Leading the VAN-Guard
This is the game I wanted a PlayStation Vita for. I have a long documented fondness for the Killzone series, and while Killzone: Liberation on the PlayStation Portable was enjoyable enough, I truly longed for a genuine first-person shooter production in the handheld space. This is what the Vita promised.
Unfortunately, that promise looked less and less savory as Killzone: Mercenary took its time and two criminal abortions -- Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified -- stepped in to make FPS experiences on the Vita look like an utter joke. While I still held out hope for Mercenary, the path leading towards its release was paved in feces.
If only Mercenary had released first, it would have shown its two-bit predecessors exactly how it's done.
Killzone: Mercenary (PS Vita)
Killzone Mercenary is an impressive attempt to preserve as much familiar Killzone content as possible and house it on a handheld system. Unlike previous attempts from lesser studios, Mercenary enjoys the distinction of being the inaugural first-person-shooter to actually get it right on PS Vita. Not only does it function with little in the way of compromise, it looks fantastic and plays exactly how it ought to.
The fundamental controls are intuitive enough. You have your twin sticks for moving and aiming, your left shoulder button for iron sights and your right for shooting. Interacting with objects is performed either with the Triangle button or by touching an icon onscreen -- and I really appreciate not being forced to stretch a digit to the middle of the screen -- while sprinting can be performed either by tapping Circle while moving or double tapping the rear touchpad. Considerable effort has been made to keep the Vita's varied input options from overlapping and confusing the game, the only noticeable conflict being when crouching -- an action that required Circle to be tapped when stationary, which one often forgets in the heat of the moment.
Switching between primary and secondary weapons, as well as using special VAN-Guard equipment or grenades, is all handled with virtual buttons located conveniently to the sides of the screen, a judicious use of touch controls that I always appreciate. Less convenient are melee attacks which, when initiated, require timed swipes across the length of the screen. It's gimmicky and forced, but it could have been a lot more egregious than it is and, once one gets used to them, they can be quite satisfying to pull off.
The only other annoying touch element is the mandatory hacking sections. Now and then, you'll be required to hack objectives by performing a banal pattern-matching touchscreen minigame. It's not especially difficult, it just feels somewhat unnecessary, and didn't really provide anything positive to my day. When something exists just for the hell of it, I can't say I'm ever impressed.
While Mercenary could easily have just condensed a regular Killzone experience and left it at that, efforts have been made to do offer a handful of unique toys. For one thing, players constantly earn cash as they play, scoring financial rewards for various kills, for hacking computers, and even for scavenging enemy ammunition. This money can be spent at Blackjack arms dealerships, to unlock new weaponry, armor types, and VAN-Guard gear.
VAN-Guard refers to a range of gadgets that offer some new amusements during the course of battle, taking the form of temporary weapons, buffs, and ordnance. You can have one VAN-Guard equipped at any given moment, and most of them are useful in some way, shape, or form. The Mantys, for example, is a remote-controlled bot that can sneak up behind opponents and stab them in the temples, offering silent kills without risking yourself personally.
Less stealthy players may enjoy the Porcupine, which sends locked missiles onto any opponent the player jabs with their finger, or the Arc Missile, a bot companion that hovers near the player and fries incoming foes with a blast of electricity. My personal favorite is the Vultur, which locates all enemies on the map and allows every living thing to be seen through walls and floors. It's earned me a lot of kills.
Players earn ranks with every weapon they use, as well as general experience for kills and mission completions. As they rank up, players earn new loadout slots for multiplayer. One is also encouraged to keep playing daily to earn Valor Cards -- personal calling cards that raise or lower in ranking based on how well the player is performing. These cards are dropped whenever an enemy is defeated in multiplayer, earning whoever collects them extra points.
For its solo campaign, Mercenary offers a sidelong view at the conflict between Vekta and Helghan, seen as it is from the perspective of a mercenary. Soldier-of-fortune Arran Danner takes the lead role in a campaign that takes place alongside the events of both Killzone and Killzone 2, with several stages set on Vekta, and the latter half of the story told on the Helghast's home planet. While not exactly an impressive narrative, it's a decent little yarn, and manages to be one of the few sources of Killzone canon that actually portrays the ISA in a less-than-heroic light while making their fight with the Helghast morally greyer.
It's a shame, however, that the solo game is a fairly short experience, completed in a mere few hours. It rushes through itself, as players switch from fighting alongside the ISA to the Helghast and back again in short order -- a far cry from the "choose your side" promises seen in earlier trailers. The final boss also pops up out of nowhere (as well as being a pain in the ass to fight) It's a linear story that offers little in the way of replay value, save the monetary incentives -- and unless you really can't decide on what your favorite gun is, there's not even that much reason to keep earning the cash.
I wouldn't be so disappointed by the campaign if it wasn't consistently fun, however. Aside from making an FPS work on the Vita, Mercenary stands as a thoroughly entertaining shooter in its own right, giving us some unique insights into the Killzone universe while adding cool new optional stealth routes through missions, and plenty of explosive setpieces. The shooting action is solid as granite, with weapons that feel as heavy and powerful as they should, and a pleasant variety of enemies to deal with -- especially once you finally get to fight on the opposite side of the battlefield.
If the campaign is somewhat thrifty, however, its online counterpart holds up an impressive amount of slack. Featuring four-on-four battles across three game types (free-for-all, team deathmatch, and the Killzone specialty Warzone), Mercenary offers lag-free, highly competent handheld multiplayer combat across decently sized maps. While the Vita's less robust thumbsticks make human opposition a little trickier to deal with, it ought not take long to get used to the way things operate, and one is left with a very pleasing pool of violence that can be easily dipped into until the Vita's battery drains to its last gasps.
Adding touch-based interrogation objectives and randomly dropped VAN-Guard capsules into each match makes for an online offering that stands apart from the console alternatives while retaining a familiar series feel. There are no classes to choose from this time, but one can customize a loadout using equipment unlocked at Blackjack's, with funds and progress carrying over between the online and single-player portions.
While I can't quite see myself staying as engrossed in Mercenary's smaller-scale, simplified battles for as long as Killzone 2 had me, it's the perfect thing to crack out for the occasional bit of portable warfare, and it ought to serve fans quite well for those moments when they want to get in on some Killzone, but need something just a little different.
As explained at the start of the review, Sony Cambridge did a great job with the visuals, giving a title that easily ranks among the PS Vita's best lookers. There is the odd graphical glitch, and I did once have my character stuck in a hacking animation, but overall, things run smoothly and really look quite impressive on the OLED screen. There's some solid voice acting and a forgettable-but-suitable soundtrack backing things up, too.
Killzone: Mercenary could have stood to provide more content, but that which is on offer is all very well polished and plays almost impeccably on Sony's latest handheld venture. Distinguishing itself as the first Vita FPS to really showcase the system's strengths, this is one of those ambitious titles the system can be proud to showcase, proving that a console experience can not only work in the handheld space, but be damn fun without suffering too much in the way of compromise.
THE VERDICT - Killzone: Mercenary
Reviewed by Jim Sterling