Portable first-person shooters generally suck. The controls are too limited, the screens too small for fine detail, or the stories aren't more than simple set dressing for an egregious bullet and blood ballet. Killzone: Mercenary does not feel like a portable first-person shooter.
I was honestly expecting the worst when I discovered I'd been assigned to review the new portable Killzone game from Guerrilla Cambridge, whose most recent titles (as SCE Cambridge Studio) included LittleBigPlanet for the PSP and TV Superstars, an average PlayStation Move title. Having seen two big-name first-person shooters — Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies — crash and burn on the Vita, I had little hope this game would be any different.
It's nice to be surprised. Not only is Killzone: Mercenary a highly-competent first-person shooter, in some ways it's superior to the console games that came before it.
The story falls into the superior category, though largely due to a clever twist that transforms a convenient game mechanic into an all-important plot note. Without giving too much away, there's a major player in the story who you'll likely take for granted until the game's final moments.
Unfortunately, that character is the only interesting one in the bunch. As the story of mercenary Arran Danner (with tattooed arms, because first-person shooter) unfolds, one has to wonder why he suffers any of the two-dimensional assholes he deals with. His boss is a waddling greed machine, the sort that would do anything for financial gain. His role in a game that's been marketed as the first time Killzone players can fight alongside both the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance (ISA — the good guys from the console games) and the villainous Helghast, is painfully obvious.
Mercenaries get a bad rap in video games, always betraying one another for cash. Danner gets screwed over so many times during the nine story chapters that I was certain the game's unspecified metaphor for innocence and purity was going to put a round in his face at the end.
The characters may be predictable, but Killzone: Mercenary's levels are anything but. Another improvement over the console versions, Mercenary plays out across a series of sprawling maps. Where other portable shooters love shepherding players through an endless series of corridors, this game gives players an objective marker and sets them free.
Free to rush in, guns blazing. Free to sneak around behind the enemy and stab them in the back. Free to launch a drone that homes in on opposing forces and stabs them in the head with metal spikes.
Those drones come courtesy of Blackjack(tm) Weapons, with kiosks littered conveniently in every nook and cranny of every level. Arran collects cash rewards as he kills his way through all of these zones, and that cash and the triangle button are his ticket to a world of weapons and equipment unlock anything the series has seen. Pistols, machine guns, sub-machine guns, shotguns, rocket launches, grenade launchers, drones, armor, homing missiles — everything a growing mercenary needs is available for a price.
While loadouts are limited to primary and secondary weapons, a grenade type-device and a single piece of powerful VAN-guard tech (those drones I mentioned, for instance), easy access to kiosks means the right tool to play your way is just moments and credits away.
The multitude of weapons and open levels make for a unique first-person shooter experience with plenty of replayability. The game's Contract system takes advantage of this versatility, challenging players to take on each level in completely different ways, from stealthly stabbing to balls-out destruction. It's all quite liberating. In fact, if Killzone: Liberation weren't already a thing, I'd suggest a name change.
I only wish the variety extended to the game's multiplayer aspect. There are only three game modes to choose from — free-for-all, teach deathmatch and a team-based potpurri of five objective based missions, and no real options for customizing play. You've got start match, join friend, party match, and that's pretty much it.
It's still pretty damn entertaining, mind you. The multitude of weapons, the dreadful buzz of a drone in the air — it's good, hectic fun. The limited options make for a pretty stable online experience, but they also serve as one of the few reminders that, despite the spit and polish, this is a portable first-person shooter.
Oddly enough, the game's gorgeous visuals also highlight the fact that it's a portable first-person shooter. Running on a modified version of the Killzone 3 engine, Mercenary is prettier than a portable first-person shooter has any right to be. It can be a little inconsistent (keep an eye out for some sloppiness at the very end of the game — you'll know it when you see it), but for the most part it's a stunningly-detailed game.
So stunningly-detailed that some of those details get lost on the tiny Vita screen. Snipers would be impossible to see without the tell-tale beam of their laser sights. During one mission, an escort of sorts, my AI companion complained of being shot by rocket launcher-wielding soldiers I couldn't make out without squinting. It's enough to make me yearn for the Vita TV.
But the Vita TV wouldn't work without the touchscreen, another reason I can't completely escape the notion that Killzone: Mercenary is a portable FPS. Without press-able analog sticks and a second pair of triggers, some of the game's functions fall to the touchscreen. Grenades, weapon swapping, activating special weapons, melee attacks and some object interactions are all handled by your fingertips. Having to tap the screen in the middle of a fierce firefight breaks the spell somewhat, and accidentally slipping and hitting the swap weapon button happened more often than I would have liked. One should not fire a grenade launcher point-blank. It's hurty.
There are negatives, but they're far outweighed by the overwhelming positive — especially when you consider one of the negatives is basically "it's too sexy for its screen."
I expected the worst from Killzone: Mercenary. In my defense, I've been conditioned to do so. First-person shooters on portable systems have been disappointing me for ages. Even the best FPS games on the iPad and Android are only "the best" within their limitations.
Killzone: Mercenary is the best first-person shooter available on a portable console, but more importantly it's one of the better first-person shooters, period.