This is a truly strange feeling to me. I'm usually pretty critical of first person shooters, and I don't often give my enthusiastic endorsement to one unless it has something special like Bulletstorm's Kill with Skill mechanic or Resistance 3's combination of retro gameplay and amazing atmosphere. So why is it I enjoy this game so much? Perhaps it was because the last PlayStation Vita FPS I reviewed was Resistance: Burning Skies and comparatively Killzone: Mercenary is a masterpiece. Oh, Resistance was a decent game, but in retrospect I was mostly just impressed that it was a fully functioning if un-exceptional entry in the genre and was the first of its kind on a portable system. The same cannot be said for Killzone: Mercenary, which not only is the first truly great first person shooter on the go, but a surprisingly impressive outing even when compared to its console brothers.
You play Arran Danner, the silent protagonist who is, true to his title, only in it for the money and owes his allegiance to the highest bidder. You're a mercenary, and almost every gameplay element somehow ties back to your job description. Kills give you Vektan dollars, and accomplishing more difficult tasks like double kills, headshots, and melee kills net you even more; like any job, your performance is being monitored and your rewards will reflect your accuracy and skill. The ultimate goal is to rank up and get major rewards for hitting milestones, allowing you to use your hard-earned money on better weapons, armour, and your special, limited use abilities called Vanguards. If all else fails, you can use your hard earned money to restock on ammo, vanguard use, and grenades, but your allies will inform you it's best to pick up ammo and money off dead soldiers. Don't worry, money comes as fast as it goes, and there are many ways to get more money in both singleplayer and multiplayer modes, which share one account.
There's really no way to inform you of the story's merits without giving away major spoilers to the more astute readers out there. As the title implies, you play a mercenary whose allegiances lie with the highest bidder, and the Killzone series has always prided itself on its portrayal of good and evil not simply as good and evil, but as two sides of an ideological coin that simply have different values and are at war more of necessity than desire. This works perfectly. The role of you as a player being a gun for hire makes the whole affair seem kind of gamey – a point that even the in-game arms dealer is eager to hang a lampshade on – and even when it's being facetious, it feels right. It feels like this is the tone and mood that is perfect for Killzone, and the plot is better told and laid out than any of the series' previous efforts due to how perfectly your role in the story fits in with the gameplay elements that bleed from singleplayer to multiplayer campaigns. It could have just been a simple series of unrelated missions revolving around saving hostages, killing hostiles, and gathering intel, and to be fair it seems to start like that, but it morphs and evolves into something deeper and more meaningful. For a game about a character with no emotions or allegiances, I found myself glued to my Vita for the final third of the game.
All in all, the game takes about eight hours to complete on normal mode, but even the campaign has far more to offer than just completion. Each of the nine missions can be enjoyed many ways, offering you options for all out war against your enemies or to be the sneaky type. If you go stealthy you encounter fewer enemies and greater monetary bonuses, but let's be honest, most people will run and gun, which is fun but simple. Much to my delight, both routes were entirely viable. I point this out because it's all there on its first run through, but upon completion you can replay a mission with one of four modifiers, adding specific goals and requirements to complete. For example, if you chose an 'Explosive' run, you may have to kill that giant exoskeleton in under a minute with no cares for saving hostages or interrogating enemies. A 'precision' run means you have to be fast, accurate, and get the proper amount of intel. Every one of the 9 levels has 3 difficulty settings, different gameplay, and six pieces of intel that can be acquired by various means such as hacking or interrogating enemies, so in theory you could be playing Killzone: Mercenary for a decent length of time, and that's before ever touching multiplayer. The different modes, styles, and missions all lead to a perfect, well-segmented game that's well suited to handheld play.
It could be incredibly easy to mess this up by having poor analog sensitivity or poorly implemented motion or touch controls, but I can honestly say that Killzone: Mercenary is pretty much precisely what you could hope for it to be on the Vita. The lack of secondary triggers (L2 and R2) or clickable analogs means the controls had to adapt, and they adapt well. X remains jump, but Circle is now the dual use of both dash and crouch, which becomes the one shortcoming of the controls. If you're moving when pressing Circle, you dash, if you double tap it you slide, and if you are still, you crouch. Simple, but there were a few times in my early adaptation period where I wanted to do one and instead did the other; that period didn't last long, though. There are also touch screen controls, though they are not strictly enforced. You can switch weapons, deploy your vanguards, or toss a grenade via the touch screen, but those functions are also mapped to the D-pad. The only times you have to use the touch screen are during the mix and match hacking sequences, melee attacks, and some of the special accessory vanguard abilities.
As an aside, I'd like to make special mention of the melee attacks in this game. Not only are they incredibly brutal and deserving of the M-rating the game has assigned to its name, but they're interactive, have an element of randomness to them, and can be countered as opposed to the one-click, instant kills seen in other FPS games. It's a small victory, but seeing your character spin your opponent around, deflect their gun, and stab them under the arm for an instant kill feels far more satisfying than just clicking and diving at them with a knife in your outstretched hand. Some deep down part of me worries that such a confession may make me seem heartless, but I'm too busy enjoying Killzone to really worry about it.
Once you're done with the singleplayer campaign and the many ways to enjoy it, that's when you'll want to get into multiplayer. The online multiplayer supports up to eight players as far as I can tell, though it's hard to be sure given the fact that finding a game at all was something of a miracle pre-release. All the money you've earned to date in the campaign can be used to buy weapons, armor, and your Vanguards – which act as the perks – in multiplayer's three modes: Mercenary Warfare, Guerrilla, and Warzone. Mercenary Warfare is a simple every-man-for-himself deathmatch where you fight for money, which you gain the same way you do in the story mode, or collecting valor cards that pop up when you kill an enemy. Valor cards are special cards awarded to you daily based on your skill and weapon preferences, each kill type being linked to one of the suits (club, spade, hearts, diamonds for stuff like primary weapons, secondary weapons, melee, and explosives). Guerrilla is the same as Mercenary, only it's played in teams, ISA vs. Helghast. The interesting mode, however, is Warzone. In Warzone mode, the game cycles between different objective-based competitions, and points are awarded to teams that accomplish the goal, as opposed to who got the most kills. These goals cycle between body count (which IS just killing the enemy team), interrogator (extract intel by melee-attacking the enemy), Bounty Hunter (Collect Valor cards), and Hacker (where you hack capsules). I would quite like to see something like Call of Duty's Domination mode, but this is also quite fun and unique in its own way.
And you know what? Everything in this game looks and sounds outstanding, save the voice acting of one character (your boss, Benoit). Look to my enclosed screenshots to see what I mean. Those are not professionally framed or prepared screenshots given by the publisher, those are just random images I took while playing through the game's singleplayer campaign, and it looks much better in motion. Not once did I encounter a glitch or any performance issues, and the framerate remained solid even when flying in or out of a vehicle or watching something explode, and even the online is solid. Given how gorgeous it looks, I'm amazed it performs this well; deep down inside I knew the Vita had some horsepower, but I didn't expect a handheld title to honestly compete with its console counterpart like this does.
Killzone: Mercenary is, by my honor, probably the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the year. Unlike Resistance: Burning Skies, which was basically an exercise in delivering the bare minimum of what could be expected from a handheld shooter, Killzone: Mercenary really is an impressive game in its own right and stands up side by side with its console counterparts, and I'd even go so far as saying your character's job description makes for the best and most poignant exploration of the dual sided nature of war, even if the individual objectives are usually pretty straightforward. I almost guarantee some people will disagree, but after playing Killzone: Mercenary, I can honestly say I'm maybe even more excited for a prospective Killzone: Mercenary 2 than I am for the forthcoming PS4 launch title Killzone: Shadow Fall. If you have a Vita, get Killzone: Mercenary. If you don't have a Vita, this is the kind of title that really should make you reconsider.
This review is based on a copy of Killzone: Mercenary for the PSV, provided by the publisher.