Handheld first person shooters are, if we’re being honest, usually rather terrible. Even on a handheld seemingly built for them, the PlayStation Vita, there hasn’t been a shooter worth playing. Call of Duty Black Ops Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies were both rather awful, so I can’t say had much in the way of hope or enthusiasm for a diminutive version of Killzone on the system. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Set in the wake of the events of the first game, Killzone Mercenary has you playing as the game’s namesake, a soldier of fortune whose motivation in the game isn’t driven driven by any particular allegiances other than a love of money. And though it’s as clichéd and largely predictable as a narrative for a big blockbuster shooter can be, the shifts in fealty make it a deeper than expected experience.
Arran Danner begins the relatively short single player campaign as a mercenary working for the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance, or ISA, the good guys from the console games, doing the sort of missions you’d expect in a game of this ilk; lots of shooting things, some more shooting things, ducking behind cover and shooting a few more things – but there is a bit of an overhaul to the usual gung-ho, shooty mechanics.
Stealth is a real and viable alternative in most missions, and there’s a visceral charm in sneaking up behind a patrolling Helghast soldier and assassinating him from behind using a touch-screen aided brutal kill, usually involving heads, knifes and a bucket of blood. And there’s even a cheap thrill in the shooting itself; a delightful little “ping” lets you know you’ve killed somebody
For reasons I won’t spoil, Danner later finds himself fighting for, instead of against the Helghast forces making this game a little unique in being the first Killzone to show the ISA in a not entirely positive light. Beyond those twists though, it really is the sort of overtly serious, done to death shooter trope that games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon have done so well making fun of.
The better-than-expected-but-still-mostly-rubbish story aside though, Killzone Mercenary is a more than competent shooter even forgetting for a moment that it’s on the Vita. Take its portability in to account, and it borders on being a little mind-blowing. Even if the single player will only take you five or so hours to complete. It’s given a slight bit of longevity through a contracts system, whereby when replaying missions, you’re tasked with completing them in certain ways to earn valour and money.
There’s a very light RPG mechanic in that you can use that blood money to purchase new guns, side-arms and explosives from black-market dealer crates littered throughout the world, and there’s also a little perk called a “Van-guard” system that allows you to use a cool-down ability to make things easier; with the Mantys engine, a remote controlled stealth-bot that crushes skulls between its metal pincers as one of my favourites.
The load-outs and Van-Guard perks carry through to the game’s multiplayer, which stands as the highlight of the package. Yes, it’s really just shooting more things that this time happen to be controlled by humans, but it’s fun and terribly exciting for on-the-go multiplayer. It could use a few more modes and options though; as it stands right now there are just 3 options; Mercenary Warfare – a free for all bit of chaotic madness; Guerrilla Warfare – which is just a fancy name for ISA vs. Helghast team deathmatch and Killzone staple Warzone that pits the factions against each other in objective based multiplayer missions. It’s the best of the lot, and the mode that I keep playing. Or trying to play, as it were.
The big problem right now with Mercenary’s multiplayer is the lack of multiplayer options. You can start a public or private match, or join a friend’s match – and that’s it. there’s no real matchmaking system making finding an joining games more of a headache than it really ought to be. When it does work though, it’s a console experience in the palm of your hands. and for the most part, it looks like one too. there’s so much crisp detail and shiny showcase graphical fidelity that the vita’s tiny screen almost does it a disservice.
Killzone Mercenary is perhaps the game Vita owning shooter fans have been waiting for. It does perhaps try too much to emulate the console shooter experience, instead of being an experience built for its platform, but that it does it so well is a triumph.