Platforms: PS Vita
Developer: Guerilla Cambridge
The Vita's second thumbstick has been crying out for a decent first-person shooter, and some of gaming's biggest franchises have been queuing up to trip over and embarrass themselves in spectacular style. Resistance: Burning Skies burned us, whereas Black Ops: Declassified should have remained classified forever. If not sealed in a lead-lined concrete tomb for all eternity to stop it hurting anyone ever again. All eyes were on Guerilla Cambridge, then, who promised to finally fulfil the Vita's potential with a no-compromise portable FPS.
I'm delighted to report that they've succeeded in their mission, at least after a fashion. Killzone: Mercenary absolutely delivers the same big-budget military shooting experience we've experienced on consoles for years on a handheld format. Almost exactly the same, for better and worse.
As ridiculously named gun-for-hire Arran Danner, a silent non-entity who should have just been given a callsign to let players fully read themselves into the character (seriously developers, get a clue), you're thrown into a selection of missions set during the events of Killzone and Killzone 2. While the brave boy scouts of the ISA defend Vekta and storm the Helghan beaches, Danner and crew fight a dirty guerilla war behind the scenes, causing havoc behind enemy lines at the behest of a grimly amoral general. Though fragmented and a little on the flimsy side, the storyline makes an interesting diversion later on that gives fans an unexpected new perspective on the war.
These missions will feel familiar to anyone who's played an FPS before, a menu of infiltration, sabotage and rescue operations that play out through some seemingly linear maps. Higg forces remain as determined and fearless as ever, tossing grenades with abandon, using cover and often recklessly (sometimes stupidly, perhaps) pushing the advantage as you sprint between cover and return fire.
It's full-fat, no-compromise Killzone fare, boasting everything from an intuitive cover system to sprint slides and ironsights, granting you all the combat options of its PS3 predecessors. Occasionally clunky even when you've managed to find a sweet sensitivity spot, the Vita's second stick acquits itself well. Killzone: Mercenary also looks utterly sensational thanks to sharp texture work and detailed character models, squeezing every last drop of horsepower out of the hardware despite the occasional graphical quirk and a let-down in the voice acting department.
Players can blast through its stages in straightforward bang bang shooty fashion, clocking in at around four to six hours depending on difficulty, but a little exploration and effort pays dividends. Some sections offer stealthy options for bypassing or flanking Helghan positions, or multiple approaches into a target zone. Climbing drainpipe may lead to a roof of skylight to get the drop on opponents, for example, while finding a hidden button in what appears to be a linear arena reveals a new corridor and ISA prisoners to rescue - not to mention a flanking opportunity. Don't get me wrong: this is very much a linear game and a collection of corridors, but levels will reveal hidden depths if you put in the effort.
A robust economy and upgrade system underpins the action, rewarding you with persistent credits to spend on new weapons, gadgets and armour; allowing players to snipe, silently sneak or brutally smash through defences as they see fit - at least until the quirky Helghan AI spots you and instantly raises the alarm. Stages can be replayed for extra credits or enhanced with extra difficult meta-objectives, bulking out potential play time significantly for dedicated players.
VAN-Guard gadgets increase your combat options further with a smorgasbord of expensive toys, such as shoulder-mounted homing missiles triggered with touchscreen taps or a remote stealth drone that slices Helghan helmets apart from the shadows. Far from gimmicks, VAN-Guard tech genuinely grants you greater flexibility and new ways to deal with what seems like one-solution set pieces. For example, facing down a tank becomes much less problematic if you're packing an orbital laser. Whereas the ISA have strength in numbers, Danner's a one-man army, and it's difficult not to crack a smile when deploying some of the more outlandish gear.
That said, the lack of mid-mission suspend saves means that you'll lose all progress should you decide to quit or head into the multiplayer. An odd choice for a handheld game, but at least you'll keep your credits. A few niggles also crop up from time to time, such as a genuinely boring hacking minigame that's used far too often and a nasty 'interrogation' mechanic that feels totally out of place. And again, that overly aggressive AI can turn some sections into glorified shooting galleries.
The Vita's embarrasment of inputs have been implemented with varying degrees of effectiveness. Brutal slow-motion melee takedowns require you to swipe the touchscreen in a particular direction and work surprisingly well despite being overlong and leaving you vulnerable, while an array of useful touchscreen icons for weapon and grenade switching earn their screen space. As usual, though, the rear trackpad manages to embarrass itself thoroughly. Double-tapping it to sprint was never, ever going to work. Thankfully you could alternatively just use the circle button and optionally deactivate most of the touchscreen frippery in the options menu. We suspect that some critics didn't even bother to check.
Killzone: Mercenary manages to impress in the main, then, but there's a fly in the ointment. When you get over the novelty of the upgrade system and finally playing a decent FPS on your Vita, you'll realise that it takes no other creative risks and shies away from innovating in any minor way; instead aping almost every other military shooter on the market. That Activision franchise, specifically. It's often derivative to the point of parody, straight-up copying all those tired old shooter clichés and set pieces we grew bored of years ago.
In no particular order, you'll have to defend a comrade as they 'hack a firewall,' rappel down a building, man a turret, defend critical installations from waves of foes, boost a fellow mercenary onto a ledge, hack consoles in a dreary minigame, hack computers, 'fly' a wingsuit in control-free cutscenes... in fact, the only thing missing is slow motion breaching sections. What Far Cry: Blood Dragon lampoons, Guerrila Cambridge replicates with a straight face. Beyond the upgrade system and a few neat ways to use it, Killzone Mercenary refuses to give players anything genuinely new to do compared to any number of home console shooters.
Which, for many players, will be absolutely fine. It's all too easy to forget that Killzone: Mercenary isn't a home console shooter, instead giving players the big fat juicy console FPS experience on a handheld device; no more, no less. Know that going in.
Multiplayer proves to be solid if slightly uninspired, offering three gametypes in six maps derived from the singleplayer levels. Online combat is an intimate, fast-paced and brutal affair, offering the same gadgets and guns you've unlocked in the singleplayer campaign, only with newly live targets to use them on. I've found plenty of players online to test my mettle and had little difficulty in joining eight-way matches (something many of my peers seem to have struggled with, oddly), and frankly, have been enjoying myself immensely.
There's a few flaws to patch out, mind. A little lag and host advantage seems to be present in this early stage, and more worryingly, a haphazard spawn system sometimes sees you appear directly behind or in front of opponents. I've lost count of the number of times I've respawned on the six of an unaware foe and racked up an instant kill, meaning that the same must have happened to me in turn. Hopefully Guerilla Cambridge will address these concerns in short order.
Killzone: Mercenary's multiplayer may not do much differently or take any brave risks risks, but much like the singleplayer campaign, it's an impressive benchmark for both the Vita and handheld first person shooters in general. We hope that more imaginative and innovative titles manage to raise the bar in due course, but for now, there's plenty to enjoy if you're a fan of shooting people with virtual boomsticks. And orbital lasers. And shoulder mounted homing missiles.
- Solid FPS gameplay, enjoyable multiplayer
- Sensational visuals - best on system
- Versatile persistent economy and upgrades through both campaign and multiplayer
- Lamentably generic and formulaic: you've played this game before
- Quirky and aggressive Helghan AI can lead to grim shooting galleries or failed stealth
- Nasty voice acting; flimsy story and characters despite a neat late-game kink
The Short Version: Killzone: Mercenary sets a new benchmark for handheld first person shooters, but takes absolutely no creative risks in the process. Though derivative to a fault beyond a versatile upgrade system, its gameplay is solid enough to impress and shiny enough to drop jaws.