Discussion Review: Killzone: Mercenary

Review written by Matt Litten & Aaron R. Conklin

KillzoneMercenary

Aaron: It feels like we’ve been waiting for it as long as Vladmir and Estragon have been waiting for Godot, or maybe as long as Cubs fans have been waiting for another shot at the World Series. But finally, a little more than a year and a half in, our patience is, at last, rewarded.

The PlayStation Vita finally has a good first-person shooter in its library!

And it’s about damn time. Early last year, Resistance: Burning Skies was the first game to blaze into the modern portable FPS breach, but ended up as forgettable as half of the sitcoms NBC rolled out last spring. Last holiday season, Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified was such an unmitigated disaster that we all tried to ignore it, the way you try to uncomfortably ignore the drunken guy who’s ruining the holiday party by starting an impromptu karaoke session.

Stacked against cover-your-eyes competition like this, the bar wasn’t necessarily set high for Killzone: Mercenary, but developer Guerrilla Cambridge, taking the mobile baton from series mainstay Guerrilla Games, hurdles it with ease. All the key elements are in place: The twin-stick controls and gun sights are smooth and easy to use, just like they’d be on a full-size console. The environments aren’t quite as detailed and interactive as you’d experience on the PlayStation 3, but they’re more than sufficient. Adrenaline cutscenes also add to the vibe: Gliding through the skies of Helghan to infiltrate a building, with gunships and bombs exploding around you, plays as awesome as it sounds.

Even the touchscreen stuff is integrated well. At various points, you’ll have to swipe the touchscreen to execute brutal melee kills or interrogate captured enemies. As long as you’re ready for them, these mechanics are intuitive and a natural extension of the touch gameplay we saw with Uncharted: Golden Abyss.

Rather than send us in for a fourth foray against those goose-stepping Helghast, Mercenary, as its title might suggest, sticks us right in the middle of the mess, working for whichever side is willing to front the most coin. Our main merc, Aaran Danner (I’ll ignore the egregious misspelling of his first name) probably feels like he’s stumbled into a hired gun’s paradise, since everything you do in Mercenary—score a headshot, pick up dropped ammo packs, upgrade a weapon, fix a roast-beef sandwich—earns you money that can be spent on upgrades at one of the game’s copious BlackJack weapons dealer stations. Pressing a touchscreen icon to perform actions and earn cash in the world actually feels more natural than pressing the X button.

Accumulate enough wealth to rival the GNP of Switzerland and you’ll be able to access one of the game’s most entertaining features—VAN-Guard powers. They’re seriously expensive, but totally worth the time and effort to obtain. Obliterating a nest of Helghast on the far side of the map with an unexpected homing missile strike or using a remote-controlled robot to do the job for you adds a whole new level of entertainment to your arsenal. When you jump into Mercenary’s (mostly stable) multiplayer mode, these powers are served up as drops that can be won by the first person to hack into a capsule and grab them. They completely unbalance the proceedings, sure, but at least they’re distributed randomly.

Mercenary has a few control concessions that occasionally intrude on the action. For instance, the Vita doesn’t have enough buttons to map one to, say, your hand-grenade stash, so your plans to bomb and rush are going to have to become equip-bomb-re-equip-rush instead, which is more than a little problematic.

The single-player campaign here is almost breathtakingly short—only nine missions. The good news is that each one can be replayed with a set of different Contract challenges (beat a time, save a hostage, etc.) and the environments are interesting enough that you won’t mind playing through them a second or third time.

Not for the first time, gamers will probably find themselves wishing a Vita game had come out a year or so earlier, but Mercenary’s more than just a case of better late than never. Now that Guerrilla Cambridge has shown that it’s possible to pull off a quality FPS on the Vita, the sky—and by “sky’ I mean a shooter with deep characters and a meaningful storyline—could finally, belatedly be the limit.

Matt: You are absolutely correct about the lack of engaging story and characters. For all the great things Guerrilla has done with the Killzone franchise over the years, storytelling hasn’t been one of them. Not that the stories have been bad, but after five games the only identifiable characters are the red beady-eyed Helghast and their villainous leaders. The only thing Killzone is missing at this point is an iconic hero for you to care about and root for.

Mercenary doesn’t fill this void, sadly, but compared to the previous titles it’s at least a bit more interesting to play the role of a gun-for-hire stuck in the middle of the conflict, without any real allegiance dictating his actions. Events span the main trilogy as well, which means the story has you blasting through missions set on both Vekta and Helghan. It’s nice to have that contrast of environments within the same game for a change.

The campaign is fairly breezy–it’ll probably take most players in the neighborhood of only four to six hours to complete, depending on play style and desire to find all pieces of intel–but to me it felt more substantial than that. The scale of the levels is highly impressive, with no shortage of exhilarating set pieces to keep those thumb sticks working overtime. Almost every mission opens with a jaw-dropping panoramic intro sequence of you approaching the mission area in a boat or flying in on a dropship, as if the developers just wanted to show off the full scale of the environment before dropping you into the fray. Yes, there is little interaction with the environments, but the level of detail and design balance that went into each mission layout is quite the accomplishment given the portable hardware limitations. Whether you prefer stealth or guns blazing, typically there are multiple ways to approach each scenario.

Having multiple contract options–not to mention three difficulty tiers with increasing payouts–sure helps extend the life of the game as well. All nine missions have a default set of objectives in addition to three other contract types for Precision, Covert, and Demolition, each with a unique set of mandatory objectives and weapon loadout requirement. For a Covert mission, you may have to do things like stealth through specific sections of a level without being detected and achieve a certain number of backstabs and sniper rifle headshots. Conversely, a Demolition contract might require you to destroy all the generators placed throughout a stage while amassing a high body count with explosive weapons. The only drag with replaying missions is not being able to skip the introductory cutscenes. Well, technically you can, but you first have to wait for the cutscene to fully load, which generally takes close to the full length of the scene.

I suppose Mercenary’s greatest achievement is how faithfully it replicates that signature Killzone gun weight and momentum. The constant splash of contract bonuses for popping off headshots and multi-kills would seem to slant the action towards Bulletstorm arcade insanity, but it doesn’t at all. Even without the feedback of a DualShock 3 rumbling in your hands, the guns deliver the same tangible sensation of power and heft as you burn through M82 clips. Just the way the guns bob and sway on the screen as you guide their aim with the Vita analog sticks falls right into the FPS sweet spot.

I too was pleased at how effectively touch controls were implemented. Certain actions do require touch input, such as swiping in different directions to pull off brutal melee kills, sliding a finger up the rear touch pad to zoom in and out in sniper zoom, or interacting with the occasional hacking mini-game. However, for most basic actions you have the choice of touch or buttons. You can hit the Circle button to sprint, or tap and hold a finger on the rear touch pad. You can swap weapons or activate VAN-Guards from the left and right D-pad buttons, or tap the appropriate icons on the touch screen HUD. And I guess you missed it, but you actually can instantly lob grenades by tapping down on the D-pad instead of having to awkwardly tap to equip and then throw. Guerrilla even threw in an optional motion sensor aiming function when looking down the sights, but that’s one of those “let’s throw it in because the Vita can do it” control gimmicks. (And thankfully the only one.)

The multiplayer deserves a whole lot more recognition as well. More than even the campaign, Mercenary’s competitive side comes together with all the depth of a console first-person shooter. Obviously the Vita can’t handle the capacity of 24 players and up like the PS3 games, but even in smaller 4-v-4 the battles are intense and the six maps are varied and perfectly layered to offer many different tactical approaches.

Standard forms of deathmatch and team deathmatch are present and accounted for, but the mode that really hits the spot is Warzone, a phase-based match type which pits two teams against one another in a series of short objectives, like collecting the Valor Cards dropped from enemy corpses, hacking VAN-Guard drops, and interrogating enemy troops. With over 100 matches and 15 hours of play time under my belt so far, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Mercenary is the Vita’s go-to game for competitive multiplayer.

Unfortunately there are some issues with the game’s online infrastructure that still need to be addressed. Except for maybe one or two spurts of poor connectivity, my first few weeks with the game were fine. Recently, though, a patch was released to improve overall online stability, but in my experience performance has only dropped. I was happy to see the patch address the game’s unbalanced spawn points (before the update, spawning right in front of opponents without any chance to fight back before being immediately killed again was all too common), but since applying the update I have been booted from more matches and encountered more lobby connection errors within a shorter window of play time. Matches are always easy to find so the ratio of latency- and error-free competition still far outweighs any spurts of lag or disconnects. Guerilla Cambridge’s network coders certainly still have some work to do here though. And while they’re at it, it would be nice if they could also implement some way to balance teams. In many situations I’ve had teammates quit a match early, leaving me as the lone soldier against a full team. Nothing can be done about that when players leave on the spot, but when the match is over and I’m sitting in the lobby for the next match, it would only be fair if the game automatically rebalanced the teams so I wasn’t stuck in a 1-vs-4 situation going into the next battle.

Aaron: Guerilla Cambridge obviously recognized some of those multiplayer issues as well, as evidenced by that second, Kong-sized patch the company released recently, as you mention, Matt. I’m always grateful to see a development team support and nurture its game after launch, but the massive size of that patch points up another factor that may hamper the long-term growth of Mercenary’s audience. The simple point of fact that the game’s never going to have a digital footprint smaller than 4GB means it’s likely to occupy the lion’s share of your Vita’s hard drive or whatever pricey HD memory card you’ve chosen to deploy. Obviously, file size is the cost we have to pay to get a game with a polished and deep multiplayer mode on this platform, but the Vita’s memory specs complicate the question for me. For some Vita owners, even installing the patch is going to require a lot of time-consuming shifting and deleting. Will everyone be willing to go to the trouble? As a gamer who carves his playing time out of an increasingly busy schedule, I have to wonder.

I haven’t experienced the same level of disconnection issues you have, Matt, but that kind of thing can be an absolute deal-breaker for multiplayer fans. Not that they have any other options available that are as pretty and well-constructed as this one, but still.

Even with the bump and disconnects, there’s no question that Killzone Mercenary sets the new standard for shooters on the Vita, and it’s also elevated the Killzone brand beyond anything the PlayStation 3 titles were able to accomplish. It’ll be something of a shame if the beneficiary of that work is Killzone’s debut on the PlayStation 4. Here’s hoping the community—and the developers—keep working to make sure that’s not the case.

Aaron-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Finally, a console-quality shooter on a handheld
+ Touch screen melee and interrogation takes advantage of the platform
+ Rarely has picking up ammo felt so rewarding
+ VAN-Guard power-ups are a blast to deploy

Cons:
– Not the world’s most engaging story
– Single-player campaign is blink-and-you-miss-it

Matt: It’s funny that you mention the game’s massive digital footprint, as I was already going to express my concern over the exact same thing. I’m fine with the digital version hogging up 3-4 gigs—the game’s a technical marvel and more than justifies the high memory card requirement. But even if you buy a physical copy at retail, you’re still going to have to carve out more than 1GB just to download the latest update, which means one less gigabyte to use for other full games. Having a patch eat up so much precious memory card space is disconcerting. At least the most recent patch replaced the launch day patch rather than stack on top of it. That would have been a real killer.

Killzone: Mercenary shows how many technical pitfalls are involved in bringing a game of this caliber to a portable gaming machine, which makes it all the more impressive of an accomplishment. Except for a detail here and a detail there, Guerrilla Cambridge was able to overcome the majority of the same hurdles that have previously caused other developers to falter. The result is the Vita’s top ‘AAA’ exclusive, bar none. The campaign may not tell the most riveting story or last as long as you’ll want it to, so if you’re the type of gamer who doesn’t care about multiplayer and will only take one trip through the single-player, this may not be the game for you. But as a complete package, offering immense campaign replay value and an unprecedented online multiplayer component in the portable game space, Killzone: Mercenary is currently without equal, on the Vita or any other mobile platform.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ True console Killzone experience in a handheld package
+ Campaign feels grand in scale, despite its brevity
+ Alternate mission contracts add variety and replay value
+ Smart implementation of touch control
+ Online multiplayer is addictive and rewarding
+ Mind-blowing graphics

Cons:
– Nagging multiplayer stability and balance quirks
– Forgettable campaign storyline
– Eats up a lot of memory card space

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge
Release Date: 9/10/2013
Genre: First-person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-8 (2-8 online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!