Few consoles or handhelds have had as rough an initial year as the PlayStation Vita. Dreamcast, Gamecube and Wii U all spring to mind, but none of those — with the possible exception of Wii U — have been as maligned and dismissed by gamers as the humble Vita.
Gradually over the past few months Sony’s handheld has steadily grown an impressive library of big name and indie games. It’s still been largely ignored, but Sony aren’t giving up on the handheld that could (might?). With a redesign — at least in Japan — imminent, and plenty of cross-functionality with both PS3 and PS4, Sony are keen to ensure that the Vita lives on. Killzone: Mercenary is but one salvo in the war for gamers cash… and boy, is is a big one. Whether you like FPS games and the Killzone franchise or not, if you own a Vita you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring Mercenary.
Killzone: Mercenary is not only a testament to the power of the Vita, but also to the talent that Sony fosters and acquires on a regular basis. Guerilla Cambridge have done an astounding job with Mercenary; it looks, sounds, feels and most of all plays almost identically to a triple-A console FPS. Mercenary famously runs on the same engine as Killzone 3 on PS3 and while it may lack some of the graphical and control fidelity of its big brother, it’s so close you’ll amazed that the game you’re playing is portable. Games on Vita will always struggle with control schemes when trying to emulate console gaming. The lack of twin shoulder buttons and clickable thumbsticks means developers have to resort to the touch screen to replicate button presses.
In past Vita games — Resistance and CoD, I’m looking at you — the touch screen implementation has been simply awful. It’s not perfect in Killzone, but it’s a step in the right direction. The rear touch screen is the worst offender for terrible control implementation and Killzone is not free from this scourge. Sprinting is activated by double tapping the rear touch screen, which in and of itself is a pretty decent idea. Where it falls down is that anyone with human-sized hands will be resting said hands on the rear touchscreen at all times.
Far too many times (read: every damn time) while trying to sneak, I would start sprinting, blow my cover and die. When everything else about Mercenary is so precise and well put together, it stands out as a glaring oversight. Later on in my playthrough I discovered an option to turn the touchscreen sprinting off. I did so immediately and never looked back. I suggest you do the same.
While gameplay and graphics are largely similar to console Killzones, Mercenary differentiates itself by the implementation of a monetary system. Players assume the role of Arran Danner, a man with no stake in the war between the ISA and the Helghast. A man only in it to get rich from the spoils of war. Every action in Killzone: Mercenary is rewarded by money, which can in turn be spent on Danner’s loadout. Killing enemies, headshots, explosive deaths, finding alternate paths, melee kills, stealth kills and collecting intel all add money to an every growing pot. Each and every time an action is carried out a notification appears on screen to let the player know they’ve earned. It’s unobtrusive and barely noticed initially, but it is constant.
Over time I found myself going out of my way for the positive feedback the notification gave me. I’d attempt stealth more often and always go for headshots just so I could searn more and know I could get that bigger, badder gun more quickly. It’s such a simple mechanic, but the way it’s been implemented makes Mercenary one of the most addictive experiences on Vita or anywhere else.
Danner will fight for the highest bidder, meaning missions take place on both sides of the war effort. One mission I was plugging Higs as usual and the next I was up against ISA soldiers fighting alongside the ruthless Helghast. It was strange at first. Every Killzone has drummed into the player that the Helghast are evil. Their stereotypically bad-guy British accents and Nazi-esque stylings tend put them squarely on the side of evil, but seeing behind the veil and fighting for them adds some much needed context. Mercenary humanises the Helghast and while Danner doesn’t really seem to care for anything other than himself and his money it makes him the perfect cipher for the player to experience both sides of the conflict.
The main campaign is quite short, but the replay value of Mercenary is immense thanks to the robust multiplayer and additional contracts for each and every mission. By simply completing the mission three additional contracts are unlocked. Precision, Covert and Demolition. Each have different requirements and force the player to attempt the missions in very different ways. It’s a great way to showcase the flexible gameplay of Killzone while rewarding a successful completion with more fat stacks to spend on Danner’s loadout.
Multiplayer is excellent in Mercenary which should come as no surprise after seeing the level of polish Guerilla Cambridge have applied to the campaign. Standard deathmatch, team deathmatch and objective based modes are available and connection issues are fairly rare. At the moment, lobbies are filled quickly as the game has only recenlty been released. Whether playing online is still an option in a few months remains to be seen. The greatest strength of multiplayer though, is that the currency system carries over. Every dollar you earn in multiplayer counts to your total in the campaign and vice-versa. Racking up money in MP is quicker than in the campaign, so if you’re desperate for a certain weapon or piece of armour, jump into multiplayer and you’ll have enough cash in no time.
Killzone: Mercenary is a brilliant example of what the PS Vita is capable of. It looks gorgeous and plays like a dream. In spite of some awkward touch screen implementation it’s the best — non indie — game available for the handheld today. Do yourself a favour and pick it up, you’ll have a blast and maybe, just maybe we’ll see more games of this calibre for Vita in the future.