Review: Killzone Mercenary

Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge | Year: 2013 | List Price: $39.99 | Buy from Amazon


I originally bought my Vita to play PSone JRPGs as well as to play shooters. It’s been 5 months now, and though I’ve done lots of the former, I haven’t really found any good shooters that work on the trusty handheld. Borderlands 2 is a superb game, but it chugs noticeably on Vita; Uncharted: Golden Abyss runs and looks great, but I’m not too hot on the gameplay (More on that later though, I plan to review Uncharted when I finish it.). Salvation comes in the form of Killzone Mercenary, touted by some as the only ‘true’ shooter on the Vita. I got it when I was on holiday in Singapore just over a month ago, and having just completed the campaign, I can attest to its quality.

I’m not a huge fan of shooters. I play them at friends’ houses, but I’m not too good at them, and the three games I mentioned above are actually the only three shooters I own! I thoroughly enjoyed Borderlands 2, but I think I enjoyed it more for the story, humour, and RPG elements than I did for the actual shooting. Killzone Mercenary was my first experience with a proper mission-based first-person shooter. And what a great experience it was!

The first thing you’ll notice is how much Killzone Mercenary looks the part. Guerrilla Cambridge love to note that it runs on a modified Killzone 3 engine, so what you’re seeing is actually last-gen console-quality. In fact, in many places it even looks better; since the Vita’s screen is so much smaller, even when there are fuzzy textures here and there, your eye won’t be drawn to them. It’s not exactly perfect: fire and smoke look pixellated at times, and character faces look awkward here and there. However, it’s clear that Killzone really is one of the Vita’s best-looking games.

You shouldn’t really expect a good story from a mission-based, multiplayer-centric first-person shooter, and you won’t get one from Killzone Mercenary. Everyone is a stock character and the voice-acting borders on cheesy. The story only really gets interesting towards the last couple of missions, and even then, it’s not exactly winning any awards. But it doesn’t really matter, since the gameplay is pretty much what you’re here for, and if the campaign does accomplish anything, it really makes you understand your part in the war between the ISA and the Helghast. As mercenary Arran Danner, it’s OK not to feel too attached to any one side. You’re there to get your money and get out alive.

Killzone Mercenary really lives up to its name. The central concept that pervades the entire experience is the collection of money. You’ll earn money by doing anything from scoring multi-kills to collecting ammo to opening doors. You’ll need the money to purchase the various weapons, armour, grenades, and VAN-guard systems. These VAN-guard systems are what sets Killzone apart from your common-or-garden shooter. While they have a long charging cycle, they help in various ways. You can use the carapace create a force-field in front of you, or the Ghost to grant you invisibility. My personal favourite is the Arc Missile, which deals incapacitating electric shocks to all enemies in range.

Being a portable game, Killzone Mercenary is not without its gimmicks. But unlike Uncharted on Vita, these are relatively non-intrusive. The hacking minigames are not too annoying, and t’s actually pretty satisfying to swipe the screen to melee an enemy. The game’s quite forgiving with how quickly or accurately you swipe, so cheap deaths due to gimmicks won’t happen too often.

Killzone Mercenary has been criticised for the difficulty of its campaign. I beat all nine missions on the hardest difficulty level, which means that if you’ve had any experience whatsoever with shooters, you’ll be able to do so as well. The real difficulty will arise in the Precision, Covert, and Demolition contract missions, which unlock after you beat each level. They’ll have you completing levels in a certain time, getting a certain amount of headshots, or not getting detected. I just beat the first level’s Precision contract, and it took me 3 tries before I managed it in the time limit. Even if you go through these on the easiest difficulty, they’re significantly harder than the regular missions on the hardest.

Multiplayer is limited to 8-player games, with only three modes, but you’ll be more than entertained with these. And because the games are limited to so few players, it’s not too difficult even now, a year and a half after release, to have full games. I’m a little disappointed that single-player deathmatches don’t come with the game. You’ll have to buy a $2.50 Botzone DLC to practice against AI players. This is especially frustrating for me since I bought the DLC only to find out it was incompatible with my EU region game card!

On the whole, if you’re interested in taking a first-person shooter on the go, this is your finest option. The campaign won’t take you any more than 5 or 6 hours, but you’ll spend dozens of hours more trying the other contracts as well as experimenting with different loadouts in multiplayer. Killzone Mercenary was exactly the kind of game I was looking for when I got a Vita, and I really hope other game studios look to it as inspiration, because Killzone really demonstrates the power and capability of Sony’s handheld.

Design: 8/10 Though the story starts out slow and cliche, it does get mildly interesting towards the end. Characters aren’t anything special, but there is more world-building and lore than you’d expect from a first-person shooter.

Visuals: 9/10 Though the gritty designs of the environments are pretty much standard for games of the genre, graphics-wise you could make a case that these are the best on Vita. Everything runs smoothly and you’ll only notice fuzziness on occasion. Characters’ faces do look a little awkward, but it’s all forgivable considering that these are some of the most console-quality visuals on Vita.

Sound: 7/10 Background music is pretty much just there; you probably won’t hear it much over the gunfire. Voice acting is present, but it’s pretty awkward most of the time and downright cheesy in some places.

Gameplay: 9/10 The campaign is entertaining and varied, and the gunplay is superb. The addition of the Precision, Covert, and Demolition contracts bring challenge the otherwise rather easy story missions. There aren’t a whole lot of multiplayer modes, but everything that is there is well presented, and the variety of weapons, armour, and VAN-guard systems are fun to experiment with.

Value: 9/10 This is one of the only real choices for those looking for a Vita first-person shooter. It’s still rather pricey, at $35-40 most places, but it’s worth it considering you could easily spend dozens of hours in multiplayer on top of the 5-hour campaign.

Total: 42/50 (B+)

List Price: $39.99 | Buy from Amazon

I’ve been on a streak of beating a game every weekend! Starting back in February, I’ve beaten Suikoden, Grim Fandango, Final Fantasy IV, Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy I,  and now Killzone Mercenary. Next up will probably be Uncharted, but I’m not sure I can keep up the streak, since most of my backlog consists of longer JRPGs.

But until next time, you can always check out all the rest of our video-game related content right here (it’s a sizable list now!) and see an always-up-to-date ranking of my favourite games of all time — Killzone Mercenary is a first-pager!

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