Even though the PlayStation Vita is a 19 months into its life cycle, fans of the FPS genre haven’t had much to crow about. Developer Nihilistic created Resistance: Burning Skies, the very first twin-stick FPS title for the Vita but set the bar lower than a snake’s belly. Embarrassingly, the very same developer put in another uninspired effort towards the end of 2012 to produce one of the worst titles in the popular Call of Duty franchise: Black Ops Declassified. Roll on September 2013, and Killzone: Mercenary tries to impress the masses that have long given up on a solid FPS on their portable games console. Is third time the charm, could this be the “killer app” Vita users have been waiting for? Find out after the jump.
Killzone: Mercenary starts out as one has become accustomed to in modern times – with a 1.1 GB patch of “stability fixes and optimisations”. That’s quite hefty given that the whole game is 3.4 GB in size! You play as Arran Danner, former soldier turned gun-for-hire. The story doesn’t muck about with the vilification of war, it’s straight down to the business of it. The economics are simple, Danner will work for whomever can pay the most. He is a single-minded, one-dimensional character. Like the shallow end of a kiddies swimming pool, there isn’t much depth to the story in Mercenary, although to be fair to the franchise, it isn’t known for its thought-provoking plots or snappy dialogue. Much like a fart (the silent but deadly type), Danner doesn’t have much to say, but that doesn’t stop your partners from filling in the gaps with some cheesy or wooden dialogue. What it lacks in this department, however, it certainly makes up for in action-packed gameplay and gorgeous visuals.
Mercenary isn’t developed by Guerrilla Games, but rather Sony’s Cambridge Studio, which has since been renamed to Guerrilla Cambridge (Ed: How…imaginative). The team used a modified version of the Killzone 3 engine to provide the most visually stunning experience next to Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The environmental textures and crisp and clear, the lighting effects are wonderful, and the detailing on the guns are excellent. The close-up melee encounters are rather graphic and bloody to behold. The frame rate is steady too, even when you’re a bullet magnet for everybody on the level. It’s great to see this graphical fidelity carries across to the multiplayer experience too.
The game includes the standard range of weapons including pistols, SMGs, assault and sniper rifles, and shotguns. There are no upgrades for these guns, but you can purchase bulletproof vests, grenades, and devices called VAN-guards. These are special items that allow you to call in an air strike, or strap a portable rocket launcher to your shoulder and target multiple enemies. The most rewarding is the Mantys Engine, a covert UAV that you can pilot and gleefully spike your enemies through their ears. These items come at a price though, and Blackjack the friendly Russian gun runner makes all the gear available from the get go, but they’re not cheap. Even though you’re rewarded with Vektan dollars regularly, it’s likely that you’ll need to replay the game a few times to complete your collection of guns. Mercenary features three additional contracts in every mission, with each contact differing in its goals and rewards and the loadouts that you have to use. There’s the “Precision” contract that often requires you to finish the mission in a set amount of time and headshot a number of enemies. “Covert” requires you to be stealthy by destroying security cameras in the levels, while the “Demolition” contract has you using the brutally melees and attempting to get the most explosive kills.
Vita games invariably include touchscreen controls and Mercenary is no different. You can tap on the screen to choose secondary weapon, engage VAN-guards, select enemies to fire rockets at, perform melees, and set charges. You can use the rear touch pad to sprint, and there is also integration with the Vita’s gyroscope. With the gimmicky motion sensor aiming when you’re look down the iron sights, you can tilt your Vita back, forward, left, and right to move the crosshair. Even with the sensitivity turned all the way up, I still preferred using the analogue sticks to aim.
The “Trooper” (normal) difficulty won’t offer too much resistance to the experienced player. For more of a challenge, you can try “Veteran” and switch the crosshair and radar assists off. While you’re playing, the checkpointing system works well to keep you from repeating sections of the game. However it’s a different story if you decide to quit the game after having reached what you think might be a checkpoint in the mission. You’ll lose all progress and have to replay the mission from the very beginning, including the unskippable cutscene. Thankfully, there aren’t too many missions in Mercenary. The no frills, by-the-numbers solo campaign contains nine of them and can be completed in about five to six hours. The replayability comes in with the extra contract missions mentioned, and of course the multiplayer.
The multiplayer in Resistance:Burning Skies was rudimentary, but attractive in its simplicity. The online competitive play in Mercenary sees the addition of level progression and loadouts, both common elements of modern online shooters. The former simply sees a change in a symbol next to your name as you earn money from the matches and progress up the levels. No guns are unlocked at higher levels, they’re all unlocked and available for purchase. Any weapons and VAN-guards that you’ve bought in the solo campaign carry across to the multiplayer, as does your rank. There are three main modes: warfare (deathmatch), guerrilla warfare (team deathmatch), and warzone. If you’ve played the open beta, you’ll recall the latter as five-round session where players in two teams are tasked with completing certain objectives in each five-minute round, be it securing VAN-guard terminals, performing interrogations, picking up valour cards from fallen enemies , or just shooting the other players. *If* you can find players, and enough of them to start a match, Mercenary easily provides the best, most thrilling multiplayer experience seen on the Vita. But those moments were fleeting; I spent the majority of time waiting, *hoping* that someone would join my game. Disappointingly, it seems that there is some form of segregation, where gamers in a region are restricted to playing with others in that region. Perhaps this isn’t much of an issue in European countries and in the U.S., but it’s a serious downer in South Africa. The size of the gaming community gets smaller if you consider the amount of Vita owners, and even more so if take into account the numbers who have purchased Mercenary. While region-locking may help with issues of lag, it does prevent you from dipping into a larger pool of players. I’d rather deal with issues of lag while playing against international players, rather than sitting around in a empty lobby vainly hoping more South Africans buy into Mercenary.
While the solo campaign is woefully short, the different contracts provide replayability. The multiplayer is addictive and entertaining provided that you can find people to play with and against. It’s a shame that the multiplayer is locked to the region that you’re in, with no option to connect with a global community of player. Still, the visuals, controls, and gameplay are all top notch and all things considered, Mercenary not only delivers a great Killzone game, but the definite first-person shooter experience on the Vita.
Final Score: 8.5 sure-fire prawns out of 10
Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: PS Vita (Reviewed)
Age Rating: 18