kzmboxrpI recently got my hands on a playable preview copy of Killzone: Mercenary, a new installment into the epic Killzone franchise, and this time it’s on the PS Vita.  Developed exclusively for the Vita by Guerrilla Cambridge, Killzone: Mercenary is the first handheld entry in the series to offer  console-like, first-person shooter gameplay inside an epic 8-10 hour single-player campaign complete with substantial multiplayer gameplay modes for up to eight players.

My preview consisted of only one level, so it’s hard to judge the story and overall flow of the game when played out of context, but after a couple of hours with even just one level I can say Mercenary is shaping up to be one of the better, if not best, Vita games of 2013.  In this particular mission I was playing Arran Danner, a mercenary airdropped into enemy territory where I was quested to hack some defense terminals and then defend a giant orbital cannon until it charged up and I could shoot down an orbiting cruiser.

Controls are pretty awesome considering this is an FPS on a handheld.  The twin sticks allow from smooth movement and aiming, much like you would expect on the PS3, however Guerrilla insists on integrating some mandatory touchscreen commands that really throw off the pacing, and in my opinion, overall enjoyment of the game.   Things like tapping a centrally located icon to pick-up each ammo drop manually, hacking terminals, and attaching to ladders so you could climb them forces you to move your hand interrupting movements, firing your gun, or both.  I enjoyed the swipe controls for melee and throwing levers – those actually fit the action within the game, but there is just too much unnecessary and inconvenient tapping.   Hopefully you will be able to option out of this touch mode in the final game.  There is nothing wrong with auto-pick-up for ammo and just pushing into a ladder to climb.

In my demo I had two weapons, my pistol and a rifle, along with grenades and a cool lock-on rocket launcher near the end of the game where I only had to tap on highlighted enemies to kill them – a touch mode I didn’t mind.  In my particular demo I also had a robot called Manty’s Engine that, when charged, I could launch and fly around doing stealth-kills on unaware enemies and getting a bit of visual recon of what was ahead.   This is just one of man Van-Guards you can equip and use in the game to help defeat the hordes of enemy Helghast.

There is a slick economy system in play that rewards you wish cash for kills and completing mission objectives, but also penalizes you for dying – a nice financial incentive for staying alive.  You can then spend this money at various weapons crates provide by Blackjack, the arms dealer.  There is also secret Intel to be collected that will reward you with Valor Cards than can be used to unlock other cool weapons and gadgets.  The cash rewards and Valor Cards extend into multiplayer modes as well, and I will cover those in my multiplayer coverage coming soon.

The difficulty can be quite challenging at times, in part due to the smaller screen space, and more in part due to some overly sensitive analog controls.  I’m not a big fan of auto or snap-locking on consoles but it would have come in handy here.   Enemies tend to blend into the backgrounds (at least in this level), and it was often hard to find them, let alone target and shoot.  Plus, even though you can duck, there is no real cover system in place, and taking cover is the only way to heal.   At this time there was no way to customize the button layout although you could adjust sensitivity settings on the sticks and motion inputs.

It’s still way too early to tell how Killzone: Mercenary will turn out when it releases on September 10, but as it stands now, and from the little bit I got to play in this one-level demo, Guerilla’s new shooter is going reignite the PS Vita with one of the best looking , sounding, and playing handheld games of 2013.  Check out these exclusive screenshots from my playthrough and pre-order your copy today.