There is something admirable in calling your videogame “Killzone” – a name so ridiculous that, when you think about it, it sounds like something a pre-pubescent teenager would concoct to name the ridiculously violent shooter of their dreams. That isn’t a slight on Guerilla, however, whose Cambridge arm have crafted this fifth instalment in the series. As one half of Sony’s premium FPS duo, Killzone has had to deliver the goods. Mercenary manages to provide Vita gamers an impressive facsimile of the thrills they would have had from the excellent PlayStation 3 titles. Resistance: Burning Skies showed rich promise for the genre on Sony’s handheld; Killzone take things even further.
You play the role of Danner, a gun-for-hire who works contracts on either side of the war between the ISA and the Helghast. You have no loyalties to speak of, and apart from a small boy you encounter who becomes crucial to the plot and seems to take a shine to your emotionless avatar, most of the characters you come across are a hateful lot, driven by greed or nefarious motives. It is a dark, foreboding game-world that Danner inhabits, and there are no happy endings. In a first for the franchise, your protagonist even ends up working alongside the Helghast – the glowy-eyed space Nazis that you would have spent the past four Killzone sorties killing en-masse.
Aesthetically, it is hands-down the best the Vita has ever looked, and comparing it to the PlayStation 3 wouldn’t be going overboard. Thanks to the spectacular fidelity of the screen and the nous of the developers to make the hardware truly sing, this is a graphical tour-de-force. The close-up melee attacks that send rivulets of blood flying into the air, the spectacular explosion, smoke and fire effects, the stunning ruins of Vekta and imposing wastes of Helghan – there is much to admire.
Mercenary is, at its heart, an impressively tight first person shooter which manages to make clever, unobtrusive use of the hardware. The rear touchpad can be turned off, although it works impressively as a means of zooming in and out when using weapons equipped with a scope. Touch controls are employed for QTE melee attacks which require a finger swipe in the direction indicated, and you can use a finger to switch between primary and secondary weapons, arm a grenade or set off your VAN-Guard systems – the wonderful selection of drones and gadgets you can buy to help spice things up in combat.
The gunplay is incredibly intense and terrific fun, whether you are ghosting your way through proceedings with a silenced shooter, or going in with a shottie and slicing people from neck to nuts with the brilliantly gruesome Brutal Melee attacks. You are the Merc – and you get to do things your way. However you decide to attack, the framerate holds up nicely and everything feels compact, intuitive; you never find yourself in a situation you cannot get Danner out of once you get to grips with the way things work. The great mini-map in the bottom left corner of the screen helps, too – showing you exactly where the enemies are, with an easy to understand legend also depicting things like gun emplacements, the Arms Dealer and, of course, your current waypoint.
Weapons are impressively destructive and have a splendid weight to them, with plenty of genuine variety. The VAN-Guard systems deserve particular praise: the Sky Fury will trigger an airstrike, raining death on the battlefield. Arc Missile electrocutes foes and incapacitates them, allowing you to rack up satisfying Mercy Kills. The Mantys is a handy flying killing machine that enables you to remotely stab people to death. The core gameplay varies depending on the weaponry you use, or the type of contract you accept. Thanks to the wonderfully sardonic Arms Dealer who pops up several times per mission, you can even alter your loadout (for a small fee) or purchase weapons on the go.
There are nine missions – or “contracts” – each of which can be played on one of three difficulties. Veteran mode is the trickiest, and comes with a larger cash reward if you can beat it. You then have a choice of four different ways to approach each contract. “Primary” is a vanilla run-through, during which you are simply expected to complete the objectives and reach the goal. “Precision” increases the financial rewards for completing the contract in efficient time, with specific conditions that need to be met, such as pulling off two dozen headshots with a sniper rifle, or taking down a tank pilot with a slug between the eyes. “Covert” is basically stealth mode, where you don special armour to creep around without detection, use silenced weapons to take down security cameras and disable foes with gas grenades and tranquiliser rounds. “Demolition” is the final, most fun way to play – and puts a premium on spectacular explosions and multi-layered carnage. Thanks to the ridiculous amounts of weaponry available (once you have earned enough dough to unlock them), and the vast array of loadouts at your disposal, there are a ton of ways to play the game.
The cold-hearted, mercenary concept permeates everything you do, seeps into every nook and cranny of the game. Whether embarking on the single player campaign or battling folk online, every action is with a view toward earning money so you can improve your loadouts, before heading back into combat for another go-around. Simply killing someone with your primary weapon may reward you 50 credits. Make that a headshot and the money you earn increases. Chain kills together – for example taking out three consecutive foes without missing – and you can expect a tasty bonus. The same goes for multiple kills when using heavier artillery or grenades. Different weapons give you different cash values per kill. There are even armour types that increase the money you earn for all of your actions.
It isn’t just enemies that count towards your score either: greasing security cameras, hacking minigames, successful stealth maneuvers past guards, successfully interrogating enemy officers for intel, it all adds up. If that wasn’t enough there are also a staggering amount of Medals to aim for – each of them earning you some more sweet, sweet money. Every weapon has a medal linked for number of kills, including all of the grenade types and VAN Guard gadgets you get to employ, and the different types of kill all have medals too. All in all, the replay value is astonishing.
As you earn money, you also increase your rank and earn an improved Valour Card. Modeled on a deck of cards, the better you perform, the higher value card you will earn to sit on your profile – with Ace being the daddy. Killing enemies in the multiplayer modes also earn cards, and there are cash bonuses and medals for completing full decks of cards. Your Valour and rank are shown in a handy Career Data profile that tells you your career earnings (and expenditure), preferred equipment and online performance. The depth is impressive – there are 45 different ranks, for starters – even more reason to carry on playing after the single player is done and dusted.
The excellent variety of options stretches to the online experience. Multiplayer consists of the team deathmatch-esque Guerilla Warface, the more refined Warzone which calls for you to carry out specific actions across five phases of combat, and the gung-ho every-man-for-himself Mercenary Warfare, which is just that. The beta has been incredibly popular and with three tight gameplay modes, excellent maps based on areas you encounter in the main game, and the crucial ability to earn in-game currency, could we see Mercenary becoming the handheld multiplayer FPS experience the world has been waiting for? Quite possibly – after all, earning that dough sure is compulsive. Couple that with the ability to brag about your earnings on the leaderboards and this one could be very popular indeed.
It is hard to criticise what Guerilla Cambridge have achieved with Killzone Mercenary. An over-reliance on the annoying glyph-based hacking mini-games is tiresome, as they feel like a lazy inclusion that add nothing to the package and are easy to beat, often with poor rewards. Some may argue that there is a lack of true variety; the enemy types are relatively few, and it lacks the grandstanding set-pieces, vehicular combat or rich storytelling of other fantastical sci-fi shooters. An early encounter with a tank is promising, but apart from a surprisingly entertaining escort mission, enlivened by a straight-talking Helghast bodyguard, most of the action is fairly straightforward.
That said, because the gameplay is so much fun and there is such a huge variety of options, this never became an issue. In fact, it is highly likely that the first thing you will do when you complete the ninth mission is to go back to the start and do it all over again. The replay potential is stupendous – while you can finish the single player mode in mere hours, earning money to unlock all of the weapon types and then completing the different mission variations and difficulties will take you aeons, and you will have great fun doing it.
VERDICT: Killzone: Mercenary is exactly what you want from a first person shooter on the go: a gaming experience that can be tailored to suit your own preferences, with fully-functioning online multiplayer and a nice, unchallenging, twisty-turny plot. Incredible to look at, to listen to, but most importantly to play, Sony should be pushing this one to the moon as a prime reason to own their excellent handheld.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.