First-person shooters have had a tough time on the PlayStation Vita. Although the handheld’s twin analogue sticks, triggers, sharp screen, and capable innards mark it as a perfect platform for the lucrative genre, so far there isn’t a single strong representative available.
In fact, there are only two FPS titles out for the fledgling console, but despite their blockbuster lineage the less said about either, the better. All Killzone: Mercenary needs to do is be half-decent by comparison and riches will surely follow.
Fortunately, it looks like it’ll be at least half-decent by any standard. Developed by Guerrilla Cambridge – the studio behind MediEvil, and sister to Killzone developer Guerrilla Games – Mercenary puts the player in control of character Arran Danner, a former soldier now doing contract wet work for both the ostensibly good ISA as well as the Nazi-surrogate Helghast.
The mission we play is for the ISA, and involves infiltrating a base on Helgan to redirect the fire of a battery of anti-aircraft Arc Cannons into a fleet of Helghast ships. Immediately it’s obvious that Mercenary is not a half-assed spin-off looking to cash in on the big name of its older siblings. The mission intro cinematics are excellent, and the view from Danner’s wingsuit as he glides undetected to the facility is impressive thanks to a modified Killzone 3 rendering engine, which allows things like volumetric lighting and smoke, high-res textures, and realistic-looking shadows.
Also pleasing are the attack options available to players. The loud approach is supported by the typical load-out of machine guns, shotguns, and grenades, but also by Danner’s Vanguard system. The Vanguard is basically a special item slot that on this mission was initially filled with “Manty’s Engine” – a hovering drone with a short-range claw attack. When activated, the player’s view shifts to that of the drone until its energy is depleted through flying or by enemy attacks, at which point it returns to recharge.
Later we replace Manty with a Porcupine homing missile system, which locks onto onscreen enemies and merely requires the player to tap the screen in their vicinity for a homing missile to be dispatched. It’s satisfying and works well. Other Vanguard systems are available to purchase from the game’s surprisingly ubiquitous shops, which come in a handy crate size.
From these crates there’s an orbital strike, a cloaking device, a communications jammer, and an energy shield available for the Vanguard, and Danner can also buy more powerful primary and secondary weapons and grenades, restock ammo, or select different suits of armour.
The latter are each given a protection, mobility, and noise suppression rating, and there’s something for every play style. All shop items are paid for in some variation of spacebucks, which accrue per kill, per achievement (headshots and so forth), and per objective met and mission completed. A stealth approach is immediately available thanks to Danner’s silenced pistol and knife, as well as some fairly unobservant AI.
An assault on a barracks provides the best opportunity to test the game’s sneak mechanics, and they hold up fairly well. Guards that spot Danner will summon all others to his location immediately, or call for reinforcements if outgunned. However, one guard didn’t notice a window break and a comrade slump to the ground with an audible thud fewer than 10 feet from him, so perhaps there is work to be done there.
It’s obvious it won’t be possible to sustain a stealth approach throughout an entire level as the usual shooter tropes of “defend this item” are present and there are simply too many guards in some areas, but it’s a fun gameplay switch when it is possible.
Mercenary has a well-designed, clear mini-map that is particularly useful in these situations, as it highlights not only supply crates and objectives, but also enemies both already spotted and yet to be seen.
The game’s melee combat is equally robust, and requires the click of the triangle button followed by a touchscreen quick time event to execute. Despite the protracted kill animations here, Danner still takes damage, so it isn’t possible to jump from enemy to enemy without consequence like the killer bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The only things that stood out as sub-par during our playthrough were Danner’s employers constantly barking each mission objective at him until it was complete, and his inability to sprint in a reliable fashion. The latter function is either bound to the rear touch pad (ugh) or shares the circle button with crouch, but neither produced a satisfactory result.
Elsewhere Mercenary is solid. It’s just the right level of tough, and the Killzone 3 engine looks crisp and vibrant. Although we haven’t seen enough of the game to judge whether the story will be worthwhile, or how pervasive the series' trademark brown-on-brown palette will be, the stealth options certainly elevate it above the usual shooting galleries of the genre. Blockbuster FPS goodness may yet make it to the Vita.
Killzone: Mercenary is out on PlayStation Vita on September 4.