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I duck behind a metal crate as a fresh volley of gunfire tears into my surroundings. “Only two of them,” I think to myself before popping up and spraying a short burst from my ISA assault rifle into each pair of glowing red eyes. As their bodies crumble, I notice a small army of reinforcements coming around the corner, ready to take their place. I’m in the middle of an action-packed shootout, and it’s all taking place on a portable console. Welcome to Killzone: Mercenary for the PlayStation Vita.

Guerrilla Cambridge is hard at work on the latest entry in the Killzone franchise, a first-person shooter that bridges the first two games in the series with missions that will have the player fighting on both sides of the conflict. As the game’s title implies, you are a mercenary for hire, meaning you’ll take on any dirty job so long as the pay is high enough.

Due out for the Vita on Sept. 10, Mercenary has a lot riding on it. With the developers promising a hardcore shooting experience on a portable console, the question remains: Will they be able to pull it off. With both Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Black Ops-Declassified receiving a way less-than-stellar reception from critics, no one has yet been able to capture the joy of playing a console shooter on the go. In order to give some of the press a taste of what they have prepared, however, Guerilla last night provided downloads for an early mission in the game. No multiplayer was available in this offering, just the single level of gunplay.

And what I took away from the experience was some pretty high hopes. Playing as a mercenary named Danner, the mission begins with me being dropped off on a complex housing a number of Spire Cannons, those massive guns the Higs are using to shoot the ISA ships out of the sky. If I’m able to hack into the mainframe and turn over control to the ISA, they’ll finally be able to launch their attack on the Helghast home world. In other words, my success here will lead directly into that opening scene from Killzone 2.

Dropped in via glide suit, I quickly discover that turning over control of the cannons to the ISA is going to require me to first kill a whole lot of hostiles. I already talked about how good this game looks and controls in my E3 coverage of the multiplayer portion, so I won’t go into much detail here beyond saying yes, it looks great, and yes, it controls just fine.

My one addendum would be that, tooling around with the options, I discovered that I could turn on motion-controlled fine-tune aiming, something I’m very happy to see borrowed from Uncharted: Golden Abyss. While the aiming is good, the Vita’s sticks just don’t allow for the type of finesse provided by standard controllers. With the motion aiming turned on, I can swing my gun to where I want to aim with the analog sticks and, with just the slightest adjustment, earn myself a solid headshot instead of a blast to the body.

From what I played, it looks Guerilla are less interested in reinventing the genre than simply doing the genre well on a portable console. And it looks like they’re definitely headed in the right direction. In no time at all I was moving from room to room, corridor to corridor, darting through tight spots and ducking behind cover as I took out one Helghast after another. Along the way I chucked a grenade or two and activated my Mantis support unit, which gave me full control of a flying robot that I could use to murder enemy after enemy with some terrifying front-mounted pinchers.

Conveniently placed uplink terminals allowed me to easily communicate with Black Jack, a black market arms dealer who could swap out my gear or sell me new toys for various prices. Everything you do in Mercenary, from killing a Hig, to picking up ammo, to chaining headshots together, earns you money. That money can then be spent to swap out your inventory, secondary weapon, support weapon and armor. It’s a nice system that adds a little extra substance to all of those wet works you’ll be involved in. You’ll want to do better, because “better” translates to “more money.”

For those who are concerned about the touch controls being shoehorned in, you need not worry. Quick gestures are required for pulling off some particularly gruesome melee kills. You can also use the touch screen to pull levers and interact with the decently challenging hacking mini-game, but that’s basically it. You can use a tap on the back screen to run, or you can turn that option off entirely.

The mission was pretty lengthy. It took me a good 45 minutes to clear it, but that was primarily because I was exploring every nook and cranny and playing with every weapon I could get my hands on. I also liked amount of detail in the level, offering plenty of variety and even some nifty extra areas to explore for those who are willing to put in the leg work. One area, I noticed, could only be accessed by climbing up to the top of a perch, then jumping across a couple of slowly moving beams suspended by cranes. It’s a small detail, but I appreciated it.

With the online beta set to begin sometime in the near future, it’s only a matter of time before even more folks get a chance to take Killzone: Mercenary for a spin in preparation for its early September release date. I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone else thinks of the game. After my E3 time with multiplayer and a solid evening with a single level from the campaign, though, I’m starting to think that Mercenary might finally deliver that portable shooting experience fans have been waiting for.

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