Killzone: Mercenary has a lot riding on it. As the third major first-person shooter effort on Vita and as the follow-up to two awful shooters on Vita, this game is releasing in a time when some of us wonder if PlayStation will ever get a proper multiplayer FPS on its handheld system. Developed internally at Guerilla Cambridge and not outsourced like many other projects on the console, the new Killzone game is finally out. And you know what? They mostly pulled it off.
Mercenary is exceptional on its own mainly for the way it looks and plays. The guns have weight and feel powerful – artisanal creations that feel like the product of progress rather than a dated excuse for existing on handheld hardware. Likewise, the Vita touch controls are only brought to bear when useful instead of forcing it simply because the hardware supports the feature. You can double-tap the back touch screen or select grenades on the touch screen if you want, but you can also quick throw a grenade with the directional pad or run by lightly tapping the circle button once. Most importantly however, the controls feel tight and exactly like a modern shooter is expected to. Oh, and the game looks almost as good as the PlayStation 3 games, so there’s that.
In Call of Duty: Black Ops – Declassified, the single-player campaign was sold as “several objective-based missions” which ended up amounting to 45 minutes of content and a legion of disappointment. Mercenary likewise has a single-player campaign sold on how many missions it has (nine), and this was initially concerning to me. In the final product, what Killzone offers is nine missions in the context of a greater, actual single-player campaign. It has cutscenes, it has a decent story involving being a Mercenary on both sides of the Helghast-ISA conflict, it has full levels and set pieces used once and never even hinted at in the multiplayer, and most importantly, it introduces you to everything you need to know in the multiplayer. It’s around six hours long and about on par with a lower-level Call of Duty campaign from this gen. Granted, it’s generic as all hell (you can see where a cover-based shoot-out is going to take place before it happens) and offers almost no artistic value outside of the fact that it exists, but the fact that it exists and it’s pretty good is something impressive in itself.
Though not the most substantial, the multiplayer offering is pretty good too. Of the three modes in the 8 player experience, two of them are simple deathmatch and team deathmatch modes. The third is called Warzone, and does the best job of making you feel like a mercenary on the battlefield. Within these matches are constantly changing objectives for both teams. Mostly, these objectives are either killing the other team, “interrogating” them, or hacking various terminals.
Interrogation is a dance of making sure your target is alive-but-incapacitated so you can get information out of them, and terminal hacking is a brief-yet-fun easy puzzle sequence with geometric shapes. In addition to this, all players drop Valor Cards upon death in multiplayer that can grant a boosted payout in addition to the kill money (the type of card you specifically have is also determined daily based on your own performance). Taking the card increases your spoils, but going out in an open area to get that card could mean you are met with a bullet to the head if someone is smart enough to camp near the card and wait for you — adding a risk-reward aspect to the game.
Are there concessions? Sure. Because the matches are limited to a maximum of 8 players, the maps are appropriately scaled to keep action tense without being suffocating (unlike one Declassified map where the famous Nuketown ostensibly became Nukehouse). Even though the maps I played on weren’t huge, they still featured some camping points, spacious interiors, and a decent-sized outdoor areas with plenty of room for close and long ranged combat. Additionally, the online proves competent through a lack of significant lag and well-populated servers. It’s a smaller experience than the big guys, but it plays just as well.
The mercenary theme is further carried through the fact that everything in the game is dictated by money. Your experience is based on money you earn in single-player and multiplayer (the money you earn is universal), and the weapons you buy for your load out are also dictated by money. This is a clever idea, but it also falls flat a bit when it’s extremely easy to earn money in single-player and have your ideal load out by the third or fourth story mission. There aren’t many weapons to buy in relation to the money you earn, and you can buy any weapon regardless of your multiplayer level as soon as you get the cash.
Killzone: Mercenary is the first really good first-person shooter on Vita. It delivers solid controls, a healthy online mode, a full single-player campaign, and a level of effort that hasn’t even been attempted in similar games released on the system. It’s rather generic on its own, offering things only interesting on the handheld landscape and offering little new for the genre itself, but there’s something incredible about seeing how far we’ve come since Nintendo’s Game & Watch handhelds.
Vita review copy provided by Sony. Killzone: Mercenary is available now exclusively on PlayStation Vita.