A game like Killzone: Mercenary has been a long time coming for the Vita. With the disappointment of Call of Duty and the technical issues witnessed in Assassin’s Creed Vita owners have been waiting for that next big thing, the game that would allow them to thrust their Vita into the faces of unbelievers and yell “Look! There! You see? YOU SEE?”. For the longest time Killzone: Mercenary has been positioned by Vita fans as being that game, being the game to hold out for, the game to pin your hopes on, maybe even, they whisper, the game that will finally pick sales of the hardware up off of the floor. Whether or not Killzone: Mercenary manages to deliver on this hope it doesn’t take very long playing the game to determine that it is a very good game indeed.
The game casts you as Arran Danner, an ex-UCN soldier now fighting for Commander Anders Benoit’s Phantom Talon mercenary company. The campaign runs you through nine ‘contracts’, beginning on Vekta during the Helghast invasion and finishing up on Helghan when the Vektans take their turn at being the aggressors. Over the course of the game you’ll fight for both sides in the war, although your silent protagonist seems to be a fairly stand-up guy for someone willing to kill for money. The developing story is augmented by the presence of six ‘Intel’ collectables in every mission, with each one offering backstory or context on individuals or issues relevant to the mission at hand.
The mercenary theme is reinforced throughout with an arcade-feeling experience system; virtually every action you take in-game, from a headshot to picking up ammo, will award you a certain amount of Vektan dollars. These can be used in-mission to rearm or switch between purchased equipment at weapons lockers provided by a helpful arms dealer known as Blackjack. Outside of missions you can purchase new toys from Blackjack, and your overall earnings feed into a rank which then determines how many loadouts you have available for multiplayer games. This tying together of single and multiplayer allows you to quickly gear up and find your favourite weapons within the single player element of the game before you jump into the multiplayer.
One of the factors that sets Killzone: Mercenary apart from other shooters is the sense of freedom given within the contracts. While the missions are linear both in terms of story and geography the majority of sections give you more than one way in which to advance. Sometimes this is as simple as a climbing point tucked away behind a corner, or a more circuitous route taking you past most of the enemies, but these options exist for those willing to look for them. Rather fantastically the game also offers a robust stealth option for those who wish to be more sneaky in their slaying. Once you’ve had a chance to unlock a silenced weapon and some quieter armour you are more than able (in most of the arenas) to sneak around and take out all of the present enemies in each section. Doing so, of course, will net you a stealth bonus payout, although if it’s the money you are more interested in you’ll probably make more going all gung-ho and taking your time to kill incoming reinforcements.
The first run through of each of these contracts took around forty minutes, although subsequent replays concentrating on action rather than exploration and sightseeing took a lot less. This length, fairly standard it must be said for an FPS these days, is augmented by each of the story missions coming with three additional contracts – precision, covert and demolition. As you can imagine each one concentrates on an aspect of play, allowing you to experience the story missions in ways that could be quite different from your own preferred playstyles. These additional contracts all have weapon requirements on them also, taking you out of your loadout comfort zone and forcing you to experience the whole armoury of the game.
If you’d previously been following any of the emerging details for Killzone the one thing you’ve probably taken away is that it was shaping up to look amazing. And boy, the game doesn’t disappoint. Killzone: Mercenary is easily the best looking game you will have seen on the Vita, and could potentially be the best looking game you’ll ever see on the Vita if its sales don’t revitalise the hardware. Gloriously smooth and detailed characters combine with native resolution and a steady framerate to gift you a breathtaking experience; imagine, if you will, that Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Virtua Tennis 4 had a secret lovechild, and then sent that lovechild to a Spartan school where it was taught how to stab people in the eye socket. Killzone: Mercenary is that lovechild, and it’s already dethroned its parents with a couple of well placed headshots.
This imagery of gore, a franchise staple, is realised in a wonderfully understated way throughout. Headshots are messy but quick affairs, your target’s life disappearing as fast as their brains. If you take the time to stop to view the aftermath of battle you’ll notice the wonderful juxtaposition of blood splatter with the battlefield, the impact the same for shiny Vekta as it is for dirty Helghan. Melee kills are breathtakingly brutal, your complicity in the violence only cemented by the need to swipe the screen to finish the kill. Killzone: Mercenary is filled with magical little touches, but none more so than the melee animation that sees you (entirely needlessly, one imagines) twist your knife back and forth after the stab. Arran may well be a hero of one variety or another, but he is quite clearly a cold, hard bastard.
The gunplay throughout Mercenary is weighty and well directed, and not once will the mechanics undersell your skill. Thankfully if you do find the Vita’s sticks react a little too slowly you can tune the sensitivity upwards, and there is also a rather fantastic motion-assisted aiming option you can turn on. This comes into play whenever you are scoped in on any gun, allowing you to fine tune your shot with a slight twitch of the Vita. If you go in expecting to be able to fully line up every headshot with this then you’ll be disappointed, but as an aiming aid it complements it perfectly. All of the different guns offer a valid option, although you’ll likely settle on at least one silenced weapon for the campaign. There is also a shotgun that sets people on fire. I’ll say that again – a shotgun that sets people on fire. I’m not sure why you would ever need to think about equipping another gun ever again once you unlock the STA-12 and its comical ignition ability.
All of this chat about weaponry and we haven’t even mentioned the Van-Guards. These are rather fantastic (and initially expensive) bits of kit that augment your loadout, acting like a get out of jail free card in most instances. From a cloaked robot that double stabs people in the head to a portable rocket system fired with the touchscreen the Van-Guard systems have you covered, although it’s likely you’ll quickly settle on a favourite, especially as it will cost you a fair bit to unlock them all. You recharge these powerful abilities at a slow rate over time, although killing can reward you a chunk in one go. In multiplayer battles you’ll start with the Van-Guard uncharged, meaning they act as a COD-style reward for killstreaks, although everyone can get in on the fun as Van-Guard charge isn’t lost with death, as long as you don’t change your loadout that is. Capsules are occasionally jetted into the battle map for you to take advantage of, often becoming focus points for both sides.
Speaking of multiplayer, Killzone: Mercenary offers three modes over six maps, two modes being four-versus-four and the other seeing all eight players fight amongst themselves. Warzone is a phased objective based mode, requiring you to work with teammates to complete certain goals rather than simply slaying the opposing side (unless, of course, that is your goal for that phase). Guerrilla Warfare is a team deathmatch mode with the first team to forty kills taking the victory, while Mercenary Warfare is a free-for-all kill count between all eight players with the top three after ten minutes being rewarded with extra Vektan dollars. While the traditional deathmatch and team deathmatch modes will appeal to many it’s the objectives in Warzone that should provide the more lasting appeal. One thing that is sorely missing from the multiplayer options however is some form of quick match button – the game has you covered with a Party Match option and Private Match ability but there is no way to just jump into the first open lobby available regardless of match type. You’d hope that this wouldn’t be an issue in the launch period but it’s always a nice option to have for later on in the game’s lifespan.
Combat is quick and fast in all multiplayer modes, with swift punishment delivered to those who try to sprint around solo-fashion. Camping is well controlled as well - as you make noise you’ll pop up on the radar so unless you can dispatch enemies in silence campers will draw investigative grenades and other flushing out techniques. The lack of a team spawn feels unfortunate at first, but on most maps it doesn’t take long to get back into the battle. The ebb and flow runs fast, with death coming very quickly once you’re caught out in the open and draw gunfire. However, some of the spawning issues seen in the public beta on the Shoreline map seem to have been addressed for release, and often you are more than able to leave the many spawn points without having to deal with spawn killings. Watch out for those cheeky proximity mines that might be left behind however! Thankfully there seems to be a good deal of balance between the various weapons, although there is certainly a preference on most maps at the moment for either assault rifle or explosives-heavy loadouts.
Ultimately the multiplayer in Mercenary is an excellent reason to leave the game loaded on your memory card for a long time to come. It does, perhaps, lack some of the shine of a home console release (having to reselect your loadout on every death can get tiresome very quickly) and on the larger maps it feels as though a five-versus-five setup would have been preferable, but when you take a step back and look at the game in perspective a lot of these quibbles fall to one side. As a portable, handheld title Killzone: Mercenary has delivered a fantastic looking, balanced and competitive multiplayer experience and it should be rightly lauded for these achievements.
Killzone: Mercenary is as close to the full package as the Vita is going to get, at least for a long while. Spectacular visuals, weighty gunplay and a great single player campaign that is complemented perfectly by what we have seen of the multiplayer all combine to provide the triple-A title that the gaming commentariat have been clamouring for. It’s easy to forget twenty odd hours in the initial impact of the visuals, the initial surprise that this is a home console quality game in your hands. In case we haven’t been clear then, this is the best looking handheld game ever made. This is the best shooty handheld game ever made. This is the best handheld game that involves stabbing people in the crotch that has ever been made. If you own a Vita then this is a product that you simply have to experience, if only to witness what the hardware is capable of before the New Indie Order arrives.