Killzone: Mercenary is the PS Vita shooter we’ve all been waiting for

When sinking your teeth into a game on a handheld platform, chances are that you’re willing to be less critical of a lot of flaws that you would otherwise go to town about. I’ve been quite guilty of this in the past as well, particularly while getting some time with Resistance: Burning Skies, Sony’s previous first-person shooter release on the platform. While I didn’t get to play the universally-panned Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified (thankfully), I found Burning Skies to be an acceptable FPS experience in handheld terms. But Killzone: Mercenary has managed to considerably change my opinion, simply by demonstrating that the PS Vita is quite capable of delivering a console quality experience on a handheld.

Above all, Mercenary is a visually impressive effort. Apart from 2D platformers and games with quirky visual styles, Uncharted: Golden Abyss on the Vita has been the only truly impressive title from a graphics standpoint — until now. Killzone: Mercenary will exceed your expectations, because YouTube videos don’t do it justice. The developers have retained the “metallic” visual aesthetics and ambient elements that you would normally associate with the Killzone series. In addition to lighting and atmospheric effects, expect to see hails of gunfire accompanied by the almost-too-loud sounds of Helghast and ISA troopers shouting orders and dying painful deaths, often drowned out by the din created by the guns themselves. The game looks as good as an early PS3 release, and it performs better than a lot of them did, even when in the middle of an intense firefight in a graphics-heavy setting. Credit to developers Guerilla Cambridge for showing us (and other developers) what the Vita can do. If there’s one small criticism it’s that unlike in-game graphics, the pre-rendered cutscenes look a little dated, and are reminiscent of games from the early 2000s. On the other hand, no compromises have been made in the audio department, with solid sound effects, well-produced score and generic-but-good voice acting.

In gameplay terms, Killzone: Mercenary and the PS Vita are made for each other. You will benefit greatly from the dual analog sticks (which work as they do on any console shooter), and with the inclusion of a more forgiving auto-lock system, shooting has been made a lot easier. Interacting with objects on screen is done either with the press of the triangle button or by tapping the screen (you don’t have to be very precise with the tap, which is nice). The touchscreen is also put to good use for combat in addition to general interaction and puzzles (picking up ammo drops, arming explosives and hacking, for instance). You can also initiate and perform melee kills using the touchscreen — upon initiation, there’s a pseudo quick-time event that’s triggered, where a few quick, not necessarily accurate swipes result in brutal execution of hapless enemies. Overall, combat works very nicely, and the developers have managed to find the perfect balance between touch and button controls.

For the Killzone faithful, there’s isn’t a lot in terms of plot development, with Mercenary serving the purpose of a universe-expansion tool. The game is set between Killzone and Killzone 2, but you’re not playing as an ISA trooper this time around, having to step into the shoes of Arran Danner, a gun for hire. He’s in it for the money mostly, so you’ll take on contracts for both the ISA and Helghast, treading moral grey areas in a series that has thus far been mostly black and white. The mercenary theme is ever-present in the solo campaign as well, with configurable weapon load-outs by way of a black market upgrade system, an optional stealth route through missions (since the goal here is to get paid and not take sides in the war).

Its campaign might be brief, but the 4-versus-4 multiplayer will greatly increase the amount of time you spend playing the game, offering online staples such as team deathmatch and free-for-all in addition to the objective-based Warzone, a fan favourite. If you like first-person shooters, own a Vita or thought Resistance: Burning Skies was great, Killzone: Mercenary is the perfect, logical step forward. Pick it up. You won’t be disappointed.