Given that the promise of delivering a console-quality first-person shooter on the PlayStation Vita has been broken by every studio that's released one so far, you'd think developers might be more careful about potentially painting themselves into that same corner. Not Guerrilla Games Cambridge, the team charged with shrinking the big-budget Killzone series into a palm-sized package.
Perhaps seizing the opportunity to raise the bar after Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified dropped it so disappointingly low, Killzone: Mercenary director Mathijs de Jonge makes many of the same claims we've heard before. "When we got our hands on a prototype Vita, we knew this was going to be a great opportunity to deliver the full Killzone experience on a hand-held device. The Vita has roughly the same amount of processing power as a PS3, so we knew we wouldn't have to sacrifice on graphical fidelity. But more importantly, the dual analog sticks would allow us to finally make a game that plays the way first-person shooters are supposed to be played." Still having the bad taste of the "dual analog stick" Kool-Aid in my mouth from previous Vita shooter presentations, I'm skeptical of de Jonge's statements, but also cautiously optimistic because his boasts are backed by an invitation to actually play the game.
The first thing that strikes me about Mercenary isn't the controls, it's the visuals. The level is a pretty standard looking sci-fi industrial environment—lots of weathered metal and dark interiors—but a number of visual effects, such as lighting, shadows, and fog, stand out as some of the best I've seen on the Vita. Exploding barrels envelop the wide screen in smoke and fire. Draw-distances are equally impressive; despite the compact screen, the level's exterior sections feel big thanks to drop-ships, lightning storms, and artillery fire dotting skies that seem to stretch as far as I can see. While I hope the art style's a bit more ambitious in Mercenary's other levels, it at least seems they've got the hardware-running on a modified version of the Killzone3 engine-firing on all cylinders.
As I soak up the sights, I also pile Helghast corpses high. And I suppose this is one of the better compliments I can pay the controls; they feel so natural that they never pull me from the experience. The dual-sticks, as well as the two shoulder buttons, work exactly as you'd expect in an FPS. Nothing fancy or surprising, just comfortable and effective. Face buttons handle jumping, ducking, reloading, and environmental interactions with ease, and weapon-swaps and grenade-tosses are just a D-pad press away. Although, I actually find those latter actions better performed by touching optional on-screen prompts, positioned on the right of the display next to the face buttons.
Speaking of touch-screen shenanigans, Mercenary's keeping the gimmicks to a minimum. The one potential forced feature I encounter, melee kills, is actually implemented pretty well. When approaching enemies, a small prompt appears at the center of the screen; once tapped, a second, directional swipe must be traced to execute the target. I'd prefer snuffing out up-close enemies with a single tactile interaction, but still, the joy of driving a blade into the red-eyed bastards' brains and bellies has me playing Mercenary more stealthily than I would have expected.
The game's narrative approach is actually more interesting than the mechanics and graphics. Rather than presenting the usual portable prequel or sequel, Mercenary tells a tale that runs parallel to the previous games. The mission I play, for example, unfolds shortly before the ISA's Helghan invasion that opened Killzone 2. As a hired gun, I'm tasked with disabling artillery and clearing the area of infantry so the ISA can land. It's not a glamorous assignment, but Mercenary's protagonist is more interested in earning money than medals. This set-up also means players will get to fight alongside the Helghast, hopefully gaining a fresh perspective on the epic sci-fi saga in the process.
More than supporting the story, this contract-killer approach significantly serves the gameplay in a way that's totally new to the series. Players earn currency, dubbed Vektan Dollars, for every kill they perform. The amounts vary depending on how players choose to fill body bags: 50 for standard kills, 75 for death-by-exploding-barrel, 100 for stealth executions and so on. This adds some arcade-y appeal to killing sprees, as earned Vektan amounts pop-up on screen and provide some immediate gratification.
Of course, it wouldn't be much fun filling your bank account if there weren't any cool toys to piss away your riches on. Thankfully players can visit Blackjack, an arms vendor set up at various points in each level. In addition to an impressive selection of primary and secondary weapons, Blackjack offers armor upgrades, ammo, and grenades. Coolest of all—and new to Killzone—are Vanguard weapons. Equipped one at a time, these high tech toys include pilotable drones, homing missiles, cloaked camouflage, and other slick gear that wouldn't be out of place in James Bond's arsenal. These items, which operate on a cool-down timer, are also triggered with a touch-screen tap.
I don't get much time to fool around with the Vanguard system, nor do I earn enough money to enjoy a gun-porn shopping spree. Still, the merc-driven economy seems a welcome addition that suits the portable experience without defining it. It appears Guerrilla Games understands the importance of including such a portable-friendly feature, but unlike Zipper Interactive's approach to Unit 13, they're not sacrificing a console-sized story to showcase it.
Speaking of matching its console counterparts, Mercenary also includes, according to de Jonge, a "full-size" multiplayer experience. When the game ships on September 17th, it will feature three modes and six maps, supporting 4v4 matches. Replayability is also promised in the form of a "contracts" mode, which allows completed campaign missions to be re-tackled, but with more bite-sized, arcade-flavored objectives in mind.
While my time with Mercenary is too brief, it achieves the amazing feat of rekindling my hope of playing a console-rivaling FPS on the subway or in my dentist's office waiting room. Still, we'll have to wait and see if Guerilla's grand ambitions ultimately translate into consistent quality across Mercenary's three modes. Whether or not they deliver on all fronts though, they've at least made the act of peering down the iron sites and planting a slug between some thug's eyes feel satisfying behind the Vita's dual sticks. And based on others' attempts to achieve that same feat, that's saying a hell of a lot .
A veteran freelance journalist covering the video game industry for nearly a decade, Matt Cabral contributes regularly to a variety of enthusiast and print outlets. You can find his work on the web, in print, and, if you look carefully, in the foam of your latte. Find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @gamegoat.