Killzone: Mercenary is the first of what Sony hopes will be many successful realizations for their darling little handheld: delivering all the bells and whistles of their console exclusives to the palms of your hands. While other games attempted identical feats (Resistance: Burning Skies, Black Ops Declassified), Killzone: Mercenary is the proof of concept. The touch controls and cramping in my wrists repeatedly reminded me I was playing on a Vita, not a controller. But the crisp industrial environments, the responsive targeting, and the gratifying multiplayer component cast aside doubts concerning the future of portable shooters.
For the first time in the series’ history, however, the narrative fails to strike a chord, crushed beneath the boots of awkward plot development and silly antagonist motives. Danner, the titular mercenary, renounces both sides in mankind’s latest ongoing conflict. Instead of joining the ISA armada or the oxygen-masked Helghast, he enlists with whomever signs the bigger paycheck, accepting contracts too dangerous (and unprofitable) for the average soldier. Danner detonates a refueling Helghast cruiser one mission, then evacuates one of their scientists the next, for example.
The assignments already sound more enthralling than Killzone 3’s conventional war for survival, yet the dialogue and voice acting do not merit support. In the second mission, an ISA comrade sacrifices himself so Danner may live. Was I supposed to feel something for a man who simply wanted to kick the Helghast bastards out of his backyard? Should the inevitable backstabbing by my guns-for-hire employer have left me distraught? Was an admiral’s philosophy of building a better tomorrow on the graves of the deceased meant to provoke a reaction? As much as the developers do to advance the FPS genre on the Vita, the lukewarm story lags behind.
The boy may be integral to the plot, but his usefulness begins and ends with opening locked doors.
Where Guerrilla Cambridge really executes on Sony’s long-overdue promise is the gameplay space. Killzone: Mercenary retains Killzone 3’s cover system while adapting several tricks of its own. To compensate for the Vita’s fewer inputs, the developers relocate weapon switching to the touch screen – a decision that benefits the combat's harried pace without cluttering the interface. Of course, the Vita's layout does lead to drawbacks. The rear touchpad makes Danner sprint, which happens randomly if that's where you rest your fingers. The developers do let critics turn off all touch features in the options menu, yet a compromise persists. Guerrilla Cambridge mapped sprinting and crouching to the same button, meaning players must stand motionless before entering cover.
The gunplay – once the stars align then – is snappy, an afterthought compared to Killzone 2’s weighty realism. Fans may need to adjust to the feedback on the pint-sized analog sticks, but the auto-aim assists in lining up long-range shots, and the game never robs you of control. Precision is mandatory here, because headshots, killing enemies in rapid succession, and hacking computers award valor (currency) for exchange at the black market. The weapons, armor, and grenade types even transfer over to multiplayer, and support abilities called “VAN-Guards” make their debut as well. These countermeasures shift the flow of battle dramatically, with remote drones that lobotomize hostiles silently, air strikes that reign down hellfire when you tap targets on the touch screen, and shields that disguise you or absorb damage momentarily.
In the meantime, the Helghast/ISA will assuredly find a counter to Danner's tactics; they lose little intelligence on the downgrade to a smaller platform. Although infantry often expose themselves behind cover, they also exchange bullets through blind fires, roll from cover, and perform flanking maneuvers. Every time I thought I found an unbreachable position, a grenade indicator let me know how wrong I had been.
Why bother encrypting sensitive intel that is easily cracked by a match-the-shapes hacking minigame?
The campaign’s brevity (about five hours) is still a compliment, and the fun of jumping back in for a bigger payday has been structured for repeat playthroughs. Completing a mission for the first time unlocks several mission-specific contracts. Finishing a level under par time, bagging a set amount of headshots, eliminating attackers with a particular firearm, or rescuing hostages gorges your bank account. While not mandatory, the contracts and valor system reinforce Guerrilla Cambridge’s vision of making money no matter your task or allegiance.
Except for sightseeing. From caves to ship engines, each intricately rendered environment (demolished as they may be) showcases the untapped computing power of the Vita. Lightning strikes batter an elevated industrial refinery; skyscrapers strain and groan, attempting to remain erect as ISA and Helghast dogfights jeopardize their collapse; and ransacked academies no longer house scholars and disciples of academia, but soldiers of fortune instead.
A couple of the environments transition from single-player to multiplayer, but Guerrilla Cambridge is keen on their one-off settings, too. A vacated marketplace offers a vertical advantage for covert assassins; a fractured office complex forces competitors to watch their footing and their radar; and ocean waves break upon a sandy shoreline, immune to the battles raging across its coast.
Most locales allow for multiple plans of attack, silent or explosive.
Multiplayer supports eight players and three game types, sadly – rather low for the distinct variety of arenas. Deathmatch and team deathmatch give lone wolves plenty to chew on, but the franchise’s Warzone mode returns as the playlist worth howling about. Warzone rotates objectives between interrogating wounded players, hacking VAN-Guard capsules for killstreaks, and so on, providing a dynamic flow to the engagements as teams rally to complete contracts and hold off reinforcements.
Only VAN-Guard abilities, especially in the right hands, tended to break multiplayer for brief moments. The Mantys Engine’s miniscule frame makes the drone nearly impervious until it beelines straight for your temples, and the Sky Fury discourages skirmishes outdoors unless players wish to be nuked from orbit. Sticking to Mercenary’s core theme, it pays to be on the winning side.
As I mentioned before, however, players bring their campaign unlocks into multiplayer and vice versa – a more lucrative system than restarting everyone from scratch. The opposition usually behaves smarter online, and the lethality of their weapons cannot be downplayed. Fans picking Killzone: Mercenary up late should be happy to know I had no issues finding full matches a month after launch, either – at least double the time it takes for smaller communities to fade.
Naysayers could deride Killzone: Mercenary as a scaled-down version of the Killzone name designed to fit on a portable platform, but that would devalue Guerrilla Cambridge’s achievement: being the first studio since the Vita’s launch to adapt the controls and visuals into something resembling a console-quality FPS experience. No longer can developers blame poor review scores and sales on the hardware, and no longer must fans endure empty promises. Killzone: Mercenary remains the weakest Killzone entry yet, but it's approachable in every area that matters.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-8 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PS Vita (Reviewed)