Preview: Killzone Mercenary is the FPS Vita owners are looking for

Killzone Mercenary is shaping up to be a lot better than the garbage first-person shooter devs have peddled on the Vita up to now. I may even go as far as to call it novel. That’s because it isn’t just a shooter on a handheld. It isn’t some bite-sized, wannabe version of a console franchise either. It’s not necessarily going to set the world on fire, but Killzone Mercenary is looking to be a substantial experience, something you’ll want to play regardless of your interest in Killzone or a handheld FPS.

The reason for this is some actual freedom in how you approach encounters, both in terms of general philosophy and moment-to-moment movements. I played through this preview build level three times, taking a completely different approach each time. In my first run, I mostly blasted my way through each area with an assault rifle, playing the game as you’d expect any shooter to be played. In my second attempt, I got myself into high ground and sniped everyone I could. Finally, I attempted a full stealth run, and actually made it through most of the level with nothing but stealth kills and a silenced pistol.

You’ll have ample opportunity to play with your loadouts (for a cost) throughout a mission, so you could even build your character around each encounter as you go. In fact, as soon as I got caught in my stealth run I equipped a rocket launcher and just went nuts. It’ll be interesting to see how the selection of tools expands in the final game, because even the toys I played with in the preview were plenty of fun.

Killzone Mercenary Vita screenshot

Beyond crafting your warrior, though, Killzone Mercenary opens up the environments in a way that’s refreshing compared to most modern shooters. That’s doubly surprising on the Vita, where you’d think it would be a struggle to get the game running at all. You’d think the graphics would constrain the scope of the game, forcing the level design into a series of linear corridors, but it doesn’t. It isn’t Far Cry 3 or anything, but it doesn’t feel like portable FPS design either.

That scope is tested even further with a set of abilities seemingly inspired by Call of Duty killstreaks. One ability gives you a view from the sky, where you can rain laser strikes down on their enemies. Another ability gives players a remote control drone they can use to assassinate enemies. Yet another ability allows players to cloak for a short duration, which did wonders for my stealth run. Some of these abilities even make use of the Vita’s touchscreen in a fun and useful way.

For the most part, Killzone Mercenary looks to be running pretty effortlessly on Vita (all the screenshots in this article are straight from my own Vita). It’s quite an accomplishment, considering the game maintains a smooth framerate while running at reportedly full resolution. It’s not the prettiest Vita game from an art standpoint, but as a technical showcase it’s the first game to push towards that “portable PS3” notion the handheld was originally sold on.

Killzone Mercenary Vita screenshot

Controlling the game isn’t quite as effortless, unfortunately. The preview build I played had more than a few odd control layout decisions in the default scheme. Thankfully I was able to get the game to play as close to ideal as you can on the Vita’s tiny analog sticks and limited buttons, but it took some playing. The first mistake is the sprint command, which is initially accomplished by a double-tap and hold on the rear touch pad. The rear touch is a notoriously problematic element of the Vita, and as a sprint button it doesn’t fare any better. Luckily you can switch sprint to the circle button, where it becomes a contextual sprint/crouch button whether you’re moving or standing still.

The game also has motion-controlled aiming off by default, which is somewhat understandable because it’s a weird idea, but anyone who played Uncharted: Golden Abyss will probably tell you that’s a mistake. It isn’t full-on aiming, but more of a fine-tuning assist when you’re aiming down the sights. You’ll have to get the hang of using the stick for larger sweeps and then pinpointing the target by tilting the Vita, but the results are impressive. In my aforementioned sniper perch scenario, I was able to nail pixel-perfect headshots with less effort than it would take on a 360 or PS3 controller.

My only real concern with Killzone Mercenary coming out of this preview build is simply that it’s a Killzone game. The series has never done much for me, and this mission didn’t sway me with its faceless enemies and brown-grey aesthetics. The gruff commander repeatedly barking orders my way wasn’t doing the game any favors either. This could be a problem, if it gets in the way of otherwise solid gameplay and level design.

Killzone Mercenary Vita screenshot

I didn’t get to touch the multiplayer yet, but the prospect of 4v4 matches in this game has me excited. If Killzone Mercenary can maintain the gameplay and visual fidelity of the single player in the online multiplayer, then we’ll be looking at something we’ve really never had on a portable device before: a truly fun multiplayer FPS without any compromises.

Whether you care about the Killzone franchise or not, if you have a Vita you might want to start paying attention to Mercenary. It may take a little bit to get used to controlling an FPS on Vita, but otherwise this is an honest shooter experience with a surprising amount of depth. Killzone Mercenary is a message to other developers that an FPS can be done on Vita (Ken Levine, listen up!), but it’s also looking to be a legitimately good game to boot. Color me surprised, and excited.

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