Sony has tasked its newly renamed first party studio Guerrilla Cambridge (formerly Sony Cambridge of MediEvil fame) to lead the charge. Members of Sony Cambridge had experience helping Guerrilla Games (the Sony-owned series behind the Killzone franchise) with multiplayer maps for Killzone 2 and 3 on PS3, and there are veterans on that team that have worked on all three core games in the series. And what this team has created – at least from the presentation I saw, as well as hands-on time with both the game’s single-player and multiplayer offerings – gives plenty of cause to be excited, even if cautiously so.
The single-player campaign, which begins just after the conclusion of the original Killzone and Killzone: Liberation, throws players into some well-known scenarios derived from series lore. You’re playing not as an ISA or Helghan soldier, but as a gun-for-hire named Aaran Danner from an organization known as Phantom. As the game’s director told us before we played, he’s not out to fight “the good fight”. He and his Phantom brethren are out to fight “the highest-paid fight.” That allows him sit on the fence, keeping a close eye on who’s paying the most money, and for what. The game’s motto – “War is Our Business” – is meant to reflect that, and it’s a mantra that permeates the game.
As I began what appeared to be an early mission in the game, I was met with an impressive cutscene that set up the story. Headed towards the Helghan homeworld, Danner uses something called a glide suit to jump from a vehicle high in the atmosphere to a towering building below. The look and feel of Killzone is alive and well in Mercenary; it’s a dark, gritty and atmospheric looking game. And yes, its graphics are impressive. The game’s director stressed that there isn’t much difference in processing power between PS3 and Vita, and as such, the game actually runs on a (seemingly dumbed-down) form of the Killzone 3 engine.
The game itself feels a lot like Killzone 2 and 3; gunning down Helghast with familiar weaponry quickly reminded me that shooters on Vita don’t have to be sterile and boring. Indeed, the world around me was decidedly alive as I moved through a Helghan facility. Mercenary feels a bit slow and clunky, but Killzone always had a more weighted and realistic feel to it, and that’s been translated to the Vita. Whether or not that’s your thing, of course, a matter of personal taste. (I’d prefer the final product to be lighter myself.)
Killzone: Mercenary’s emphasis on money – and not honor – becomes immediately apparent as soon as you kill your first enemy. Money is rewarded for every kill you score in the campaign, and if you manage to kill an enemy in a unique or difficult way, you get even more money. Headshots are worth more, as are Mercenary’s “Brutal Melee” kills, which require players to press the triangle button or tap an on-screen icon before following a quick on-screen prompt to do away with your foe at the point of a blade. You even get money for scouring soldiers’ bodies for bullets, something that isn’t done automatically, but that requires a quick press of the triangle button.
The game’s Vita functionality is limited and represents a mixture of things that make sense and things that don’t. For instance, meleeing someone by first having to press triangle or the center of the OLED screen and then swiping seems a little redundant and unnecessary, as does pressing an on-screen button to switch weapons. Still, throwing grenades isn’t nearly as ridiculously annoying as it was in, say, Resistance: Burning Skies, though it’s cumbersome in Killzone: Mercenary in its own way. (You tap the grenade button to switch to the explosive and then tap the right shoulder button to throw it.) I also didn’t like how you have to double-tap the back of the Vita and then hold your finger there to run; this seemed counterintuitive in a game that stresses character weight like Killzone.
Multiplayer seems a little more closely aligned with Nihilistic’s Resistance and Call of Duty offerings, though far more robust and enjoyable. Like those games, Mercenary’s online modes accommodate up to eight players – an admittedly disappointing design choice considering console Killzone games can accommodate 32 players – but unlike those other Vita shooters, there are reasons to keep on playing. No matter which of the game’s three modes you jump into, and no matter which of the six maps you play on, everything you do ties into the single-player campaign (and vice-versa) via a seamless bank account that transcends the entire experience.
Just like in the single-player mode, where cash is earned for all sorts of actions, getting kills in multiplayer also nets you funds. And the same rules apply across both modes: the more impressive the kill, the more money you’ll earn. If you kill back-to-back enemies, you’ll earn even more loot. If you get a longer kill streak, even more cash can be earned. When you start to factor in special attacks, skills and moves called Vanguards and the multiplayer-only Valor Cards that each opponent drops when slain, you find that Mercenary seems to have been designed with considerable depth in mind.
The multiplayer mode I had a couple of go-arounds with was called Mercenary Mode, which is basically eight player free-for-all. The map we played on – Shoreline – was small, multi-tiered and forced confrontation, an important design choice considering the limited amount of players that are present on the map at one time. The five loadouts available to me each had distinct primary and secondary weapons, ranging from pistols and submachine guns to assault rifles and rocket launchers. And all of the money earned in all of the game’s modes can be spent with the game’s black market dealer, Blackjack, to make constant upgrades that give you the edge in battle.
In short, my first impressions of Killzone: Mercenary are positive. But I also remember how much I really liked Resistance: Burning Skies when I first saw it, and how disappointing the end result was. But consider me cautiously optimistic, especially considering the pedigree of the internal studios on the project.
PlayStation Vita needs a competent, fun and worthwhile first-person shooter. It doesn’t have one yet. Killzone: Mercenary might just be it.