, for instance, does not switch weapons; instead, the right d-pad button handles this function, and triangle is used for both contextual actions and for instigating melee kills, which are finished with a swipe of the touch screen. Mercenary also avoids the common mistake of over-using the touch screen to validate the game’s existence on a portable platform. It’s only used for melee attacks and interrogations, hacking mini-games, and a few “VAN-guard” attacks, chosen in loadouts and occasionally available as drop-pod devices to deal extra damage. The game not only manages to translate all console functions to a handheld, but it simplifies actions that would otherwise be a chore on the Vita’s big brother. During the bulk of the campaign, these Vita-specific features aren’t especially important, but they help to establish Killzone: Mercenary as the first Vita shooter to perform two necessary functions: it’s instantly familiar to console gamers, but it could only exist on the Vita platform.
Of course, with a name like “Mercenary,” it makes sense for the game to put a heavy emphasis on making the big bucks throughout each mission. Players receive money for shooting enemies, using stealth, or even the occasional combo explosion kill, but they’re also rewarded for replaying missions in the form of contracts. Much like the recently released Splinter Cell Blacklist (free of all colons!), Killzone: Mercenary utilizes a few different play-styles, each offering unique challenges and objectives over the course of a mission. However, unlike Splinter Cell Blacklist, Killzone: Mercenary is a very fast-paced game; stopping to complete very specific tasks just isn’t very fun.
While undoubtedly technically superior to both Black Ops Declassified and Burning Skies, Killzone: Mercenary is by no means a technical marvel. Draw distance is very impressive, especially considering the high number of long-distance shots present due to the game’s excellent level design, and cinematics smartly ditch the game’s engine for pre-rendered scenes to set up missions. However, Killzone: Mercenary also suffers from some problems that are both familiar and new to the PS Vita. Fire and explosions still look atrocious, almost as if they weren’t finished, and “brutal melee” kills that should look, well, brutal, are not very detailed. The frame rate can also take an occasional dip, but this problem is limited to just a few areas. That’s not to say that Killzone: Mercenary looks bad, but when stacked up against the breathtaking Uncharted: Golden Abyss, it leaves something to be desired.
Perhaps Killzone: Mercenary’s best feature is its online multiplayer mode. “Perhaps,” because during play-testing for this review, I encountered a grand total of zero people to play with. This is obviously not the game’s fault, but all multiplayer impressions I was able to take away were from the beta that began a few weeks earlier. It showcased a multi-leveled map called “Shoreline” and ran extremely smoothly. In fact, everything looked just as crisp as the game’s campaign, and “Warzone”, the beta’s showcased mode, offers a variety of objectives such as interrogating injured enemies, hacking terminals, or grabbing “valor cards,” a feature highly reminiscent of the “Kill Confirmed” mode in Call of Duty. It’s a shame that this couldn’t be tested further, as Mercenary’s multiplayer looks to be the star of the show. Should the final multiplayer drastically alter from what I experienced, the review score will be amended.
It isn’t as polished as its console counterparts, but Killzone: Mercenary is definitely worthy of a shooter-hungry Vita owner’s money. Even though it’s tough to get over some of the cheesy dialogue and cookie-cutter characterization, Guerilla Cambridge accomplished its goal: this is a solid first-person shooter on a portable system optimized and desperate for the genre.
Invisible Gamer’s Killzone: Mercenary review was based on final retail code provided to us by Sony.