Killzone: Mercenary – the review

Killzone Mercenary (PS Vita)

Looking good: a screen grab from Killzone Mercenary taken from my PS Vita.

Looking good: a screen grab from Killzone Mercenary taken from my PS Vita.

Killzone: Mercenary, where have you been all my PS Vita’s life?

Mercenary is a shooter that you’ll actually want to play. It’s the shooter that my PS Vita has been crying out for. Oh, sure developers have tried FPS games on the Vita before but let’s face it: They sucked. Pure and simple (I’m looking at you Black Ops: Declassified and Resistance Burning Skies. You were shit).

Killzone Mercenary is the real deal. And if Mercenary had been available earlier,  my Vita would have seen more action over the past few months rather than pretty much gathering dust, sitting unused.

Why, Sony, why has it taken it has taken so long for a great first-person shooter to appear on the Vita? Not through lack of talent as there are plenty of talented people in your development studios. There was really no excuse for it. I mean, the Vita has two analogue sticks: It’s made for the FPS, right?

Placing the player in the shoes of soldier-for-hire Arran Danner, Killzone Mercenary is set between the events of Killzone 2 and Killzone 3 and interestingly, in a first for the series, the player will fight alongside both the ISA and Helghan after a twist near the end. Danner is a, after all, a mercenary so he goes where the green is.

Let’s get the visuals out of the way first, though: they are stupendous. The two images with captions are screen captures I did during game play. Looks pretty good, right? It’s like the developer took the PlayStation 3’s Killzone and zapped it with a shrink ray: It really does look that good. Is is too much to say this is the best looking game the Vita because I think it is. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful and really is the best looking game on the Vita.

But good graphics does not a game  make, it needs a solid story to back it up. Well, Mercenary’s story is nothing we haven’t seen in countless shooters before (filled with betrayal and backstabbing) and you can see what’s coming a mile off but it’s a shooter, after all: It’s not a Shakespearean play filled with enlightened exposition and wonderment. It’s a game where you shoot people to earn money and complete objectives. I also found the controls took a bit of time getting used to – crouch and sprint are mapped to the circle button which makes things interesting during an intense firefight – but things fell into place soon enough.

Killzone-Mercenary-Preview-03-600x339Mercenary uses the Vita’s touch screen cleverly, too, letting you melee kill foes by tapping the triangle button then following an on-screen prompt indicating which way to swipe.

Being able to do that means you’ll use it – and I used it a lot, against both normal Helghast grunts and heavily armed heavies. In fact, I probably used it too much (and handily, many of the Helghan turn their back on you when you melee them), but there’s just something satisfying about swiping the touch screen to kill a Helghan (although, does Danner really have to stab some of them in the balls before knifing them in the head? That just made me squirm)

The touch screen is also used to set mines (placing each thumb on the screen then rotating them charges the mine) and kills earn valour, or money, which can be used to buy new weapons, ammunition, better armour and other gadgets  from black market weapons chest conveniently dotted about the game world. Every kill earns you money: headshots earning you more than a shot to the chest.

If there’s one thing frustrating about Mercenary’s game play, it’s its checkpoint system, which isn’t very good. I would have liked to have seen a more robust save system and while yes, the Vita has a good standby mode, if you quit a level mid-mission expect to have to start again from the beginning. It’s annoying.

I’ve only touched on the single player campaign here because, well, I haven’t had a chance to try any online yet. I got a code to do that but haven’t had the time. Perhaps when more people are playing it I’ll give it a whirl.

Airborne assault: Flying in a Helghast ship to assault an ISA cruiser.

Airborne assault: Flying in a Helghast ship to assault an ISA cruiser.

OK, to round up. Yes, Killzone Mercenary shows little innovation when it comes to game play (and Killzone is a stupid name for a game) and yes, the story is cliched and yes, if you hate the Killzone series then this portable version isn’t going to change your mind, but it’s a freaking console quality shooter on a handheld and it’s a good one  –  and that should be celebrated as far as I’m concerned (and if it was shit, I would tell you as much).

Not so long ago I was thinking Sony had forgotten about the Vita completely and hoped no-one would notice. Well, we did notice  but if Mercenary is Sony’s way of saying, “Sorry about the previous shit Vita FPS games. Try this for size” then I forgive you, Sony. I forgive you.

Game Junkie Verdict: buy, buy,  buy.

Killzone Mercenary: Is that a Helghan in your pants?

Killzone Mercenary: Here Helghan, Helghan, Helghan ...

Killzone Mercenary: Here Helghan, Helghan, Helghan …

For a handheld title, Killzone: Mercenary on the PS Vita is pretty impressive.

And Lord knows, the Vita needs impressive titles to bolster its fortunes. It has few must-have titles (and some desperately don’t get titles like Resistance Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Declassified, anyone?). Mercenary could well be the first-person shooter that makes you proud to own a PS Vita.

Set between the events of Killzone 1 and Killzone 2, players take the role of a mercenary called Danner, who has contracted his services to the ISA in an effort to wipe out the Helghast on their home planet of Helghan. And being a mercenary is where this Killzone pops up its first difference to the console editions of the game: money.

Each kill earns Danner money – the more kills he makes, the more money he makes. Making a headshot will net more cash than just pumping a Helghast with lead. Even picking up dropped ammo earns cash. Earned money can used in-game to purchase better weapons using black market lockers (why they’d be dotted around a Helghast base, I’m not sure). You can also unlock a variety of other things but some of them cost huge amounts of cash.

Visually, the game looks superb, and while not on par with what the PlayStation 3 can generate, it shows that developer Guerilla Cambridge (formerly known as Sony Cambridge, the studio behind the Medievil series) are pushing Sony’s handheld to its limits, with dynamic shadows and volumetric lighting. It really is impressive.

The game opens with Danner and a colleague (he’s shot down mid-glide so he’s not even worth mentioning) gliding from an ISA dropship down to a looming Helghan base where you have to deactivate two radar dishes that control the giant cannons causing problems for the ISA ships orbiting Helghan. It’s up to you (Danner) to finish the job and turn the tide of war.

OK, so the premis isn’t very original at all and while I was a little disappointed that the opening sequence was on-rails (I wasn’t able to steer Danner at all) it’s a powerful way to start the game, with rockets and enemy fire flying around as Danner glides towards the base, finally landing on top of a cable car.

So far, so good, and Killzone Mercenary has a hell of a lot going for it, especially for a handheld title, but that said, it ticks all the boxes that a Killzone shooter should so if you’re not a fan of Killzone, chances are you’ll find little to like here.

Stabby, stabby: Yep, you can stab Helghan in the neck.

Stabby, stabby: Yep, you can stab Helghan in the neck.

While the preview code was only one level long, I was able to mix it up a little with both stealth and full-on frontal assault (the former thanks to Danner’s silenced pistol and knife) and the game throws in some hacking for good measure (using the touch screen to match on-screen icons while racing against a timer). Talking of touch screen controls, it’s used wisely throughout the campaign with the rear touch pad letting you zoom in and out with weapons and the main screen used to finish off silent kills of unwary Helghan using a quick time event after you’ve tapped the triangle button.

The Helghast showed some smarts at times during my  play through – after being spotted by one soldier while assaulting the barracks, he called for reinforcements – but other times, stupidity was evident, with more than one not noticing I was in the same room as them (just before I filled them full of lead). Perhaps that’ll be tidied up come September, when the full game’s out. The only time stealth didn’t work was during the what seems a mandatory element in shooters these days: the hold-this-position-until-ordered-where-to-go-next sequence.

So far, so Killzone, which will please fans of the series, and the closing moments of the preview mixed it up a little with Danner having to hold off a barrage of Helghast using a Porcupine missile system, which fire missiles at what ever you tap on-screen (assaulting Helghast, a hovering dropship). One thing I’m not certain about for Mercenary is the multiplayer, as the feature was disabled for the preview.

Killzone Mercenary is looking extremely solid for a handheld shooter and while I’ve no idea how the story holds up throughout the rest of the game or whether it turns all formulaic in the sea of brown-on-brown that the Killzone series is famed for, this handheld title has piqued my interest. Perhaps it is possible to have a decent FPS on the Vita and have a Helghan in your pocket.  Here’s hoping.

PlayStation New Zealand provided a download code for the preview version of Killzone Mercenary.