Few titles have managed to harness the full power of the PS Vita better than Sony's Killzone: Mercenary. There’s nothing small-time about it; the superb visuals, tremendous sound, multi-layered gameplay, and excellent controls would stand out on any platform. Even better, it utilizes the long-running series' backstory in a way that spectacularly draws in existing fans and newcomers alike.
From the start, Mercenary dives right into the action. You are Aaron Danner, a soldier-for-hire who’s thrust into the middle of the Helghast-Vektan conflict that is the axis of Killzone lore. Each level’s primary goals are straightforward enough--go here, blast this, rescue that, etc.--but the manner of execution is up to you. Mercenary provides access to a wonderful variety of killing machinery; thanks to the generous amount of weapon repositories sprinkled throughout your journey, changing up your loadout is simple and encouraged considering each weapon has its own distinct characteristics. Options aren't limited to just assault rifles and rocket launchers, either, as high-tech specialty items also provide a devilishly effective support system if you’ve got the cash to spare.
Speaking of cash, it’s everything. As a mercenary, the ability to arm yourself to the teeth is directly proportional to how much money you’ve got in your pocket. Every action you take generates income, from kills to scavenging ammo to downloading intelligence. You will have to make tough choices, too, because no matter how well you do the job, the guns, armor, and ammunition you’ll need to do the job aren’t cheap.
Of course, killing is your business in Mercenary, and business is good. There are dozens of ways to eliminate your enemies, and most are extremely bloody. Head shots are grotesquely effective, separating domes from their owners' bodies in a flash of brains and skull. Up-close melee kills are equally brutal and, depending on the direction you swipe and the way your victim is facing, you'll attack a groin, throat, and/or top of a skull. The combination of the Vita’s sticks, buttons, and touch screen controls work seamlessly, making firefights on the handheld system immensely enjoyable. It’s a good thing, too, because the enemies are relentless and punishing. While they are not always the most intelligent of beings, there are plenty of them to destroy, and clearing out an area requires precision and patience. Running and gunning without taking cover and making use of all your equipment is a recipe for instant death.
Various enemies have distinct behaviors; foot soldiers tend to throw themselves at you en masse, but heavies stalk you relentlessly while mechanized warriors taunt you from the perceived safety of their cockpit. It takes time and practice to succeed, and a handful of sections can get particularly difficult. Taking cover and letting your health regenerate is always the right decision in a tough spot, even if your instincts tell you to keep firing.
Striking moments abound, as well. As Danner advances through the story, he becomes embroiled in an entirely personal battle between leaders of nations, and comes into direct contact with individuals affected by their decisions. The fact that Danner is a man without a nation presents several interesting situations; even though the five-hour story driving Mercenary is the explosion-filled equivalent of a blockbuster summer action movie, its characters and engaging plot points keep pulling you along.
A fairly meaty multiplayer component is integrated with the campaign, too, as the funds you earn in either mode can be used to purchase additional weaponry and armor in both. Split into three segments--deathmatch, team deathmatch, and the multi-game compilation Warzone--it ran smoothly during all of our pre-release sessions.
The matches feel well-suited to the portable platform, as a maximum of eight players can join a game. Each of the maps offer a good mix of vertical and horizontal playing space, and the combination of loadout options presents an interesting variety to choose from based upon how you want to approach a specific challenge. At ten minutes a pop for non-Warzone games, it’s a good length for on-the-go matchups--but if you’re looking for a longer match, Warzone combines 5 objective-based rounds for 5 minutes each, resulting in a 25-minute battle. All your bases are covered.
Mercenary is not without its issues, of course. The sprint and crouch actions are both controlled with the Circle button, and it can get a bit clunky when trying to do either. Your partners don’t seem to understand that talking to you while you’re trying to drive a knife through the throat of an enemy isn’t the best time to communicate. The puzzles to hack intelligence files, doors, and various access points get repetitive quickly. Even so, these are minor problems in an overall superb experience.
Killzone: Mercenary is a gritty, intense experience that is welcome--if not desperately needed--on the Vita. From start to finish, its intensity draws you in and doesn’t let go. While there’s little in the way of innovation, that’s not the point. Mercenary is unapologetically big and bold, and is exactly the kind of game you’d hope it would be.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation Vita.