(PlayStation Vita Review) Killzone: Mercenary

Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge
Publisher: SCEA
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-8
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Ryan Newman

Overall: 7.5 = Good

The struggle between the forces of the Helghan Empire and the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance (ISA) has been going on for nearly nine years now, but in this latest handheld spin-off, the war has just begun. Set shortly after the Helghast invasion of the ISA’s colonies on planet Vekta, Killzone: Mercenary puts players in the boots of Aaron Danner, a gun for hire who is looking to make his riches as a member of a private military contractor offering their services to the highest bidder. As his missions take him deeper behind enemy lines, Danner becomes entangled in an increasingly messy conflict that will see him waging a personal battle against new enemies and old allies.

For those who have been playing the series since its PlayStation 2 debut, Mercenary provides a nice, grounded perspective of the conflict. The series has long portrayed the ISA as the good guys by having players react to constant Helghast aggression; however, for all of their grandiose claims and high-mindedness, the ISA often comes across as bad if not worse than the Helghast. Sure, the average Helghast soldier might have the unsettling visage of a killer robot and the raspy voice of some sort of cyborg demon, but that striking image has always struck me more as a reminder of their plight. Banishing the Helghast to an inhospitable world after a failed bid for independence, the ISA took over the new exiles’ former homeworld of Vekta as the new occupants, while their defeated foes faced generations of hardship and death on their new home of Helghan. As an independent party, Danner gets an unfiltered look at both sides as he becomes privy to how far each will go in their increasingly desperate measures for victory. He will take part on both sides of the war, as the Helghast launch a blistering assault to retake what was once theirs and exact revenge for their treatment, and the ISA search for the knockout blow to rid them of the Helghan threat forever. The story isn’t terribly gripping, and the voice acting can be spotty, but the shifting viewpoints did help to balance things out.

Darren might find himself in an unenviable position, caught in the middle of two sides who distrust him but are equally in need of his talents, but he will find a lot of profit in that risk. By completing his assignments, he will be able to afford some of the finest weaponry that the black market has to offer. The local arms-dealing machines—courtesy of Blackjack—not only allow for quick ammo refills, but they also provide players with the opportunity to purchase new weapons and swap out their gear for a price. True to the mercenary world, everything costs. Even after a weapon has been purchased, switching back to it after swapping out will cost credits. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to earn more. Bonus payouts are awarded for stealth, melee kills (with more for mercy, multi, or stealth), gathering intel by beating it out of captains or hacking into terminals, scavenging ammo, trick shots, and gaining experience with each weapon. Players can rack up impressive amounts of cash by taking their time and playing it smart: learn patrol routes, equip gear with a focus on stealth, and explore each level for all of the numerous side paths. Of course, players can always toss on the heaviest armor and let rip with the biggest machine gun they can buy, but I went for maximum profit, and the less noise Darren generates, the more money he makes.

Additional credits can be earned by taking on contracts on a harder difficulty level, but the most will be gained by selecting one of three subcontract types: Precision, Covert, and Demolition. These will only be accomplished by the judicious use of all of Blackjack’s wares, as each requires a specific approach for successful completion, which requires that all objectives be met (e.g., blowing up a set number of marked crates, completing a level within a certain amount of time, taking down enemies with a particular weapon, etc.) though this frequently requires several attempts. Fulfilling each contract will mean using the Van-Guard Systems special weapons that Blackjack has on offer. This collection of deadly novelties augments Darren’s arsenal with a wide array of supplemental defensive and offensive weaponry, such as a defensive shield, a remote-controlled drone that fires down laser beams, a rocket launcher that packs homing missiles, a cloaking device, and another remote-controlled device that specializes in stealth kills by stabbing either side of an enemy’s head. These are all gleefully fun to use when playing through the campaign the first time, but they will have to be skillfully implemented thereafter to finish up the subcontracts.

These additional contracts are actually more than just side missions, as they represent an important component of the game’s design. The game’s nine chapters take around five hours to complete, but fulfilling all of the subcontracts will take much longer. The approach taken by Guerrilla Cambridge is similar to those taken by teams behind shoot ‘em ups and platformers. The almost puzzle-like approach to the contracts isn’t necessarily for the credits—the best loadouts can be afforded long before they are all finished—but simply to master a level. The heavily scripted encounters means that players can go through an area enough so that they will know exactly what to do and when to do it, and the only real reward is knowing that the game has been completely bested. The downside is that the game can become repetitive, especially for those who aren’t fond of treading over well-worn ground, and that some contracts become unattainable before the end of a level due to a lack of opportunities to see all tasks to completion. I found this to be an interesting take on the series, and I came to find myself really studying the layouts of the areas and how best to utilize all of the available weaponry to ensure as clean and as fast a run as possible. If there is one hitch to this approach, however, it’s the oft-lackluster AI.

Enemies are prone to do some incredibly stupid things, even at the highest difficulty setting. Despite seeing their comrades being gunned down when leaping over a ledge, subsequent soldiers will go through the exact same motions over and over again. Soldiers will duck for cover, lie down, seek cover, and frequently toss grenades, but they tend to focus on weight of numbers rather than articulating an actual plan of attack. For his part, Darren can hide behind cover to fire from the hip or pop out for an iron sight shot, run, slide, crouch, and use melee takedowns. The melee kills can also be haphazardly recognized with ‘assassin’ (stealth) takedowns occurring even when the enemy is perfectly aware of the player’s presence but just so happens to have shifted position and placed their back to the camera for half of a second. The inability of the AI to counter melee attacks is largely offset by the fact that Darren is vulnerable during the entire process, as enemy attacks are blocked or guns shoved aside before they are stabbed or gutted from fingers being swiped across the screen in the indicated direction. The motion-induced moves are always recognized and a neat addition, but like the AI, they could use a little more work.

The game continues beyond the campaign with multiplayer. Fortunately, Mercenary includes a solid multiplayer component that provides what I consider to be the first console-style multiplayer experience on a handheld. The game supports public, private, and party matches in one of three different modes—Mercenary Warfare (deathmatch), Guerrilla Warfare (team deathmatch), and Warzone (five objective-based scenarios) —but unfortunately lacks the bot support that was added in Killzone 3. The handful of modes cover wide ground, though a few more would have gone a long way. Both components are integrated, however, with all of the credit earned and weapons and gear unlocked in single player available in multiplayer and vice versa. Multiplayer also offers access to multiple loadouts.

Though multiplayer might lack the variety of modes common in contemporary shooters, it is nonetheless very addictive. The levels, while basic at first, include a number of side paths and nooks and crannies that offer a number of opportunities to hold off aggressors and sneak around undetected. Adding to this are the Van-Guard System devices that do a great job in shaking up the matches. They play a much smaller role than in the campaign, but unleashing a wave of homing missiles or getting the drop on an undetected enemy while cloaked inject a vitality in the matches that help to maintain their intensity. Melee is also possible, but this time, those under siege can get an opportunity to counter the assault. If the player is able to slide their finger in the indicated direction before the short window passes, the assailant will be rebuffed and left vulnerable for a counterattack. Multiplayer is really where all of Blackjack’s gear’s mayhem is fully realized, and it’s in bringing them to bear on human opponents that Mercenary truly shines.

There is also a metagame involving the collection of Valor Cards. These are awarded based on performance in the campaign and multiplayer after a check-in with the game’s servers. I couldn’t find much of a point to this, other than as a means to tap into that part of our brains that will collect an extra hundred pieces of wood or snap another dozen necks to unlock that next Trophy. They feature in multiplayer by players dropping theirs whenever killed, with others capable of snapping up a teammate’s card to save it or an enemy’s to collect it. Collected cards are then added to a deck, and as the deck fills out, players are awarded cash bonuses as hands are created. Daily check-ins means that different cards will be assigned any time performance dictates it, which gives other players the chance to grab any cards they are missing. It’s not a strong enough incentive to compel play, but it is always nice to save a teammate’s card, for however little that actually means.

I did run across problems in multiplayer with the respawn system and the occasional error when signing in. There seems to be little rhyme or reason as to the location of respawn points, and this can be particularly frustrating when respawning directly next to an enemy, especially when ‘Bodycount’ is active and each kill counts. I also found myself having to back out of the game on a number of occasions due to a connection error. The fix is simple enough—close out the game, log back in—but it’s a lingering nuisance that I hope to see addressed in an upcoming patch.


Overall:
7.5/10
Killzone: Mercenary is a unique take on the series that gambles heavily on replayability over a prolonged story by having a campaign half as short as its predecessors but designed to be replayed to perfection as if it were a shoot ‘em up. I happen to enjoy that style of play, and I enjoy it whenever a company adds that high-score factor to their games, such as what PlatinumGames did with their third-person shooter Vanquish. A light but satisfying bot-less multiplayer mode controls well and can be quite addictive, and even though it could do with another mode or two, it offers hours of additional play. The biggest complaint, however, is the frequently dim AI. If only it was as sharp as the graphics.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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