Saturday, September 14, 2013

REVIEW - Killzone Mercenary.

Killzone Mercenary is the latest in what has amounted to a short and unfortunate series of attempts to deliver on the Vita's promise of full-feature console-style games on the go. Uncharted worked out well, but Resistance tried, and failed.  Call of Duty tried, and (laughably) failed.

Killzone knocks it out of the park.  First of all, miraculously, unbelievably, the game really does look this good:

And I know what you're thinkin'.  If you have any critical bone in your body, you're thinkin' "really? On the Vita?  Really?"

Yes, really.  I too did not believe it, when I saw screenshots like the one above.  I instantly declared them bullshots, and decided that was some sort of target render that in no way reflected the reality of the project.  I expected something bland and matte.  Something mechanically functional but not particularly engaging, not particularly fun, and certainly not particularly attractive.

Guerrilla Cambridge, who've previously attended to small fare like the LittleBigPlanet PSP game, casual crap like TV Superstars and other licensed fare, have come out of nowhere and delivered the first portable FPS that truly, honestly (shockingly) delivers.  It's engaging, it's fun and it's supernaturally attractive.


This is a direct-feed screen, captured straight from my Vita.

We're told the game boasts "tone mapping & color grading, high dynamic range, filmic post processing, volumetric fog, dynamic lights" and "screen space reflections."  Beyond "dynamic lights" I have no idea what any of that means, but I'm confident in suggesting that Killzone Mercenary is the most technologically impressive game to appear on Sony's handheld, besting even the (lovely) Uncharted: Golden Abyss with its thick action, solid framerate and delightful effects.

While the game's stunning presentation is certainly what gets its foot in the door, Mercenary is just as capable when it comes to laying iron sights on a Hig's head.  It plays as beautiful as it looks.

Again, direct-feed.  This image has been cropped to show full detail (keep in mind the Vita's pixels are super-tiny.)

While the feel of Uncharted: Golden Abyss's controls took some getting used to, I found myself splashing into Mercenary's smooth surface like a duck on water.  L1 to bring up the irons, R1 to shoot, square to reload, X to jump.  One is instantly comfortable with the game and its flow, which (like Killzone 3) is a bit lighter than the slightly-sluggish sensation of early Killzone titles, leaning a bit closer to more arcadey shooters without entirely giving up the tactile weight that the series enjoys.  Dash into a room and tap circle to slide to a stop in cover.  Hold L1 to peek over it with your iron sights up, pop a few heads and release L1 to slip back behind the wall's protection as a hail of bullets comes your way.

It feels... natural.

There's the odd option to pick up and use items by tapping the touchscreen (the touch button is smack-dab in the middle of the screen - very unwieldly), but all of those interactions may also be accomplished with the traingle button.  Why they even gave the option to touch to pick up ammo is beyond me - but thankfully, all other touch controls feel normal and natural.

Your thumb can dart off the analog stick to tap the switch weapon or grenade selection virtual buttons with ease, and activating your game-changing Van-Guard is on the left side of the screen.  Van-Guards are buyable, selectable custom abilities like optical camouflage, a forward-facing energy shield, a tiny drone that head-stabs foes or my personal favorite - the Porcupine - which turns the entire screen into a tap-fest as you launch ten tiny self-guided missiles from a launcher attached to your shoulder, a'la Predator.

Beyond those comfortable and intuitive examples which can all be accomplished via the d-pad if you so choose, touch controls only rear their head in the (boring but inoffensive) hacking minigame and (satisfying) melee combat.  Tap triangle to grab a dude, swipe your finger up, down, horizontal or diagonal to drive your blade home.  It quickly becomes perfectly comfortable, and chaining three melee kills makes you feel suitably badass.

While the areas you fight your way through are never as sprawlingly open as those in the console games, within their smallness they still encourage a bit of exploration and permit the player some personal expression in our approach. The game makes a good go of providing stealth options at the onset of every mission or new section, permitting you to take down foes with a blade or silenced weapon, hopefully maintaining your anonymity until you grab a commander by the shoulder and (with an extended melee swiping minigame) interrogate him for intel on the current mission, and a cash bonus.

The cash bonus thing is important, because you're not a Helghan and you're not a Vektan.  You have no ideology.  You're here for the money.

A'la Bulletstorm, every thing you do in the game earns you cash money to spend on ammo and gear.  Every armor type offers a different bonus (lowering your defense in exchange for extra credit rewards for every action, muffling your footsteps, increasing your ammo capacity, et cetera), and Van-Guards are worth every pricy penny.

It doubles down on the inherent satisfaction one gleans from rattling off three perfect headshots when you get extra cash for doing so, and makes everything you do - from hacking an intel terminal to shooting out a security camera to sneakily knifing an enemy caught unawares as opposed to alarmed - all the more rewarding as your paycheque tics ever higher.

Shoot a drone out of the sky?  You're gettin' paid.


The narrative is also - again, surprisingly - a feather in the game's cap.  Wading through a moral gray area that was almost abandoned in Killzone 2, Mercenary casts you as a for-rent killing machine working for the Vektan-based ISA before the tables turn and you find yourself running missions for the Helghan forces.
A Quick History of Killzone
Once upon a time, there was an interplanetary community.  Sorta' like The Federation in Star Trek.  One planet - Vekta, a beautiful Earth-like world - had some of its citizens rise up against the community and attempt to declare independence.  In response, the government cracked down and kicked all the rebels off Vekta, banishing them to the forbidding, toxic mining planet of Helghan - where they survived, thrived, and grew into a military-industrial state.  The Vektans aren't necessarily the good guys, and the Helghans may have a lot of Nazi-esque imagery, but they have a legitimate beef.  It's too bad they can't just talk it out
The game does a wonderful job of painting the war as more than good versus evil early on, in a mission that sees you attempting to breach the Vektan embassy on Helghan to rescue Vektan Ambassador Harkin, his Helghan wife and their mixed-heritage child.

Boris, giant bodyguard of the Harkin family, and an all-around cool dude.

As Helghan forces close in to eliminate the family, you find yourself fighting side-by side with the Harkins' towering, heavily-armored Helghan bodyguard against Helghan forces - for, Helghan though he may be, the bodyguard sees no honor in slaughtering a defenseless family, and swore to the ambassador he would keep the child safe.

The story abandons all pretense of your standard good versus evil and military heroics, and instead suggests the player rely on their own sense of right and wrong - a welcome, capable and clever turn for the series - though never quite as explosively affecting as the (incredible) ending to Killzone 3.

Mercenary's multiplayer is a small affair - 4-on-4 team deathmatch, free-for-all or a team-based warfare type game with rotating objectives - but like the game's campaign, the mechanics and tech supporting the experience are rock-solid.  I never found myself cursing a missed shot due to lag - when you draw a bead on another player's head and pull the trigger, you won't be cheated.

The whole game just works.  It works really, really well.

I'd say the campaign clocks in at about six hours, but the length felt correct and I do feel a pressing need to experience it again (particularly the gorgeous levels on Vekta).  The multiplayer is similarly small in scope, but rich in ability - and across it all, the tech remains reliable and capable.

It's worth noting that this is no BioShock.  It's not a game that redefines what an FPS can be.  It's a Bulletstorm or a DOOM 3 or... well, yeah - a Killzone.

With that in mind, Killzone Mercenary is, I believe, the single most-successful portable FPS ever made.  Its gameplay is excellent (fun enemy AI), its controls are beautifully comfortable, its presentation is frankly shocking for a handheld and its overall experience is unmatched in this space.

If you've been waiting for a good first-person shooter on the Vita, Killzone Mercenary is it.  Buy with confidence.


  1. At least someone looked at bulletstorm and thought,"Yeah, those were some good ideas."

    I hope Km's weapon upgrades weren't as bullshitty as bulletstorm's extra ammo and EXTRA ammo variety.

  2. No upgrades - just a variety of weapons to choose from. You're allow a (minor) bit of character specialization in terms of the armor you choose.