Killzone is a franchise that just won’t stop. As an answer to Microsoft’s Halo, Killzone games don’t come very often, but when they do, they tend to do well. In fact, you could say that about most major Sony franchises on consoles, as they tend to take care of their big name properties when it’s time to unleash them.
But the portable realm is a completely different story, and so is the Vita. Although some games have been powerhouses so far (Gravity Rush is one of my favorite games of the generation), the Vita needs all the help it can get. First party Sony franchises on portables don’t always end well, but I’m pleased to say that I was pleasantly surprised with Killzone: Mercenary.
In Mercenary, you take on the role of Arran Danner — a solider turned sellsword (or sellgun, rather) who is out for cash, cash, and nothing but cash. Everything you do in-game will earn you cash, whether that’s going for headshots instead of other body parts, picking up ammo, or interrogating and stealth killing enemy Helghasts. Missions can be taken on dynamically, often done the way you want to with the loadout you want to use. The constant cash bonuses popping up on the screen adds an arcade feel to the game, which is probably the most unique facet of the campaign.
Visually, this is one of the best looking Vita games to date. I didn’t recognize much noticeable slowdown even with tons of action on screen, and the character models look very close to its latest PS3 counterpart. The action is swift and vicious, the locales are particularly beautiful, and the Helghast are as menacing as ever.
Controlwise the game is just as spot-on as its presentation, and I rarely had any trouble getting things to work the way I wanted them to. The L trigger is used to aim down your sights, the right trigger fires, and the face buttons cover functions like opening doors, jumping, and getting behind cover. In Mercenary touch-screen controls are mostly optional, only forcing you to use them sparingly with a few actions like hacking, and in the case of a “brutal” melee attack (which is only a menial swipe gesture, at that). Instead of taking over the game the touch-screen augments the experience by allowing you to switch weapons, change grenades, or use equipment on the fly instead of tapping the direction pad.
But at the end of the day, the campaign doesn’t truly deliver any thrills you wouldn’t already expect out of your typical first person shooter. At worst it’s inoffensive, and at best, it’s your typical shooter fare. In other words, although it’s serviceable, the campaign simply lacks that “wow” factor that made a few of the core games in the series worth playing. But where Mercenary really blew me away is multiplayer.
There are three modes available online (free for all, teams, and a gametype that mixes up objectives), and all of them are enjoyable due to the game’s card and cash systems. Like the campaign everything gives you cash, but there’s a catch — the highest cash total wins in Mercenary‘s multiplayer. It’s a simple design decision, but one that forces you to find the most imaginative ways possible to kill enemies and come out on top.
To further add to the arcade feel from the campaign, players drop actual floating playing cards upon death similar to Call of Duty‘s dogtag mode. If you run over the card you’ll put it in your deck, which helps grant you extra bonuses, especially if you complete actual poker hands. While all of the gametypes don’t require you to pick up cards, they enhance your point bonus even after killing someone, so it’s always in your best interest to try and grab them.
They’re incredibly addicting to collect and add a really fun risk-reward aspect to the game. Upgrades also occasionally drop from the sky in the form of drop pods, and opening them will grant you a special limited use power weapon (like stealth or a killstreak-like vehicle) and more coveted cash to win the match — but not without leaving you completely open (the pods show up on radar) as you attempt to decode the pod itself.
On top of the already intense action, one of the best parts of multiplayer Mercenary is the amount of customization options you have. Money earned in the campaign or online can be used to buy equipment in either mode, meaning you can beat the campaign and get a headstart on creating your character. While at first it may seem like an obvious balance issue, pieces of equipment like armor actually are balanced, as some sacrifice speed for endurance, or vice versa. While there are guns that may give players a slight edge depending on their playstyle, for the most part I didn’t see any major issues, and had great success for some time with the basic kit.
Killzone: Mercenary is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, it’s a very by the numbers campaign based shooter that doesn’t reflect a whole lot onto the overall lore of the franchise. On the other, it’s a magnificent multiplayer game that’s easily the best offering on the Vita so far. Wherever your proclivities lie in terms of player with others will no doubt change your expectations, but I personally had a blast online with Mercenary, and I think most shooter fans will too.
This review is based on a digital copy of the PlayStation Vita game Killzone Mercenary.