Killzone: Mercenary PS Vita Review

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In some twisted, sadistic joke, Sony’s Vita, which was heavily advertised for its dual sticks that were designed with the idea to help the system overcome its problems with controlling first-person shooters, has yet to receive a decent FPS game. The two big-named titles released for the system, Call of Duty: Black Ops – Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies – which funny enough were developed by the same studio – weren’t exactly a strong display for the handheld. Sony has decided to show how it’s done by developing Killzone: Mercenary at Guerrilla Cambridge, a team that is part of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, a collection of studios that are owned by Sony Computer Entertainment. This first party title has addressed the issue with the lack of a good FPS game on the platform by finally given Vita owners a solid first-person shooter.

Guerrilla Cambridge has done a remarkable job bringing Killzone to the Vita. This is Killzone through and through. It looks like Killzone, it feels like Killzone and it plays like Killzone. Fans will be able to jump straight into the action without having to familiarise themselves with the series’ heavy, sluggish and “weighty” feeling or adapt to the Vita control scheme – this handles effortlessly for a FPS on a handheld. If you hated how Killzone felt, then you aren’t going to enjoy playing Killzone: Mercenary. But this isn’t just Killzone adapted to the Vita – there’s more here. Guerrilla Cambridge could have simply continued the story from the console brethren by bringing back Sev and Rico and having them fight off against the Helghast.  Thankfully, they didn’t, as Killzone: Mercenary shows another aspect of the fascinating world of Killzone, albeit not as much as I would have hoped for.

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Set after the ending of the original Killzone, Killzone: Mercenary stars Aaron Danner, a former United Colonial Army member turned mercenary. Money is all that matters to Danner, so he has no questions about ethical choices or loyalty when it comes to taking a huge pay check. This plot allows for the game to give players a perspective from both the ISA and Helghast, as Danner will work for either side throughout the course of the game. Even though the game has the concept of mercenary for hire, the story is rather straight forward and doesn’t let the player freely pick what sides to play for. That decision is powered by the story, you start with the ISA and you slowly find yourself on the side of the Helghast to stop the war escalating into a mass genocide. It’s a shame the mercenary aspect isn’t played on more, as it could have led to some intelligent multi-perspective viewpoints on the war. What you’re left with is a forgettable, cliché filled story.

A theme that surrounds all of the game is money, which makes complete and utter sense, because, you know, mercenaries like that green stuff. Everything you do in this game is rewarded with cash. Kill someone, get cash, shoot someone in the head, get cash, stab someone in the neck, get cash, pick up ammo, get cash; no matter what, you will be rewarded, but the size of the reward is defined by how challenging it was to perform. A headshot is worth more than a simple kill or picking up ammo, while a multi-kill will rake in the cash.  What’s even better is that the money crosses between multiplayer and single player, so if you’re a person who likes to fixate on the campaign rather than jumping online, then you are not handicapped for doing so.

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Earning money is vital, as it allows players to unlock and purchase additional weaponry and gear. Since there are no classes in Killzone: Mercenary, money is tied into personalising a player’s character with the gear that benefits their style of play.  When you first start the game, you have access to the trademark Killzone M82 Assault Rifle and a standard issue pistol and armour. It’s not long until you’re earning those pennies and buying shotguns, rocket launchers, tougher armour and other helpful tools to keep you alive. And as mentioned, all this crosses into the multiplayer. It’s generous, but at the same time it makes total sense, and I wish more games did this so that the multiplayer wasn’t unbalanced for newcomers who didn’t get a day one head start for whatever reason.

Killzone: Mercenary isn’t a straight one-for-one port of the Killzone mechanics. This is on Vita, which means it comes with the inclusion of hardware features that slip into the game. The game doesn’t get too crazy with these, keeping them on a lead and using the hardware to help rather than hinder you. Most of the touch controls are just replacements for physical buttons, such as when the game alerts you that ammo can be picked up on the floor; you can do this by either tapping the icon on the screen or pressing the triangle button – all interactions are done like this. With the lack of clickable sticks, the sprint is assigned to circle or double tapping the back touch pad, which is actually rather handy, since your fingers are usually lying on the back of the Vita to keep the system held comfortably.

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I only had issues with two problems in regards to the controls. The first is the melee; it’s activated with either triangle or the touch screen when within close proximity of the enemy. Once initiated, you’re forced to take part in sliding your finger in the direction of the arrow that appears on screen. It feels awkward, because you have to remove your finger away from the controls to do it, but it also pulls you out of the pacing when in the middle of combat. The other issue is that crouching can only be done while stationary, since it shares the same button as sprinting. You can slide into cover if you’re sprinting by pressing circle again, which is very handy for a game where cover is important to staying alive.

Built on top of the distinctive Killzone gameplay are tweaks and additions. The first is that you cannot pick up guns from fallen enemies – ammo is the single reward from dead bodies. The only time you can change weapons is either before you start a mission or if you find one of the black market kiosks that allow you to spend money to switch weapons or purchase new gear. I found this to be fine, since there are so many kiosks scattered around that you’re always within range to change weapons every five minutes. I also like how it lets me keep finding ammo for the weapons I like using. VAN-guards – a group of powerful tools that can be equipped to help turn the tide of a fight – can also be changed here. These tools can offer such things as having a shield protect you from gunfire, ghost camouflage to blend into the surroundings or a porcupine missile launcher, which highlights targets on screen with reticules, requiring a finger touch to send a rocket straight to the enemy’s face – destructive and brutal, but so much fun.

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Not all of the new gameplay features are good. Hacking, for instance, is monotonous. You do this a few times throughout the campaign by picking from one of six shapes and placing them on the centre terminal to remove the overlapping parts from the puzzle. This has to be done within the time-frame or you will fail and have to repeat the hack.  These hacks aren’t challenging and they aren’t enjoyable, serving only as a purpose to break up the gun combat.

The main campaign features nine missions that will take just under five hours to beat. It’s a short game if your only focus is to beat it once, but if you love a challenge, then Killzone: Mercenary will last four times as long, thanks to the additional contracts that modified the mission’s objectives. Contracts come in three types, Precision, Covert and Demolition. These contracts will usually force you to use a specific loadout, such as the first level’s convert mission, where you are required to have the gas grenades equipped, so that you can achieve the additional mission objective that requires you to smoke out the security captain in a room. These contracts target three gameplay styles, accuracy, stealth and loudness, and can be challenging for people who played the game without thinking tactically. In fact, Killzone: Mercenary is the first game in the series to allow you to approach each level in either a loud of stealthy fashion. It’s all down to your loadout, but it is entirely possible to stealth-kill guards and get past areas of the game undetected. Apart from its aesthetics and the heavy feel, Killzone: Mercenary succumbs to the genre standards and plays out like most other first-person shooters. It, sadly, never has any memorable moments that will stick with you.

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Once you’re done with the single player, you’re left with the rather capable multiplayer, which allows up to eight players to take part in Mercenary Warfare (free-for-all) or two teams of four for Guerrilla Warfare (team deathmatch) and Warzone game modes. Warzone is a specialised mode, which will be familiar to fans of the console games. Over the course of a Warzone match, five objectives are rattled through, lasting five minutes each. They are always the same objectives, involving collecting valor cards from enemies, securing VAN-guard capsules, stealth killing and normal kills. It’s a shame there are only six maps, because what is on offer are designed well, with good examples of height and layers mixed within the map design to make for arenas that can feature danger from all sides. There is no customisation to the multiplayer, so you cannot modify any of the game modes.

VAN-guards have an heavy impact on the multiplayer, as capsules sporadically drop from the sky. These are highlighted on screen, so everyone knows where the capsules land. If you manage to get to one, you can activate it to get instant access to a random VAN-guard power-up. The problem is, since everyone knows where it is and how helpful these tools are, they are all out to get it, so it becomes a battle between teams (or individuals) to fend off opposition stealing the VAN-guard. One idea I really liked in multiplayer was the interrogation move. If you manage to get behind a target, you can interrogate them. Successfully swiping the on-screen arrows will reward with the enemy revealing all locations of their team members on the on-screen radar. As you can imagine, this is rather handy for getting the upper hand on everyone else.

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Powered by a modified Killzone 3 engine, Killzone: Mercenary is a technical marvel on the Vita that showcases the handheld’s power. It’s not perfect though, as slow-down can happen when smoke or other effects are in full force, and the resolution is dynamic, meaning that when the game is struggling to keep the frame rate up, it drops the resolution. This is evident with pixilation and blurriness that crops in every time the game is doing this. Even so, there is still a lot going on with the engine, such as HDR lighting, volumetric fog and other niceties you saw in Killzone 3 to make Killzone: Mercenary one stylish and great looking game.

Killzone: Mercenary may not be the greatest first-person shooter on the market – it could certainly do with more missions and multiplayer maps – but when it comes to Sony’s Vita, it’s the holy grail that fines itself surrounded by poor attempts to bring one of the most popular genres to the handheld. This is a title that feels like it was supported by a big budget, bringing lush, well-polished, console gaming to a handheld. Fans of the series will enjoy, while anyone who is looking for a handheld first-person shooter, well, you really have no choice in the matter, since as it stands, Killzone: Mercenary is the best first-person shooter you can buy for a handheld device, although, the competition isn’t exactly fierce.

7/10

by

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Version tested: PS Vita

Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Genre: First-Person Shooter