Killzone: Mercenary – PlayStation Vita
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Guerilla Cambridge
Release Date: Sep 10, 2013
Genre: Action, FPS
Reviewed by Mark Smith

Review Score: 4.5 of 5

As we approach the two year anniversary of the PlayStation Vita we are finally starting to see some of the games that made me want the new handheld in the first place. Admittedly, designing a game for a handheld is a challenge in and of itself, but when you add the complexity and demands of a first-person shooter as well as all the expectations that come with a major franchise such as Killzone, the proverbial deck is really stacked against you.

Thankfully, Guerilla Cambridge rose to the challenge and has managed to create Killzone: Mercenary, a game so good that I almost wish it was on the actual PS3. But history has proven that portable games – the good ones – often do make their way to console sooner or later, so don’t be surprised if Killzone: Mercenary HD doesn’t appear in the PS Store in a few months.

FPS games seem to have the most trouble making the move to handheld, a problem that we all thought would go away when the Vita arrived with its twin-stick design, and to some extent things are much better. Now that controls aren’t the major issue it’s up to the designers to create games that conform to the sporadic pick-up-and-play nature of portable gaming. Activision tried this with Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified last year and failed miserable, but Killzone: Mercenary manages to get it right and then some.

First, we have a surprisingly good story; one that exists neatly within the console games’ story arc but wisely chooses to do so alongside, rather than awkwardly inserting itself into the existing narrative. Instead of playing the dutiful ISA soldier on the front lines you’ll be playing Danner, a mercenary for hire and part of a team that is playing their own war games against the Helghast from a more convert and profitable perspective. This unique approach to the game allows for a much wider variety of mission types set in distinct locations. Sure, it lacks that epic flavor you’d get in a 10-12 hour console narrative, but in a 6-8 hour portable game, these missions are perfect for impromptu gaming sessions. Even if you can only play for 15 minutes you’ll still feel you’ve made some progress. There are a few significant cutscenes throughout the game, but most of the story is confined to mission briefings and in-game com chatter, which is perfectly fine because if I have 15-20 minutes to play a game on my Vita I don’t necessarily want to spend it watching a movie.

For the most part, Killzone: Mercenary plays a lot like its console cousins with the exception of a few awkwardly inserted touchscreen controls. Fortunately, most of these can also be executed with the tap of the triangle button; stuff like picking up ammo, climbing ladders, pressing buttons. Other tasks like stealth kills, pulling levers, and hacking consoles will require you to touch the screen. The stick controls are nice and I appreciate and simultaneously curse the lack of a targeting snap-lock when aiming down the sights, especially since the enemy often blends so well into the environment. Even the rear touch panel makes its first useful contribution as both a zoom slider for your sniper scope and a sprint/cover toggle. Many of the controls can be swapped or reconfigured in the options.

Being a mercenary puts you into contact with all sorts of shady characters, and Blackjack is one of them. He is your primary contact for obtaining ammo, and new weapons before and during missions thanks to conveniently placed weapons’ containers scattered about the levels. It’s best not to ask how he got them so deep into enemy territory. Provided you’ve got the cash, or what the game calls “valor”, he’s got the supplies for you; often with special discounts and sales for bargain shoppers. You’ll also use his stations to swap your loadout mid-missions, for a fee of course. You earn valor by completing objectives and going above and beyond with headshots, stealth kills and such. In an interesting twist, the game’s generous checkpoint system actually costs you valor each time you have to use your “life insurance policy”, so if you die a lot that is just less money you have to spend on weapons.

Your campaign profile is shared with your online profile so any purchases you make during the story will carry over to online multiplayer, which is where most gamers will ultimately spend the majority of their time in Killzone: Mercenary. The campaign is fun enough the first time but chances are you won’t find the urgency to repeat it anytime soon unless you want to replay on a higher difficulty or are trophy hunting. Although, if you are struggling in multiplayer, the campaign is a great place to grind for more valor and better weapons.

The online component of the game is especially tasty and includes Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Warzone; the popular franchise mode with rotating objectives. The more you play the more you rank up, earning additional loadouts and special cards used mostly for bragging rights. The online community was slow at first but now, a few weeks since release there are plenty of people playing and it’s easy to get into a full 8-player game. Online play seems surprisingly stable with relatively smooth framerates and only a few dropped matches.

Even though the online gaming is stable and fun the maps need a bit of reworking. Many of the levels are way too vertical making it hard to find the other players despite levels being a bit too small on the x and y axis. I would have preferred maybe a one or possibly two tiered level design with more square-footage at the ground level. It seems the only time you really get into an exciting fire fight is when special airdrops appear and everyone races toward them, otherwise the match can devolve into a game of hide and seek.

Despite its few and minor flaws, Killzone: Mercenary is still a remarkable game that seems to be struggling to break free from the confines of the Vita. It certainly wouldn’t take much to put this on the PS3 and I’m sure we’ll see it there eventually, but until then, those looking for the best possible FPS experience you can take out of the house, Killzone: Mercenary delivers a solid action game design, tailored for the portable gamer, and plenty of online fun when the story is done.