It’s not a secret that the PS VITA has been going through a bit of a struggle, and it could certainly be argued that the platform is still awaiting that “AAA” title to give the mainstream a good reason to catch on. Let’s not kid ourselves, Resistance: Burning Skies wasn’t very good, and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified was even worse. Unfortunately, shooters just can’t seem to find their feet in the handheld market, and so the real question comes down to whether or not these games are just a series of poor examples, or if people are simply not interested in the “portable console” experience. If you know Sony, you would probably recognise Killzone as thier flagship shooter franchise. In my opinion, Killzone 2 is the best game in the series thus far, and I would also rate the overall franchise fairly well. However, I still honestly have to ask myself, is this the type of game I want to play on the go?
Killzone: Mercenary tells the story of Arran Danner, a Mercenary who comes into the fray of things towards the end of where the original Killzone would have ended. A former UCA-Soldier, and aligned only to the money that lines his pockets, Danner will set out on a series of missions for both the ISA and Helghast throughout the course of the game. Essentially, it will start with a few scenarios that don’t really mean anything – go here, shoot that, and push this button to progress. Eventually, there are some minor plot developments that put the player inbetween both sides of the war, fighting to protect a young boy, and to try and prevent either side from obtaining a deadly virus that could wipe out the other. Fortunately, there are a few core characters introduced that save the narrative from being entirely devoid of personality, but the plot is still awfully predictable, and I struggled to maintain interest in what was going on. Basically, it served to keep the gameplay moving forward.
Ultimately, Mercenary is exactly what you would expect from a Killzone game, albeit with a few unique elements added into the mix. As you’re tasked this time working as a gun for hire, players will consistently receive payment for each of their various achievements in combat, and then use that money to purchase weapons and equipment from drop crates throughout the game. It’s fun being able to customise your load-out at first, but at the same time, I often found myself returning to the same weapons, and thus using a smaller arsenal overall. It was a little disappointing not to be able to customise your weapons, but it was definitely a lot of fun being able to choose to approach a mission using stealth, and then to plan accordingly with the equipment available. This certainly helped to emphasise the role of being a mercenary, and did well to keep the gameplay engaging, whilst it lasted.
When it comes to this style of shooter, I understand the drive to keep things feeling “cinematic” as we’re essentially repeating a lot of familiar actions, and this makes the way the games scenarios playout that much more important. However, I can’t help but take issue with removing control from the player, especially when playing in a first-person perspective. It breaks the players immersion to deliver a sequence that the gameplay otherwise couldn’t, and this is not good design in my opinion. However, with that being said, there were also some interesting mechanics added with the use of touch, and these included the “swipe-to-melee” function and a series of hacking puzzles that involved matching up various ciphers. In fact, both of these mechanics work quite well, and kind of relieve the feeling of “been there, done that”. Call it a novelty, but it at least helps justify the games release on Vita.
Let’s be honest though, not all people play as many shooters as some of us, and thus what I would personally consider “tried design” might not be a problem for many of those prospective players. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’m just going to give the game a big gold star for sticking within the box, but it’s only fair to surmise that the core design is reasonably solid for what it is. Although, with that being said, the way the game actually plays is always going to be a lot more important when it comes to a shooter, and especially when it’s being released on a handheld platform. However, first I need to address the day one patch. 1GB, seriously? At first I tried playing without it, but quickly encountered several bugs that required me to commit “Harakiri” in order reload my checkpoint and try again. I don’t know how many of you still have the 4GB card, but I was pretty annoyed that I had to delete other games in order to make room for this patch. It’s simply unacceptable for a “Flagship” release game.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about how the game actually controls using the Vita. Honestly, the first thing I want to say is, “practise makes perfect”, and I don’t think it can be any more straightforward than that. It’s naturally going to take some time to adjust to the smaller sticks on the Vita, but the auto-aim is enough to compensate without it feeling as if it’s patronising your ability to play the game. Otherwise, it’s going to play exactly like you’ve come to expect from a Killzone game, but with the touch controls I mentioned earlier, which actually worked quite well despite being unnecessary. There are still a few things though as I don’t think the cover works nearly as well as the games console counterparts, and I would not recommend using the rear touch controls. You can expect to run, climb ladders, use elevators, push buttons and shoot lots of “bad” dudes. It all works quite well.
Ah, graphics! The most controversial divider between platforms, genres and fans. I don’t think I need to tell you that Killzone is a graphical powerhouse, in fact, I think I can confidently state that this is the best game “graphically” on the Vita platform. Honestly, the game looks superb! The lighting engine works surprisingly well, and there are no issues with screen tearing or framerate drops. This is definitely going to be that “go-to” game which Vita owners will want to show off to all their friends, and rightfully so. However, in terms of visual design, you can still expect a lot more of those browns and greens, much a like to like Gears of War franchise. It’s just one of those great looking games that is also kind of ugly at the same time, well, at least in my opinion. Otherwise, the voice acting and musical score receives a satisfactory pass. It’s exactly what you expect from Killzone, and that’s a good thing.
Multiplayer has been an important aspect for Killzone since the second edition, and I think I would say that it’s probably one the most successful first-party multiplayer experiences on the PlayStation 3. The good news is that the multiplayer mode in Mercenary takes all the great things you’d expect from its console counterpart, and then expands upon it by adding new modes and equipment. However, and here comes the problem… I would love to tell you more about it, but I literally can’t find a full match! This may be because the game just isn’t that popular in Australia, or maybe the release of GTA V is to blame, but I have never experienced so much difficulty trying to find a match (and that includes all those terrible “tacked-on” modes we’ve seen throughout this generation). Fortunately, I managed to find some smaller games, so I get the premise and have filled the gaps with youtube videos, and it looks like great fun. However, without lots of people, it’s kind of pointless, and that is disappointing.
Honestly, Killzone: Mercenary is a fun “Killzone Experience”. However, it is also strung together by a forgettable plot that is unjustifiably short, and complemented by a multiplayer mode that has less life than a ghost town. The individual scenarios are well designed when it comes to the genre standard, but fail to deliver anything original or exciting. Admittedly, the new additions to the players loadout work well, and it’s interesting, albeit a little redundant in terms of gameplay, to finally play on the Helghast side of the war. However, without a thriving multiplayer community to support the experience, we’re left with a fairly generic game that may only serve to satisfy the hardcore who want to play Killzone on the go. Fortunately, there is a Contracts Mode that will provide additional challenges, and this does help to justify at least some sort replayability, and of course, it’s undeniably a great demonstration of the Vita’s power. However, if portability isn’t that important to you, I think you’re probably better off waiting for Shadow Fall on the PS4. Unfortunately, I can only recommend this game to the enthusiasts.
Note: This review was based on the PS Vita version of the game, and provided to us by Sony Computer Entertainment Australia.