Killzone: Mercenary review
Considering that Vita was designed to offer both the raw processing power and the control layout to be able to pull off console-style big-budget shooters, it’s frankly ridiculous that it has taken this long for a developer to get it right. Following a disappointing showing from Resistance (especially after the outstanding third game on PS3) and an inexcusably poor version of the biggest shooter on the planet in Call Of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, it’s fallen to Sony to show the world what its handheld powerhouse can really do. And on both technical and tactile levels, Guerrilla’s second studio has absolutely knocked it out of the park.
First and most obviously, the game looks ludicrously good. Art design and lighting are both stunning, as is the sense of scale – something that so often must be sacrificed in order to get portable shooters looking great and running fine. Concessions have been made in terms of map sizes but these play perfectly to the strengths of the game’s structure. This is, at heart, a score attack game, each small level designed to be run multiple times in search of greater profit for more skillful play. After your first run through a campaign mission, you’ll unlock three variants that promote and require very different play styles – Precision is all about accuracy, speed and efficiency, Covert is a stealth run while Demolition is, as the name suggests, geared around the blowing up of things that don’t belong to you. Some require specific gear or loadouts, often meaning you’ll have to return to them when your bank balance is looking healthy enough for you to be able to afford all the necessary equipment. But with each offering different objectives and rewards, there are effectively four levels for every one listed and that’s before you even begin replaying old favourites in your quest for leaderboard supremacy. So while it might seem slender at only nine missions, to ignore the replayability it was created around is as stupid as claiming Street Fighter IV is too short because you can finish Arcade mode in under ten minutes.
A score attack game lives or dies by its mechanics and while simple, Mercenary’s are at the very least serviceable. Everything you do earns you cash, with greater rewards for more skillful play – assassinations, environmental kills, headshots, long-range kills and quick streaks all help cashflow immensely, making a proper run all about either getting through undetected (for a healthy flow of silent kill rewards and a big bonus at every checkpoint you reach unnoticed) or setting up perfect little pockets of ultra-violence and executing both plan and enemies with precision. These core mechanics carry over to multiplayer as well, with matches judged on income rather than just kill count. It’s a matter of quality over quantity when you head online, a handful of precise kills and diligent looting often enough to beat out spray-and-pray players who claim double the amount of scalps. Player count is capped at eight, although the maps are smaller than those in most console shooters to reflect this and, as such, it always feels like there’s plenty going on.
The other big change to the standard Killzone formula is the VAN-Guard system, allowing players to purchase and equip one of eight unique hi-tech tools. Offline, it’s all about picking the right one for the contract you choose, with optical camo for Covert players and an orbital laser for Demolition fans. But when you get online, it’s just about picking the one that works for you and with a selection of loadouts available, you can easily change these up on the fly if your drones just keep getting shot down or you need a little more clout in the form of a shoulder-mounted missile launcher. While these potent tools recharge slowly over time, they can also be found in the field, if you can stay alive long enough to retrieve them from the drop-pods that create ad-hoc choke points on the confined maps.
And with everything you do both online and solo contributing to your bank balance and your rank, the whole thing feels like one cohesive package. Expensive gear needed for some of the single-player Contracts can be paid for with online winnings or conversely, additional multiplayer loadouts can be funded through repeating solo missions in the grip of score attack frenzy. It’s rare that even top-flight console shooters manage to achieve such a healthy connection between solo and multiplayer modes – for a handheld shooter, it’s positively unparalleled.
And while there are a few of the token nods to Vita’s unique functionality, even these generally work well. Directional swipes for melee attacks are generous enough to never really pose problems, also adding a novel feature in multiplayer where victims can resist melee kills with a quick enough swipe of their own in the right direction. Even more abstract uses of the touch screen (such as targetting missiles or laser strikes) aren’t as jarring as similar functionality in games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Gravity Rush, which pretty much consitutes a win.
Having recently seen the joys of Remote Play for PS4 games, we’ve found ourselves daydreaming about playing games like Shadow Fall on Vita on the go. But thanks to Mercenary, we don’t even need to wait – we’ve got a console-standard shooter native to the handheld and expertly designed with it in mind. The best-looking game on Vita by far and quite possibly the best handheld shooter there has ever been, Mercenary is absolutely awesome.