Handheld first-person shooters have a tendency to mercilessly boil the genre down to its bare bones, dealing with only the most indispensable aspects and paying little attention to the remainder. This is somewhat understandable, given the limitations of the hardware at hand, no pun intended, but with the contempo power of the PlayStation Vita, the stylistic flourishes of a standout console FPS have finally been efficiently transferred crosswise to Sony’s latest portable platform. Killzone: Mercenary uses the same core engine as Killzone 3, and while there’s noticeably more graphical hiccups here, the game is still unarguably among the best-looking on the system to date, and maintains much of the effectually cinematic, high-octane running and gunning that made the mainline PS3 installments successful.
If you’re eager for an engaging narrative to propel the hyperkinetic bullet-spraying forward, you’ll likely be disappointed with what Mercenary dishes out. As with previous entries in the series, it’s painfully light on story yet heavy on action, which is both a blessing and a curse. The by-the-numbers tale of Arran Danner, a devil-may-care soldier of fortune who has no qualms working with the ISA and the Helghast, revolves around the theme of overwhelming greed. Everything Arran does, from accumulating ammunition to landing a spot-on headshot, earns him currency. The cash amounts quickly flash on screen, supplying a constant reminder that time is money, and it’s because of this very Wu-Tang Clan-esque mentality that Mercenary rapidly becomes an addicting shooter that’s difficult to put down. On the flipside, if the rather simplistic provocation of collecting funds via a contractually mission-based (and relatively brief) progressive structure, upgrading gear as you advance, bores you to tears, then even the game’s extravagant visuals might not be enough to win you over.
In combination with the graphics, the game’s control scheme translates fairly well to the Vita, with only a few drawbacks to speak of. Aiming is uniformly accurate, and various forms of close-quarters combat, which regularly utilize touchscreen functionality, are executed with smoothness and precision. Premium purchasable techniques, known as VAN-Guards, add another layer of necessary complexity to the proceedings: Remote-controlled rockets, drones, defense shields, and stealth options are all part of the package, providing even more incentive to spend extra hours agglomerating finances. The absence of pressable thumbsticks and secondary shoulder buttons, however, leaves cycling through your arsenal while making movements a bit tricky; the game’s biggest drawback is that it at times feels too cramped, like a much larger FPS that has been forced to operate within the borders of a shoebox instead of a luxury shopping mall’s footwear department.
As is to be expected, Mercenary’s multiplayer scenarios are obviously curtailed (less modes, fewer maps) in comparison to those of its big-budget counterparts, but the developers at Guerrilla Cambridge do an admirable job filling in the expansive holes with replayable content. The aforementioned VAN-Guards, modified in capsule form, are at play in all three settings (Mercenary Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare, and Warzone), summoning airstrikes to shake up the contest at a moment’s notice. In addition, stockpiling Valor Cards, precious trinkets dropped by opposing players you defeat in online firefights, is an enticing feature that promotes competitive eight-participant PvP matches that otherwise could’ve fallen by the wayside.
With Mercenary, Vita owners who’ve waited nearly 19 months for an FPS to brag about can now cease holding their collective breaths. Despite some minor technical bumps in the road and the brevity of its main campaign, the game is a worthy chapter in the franchise, and a fine shooter in its own right.