The PlayStation Vita is a pretty powerful piece of technology capable of delivering console-quality gameplay. With its dual joysticks, large screen, and impressive graphics processor, the Vita seemed poised to become the first handheld to deliver a proper first-person shooter experience. And yet in the system's 20 months on the market there have been fairly few FPS games, most of which have been received by gamers with a decisive yawn of indifference. Enter: Killzone: Mercenary.
Killzone: Mercenary is the FPS that Vita owners have been waiting for ever since the system's launch back in February 2012. It's been a while since I played a console FPS and I've never played any of the other games in the Killzone series, so I can't vouch for how well it holds up to any current console shooters or the Killzone series, but Mercenary is leaps and bounds above any FPS I've ever played on a handheld. Even compared to what I've come to expect from "typical console shooters" (imagine me saying that as disdainfully as possible), Mercenary managed not to piss me off and actually impressed me a little bit.
As the game's subtitle suggests, you play a mercenary taking contracts from the highest bidder in the middle of the Helghast-ISA war. Initially you take contracts with the ISA to extract one of their admirals from Helghast capture, and later to sabotage a Helghast colonel's cruiser. After these two missions, the rest of the game is a string of missions revolving around a Vektan ambassador's son, who apparently holds the key to a deadly virus that could be used to kill an entire planet's population. Both sides want the virus, but it's in your best interest to do whatever pays best.
Unfortunately, as I'd expect from these types of games, there's zero player choice in the matter -- you're forcibly strung along in the story, forced to take your hands off the controls in first-person cutscenes and to do as you're told by whomever happens to be in charge at the current moment. This ranges from your mercenary captain, to the ISA admiral, to the Helghast colonel depending on the situation, but after one betrayal and switching sides, you inexplicably start taking orders from a "neutral third party" late in the game, and when presented with a decision of what to do with the virus, you just watch the cutscene.
Floating objective message says to hack the terminal
It should be noted that throughout the game you play a silent protagonist, Arran Danner. In most circumstances, being a silent protagonist is fine and helps the player assume the role of the main character, but I really felt like Mercenary could've benefited from giving Arran Danner some sort of vocal presence. There's a certain part in the game, for instance, when you're on your own and that neutral third party comes over your radio giving you objectives and telling you what to do to survive; I would have preferred for Danner to fend for himself in this instance, because it kind of takes away from the experience when you just mindlessly go forward listening to the voice in your ear, because Danner has no agency of his own. Likewise, it would've been nice to be more in control of some of the decision-making, in particular when it comes to what to do with the virus.
But this is a first-person shooter and all that really matters is the action, and that element at least proves rather solid. Mercenary takes a mission-based approach to its gameplay; rather than having everything as one continually-flowing narrative, the game is broken into nine contracts (ie, missions). Each one begins from the main menu as you select the contract, visit the arms dealer to purchase any equipment you might want for the mission, and selecting your difficulty. You're then dropped into the mission and play through to completion, at which point you arrive back at the menu and select the next mission. Alternatively, you can go back to previous missions and select optional sub-contracts to complete each mission with different goals.
Each of the nine missions has three different sub-contracts named "Precision," "Covert," and "Demolition." In each case, the point is to provide the same mission but with different goals and slightly different objectives. The "Precision" contracts are typically about efficiency, wanting you to get in and get out quickly while getting efficient kills; the "Covert" contracts are typically about stealth, getting through a mission without being detected; and the "Demolition" contracts are typically about being as destructive as possible. Each sub-contract also requires you to use certain weapons or pieces of equipment.
Aiming down the sights in a firefight
A large part of the respect I hold for Mercenary derives from this idea of sub-contracts. Not too long ago I wrote an article about how I miss "Rareware difficulties" -- difficulty systems implemented in Rare's GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, in which playing on progressively higher difficulties added extra objectives and opened up new areas of each mission on top of simply making the combat harder. Those games offered a lot of replay value and encouraged you to get better and gain mastery, because playing on a higher difficulty offered a new experience. When playing on a higher difficulty in most modern shooters, all it does is boost the enemy damage output while lowering your own, which generally doesn't encourage me to replay a game.
Mercenary can be played in three different combat difficulties, but these can be selected independently of the sub-contracts, so even if you want to play the sub-contracts for the extra replay value, you can do so on the easy mode. When compared to the likes of GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, the subcontracts in Mercenary are actually quite superficial; they don't add any new content to the missions, and in general most of the objectives pertain to playing the mission a different way. In that sense, it's a little disappointing that they don't actually change the missions that much, but considering I haven't seen anything like this in years, it's hard to complain. I found myself more than happy to go back and try to complete the "Covert" contracts just for the challenge.
The other thing I really like about Mercenary is that the missions aren't totally linear, corridor-crawling fests. Each mission has a generally linear path from objective to objective, but they frequently consist of open spaces with different obstacles and structures, where you can sneak around to flank enemies or take unconventional approaches to the objective. If you look around, you can usually find multiple different paths through a given area, whether that's going through the front door or climbing up a pole and approaching from the roof, or taking a zipline across an area. It's just nice that each mission gives you a little bit of freedom to explore and decide how you want to do things, rather than being forced down a completely linear path with completely scripted encounters.
Using the carapace shield in combat
The other way in which Mercenary promotes creative approaches is with the arms dealer. Completing objectives, contracts, and scoring kills grants you cash rewards which you can spend with the arms dealer, Blackjack, at designated caches during missions and in-between missions, customizing your loadout. You're able to carry one primary weapon, one secondary weapon, one type of grenade, one set of armor, and one type of Van-Guard system. You can choose between 12 primary weapons, 12 secondaries, five grenades, six armors, and eight Van-Guard technologies. Certain loadouts are better suited for certain situations, but for the most part this system just lets you customize your playstyle.
The weapons are all your fairly standard shotgun, pistol, assault rifle, submachine gun, sniper rifle, grenade launcher, and rocket launcher variants, but where the game adds more unique elements is in the Van-Guard system. The Van-Guard skills let you deploy a piece of advanced technology, based on a cool-down cycle. The one I ended up using most often was the Ghost, which cloaked you for a limited time. Others include a front-facing ballistic shield, a shoulder-mounting homing missile system, a remote controlled stealth drone, an electronics jammer that blocks enemy radar and communications, and so on. Like the weapons, the Van-Guards are there for the extra variety and to promote different playstyles, which is always a welcome feature in a shooter.
In terms of the controls, Mercenary controls just as you'd expect for a dual stick FPS. The shorter sticks on the Vita don't offer as great a range of movement as the sticks on the PS3 or Xbox controller, but that's a minor adjustment that should come naturally to most gamers. In fact, I'd say the controls on the Vita are actually better than using a traditional controller for the simple inclusion of tilt aiming. With tilt aiming enabled, you're able to tilt the Vita forward or backward, left or right to make small adjustments to your aim while looking down the sights. I've never been that much of a sharpshooter with dual sticks, much preferring the feel of keyboard and mouse controls in my shooters, and typically get destroyed in local multiplayer matches on the consoles, but found it so much easier to make a quick, accurate adjustment to my aim by tilting the device than trying to move the stick slightly, and was soon rattling off headshots and running-and-gunning with efficiency.
Swiping across the screen to perform a melee kill
The game also implements various touchscreen controls, primarily allowing you to navigate menus by tapping on the screen. Other functions are accessed by icons along the sides of the screen, easily within range of your thumbs while in a heated fight; you can switch weapons or deploy your Van-Guard by tapping an on-screen icon. Other elements of the touchscreen don't integrate with ordinary gameplay as well, however, and come off feeling forced and awkward. Whenever you get close enough to melee an enemy, for example, you end up watching a short first-person cutscene and swipe across the screen in a quick-time-event to execute the kill. There are times when you approach a switch, press triangle (the action button), and watch as your arm comes out to activate the switch, only for the game to suddenly lock up with a swipe icon across the screen. That particular action absolutely does not require the extra input and is completely jarring.
Other than that, I don't feel like there's much else I can really say. Killzone: Mercenary is basically your standard FPS experience, for better or for worse. The AI seems decently competent; not terribly advanced but not terribly stupid either. The action is decently enjoyable, with satisfying stealth approaches or intense in-your-face gunfights depending on how you want to play each mission. The one thing I'll say about that, though, is that the game features auto-regenerating health, a mechanic I wish would go away. The regenerating health basically ensures that there's a ton of room for error in run-and-gun gameplay, because no matter how overwhelming the situation might be, you just duck behind cover for a few seconds and you're fine, but there's virtually no room for error in stealth -- one poorly-timed assassination or one unexpected change in a guard's patrol route, and every alarm gets tripped.
It should also go without saying that the graphics are damn impressive. This is the best-looking game I've ever seen on a handheld device, and it comes awfully close to what I'd expect to see on a PS3. If you look closely enough, you can see where they cut corners to make it work on the technically-inferior Vita hardware, but the simple fact is this game looks amazing and exceeds expectations. I hate to say it, but the graphics really contribute a lot to this game's authentic console-quality feeling.
If you own a Vita, Killzone: Mercenary should definitely be on your list of games to play. Even if you don't have a Vita, this might be the killer app to convince you to buy one. If nothing else, KZ:M has demonstrated how sophisticated a first-person shooter can be on the Vita, and hopefully that means we'll be seeing more shooters of this caliber in the future. Oh, and as usual with first-person shooters like this, there's an online multiplayer which I refuse to play, so don't expect any of that in this review.