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Killzone: Mercenary
Graphics: 9
Gameplay: 8
Sound: 8.3
Control: 7.9
Replay Value: 8
Rating: 8.2
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge
Number Of Players: 1-8

Given the PlayStation Vita’s dual analog sticks and impressive power, the system was ripe for something like Killzone: Mercenary. Arguably the most anticipated Vita title of the year has arrived, and while it’s difficult to categorize Mercenary as a true-blue AAA production, it’s highly entertaining and a fantastic addition to your library. The control is tight, the action is fast and fluid, the balancing is just about right, and you’re gonna love working as a mercenary. Money is all that matters and it’s really fun to rake it in!

From a technical perspective, Killzone is a franchise that has impressed many a gamer and critic this generation. The PS3 iterations were always a cut above in terms of highly detailed graphics and fantastic animation. Therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Vita iteration really seems to push the capabilities of Sony’s handheld: There’s plenty of awe-inspiring background detail, some of the cut-scenes are downright gorgeous, and the visual presentation really only suffers from the rare drop in frame rate. No, it doesn’t quite stand up to the console entries, but you’ll be amazed at how close the developers get…

The audio is always difficult to score when analyzing a portable title, simply because the glorious surround sound found in many a gamer’s living room isn’t an option. So, we can only compare it to other handheld offerings on the Vita. And when we do that, we come away quite satisfied. The voiceover performances are mostly solid (with the exception of some minor overacting, in my opinion) and the resounding combat effects keep you immersed in every hectic firefight. The soundtrack molds itself to the bullet-infested action, enhancing the overall intensity, and the effects kick in big time. Some of it sounds a touch tinny, but that’s okay.

Forget the ongoing battle between the ISA and the Helghast. This time, we’re stepping into the competent boots of Aaran Danner, a mercenary in the strictest sense of the word. Basically, he’s willing to work for either side, provided he gets paid. And that lies at the core of the gameplay: Money. Sometimes I think the focus sits a little too squarely on the earning aspect, but it does compel you to keep playing. Every action earns at least some cash, and your desire to earn as much as possible is mirrored in your style of play. That’s what really matters; the fact that you receive more money for exhibiting more skill.

You gain more for ripping off a headshot or performing a stealth kill, as compared to simply gunning down an enemy in the open. Of course, the cash you earn can be used to purchase new equipment that makes Danner even more potent and deadly. On the one hand, one can chastise Mercenary for only being about 5-6 hours in length (nine total missions don’t last very long), but on the other hand, the replay value is quite high. A big part of that replay value is the fact that each mission comes with three separate Contracts: Precision, Covert and Demolition. Obviously, tackling and completing each Contract takes both time and determination.

Normally, one wouldn’t analyze the movement of a first-person shooter too heavily. By this time, we all assume that most game developers have figured this out. But we’re talking about a portable production and despite the analog sticks, it’s possible that some idiosyncrasies can still exist. But for the most part, Mercenary controls well. You can fine-tune the sensitivity of the sticks, and using the touchscreen to execute melee attacks and stealth kills is simple and reliable. Thus far, it’s the most technically accomplished FPS I’ve ever seen in the portable realm, although general movement isn’t quite as refined as it is in console shooters.

For instance, as you can’t click the sticks to sprint – a common mechanic in most shooters – you have to rely on the circle button. Or, you can use the rear touchpad, which I don’t like. Furthermore, without the inclusion of R2 and L2, alternate forms of attack, such as lobbing grenades, can be iffy. These are standard drawbacks of any handheld shooter due to the inherent limitations of the system. But the designers do a decent job of dealing with these hurdles, and you never really feel hindered. And besides, the action is pretty relentless, so you’re always focused on what you’re doing. A bevy of weapons, secondary weapons and armor offer incentive to experiment, too.

The game is about more than running and shooting, which makes it infinitely more appealing in my eyes. There’s the “VAN-Guard” mechanic, which consists of eight very special skills that must be purchased and equipped. These give you the edge in a variety of ways, including a remote-controlled robot, air-to-surface missiles, and a shield that protects you from projectiles. You know, like bullets. It feels a little unbalanced because some of these skills are such massive game-changers, but they’re still great fun to use. The story is essentially a throwaway bit, though, which is a definite drawback for those who are looking for a great narrative.

The multiplayer features three modes and should be familiar to fans of the franchise. Teamwork is essential in two of the three modes, especially Warzone, which focuses on imaginative objectives. VAN-Guard makes its presence felt here as well, as Capsules can fall from the sky and give someone a huge advantage. That someone just needs to get to the fallen goodies first, and you can’t really predict where they’re going to be. I suppose we could’ve used another mode (or two), and it does have a “been there, done that feel.” However, the latter sensation is more because it’s a shooter; in the portable world, it feels more like— “Hey, this is the way a FPS should be in the handheld space.”

When you sit back and view this game from afar, that’s really what strikes you. It’s not the fact that portable shooters will always be slightly lacking due to inherent system control issues. It’s not that the story isn’t going to grab you, as it has done in past Killzone installments. It’s not that shooters seem to be taking over the world. What strikes you is that for the first time ever, an FPS looks and feels great on a portable platform. Not as great as on a big-screen TV with an attached console, but considering the situation, pretty damn good. In brief, we’re looking at a definite step in the right direction. And that's nothing to sneeze at.

Killzone: Mercenary proves that portable shooters can be great. It proves that even with a few shortcomings and flaws, some indigenous to the platform, many players will be more than satisfied with the purchase. Some gorgeous visuals, cracking effects, a cash-based system that emphasizes the “mercenary” part, tight and responsive control, and riveting multiplayer make this production shine. Due to the aforementioned issues, I can’t in good conscious call Mercenary a wonderful game. I can, however, highly recommend it to most Vita owners, especially those who have been looking for a definitive handheld shooter.

The Good: Stunning graphics for a portable device. Good, solid sound effects and decent voiceovers. Money rewards keep you coming back for more. VAN-Guard system is a great new mechanic. Top-notch control for the genre.

The Bad: Story falls well short. Lack of R1/R2 and clickable analogs is a drawback. Can feel a little repetitive.

The Ugly: “No ‘ugly’ besides a few gruesome close-up kills.”

9/12/2013   Ben Dutka