Killzone: Mercenary is hoping to buck the trend and prove a legitimate first-person shooter on the Sony PS Vita. Although my interest in the franchise has never been high, I must say that it was piqued by the prospect of a solid FPS on the handheld, so I had to play it for myself to find out if the hype is justified.
As usual, I had to explore the controls settings before jumping into the gameplay. Guerrilla Cambridge have enabled alterations to the Analog Stick Setup, Motion Sensor Aiming and Preferences. Aside from the expected Y and X-axis invert and sensitivity options, you can also swap analog sticks and turn off the motion sensor completely. Unfortunately, any change in the sensitivity from default has a drastic effect, which is aggravating since the default is a bit slow, but one bar higher and it becomes quick as a whip…very unbalanced and lacking nuance.
In the Preferences, the mechanics for aiming down sights can be switched between toggle and hold, swap crouch/sprint can be turned on or off – as can the ability to sprint by using the rear touch pad (double tap and hold) – and the grenade function can be altered so that pressing the grenade icon in-combat can either arm the grenade or shoot off a quick throw, effectively cutting out the middle-man, but not allowing for more precise aiming. All up, the developers have done well to accommodate players and their… preferences.
“Two years later and the theatre of war has moved to Helghan [...] Now, we stand poised to end the Helghast threat for good”. The preview code we received featured the single-player mission, ‘Lightning Strike’. There are 3 difficulty levels to play at: Recruit, Trooper and Veteran. Upon starting up the game though, a quick explanation of the Valour Cards is given, although this is a mainly multiplayer feature. It’s a collectible card system whereby you can pick up dropped cards upon killing a tough enemy in multiplayer in order to fill out your deck for reputation’s sake, and also as a representation of your ability to earn cash. Earnings will be analysed daily and will contribute to your valour either rising or dropping.
Once that is covered, the game throws you – as Phantom Talon Corp mercenary Aaran Danner – right into the throes of war with the Helghast. Attempting to reach ground level is proving dangerous as the Helghasts’ Arc Cannons are blowing aircrafts right out of the sky. Dropping in via “fly-suit”, Danner is tasked with hacking two targeting dishes and passing control of the weapon over to the good guys. Looking at the U.I. in gameplay, it’s for some reason not as cluttered as I had thought it to be when watching videos of the title online, which is a big relief.
Walking outside and to the left of the sky tram-like transport Danner lands on, you will see a Blackjack “arms dealer” cabinet, where you can buy different weapons (primary and secondary), equipment, armor and Van-Guard systems to modify your loadout with. You can also resupply your ammo. This is all achieved by spending credits, which are accrued with practically every action you successfully make (and can build up quite quickly). These cabinets are strewn throughout each level. Navigating the wares by scrolling horizontally made the snapping of each node feel much more abrupt and visually abrasive than it already was (it just became more obvious).
Unlocking the compound doors, the heat is laid on thick as alarms whine. Shooting actually feels good and hefty, much like the console entries of the franchise. There is also an ever so slight lock-on effect when tracking an enemy, although it is negligible. Getting up close and personal with a baddie results in a “Melee” pop-up icon in the middle of the screen. Tap it and a gesture prompt for a directional swipe will appear. When executed in a timely manner, your enemy, too, will be…executed. You will have ample time to complete the gesture and witness a satisfactory melee kill animation, of which there are many.
In regards to touchscreen functionality, the Triangle button is mapped as your action-button – so you will not be forced to tap on the on-screen icon for initiating a melee attack (as described above), ladder climb, picking up ammo, pressing buttons and pulling levers (before a directional swipe). The D-Pad allows you to perform remaining functions as well, including the Switch Weapons, Throw Grenade and Initiate Van-Gaurd capabilities. Just another example of the lengths Guerrilla Cambridge have gone to cater to your wants and method of play.
Making your way through, you will come across some brief stealth opportunities. To my surprise, an opportunity presented itself where I could “Interrogate” an enemy instead of meleeing them, which resulted in me gaining some Intel, such as Arc Battery Schematics. Pressing the Select button brings up your Objectives screen, where you can track how many pieces of Intel there is in a level, which all give some sort of miscellaneous information on the world. Collecting them all – 6 on this particular mission – grants you 3 special Valour Cards, although I’m sure the reward changes per mission. Intel can be gathered either through the aforementioned method, or by hacking into found Intel Terminals.
Successfully hacking into terminals of most kinds requires the completion of a timed mini-game. As the clock ticks down, you must select the appropriate Cipher Key and pick the node on a Firewall grid where you would like to place it. They are effectively patterns that you must fill out (an example of which can be seen in the image below). Speaking of stealth, getting caught by a camera will set off an alarm (understandably) and send a wave of Helghast after you. Problem is, it’s nigh impossible to actually sneak past them. To ensure unchallenged passage, you must instead shoot them out, which feels like a cop out and does not scream true stealthiness to me.
When the action got heavy, there was a tendency for the game to noticeably stutter, which isn’t too surprising considering how good it looks. It’s definitely one of the premiere PS Vita titles in terms of the graphics department. The stuttering isn’t bad to the point of hindering the player, but can be a small nuisance. You won’t have to blame it for your deaths, although I found little threat on Recruit and Trooper mode to start with. When the drones come into play, however, you should take cover. If you die, a small penalty – cleverly called “Life Insurance” - will be taken from your accrued credits, and your last checkpoint will reload (no manual saving here). Checkpoints seem to be appropriately spaced out, which is always a concern.
There are also Ranks and Awards given to you as you progress. Rankings are a form of XP counter that is visualised and communicated upon finishing a mission, while Awards acknowledge your achievements, such as ‘number of stealth kills executed in a row’, etc (probably not a real one). These Awards have a bronze, silver and gold level to reach. After a mission ends, you can then return with your acquired gear and credits and have a go at a new playthrough for more rewards under Challenge Mode. Here, you can explore three unique playstyles: Precision, Demolition and Covert – self-explanatory. This adds a great amount of replay-ability to the single-player portion of the game, which is estimated to be 8-9 hours long all up already.
All in all, for a handheld shooter, I am impressed. While there may be some niggling technical issues, the game handles really well (sensitivity complaint aside) with great feedback. Content-wise, it is sure to satisfy fans, especially seeing as its campaign is reported to be longer than Killzone 3. The only other criticism could be levied at the level of dumbing-down the A.I. takes on Recruit, which isn’t always the best route in creating an “easier” experience. Having an enemy stand behind you and not take advantage of that is more than a little immersion-breaking.
Keep an eye on Capsule Computers in the near future – before its release on September 6 – as we will hopefully be able to bring you a full review of Killzone: Mercenary. To see the game in-motion, check out this gameplay footage.