In war, what do people fight for? To Captain Jan Templar, one of the main protagonists in Killzone, it was to defend his planet from a violent blitzkrieg launched by the environmentally hardened Helghast. In Killzone 2, the ISA took the fight to Helghan with Tomas Sevchenko leading the charge in an attempt to capture Emperor Scolar Visari. Finally, in Killzone 3, Sev finds himself confronted by an emboldened enemy and must fight for his own survival as well as the fate of planet Earth. What these three games have in common is a protagonist who wages war for a clear and upfront goal: to save the lives of others and his home. Killzone: Mercenary represents a significant departure from that tone by, as the name suggests, introducing mercenaries into fray. Instead of fighting for home and hearth, mercenary Arran Danner offers his gun to whoever is willing to pay for it.
Killzone: Mercenary is a self contained story that takes place alongside the events that occur during the first three games in the franchise, with key events playing out from a different perspective. Beginning with the Helghast invasion of Vekta, the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance calls upon a company of mercenaries to engage in a series of skirmishes will take Danner to various hotspots on Vekta and Helghan until he finds himself at the center of a plot that could turn the tide of the war in the worst way.
The game is divided into nine different missions of the usual “Go here and blow up that” variety but there's a focus on money that sets it apart from other Killzone titles. Every action, be it performing melee attacks or scrounging for ammo, is rewarded with credits to be spent on purchasing offensive and defensive equipment. By hunting down weapon lockers, the player can customize their weapon loadout by purchasing assault rifles with varying modifiers (silencers, scopes, red dot sights), shotguns, silenced pistols, enhanced armors, grenade and special weapons. Players can also purchase high end Van-Guard weapons that, while limited, are incredibly useful in the field.
The player won’t have to go very far to find a weapon locker as they are strategically placed at both ends of major skirmish areas. The weapons themselves cannot be upgraded individually but many of them are designed for different play styles. For those that want to stealth, special armor and guns are available to help keep them quiet while others are designed to be as loud and deadly as possible. The only negative thing I have to say about the weapon system is that I found it rather annoying that I have to pay to re-equip weapons already purchased. Switching weapons to meet the needs of a given combat scenario is a frequent task and it just doesn’t seem all that right that the money I could be saving up to resupply or purchase expensive equipment goes towards something I already paid for.
Above all else, the FPS gameplay in Killzone: Mercenary is something I really enjoyed. I wasn’t too thrilled with the familiar Killzone “heaviness” given to Danner’s movements to convey a sense of realism (I absolutely hated it in Killzone2) but upping the sensitivity helped to even things out. I found gun combat to be comfortable, fun and challenging as it lacks the “snap to target” feature commonly seen in Call of Duty. Performing melee kills, hacking terminals and placing charges (which is as awkward as it was in Killzone 2) involves interacting with the front touch screen. The Vita’s second analog stick really lends itself well to first person gameplay. I haven’t played too many first person shooter games on the Vita (are there any?) but I feel confident in saying that Mercenary has set the standard in comfort and ease of control. The game is certainly a pretty one to boot. Although the textures don’t quite match up to its PlayStation 3 counterpart, Killzone: Mercenary runs on a modified version of the Killzone 3 engine resulting in some of the best lighting and particle effects I’ve seen on the platform.
The game’s missions are not very long, with most them lasting for about twenty to thirty minutes. Of course, that will depend on what difficulty mode is chosen. I played the game on Easy and still had a tough time in some spots. Regardless of difficulty, the single player campaign is not very long (on Easy, it took me about two and a half hours to get through the story). Once a mission has been completed, you’ll unlock a series of challenge modes for each that fall under Precision, Covert and Demolition categories. Through these challenges, you’ll be performing outside of the mission’s main objective by actively killing X number of enemies, blowing up Y special targets, remaining undetected and so on and so forth. The only downside is that by the time the challenges have been completed, you’ll have played through the same level four times.
The best aspect of gameplay Killzone: Mercenary offers is the freedom to pursue the mission objective through stealth or by gunning down anything that moves. There are incentives for stealth, such as a higher yield of cash and fewer engagements, but what I really appreciated was that if I were spotted, the game doesn’t end nor does the difficulty spike unfairly. That said, stealth kills can be a bit wonky. The enemy could be completely aware of your presence, but if you can behind them and perform a melee, it will count as a stealth kill. Apart from that, I thought the game’s AI to be pretty decent as well and if they see an opportunity to flank you, they’ll take it. Awards are given for both styles of play and the points earned by completing objectives and killing enemies feeds into a ranking system. Going above and beyond will unlock Valor cards that count as tokens for your accomplishments.
If there’s one thing didn’t jive with me, it was Mercenary’s connection to the Killzone franchise. Darren and his mercenary pals feel decidedly out of place with their long beards, tattoos and baseball caps, making them look like a combination of the paramilitary soldiers from Unit 13 and Tier 1 Operators of Medal of Honor. The design and scenario of the game ultimately feels as if the developers could easily exchange the ISA and Helghast with some other generic set of sci-fi factions. In other words, for the most part Mercenary seems like a Killzone game in name only.
Still, I wouldn’t say that detail diminished the fun. Despite playing on a small screen, levels had that adrenaline pumping sense of urgency good first-person shooters often convey. At the end of the single player campaign, you can hop right into the multiplayer mode containing the expected entree of deathmatch and team deathmatch. A third mode, Mercenary Warfare, sounds very much like Conquest from Battlefield 3 as players earn points by capturing enemy points, destroying targets of opportunity and collecting other player’s Valor cards. I was intrigued by this mode but didn’t get a chance to try it or deathmatch because I couldn’t get anyone to join a game, something I expected as the game hasn’t been released yet. I hope the multiplayer component does well because that’s what will keep players invested.
Killzone: Mercenary is a more than capable shooter that looks and plays great on the Vita. It’s a shame that the single player campaign is so short and tackling the level challenges will only add so much campaign replayability. The story isn’t all that great but it does offer an interesting, if short lived, twist for the series. The $40 price tag might be a bit much to ask someone to pay for a short campaign and, worst case scenario, a multiple component doesn’t pan out. Despite all this, however, I really did enjoy the shooter experience. Those jonesing for a console-style FPS on the handheld will likely enjoy the action of Killzone: Mercenary whether or not they claim to be a fan of Sony’s franchise.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.