Cambridge Studio’s debut Vita effort is a fantastic portable FPS, bringing everything that made the Killzone franchise great to the handheld alongside some neat ideas of their own.
World-building & Story
As a side-story set during the events of the first and second Killzone games, Mercenary could easily have been a forgettable mis-fire, yet thankfully Sony’s Cambridge Studio managed to create a bespoke tale that fits in with established events yet has something unique to say of its own.
Killzone‘s universe is an interesting one full of dense history if you’re willing to dig for it, but you don’t really need any knowledge of this to enjoy Mercenary – although if you have played previous games, you’re likely to get more out of the experience. At its core are two factions – the ISA (humans) and the Helghast (red-eyed soldiers you’ll likely be familiar with if you gamed on the PS2 or PS3), locked in an interstellar war which has seen invasions of their planets – Vekta and Helghan respectively, over the course of the previous titles.
It’s a fantastic futuristic setting and the writers really play up to this with lots of beautiful sci-fi world designs. Yet underpinning it all is a level of political intrigue through this ongoing war which is very much present in Mercenary, although notably less so than other entries. Rather than being a soldier in either army, protaganist Arran Danner is a merc-for-hire who works for whichever side gives him the highest pay-cheque, meaning he gets to see the conflict from both sides but isn’t driven by the same principles as some of the prior franchise characters.
And the game plays with this idea throughout, constantly questioning the actions of both sides through the events of 1, 2 and Liberation. Danner gets to see the realities of a conflict like this – that both the ISA and Helghast make despicable decisions in search of victory, often at the cost of hundreds of lives. There’s less of a focus on the interior working of each faction, and more time spent reflecting on the pointless slaughter that has happened as a result of the conflict.
One of Mercenary‘s biggest triumphs occurs around halfway through when the character of Justus is introduced, a Helghan noble child who gets caught up in events and ultimately comes under Danner’s protection. The bond between these two – the cold-hearted mercenary and the child whose home planet is invaded and subsequently nuked – remains oddly touching and sweet throughout, despite the lack of dialogue from the mute Danner. It provides a nicely emotional core to the events happening, reminding the player again of the realities of war.
Sadly other characters aren’t as well developed, ranging from Danner’s buddy Ivanov to the enigmatic Blackjack who provides weapons and tactical support. Most notably it’s the high-ranking ISA and Helghast officers – Admiral Grey and Colonel Kratek respectively – that come across as rather weak, especially in comparison to iconic Killzone characters such as Radec. This is perhaps due to the fact that the plot moves at such a breakneck pace, flitting through different time periods to cover different events, that it does sometimes feel slightly disjointed and likely difficult to properly develop a character.
Still, Mercenary tells a compelling enough tale of sci-fi warfare that it’s easy to forgive any minor flaws, particularly due to the fantastic, fascinating world created by Guerrilla Games that is further expanded here.
Presentation & Sound
Often seen in online lists as Vita’s prettiest game, Mercenary is a technical tour-de-force that shows what the handheld is truly capable of if developers put the effort in – and it’s a stand-out gem to this day, possessing a number of effects and set pieces most titles could only dream of.
Modelling is absolutely top notch, with characters and enemies possessing far more detail than anything else seen in the console – from the glimmer of red in a distant Helghast’s eyes to the great texture work on Danner’s clothes, everything is spot on. It’s most noticeable in the melee kills, gruesome up-close manouvers which show Danner brutally stabbing a foe. The attention to detail extends to the weapons used, which look realistic (and futuristic when necessary), while shooting and recoiling like real guns, meaning they’re very impressive.
In fact, animations; gunfire and explosions in general give a feel of authenticity that I feel is unmatched in handheld games. Little things like seeing Danner’s hands as he climbs a ladder in first person add to the sense of immersion, while things like enemies yelling and dramatically diving out of the way of a grenade shows an attention to detail I wasn’t expecting. The screen will often light up with gunfire and explosions making a veritable showcase of war, yet the intricacies of a low-key corridor chase can remain impressive too.
All of this doesn’t come at the detriment of environmental detail, either. You’ll be treated to a variety of locales from a futuristic Vektan skyscraper complete with reflective glass windows and plenty of computers (a far cry from the drab browns and greys of some of the preceding Killzone games); to towering cliffsides being battered by the sea below, each rendered with a fantastic level of detail and clarity. A large amount of effort clearly went in to making these environments feel interactive, with plenty of objects scattered around from rocky outcrops to metal walkways, creating believable, unique areas.
The environments are put to good use too – as Mercenary places you in a number of spectacular set-pieces ranging from rappelling down the side of a building to escape an explosion to gunning from the side of an aircraft as it invades a city. These events are designed to show off the areas they’re taking place in – even though you’re focused on the action, you’ll notice everything from the fantastic geometry of the alien landscapes to the little detail on billboards during each mission, making for a gorgeous experience.
The only aspect of the presentation that don’t quite hold up to scrutiny is some of the texture work, which is sometimes a little flat on close inspection. This is just a minor blemish on what is an overall massively impressive package on the Vita.
Mercenary also nails things in the sound department, with a variety of unique and fitting sounds used for gunfire; explosions and just general environmental noise. You can be walking down a corridor and hear the creek of metal in the distance, before the murmur of enemy chatter comes in followed by a fierce shootout. Voice acting is well-done with each actor really selling their character’s part; while the soundtrack crescendos cinematically during tense moments to create a fitting and epic score.
Gameplay & Content
Killzone Mercenary had a lot of expectation on it prior to release to deliver a true console-quality handheld FPS experience, particularly after the mis-fires of both Call of Duty and Resistance. Not only did Guerrilla Cambridge deliver a fantastic Vita FPS experience, they managed to craft a shooter that would put many in the genre to shame on any console, period.
As a first-person shooter, you’re tasked with taking down foes across a variety of missions that usually consist of progressing from room to room in various combat scenarios. Danner moves well, able to run; slide and take cover, all of which is triggered by one button yet never feels cumbersome. One of Guerrilla Game’s trademark quirks is that character movement always feels realistic and that is present and correct here, with Danner looking at his hands when pressing a button or climbing a ladder, adding nicely to immersion.
Mercenary‘s brilliance is largely down to the well-tuned shooting mechanics, that manage to strike a good balance between the weighty realism of the prior Killzone games and a more beginner-friendly approach. Weapons are heavy and things like reloading trigger a long reload mechanic meaning you can’t just fire and forget, but equally things don’t feel so dense that you’re constantly fighting against the controls (and thankfully you’re able to adjust the look sensitivity to your liking). Some light snap-to aiming helps things, but what makes the combat really enjoyable is the armory of weapons and gadgets at your disposal that allow you to customise how you play.
Danner can carry primary and secondary weapons as well as grenades, and these vary from machine guns and sniper rifles to pistols and proximity mines, each with different statistics making it fun to experiment to figure out what loadout works for you. Even more interesting are ‘vanguards’ – combat perks unlocked by killing enemies – that grant you a specific item to use that can turn the tide of battle. For example, the porcupine is a back-mounted rocket launcher that can be triggered by pressing the touch screen; while the vultur is a spy drone that will show the location of enemies on your mini-map. All are enjoyable to mess around with, often making you feel like an unstoppable killing machine when used correctly.
An arsenal like this wouldn’t be much fun without a suitable place to use it, but thankfully Mercenary delivers in this regard too. The campaign takes place across nine missions set of Vekta and Helghan, often with plenty of battles for you to try out new strategies. The developers like to mix things up with rotating objectives quite often, so one minute you could be sneaking through a conference centre and the next manning the gun on a ship as you take down other aircraft The variety is thrilling, ensuring that you’re never sure what’s coming next.
And this brings me on to the game’s biggest strength – freedom. Despite the fact that your objective will change quite often, you’ll nearly always be given all the tools to go about it however you want. For example, an enemy stronghold can be invaded all guns blazing with a porcupine and shotgun equipped; or you may prefer to opt for the ghost generator and stealth through the complex after hacking their systems to turn off the alarms. It’s amazing to be given such choice and ensures a large amount of replay-ability as you can opt to revisit a scenario in a different way.
And this is how Mercenary extends its single-player content. Despite the fact the campaign may take you just 5-6 hours to blast through the first time, you’re encouraged to replay to unlock intel by hacking terminals or interrogating specific targets. Even better is ‘contracts’ mode that tasks you with meeting specific criteria in a mission – ‘demolition’ may require you to cause as much damage as possible while ‘covert’ is the exact opposite, asking you to stealth through. I really enjoyed attempting these as they always required me to adapt my way of playing and often made me try out weapons and loadouts I hadn’t considered.
Everything you learn in the single-player campaign will help you in the multiplayer, which is where the real meat of the game is. Interestingly, Mercenary awards currency for pretty much everything you do and this is used to unlock weapons and perks in either mode, providing a nice feeling of progress no matter what you’re doing.
The multiplayer itself is among the best I’ve ever seen on a handheld, tailored to fit the Vita perfectly yet still providing a full experience. There’s a tonne of maps available across three modes – guerrilla warfare (deathmatch); warfare (team deathmatch) and warzone, the latter being easily the most interesting. In this you’re given an objective which shifts every few minutes – which could be as simple as killing the enemy team ot as difficult as sneaking up on a foe to interrogate them. The shifting nature of this mode makes it feel dynamic and exciting and will ensure that you keep coming back for more.
Despite the fact that teams are capped to four players (meaning only a total of eight players on a map at any one time), teamwork is still central to succeeding in Mercenary‘s multiplayer and the feeling of satisfaction from saving an ally from an enemy sneaking up on them or hiding a jammer somewhere is fantastic. Maps have been designed with the player cap in mind, but despite this you’ll still find a range of areas available ranging from tight enclosed offices to big sprawling warzones, adding a lot of variety to the battles you’ll be taking part in and – crucially – forcing you to adapt your loadout accordingly for the battle that’s about to take place.
It all comes together to create a game that is unrivalled among handheld first-person shooters – a deep, content-rich experience that provides all the graphical and mechanical fidelity of a home console game but tailors aspects for better portable play.
Despite not having the biggest DLC schedule, Mercenary has one very important piece that arguably changes how the game can be played – Botzone. Available for £1.99, this allows you to play the multiplayer modes offline with bots (aside from Warzone, which is sadly missing – likely due to the difficulty of coding AI to follow objectives). In addition this lets you customise the size of the team alongside the intelligence of the players – meaning it’s well worth the (low) price of admission as you can practice on the multiplayer maps or just grind a bit of cash whenever you’re not connected to the internet.
Aside from this, you can also buy an extra machine gun for £1.19, but this isn’t anything particularly special and not worth owning unless you’re really gunning for a complete loadout.
Mercenary feels like exactly what Sony must have envisaged when they marketed Vita as a console-quality-on-the-go handheld. It’s a fantastic FPS with mind-blowing production values, yet still manages to feel like a perfectly tailored handheld experience thanks to some smart design choices from Cambridge Studio. It’s a brilliant time whether you’re just a casual fan of the genre or a more hardcore player and remains one of the most enjoyable titles in Vita’s line-up and the shining example of what the handheld is capable of both in technical and gameplay terms.