- Editor's Rating
- Looks fantastic
- Controls great
- VAN-Guard weaponry is an excellent addition
- Some guns feel too similar
- Some checkpoints are a bit too far apart
- Final boss fight is cheap and frustrating
Quick TakeWith its gorgeous looks, tight shooting and surprisingly thoughtful take on an established shooter franchise, Killzone: Mercenary is an easy recommendation not only to any Vita owner, but to FPS lovers in general.
Ed. Note (9/11/13): Review updated to include information on the game’s multiplayer modes.
By: Brad Gallaway
The Vita’s hardware seems to be perfectly designed for portable first-person shooters, but traditionally the genre hasn’t fared too well on Sony’s handheld. Guerrilla Cambridge is out to change that, however, and based on what it’s pulled off with Killzone: Mercenary, we think it’s safe to say that they’ve done it.
Although there have been a number of Killzone games released on Sony systems since the series started in 2004, it’s not necessary to have played any of them before jumping into Mercenary. The game does a good job of recapping the conflict between the ISA (ostensible good guys) and the Helghast (scary masked guys). It also clearly establishes the player’s role as a gun-for-hire named Arran Danner, contracted to supplement dwindling friendly forces.
The first thing to note about Mercenary is the most obvious: its looks. There’s no question that this title is one of the sharpest-looking games available for the Vita thanks to its detailed environments, a solid frame rate, and all of the visual bells and whistles one would expect from a higher-budget game like this. In fact, thanks to some impressive large-scale architecture, distant vistas and healthy draw distances, it’s quite easy to forget that it’s running on a handheld.
However, looks aren’t everything, and Mercenary sports an overall design and controls which are just as impressive as its visuals. With adjustable sensitivity and a slight aim-assist, the moment-to-moment action felt comfortable, and we had no problem taking targets down at any range.
We were also happy to find that the touch controls were smartly implemented. Switching guns, equipping grenades and a few other quick functions are performed with just a tap. The game asks players to do a swipe or two when taking out enemies with melee attacks, but even that isn’t intrusive or distracting.
The shooting is certainly dialed in, but Guerilla Cambridge took things a step further and embraced the futuristic high-techness of the Killzone universe by including special accessories and weapons that are collectively called the VAN-Guard system.
In this system, the player can select one piece of equipment that can turn the tide of battle when things start going south. My favorite was the Arc Missile; a floating droid that shoots electricity into nearby foes and leaves them helpless when Danner gets outnumbered. The fire-and-forget Porcupine Missile worked wonders when trying to take down assault mechs, and the Carapace shield protects the player from forward fire, providing a portable safe haven when no cover is available. The VAN-Guard options feel a bit like having a super power in your back pocket, and they frequently changed the way we approached encounters.
While we imagine most people would be quite happy with good looks, reliable controls, and the VAN-Guard system’s neat twist on the shooter formula, we did want to give some recognition to Mercenary’s writing. Although it was slightly disappointing to find that Danner is a silent protagonist with no dialogue choices to make, and that Mercenary’s ending is a little too static for our liking, Guerrilla Cambridge went above expectations in portraying both sides of the conflict.
Since Danner has no allegiance to anyone except whoever pays his fee, the game avoids the traditional ‘good guy killing an army of bad guys’ setup with some missions performed in support of the ISA, and some in support of the Helghast. The cutscenes also give a satisfactory bit of insight into the leaders of both sides in a way that made clear that nobody was fighting solely for honor and goodness. It would be quite a stretch to say that Mercenary’s campaign was heavily reliant on the narrative, but we appreciated the effort made in doing something a little different here.
Value-conscious players should know that the campaign offers nine chunky missions with optional objectives that unlock after a level has been completed once. Those interested in squeezing replay out of the singleplayer component can try to pull off specific challenges like destroying a tank with the Sky Fury VAN-Guard power, planting explosives while remaining undetected, or killing eight enemies with pyro grenades. This extra layer of play shows that Guerrilla Cambridge was mindful that there might be times when online isn’t an option, so buffing the solo play as they have is a great add.
For those who want to take part in some online action, Killzone: Mercenary has it covered. Matchmaking (both private and public) is quick and easy, and gameplay is just as smooth as it is during the offline mode. Players can choose from three modes: Mercenary Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare, and Warzone.
Mercenary Warfare is the standard deathmatch mode, with a maximum of eight players, and everyone out for themselves. Mercenary Warfare is similar, only this time players are broken up into teams of four vs four. The most interesting offering is Warzone. In this mode, players have a series of different challenges to complete before the victor is decided.
For example, the first round might consist of capturing dropped VAN-Guard arms. The next round will be something entirely different, such as performing “interrogation” melee attacks on enemy characters from behind. After that, it may go back to standard skills, or something else altogether. This variety is nice because it eases the relentless kill-respawn-kill cycle that can set in during the other modes, and encourages players to vary their tactics.
(Side note: We do not recommend being the subject of an interrogation. It’s a very unpleasant experience.)
Further enhancing the online play is the fact that Killzone: Mercenary uses a unified equipment system for both on- and offline play. Any new weapons or tech unlocked in the singleplayer campaign carry over into the multiplayer, making it both enjoyable and a worthwhile investment. It’s great to go online with the exact same gear that you got familiar with during the campaign missions, without having to start back at square one with weak armor and an underpowered pistol. This helps to alleviate the problem of jumping into matches with people using top-tier weaponry, and it makes the playing field a little more level.
While it might have been true that the FPS genre wasn’t doing very well on the Vita in the past, that’s no longer the case. Killzone: Mercenary is an absolute no-brainer for Vita owners looking for tight, fast-paced action, and it’s a big win for the system itself. It easily takes the crown as the best first-person shooter available on Sony’s handheld, and it’s debatably the best iteration of the Killzone series overall.