After playing one level of Killzone: Mercenary, I’m confident that it’s going to be the greatest handheld FPS yet. While not a difficult title to take, Mercenary is leagues ahead of every other serious attempt at an FPS on handheld. So much so, that even a few niggles don’t stop it from being a must play PS Vita experience. Perhaps for many, the first real reason to own a Vita.
The preview build I played dropped me straight into the action on Helghan. Mercenary is set shortly after the events of the original Killzone, with the ISA going on an all-out assault on the Helghast homeworld. As Arran Danner — the titular mercenary — you’re tasked with taking out an Helghast satellite relay so the ISA forces can take control of the ARC towers. Doing so will allow the ISA to land and commence a ground assault. The plot of Mercenary is intended to span the original trilogy and touch on moments players will remember. Doing so will give a broader context to the entire conflict and give players greater insights into both the ISA and Helghast forces.
As Danner, you’ve access to a wide variety of weapons and tools unlike previous games in the series. You can pick and choose Danner’s loadout at conveniently located weapons caches scattered throughout the level. A shady arms dealer named “Blackjack” isn’t averse to selling to both sides of the conflict and controls these caches. This comes in handy for Danner, who will fight for the highest bidder, ISA and Helghast alike. The only mission I was able to play in the preview had me fighting against Helghast, but in the full game, Danner will fight with Helghan forces against the ISA as well, a first for the series.
The loadout allows for different approaches to be made for each mission. Weapons fitted with silencers as well as lighter armour suit stealth play, while heavier — louder — armour and guns sans silencer make for going in guns blazing. The levels appear to have been designed with this in mind too. There were multiple paths available during the mission, with weapons caches along the way, so you can change my play style as you go. It really opens up the game to your own personal preferences and doesn’t try to force you to play one way or another. There are of course “set-pieces,” but I found variety even within these. Mercenary is a game that wants to be played, not watched.
Reinforcing the Mercenary theme are the in-game rewards for completing specific actions. Kills are worth 50 credits, while a headshot will net you 75. Stealth kills are worth 90, destroying security cameras are 25 and the list goes on. By the end of the mission, I had accumulated quite a hefty total. This encourages multiple playthroughs. Hidden throughout the mission were Intel terminals which also granted credits. Finding each one was tricky and yet another reason to have just one more go. Most of all it was the high end weapons, items and armor that had me trying again and again. As expected these are premium items and require many thousands of credits. Each one grants significant boosts to damage, stealth and armor stats — among others — and makes getting through a mission while finding all the secrets a breeze. Completionists will find a lot to love in Mercenary.
Being on Vita, Mercenary doesn’t quite live up to Killzone 3 graphically, but being powered by the same engine means it’s one of — if not the best — looking games on Sony’s handheld. It’s genuinely impressive to take a second and realise that a game that looks as good as Mercenary does, is in the palms of your hands. While there was some sputtering of the frame rate in the preview, a few jagged edges here and there and some iffy textures, come September I’m sure they’ll be ironed out. If not, they were minor enough to not detract too much from the experience.
For the most part the game controls competently. Aiming down the sights and firing work as you’d expect. Changing weapons is via an icon on the touch screen, as is selecting a grenade. Sprinting is handled by double tapping the rear touch pad, while movement and aiming are mapped to the dual analogue sticks. Here’s where things get sticky. My hands are too big for me to not rest them on the rear touch pad. Several times I’d be crouched, attempting to sneak up on an enemy and I’d accidentally sprint, blowing my cover and ending up dead. This can be remedied by swapping the crouch and sprint controls, but I found when I was trying to sprint to get away I’d crouch by accident and end up dead. It wasn’t all that frequent, but it happened enough to frustrate and warrant a mention.
Aiming with the right analogue stick was the biggest issue I had with Mercenary though. For some reason the Vita control sticks just don’t feel responsive enough, or responsive in the right way. They just feel off. I don’t know if this is a problem with this game, or the design of the hardware. No matter how much I fiddled with the sensitivity in the settings, I never found that sweet spot. It meant that aiming at enemies was more difficult than it should have been.
Using the motion control aiming was no help either. I found it to be entirely unresponsive and unwieldy. It may have been due to the preview build or my general dislike for motion controls. Who can say? Motion control aiming may be a genuine alternative for some people. For me though, it feels like a cheap gimmick lacking in control fidelity. After a while with the controls, I did get used to them and could play with more confidence. If you’re expecting to jump straight into a console quality experience though, you won’t find it. Don’t get me wrong, Mercenary is a lot of fun and comes very close to being console quality in your pocket, the controls are just not quite there.
In my brief time with Killzone: Mercenary I found all of the series hallmarks to have been translated to the handheld unscathed. The combat is intense and fast paced. Getting in and out of cover is as simple and intuitive as ever and melee kills are just as sickeningly satisfying as I remember. Killzone: Mercenary isn’t reinventing the FPS for handhelds, it’s simply making them work on the platform. Killzone fans are in for a treat and Vita owners will have something other than indie games to play on the way to work. Win, win.