[Disclosure: This review is based on a PlayStation Vita copy of the game provided by the publisher]
Let’s just cut straight to the chase, shall we? The one question on all of our minds concerning Killzone: Mercenary is “Did Guerilla Cambridge finally deliver on the promise of making a quality first-person shooter for a portable console?” The answer, in brief, is “absolutely.”
Killzone: Mercenary is, top to bottom, a console-quality FPS crammed onto the PlayStation Vita, complete with a serviceable campaign, loads of extra missions and an online component that’s kept me happily fragging friends for hours on end. While the setting may not be as epic as its console brothers, it’s unfair to say that Mercenary is a good shooter “for a portable device.” It’s a good shooter. Period.
The more I played of Mercenary, the more I learned about the team at Guerrilla Cambridge. It’s obvious that they are fans of the series, as their Vita offering bridges chunks of story from all of the previous Killzone games and, unless I’m mistaken, even gives a brief nod to the upcoming PlayStation 4 launch title, Killzone: Shadow Fall.
It’s also clear that they are fans of the shooter genre in general, as they have absolutely nailed the look, feel and pace of a bullet-riddled war epic, complete with a surprising allowance for stealth, plenty of massive shootouts and even a few big set pieces to help add an exclamation point to the steadily mounting action.
Most importantly, however, it’s clear that they absolutely understand the platform they were developing for, as Mercenary cleverly accounts for the Vita’s strengths and weaknesses in a number of ways. In earlier hands-on and beta previews for the game, I talked about how spot-on the controls are. Almost everything that is mapped to the touchscreen is also mapped to a physical button, meaning you can play the game whichever way you’re most comfortable with. Since the Vita can’t handle massive armies like a home console, the story wisely focuses on a gun for hire, Arran Danner, and his covert operations behind enemy lines. Rather than storming beaches overflowing with enemies or pushing back an army of tanks, Danner’s missions take place in more remote settings with a more controlled number of enemies to handle and less “theatrics” occurring in the peripheral.
To that end, Mercenary actually encourages stealth, offering a variety of silenced weapons and an arsenal of brutal melee kills that will make even the most seasoned shooter fan groan in imagined agony. Staying low and earning quiet kills rewards a sneaky player with valuable intel and less goons to worry about. You also feel like a badass when you manage to clear an area, take out the security cameras and interrogate an officer without ever being spotted.
But here’s where GC went the extra mile: Stealth is 100 percent optional. If you’re the kind of player who struts into a room with a light machine gun at the ready and shouts “Let’s make it loud!,” then Mercenary is built for you, too. Your reward will be an influx of enemies charging into the area but, if you’re playing full auto, then you probably wanted more moving targets to mow down in the first place, right?
My playthrough was a mixture of the two. I enjoy going for stealth in an FPS, I’m just not all that great at it. Most of the game’s nine story missions began with me skillfully moving from cover to cover, occasionally utilizing a handy ladder, pipe or zipline to move around undetected, slicing throats or popping unsuspecting Higs with silenced headshots. Inevitably, though, I’d almost always forget to check for a security camera or step out right in front of an enemy soldier, bringing in the backup and leaving me to shoot my way out of the mess I had stumbled into. No matter which scenario I found myself in, the shooting, stabbing and grenade chucking always provided a solid, well-polished good time.
I usually wouldn’t bother to comment on campaign length, but I know it’s a big sticking point for many FPS fans. According to the end-game clock, my run through Killzone: Mercenary took only 4.5 hours. I kept an eye on the clock, however, and can assure you that my actual playtime was somewhere between seven and eight hours. Everyone’s mileage will vary, obviously, but I found my trip through the campaign to neither run out of gas too quickly, nor overstay its welcome.
To help bolster that content, each of the missions has three additional modes of play, including Precision, Covert and Demolition. Each of these options features its own sub-objectives, giving you unique ways to tackle the familiar areas. You may need to clear a stage within a short time frame while earning 25 headshots with a specific weapon and rescuing all of the hostages, for instance. Some of these missions led me to entire sections of the map I had not previously discovered and all of them altered the way I approached a given situation. I especially enjoyed Precision missions, as my tendency toward stealth had to be abandoned in order to move from area to area fast and hard, desperate to reach the final encounter before the clock hit zero.
And that brings us to where most players will be spending the majority of their time: The multiplayer. Boasting a mere three modes and six maps, Mercenary still manages to pack a massive punch in its online offerings. Each of the multi-tiered maps is a delight, offering multiple paths, choke points, wide open areas and plenty of cover, as well as fun little touches like a massive, slowly rotating fan blade, ziplines, breakable glass and automatic elevators. Like the single player maps, it’s clear that Guerrilla Cambridge spent a lot of time crafting these intricate battlefields, each one suiting the 4v4 gameplay perfectly (Not too big, not too small).
While there’s a free-for-all and team deathmatch option for those who prefer footloose carnage, the real joy is in the evolving Warzone mode, pitting two teams against one another with shifting objectives that have you mowing down the opposition, craftily pulling off interrogation kills and hacking VAN-Guard capsules while your teammates watch your back. Teamwork is key and I was thankfully able to get in quite a few rounds with a group of guys who all met up in Party chat before diving into the game. This also gave us the added luxury of being able to talk to one another while we played, making the gunplay all the more enjoyable as we shouted cheers, jeers and strategy back and forth. The action was every bit as exciting as a console FPS, easily making this the gold standard for shooters on the Vita.
But while I enjoyed my time with Killzone: Mercenary, a few tweaks and additions could have made this a damn-near perfect portable shooting experience. For starters, no open chat in online modes is a bummer and the spawn system could use a bit of work. While I understand that programming AI for Warzone would have been frustrating, an offline bot mode for Mercenary (free-for-all) and Guerrilla Warfare (team deathmatch) would have been a big bonus for playing without a router nearby.
Also, while the additional missions give the campaign long legs, most of those encounters take more than half an hour to complete (Boo, un-skippable cutscenes, too.). Either those bot modes I was just talking about, or perhaps some sort of a horde mode, would make Mercenary a more viable option when I’ve only got 15 minutes to spare and really want to get in some shooting.
But even those blemishes (all of which could be addressed with a patch or some post-launch DLC) can’t overshadow the fact that Killzone: Mercenary is an absolute blast, especially in multiplayer. The story falls flat at a few key moments and additional options for shorter play sessions would have been nice, but that’s easy to forgive when I’m having so much fun.
It’s a meaty experience, too. Everything you do in the game earns money, which can then be spent on additional weapons and gear at remote armories (Run by the entertaining and insightful Black Jack). There are 64 pieces of intel to collect in the regular missions, most of which offer surprisingly detailed background and story information for those who want to dive deeper into the lore. Along with the usual set of trophies, there’s also a metric ton of in-game medals to collect for proficiency in every weapon, objective, etc.
Like I said: Killzone: Mercenary is a fully featured shooter that doesn’t fall back on its portable nature as an excuse to skimp. It’s big, beautiful, and it finally delivers the FPS experience Vita fans have been waiting for.
Players: 1 (8-player multiplayer)
Platforms: PS Vita
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment