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Review: Killzone: Mercenary is a great shooter that just happens to be a handheld miracle

Killzone: Mercenary Artwork - 1144746

Whether you’re talking about its gunplay, graphics, or massive download size, Killzone: Mercenary is a weighty, substantial game. It fits the spirit of the franchise in a lot of ways, but on a handheld platform, Killzone’s typical traits come as quite a surprise. The game shouldn’t be possible on such a small device, yet here it is, and it works remarkably well. Better yet, Guerrilla Cambridge didn’t merely fit an epic shooter on a portable, they made a game worth playing on its own merits.

Mercenary’s biggest surprise came a couple hours into its single-player campaign, when I realized how much I was getting wrapped up in its plot. This isn’t BioShock Infinite or anything, but Mercenary is certainly a leap above your usual Call of Duty campaign. Playing as a gun-for-hire, you’re thrust into battles from multiple angles, painting a greyer picture of war than we ever get from these kinds of games. The twists and turns are surprising, and they even manage to squeeze in a couple endearing characters over a short period of time.

This more open view of warfare translates to the gameplay as well, which gives you free reign to play as a stealth assassin or an explosives expert. Nearly every encounter starts with guards patrolling the area, unaware of your presence. Grab the cloak ability and a silenced weapon and you can play the ghost, or run in guns blazing with ballistic armor and a grenade launcher. The choice is yours, at least the first time through the game.

Killzone Mercenary screenshot

While the campaign is short, around 4 or 5 hours, the encounter design is inherently replayable. This replayability is bolstered by the game’s Contracts mode, a twist that adds a bunch of additional objectives to each mission. The contracts force you to replay the missions with different philosophies, showcasing the game’s flexibility while providing some fun challenges. The mode is reminiscent of GoldenEye or Perfect Dark’s highest difficulty settings.

What’s even better is that your time playing the campaign doesn’t go to waste when you jump into multiplayer. All your weapon and equipment purchases carry over between modes, so everything you do builds toward something. It also means that by the end of the campaign you’ll have at least a few good toys to play with.

Killzone: Mercenary offers players a selection of primary weapons, sidearms, grenade types, armor, and a Vanguard, the game’s take on Call of Duty Killstreaks. These recharge as you get kills, and you can obtain a random one through drop pods that arrive during multiplayer matches. Vanguards offer a variety of options, from aerial bombardments to a personal missile launcher, cloaking, a shield, and more. Some, like the Mantys, a flying drone that stealth kills enemies, seem quite overpowered right now, but even then a smart team can deploy a jammer to put a stop to it.

Killzone Mercenary

Multiplayer offers 8-player matches across three modes -- free-for-all deathmatch, team deathmatch, and Warzone, an objective game type divided into five rounds. Warzone is the highlight, as it forces teams to change their strategies on the fly. One round you’ll be claiming objectives through a hacking minigame, and the next you’ll be aiming for enemies’ legs in an attempt to interrogate them. This mode highlights the benefits of teamwork and draws players into hotspots for bigger fights.

The game only features six maps, but the visual variety and complexity of each environment makes up for it. At first I thought the maps were just a bunch of messy mazes -- they’re certainly not the most elegant layouts -- but once you learn your way around there’s a surprising amount of purpose and depth built in. Dead ends may seem like poor map flow until you realize how nice it is to have a hiding spot while dropping airstrikes on opponents.

There are a few holes in the multiplayer offering that I hope Guerilla Cambridge addresses. For one, it can be really easy to suss out enemy spawn points on some maps. In one match I knew enemies would be spawning in generally the same area and killed one poor sap two or three times in a row. That’s something they’ll want to fix right away. In addition, while the game features three different modes, only Warzone diverges from the basic deathmatch concept, and even then you’re still spending half the game gunning for kills. A Capture the Flag or Conquest mode would be nice, though I imagine it would require a few new maps to support it.

Killzone Mercenary

Based on the game’s 1 GB patch and status as the Vita’s flagship shooter, I’d say Killzone: Mercenary will see a decent amount of post-release support. Some balance changes, along with some new maps and modes, would really bolster an already entertaining package. As it stands now it is great, but I worry the multiplayer doesn’t have the legs of its competitors.

That said, additional content and big patches open up another can of worms that I simply can’t ignore. The digital release of this game, along with its first patch, comes in at around 4.5 GBs. That puts Killzone out of range for the Vita’s smallest memory card -- the one that comes with most bundles. The cost of memory has always been a sore spot for the Vita, and even after a price drop it doesn’t feel much better. I want more games that look and play as well as this one does, but at this rate even the $80, 32GB card starts to seem small.

I could say, “If you’re looking for a proper shooter on your handheld you should check this game out,” but honestly I don’t think anyone is looking for a shooter on-the-go. What I will say is that this is an astoundingly polished, beautiful game on a device that is only now revealing its true abilities. It is immensely playable, with smooth controls, smart touch and tilt functions, and a deliberate pace that feels like trademark Killzone. To put it simply, it’s just a really good game, regardless of what it means for the platform.

That said, the Vita has struggled with subpar attempts to emulate triple-A franchises. It finally found its footing as a home for indie games, but Killzone: Mercenary proves it can do the triple-A thing too, if a developer is smart about it. The bar has been raised, and the door is open for talented developers to push this handheld beast to its limits.

Enjoy random thoughts about the latest games, the Sega Saturn, or the occasional movie review? Follow me @JoeDonuts!

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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Games: Killzone: Mercenary

Tags: Sony

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