Killzone: Mercenary, the second handheld title in Sony’s first-party producer FPS series was first teased at the launch of the PS Vita. Months later, at Gamescom 2012, the project was branded with its Mercenary subtitle – an element that informs both the story and gameplay in the new Vita title.
As a result, Killzone: Mercenary, puts players in control of Arran Danner – a former UCA soldier that has renounced army life in favor of private (and extremely lucrative) contract work. Despite a colored backstory, Danner is ambivalent in the war between the ISA and Helghast – unless there’s money to be made. However, when ISA and Helghast forces clash over a new and extremely dangerous weapon (a weapon that is capable of global genocide), the titular mercenary lands in the middle of the conflict. Tasked with securing the weapon for the ISA, Danner must navigate an increasingly volatile warzone in a story filled with morally ambiguous characters that will stop at nothing to achieve their own personal objectives.
The Killzone: Mercenary storyline is par for the course in the Killzone series – which, despite an extremely intriguing overarching plot and mythology, continues to struggle with each installment’s central narrative and characters. Instead of following the ongoing adventures of meathead franchise protagonists, Sev and Rico, Killzone: Mercenary doubles-back to the early days of the series (right after the events of the original Killzone) with a few interesting nods to the larger canon for returning fans. That said, the storyline has little impact on the larger series narrative (or the upcoming PS4 installment Killzone: Shadow Fall) and, frankly, follows a pretty predictable (and downright cliche) character journey.
Mercenary, and its leading man, are style over narrative substance at nearly every turn – directing Danner from one explosive scenario to another without spending time developing any of the twists and turns along the way. The thin and derivative plot would be serviceable in similar first-person shooters but developer Guerrilla Cambridge takes the Killzone: Mercenary story very seriously – placing added emphasis on a number of developments and moral quandaries that will likely cause discerning players to roll their eyes.
Nevertheless, the gameplay in Mercenary is surprisingly sharp – relying heavily on established Killzone series staples (enemy types, cover mechanics, not to mention glowing red Hig eyes) while also throwing in some interesting new ideas as well (black market weapon suppliers and customizable character load-outs). While console gamers might be reluctant to play a Killzone title (known for precision firefights in large action environments) on a handheld, aiming and player movement is extremely fluid and precise – aided by the vibrant (and sizable) PS Vita screen. Aiming down a gun sight as well as on the move blind firing benefit from keen hit detection that rarely miss an intended mark. As a result, despite the smaller screen, console players (in addition to handheld regulars) should have no problem aiming across the battlefield and picking out Hig arms and limbs sticking out from behind cover or racking-up multi-kill and headshot bonuses.
In fact, Mercenary features the series’ widest array of weaponry – including, as mentioned, role playing-like character load outs. Through the Black Jack market (large weapon lockers that are scattered throughout the campaign), players can customize their primary and secondary fire arms, grenades, armor, and VAN-Guard equipment to suit their play type. Plus, once the campaign is complete, additional challenges open-up that task players with replaying each scenario in a certain way for added rewards (i.e. stealthy, etc). All of the different gear has pros and cons – heavier armor takes more damage but causes the player to move slower, proximity mines can be used as traps but Danner can only care two (as opposed to four regular grenades) at a time. Similarly, the VAN-Guard equipment options have different cool down rates but each one allows for a major advantage on the battlefield – especially when they complement a player’s armor and weapon choices (for example: active camo, light but quiet armor, and a sniper rifle versus an energy shield, heavy but slow armor, and grenade launcher).
Fortunately, while gamers have the option of using the touch screen, nearly every action in the game is also mapped to a button – only brutal melee attacks and hacking mini-games require touch controls. Any of the forced touch elements are pretty intuitive and detection on the Vita screen is crisp – meaning that gamers who are typically skeptical of touch mini-games and QT events shouldn’t be too bothered. That said, even though touch controls are not intrusive, they are frequent – especially for players who prefer a stealth approach (silent brutal melees require a QT screen swipe) or gamers that are collecting Mercenary‘s hidden intel files.
In addition to the various in-level challenges that open up (after completing the campaign), Guerrilla Cambridge has added replayability through the collectible intel files (six per level) that flesh-out the Mercenary backstory. Three of the files are hidden behind hackable firewalls (touch puzzle mini-games) and the other three require that players interrogate enemy lieutenants (extended three-hit QT swipe events). The lieutenant intel challenges can be especially grating, given that the players will often need to clear out other enemies before attempting an interrogation. As a result, while gamers can make it through most of the campaign without the touch screen, certain play types or those seeking extended replay value may tire of the number of times they’re asked to perform touch responses.
Of course, more strategic players who are also seeking out the collectibles will significantly extend the length of the Mercenary campaign. There are nine chapters in the single player mode and each one will, depending on play approach and difficulty, last between 30-45 minutes. It’s not the most robust campaign available on the Vita but the game offers a number of fun and explosive set pieces that, previously, would have only been achievable on consoles. Running on a modified version of the Killzone 3 engine, Mercenary is also a great looking title – and one that players will likely use to showcase the handheld’s capabilities to curious friends. Yet, there are also a number of “gamey” elements (most notably a downright frustrating and derivative boss fight in the final act) that undercut some of the title’s more progressive aspects.
Mercenary also includes a full online multiplayer mode – adding extra value on top of the quality single player experience. Overall, it’s a suitable online experience for players on the go – one that benefits from all of the quality gameplay choices that make the single player campaign so enjoyable (customization, VAN-guard equipment, tight controls) as well as tried and true Killzone multiplayer modes like Guerrilla Warfare (Team Deathmatch) and Warzone (Team Missions). Mercenary‘s third online mode, Mercenary Warfare, is an all-for-one Deathmatch where players battle it out for the number one spot (and the most Vetkan dollars). Competing online with other players on a handheld console can be intimidating but Guerrilla Cambridge has made it especially easy for reluctant competitors to jump into the multiplayer offerings – as any guns, armor, VAN-Guard systems, and grenades that are purchased in the single player experience are immediately available for placement in players’ multiplayer load outs (and vice-versa).
Despite an underwhelming (but serviceable) single player story and some redundant gameplay elements, Killzone: Mercenary offers a high quality shooter experience for PS Vita gamers – and is easily one of the Sony handheld’s most polished game packages. A variety of difficulty levels and genuinely sharp controls make the title a solid choice for experienced handheld shooter fans and newcomers who have been skeptical that the Vita could offer a FPS experience that’s as enjoyable as its at-home console counterparts. Players may roll their eyes from time to time at Guerrilla Cambridge’s heavy-handed story of a ruthless anti-hero with conflicting morals and duties but smart customization options and exciting action set pieces mean that each moment provides plenty of fun for players as they head-shot enemy soldiers and rack up brutal melee kills.
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Killzone: Mercenary is available September 11th – exclusive to PlayStation Vita.
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