Since the Playstation Vita was revealed to have two analog sticks, contrary to its predecessor, the Playstation Portable, fans clamored for a top-notch first person shooter to grace a handheld for the first time. With the disastrous offerings from Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies, it looked like fans may never get a great handheld first person shooter, that is, until Killzone: Mercenary came along.
The first noticeable feature about Killzone: Mercenary is that it has some of the most stunning visuals for a handheld device – ever. Running on the Killzone 3 engine, Guerrilla Cambridge has pushed the Vita the farthest we have seen it perform, yet. While it may not be quite on-par with the current-gen Killzone offerings, it pretty darn close. Vast cityscapes are painted in the background as you fly through a bombarded futuristic city with a wing suit, bright sunshine sneaks into damp caves and reflects off of their wet surfaces, and sunsets accentuate the dying landscape of the countless war zones you’ll fight through. It’s enveloping, it’s invigorating, and most of all, it’s impressive.
Killzone: Mercenary brings with it the solid controls fans of the series have become accustomed to. Aiming takes a little adjustment when first playing on Vita, but continuous play will have you popping headshots in no time. Guerrilla Cambridge realized that they couldn’t copy and paste traditional first person shooter controls over to a device that lacks click-able joysticks and more than two triggers. Grenades, special bonuses called Vanguards, and changing weapons are mapped to the touchscreen, and while it isn’t the most convenient controls, it does its job well enough to be functional in a firefight. Allowing players to choose either tapping the back touch screen or hitting circle to sprint is a nice addition to allow choice, too.
Unfortunately, Guerrilla Cambridge falls victim to what Guerrilla, itself, could not do – delivering an interesting and worthwhile story set in the Killzone universe. Killzone can wow you with its gorgeous visuals or tight controls, but without motivation or an idea of something meaningful to help progress you, the player, forward, it just seems like going through the motions. It stops the game at just being a great shooter, unable to let it elevate to the next level – something spectacular. Killzone: Mercenary tries to offer a different story dynamic by introducing a young boy in the mix to try and provoke some humanity out of our main character, the voice-less Arran Danner; however, poor voice acting turns the young boy, along with most of Killzone: Mercenary‘s characters, into annoying, one-dimensional headaches. Cheesy one liners and constant talk about “gettin’ paid” cheapen the experience and gives almost every character predictable motivations.
Some performance issues rear their head when getting into chaotic battles. When large groups of enemies converge together, the game can’t seem to handle it and starts to slow down – sometimes violently dropping in frame rate. Even certain animations in-game can cause some slow-down for no apparent reason. While these aren’t as intrusive as the former issue, it disrupts the experience and becomes a nuisance quickly.
The campaign itself is fairly short, each of the nine missions only take about thirty minutes on the hardest difficulty, but a mode called contracts adds hours of re-playablility and fun challenge. Contracts are categorized in three sections: covert, precision and demolition, representing stealthy objectives, quickness and efficiency, and as much destruction as possible, respectively. All three contracts add considerable length and new objectives you may have missed in the normal campaign and give reasons to come back and enjoy a seemingly different campaign experience all together.
Perhaps Killzone: Mercenary‘s most impressive feature lies in its multiplayer. Players can go head-to-head in eight player free-for-all or two different modes of four on four team combat: traditional team deathmatch (called Guerrilla Warfare), and a mixture of objectives and team deathmatch called “Warzone.” Though only three modes may seem lacking, it’s perfect for selecting a quick match and getting right into the action for those looking for bite-sized multiplayer goodness.
Killzone: Mercenary has only six maps packaged in, which means you’ll get familiar with all six fairly quickly. Even with the low number, each map has perfect sizing for eight players, as you can always find combat just around the corner while not feeling like everyone is spawning on top of each other. Matches run incredibly smooth, as there is almost never any lag or choppy frame rates in online matchmaking.
Several motivations propel your quest for domination in multiplayer. A meta-game of “Valor cards” challenges you to collect the cards of other players to complete an entire deck. Each player is given a card dependent of their skills and dedication. Killing a two of clubs means you’ve dispatched a new or inexperienced player, but removing a player with a ace of clubs from existence means you’ve killed the best of the best. It adds a certain satisfaction to each kill, and offers a dangerous reward to those lurking around their fallen prey: if you go collect your bounty, you risk leaving yourself a target in the open for those seeing the recent resting area of their fallen comrade. It’s simple, addicting, and it keeps you coming back for more.
One of the most applaudable choices Guerrilla Cambridge made for Killzone: Mercenary was integrating all money, rewards, and unlocks between single-player and multiplayer. Earn some money in the campaign? Feel free to spend it when you’re in matchmaking with your friends. Since all unlocks are shared between all modes, that new sniper rifle you just blew a Helghast soldier’s head off with can be used to demolish your online foes with, too. It makes transitioning between both modes simple, and gives players who spend more time in one mode the comfort knowing they can use their favorite gear – no matter whom they fight.
As of right now, you won’t be able to find a better first person shooter on the Playstation Vita. Killzone: Mercenary‘s tight controls, satisfying multiplayer, and gorgeous visuals are incomparable to any other product on the market and raises the bar to what handheld devices can actually deliver. While slight performance issues and a disappointing campaign may harm the overall value of the game, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses and offers one of the most impressive experiences found on Sony’s still young handheld.
This review is based on a review copy of the Playstation Vita game Killzone: Mercenary by Guerrilla Cambridge, distributed by Sony Computer Entertainment.