You’re caught in the middle of a war fought by two opposing sides – neither of which you’re particularly fond of. Your name is Arran Danner and you’re a mercenary; the only thing you fight for is your paycheck and your life. Are you man enough to survive to spend that cash? You’d better be; this is one hell of a job. As your mission commander Benoit puts it – “This is no walk in the park, Danner”.
Killzone Mercenary is one of the most anticipated titles to hit the PlayStation Vita since its launch. The hype and build up that accompanied the slow but steady leak of information has been intense; from preview builds which have shown us a little slice of the campaign, to the two (some might say three) waves of the multiplayer beta. We’ve already seen a bit from the levels “Lightning Strike” and “Justice for All” in the previews, as well as the maps “Zenith”, “Inlet” and “Shoreline” in the closed beta and open beta stages – however these peeks behind the curtain comprise a small part of the experience. The real wow, that’s cool moment of the game is when you see it as a whole. The six multiplayer levels and nine single-player levels are just the beginning, there’s much more to this game than what you can see at first glance.
Yes, there are only nine levels – but there’s much more to them than simply completing them on veteran and moving on. All nine levels have four ways to play; Primary, Precision, Covert and Demolition. Each of the different play types gives a different feel to the way you tackle the level. The levels themselves don’t change, but it’s a much different experience to sneak through in stealth with a list of tasks than to barge in with guns blazing and just plow your way to the end. By adding these extra challenges they’ve upped the replayability quite a bit, especially with the platinum trophy requiring you complete all modes (and the extra modes only unlocking for each level after a completing them once). It was a simple addition, but offers so much in the way of challenges – let’s have a look at how each mode is set up.
Primary is the most basic type of play; finish the level and you complete it, simple as that. You can play levels on recruit, trooper, or veteran – a common set of difficulties to any Killzone game. Completing the level will earn you 1000, 1500 or 5000 Vektan dollars depending on the difficulty chosen. You can then spend your hard-earned cash at the Blackjack terminal (read; armory) in order to acquire guns, ammo, armor, grenades or the ever-powerful van-guard. We’ll come back to that in a bit…
Precision missions (like the other two unlockable modes) are an extension of the primary method of play. In Precision, you’re issued a load-out requirement (usually one or two weapons that you must use) as well as a time limit and a few other small goals. Check them all off to pass, or don’t to fail – not that complicated in theory and yet quite a bit harder to complete in the moment. Payment jumps here to accommodate these extra objectives, with 1500, 3000 and 7000 Vektan dollars being the payment scheme through the ranks.
Covert keeps the same enhanced payment scheme but changes up the requirements. It still requires a specific load-out (usually two weapons this time), as well as adding a tactical set of objectives. Covert mode also requires stealth to be used throughout a fair-size portion of each level – something easier said than done for all you run-and-gun types. This mission type (along with the last type of play) is definitely one the hardest modes to complete successfully.
The last mode is aptly titled Demolition; applying a set of requirements geared towards hitting your enemy like a ton of bricks. Usually this mode requires a van-guard or explosive in your load-out, as well as a certain level of precision destruction and kills. This is one of the harder modes to play in as it requires more money and concentration invested than the others (van-guards aren’t cheap and some of the objectives in the harder modes require surgical precision to achieve). This is likely to be the last mode you complete.
Across all of these modes, you will still have one common side-goal; intel. Each level has six pieces of intel which can be taken across each of the four modes. They don’t have to be gotten four times for each level, a welcome cop out since I’m not a fan of the “here, collect 300 of these” trophy. Six pieces across nine levels makes fifty-four pieces of intel total; full collection will net you a nice silver trophy and some cash along the way – that’s something I can definitely deal with.
Intel is gained in two ways, one of which involves the hacking of terminals left hidden around the area (or in the middle of a bunch of guys, as is often the case). Terminals are hacked by matching the encryption pattern you’ve been shown with a set of six “key” patterns which you overlay on the grid through touch. Each block of encryption requires two pieces of these key patterns to remove it and encryption levels range from two blocks on one level, to seven blocks multiplied over three levels. As such, some are much harder than others and require both reflexes and problem solving skills to complete within the allotted time.
As I said before, there are two ways to gain intel; terminals aren’t the only way. The other method of extraction is a much more physical one – you can beat it out of the enemy officers. Officers are denoted on the mini-map through a little “bar” at the back of their directional arrow, distinguishing them from plain enemies who have a single-piece arrow. Get these officers alone without alerting them to your presence and you can initiate a 3-step melee interrogation to beat the information out of them (three swipe prompts on the touchscreen). When you’re done with them, they are disposed of properly. A mercenary has no empathy for the obstacles between him and his paycheck.
Speaking of his paycheck, have you heard about Blackjack? He’s the man when it comes to getting you the equipment you need to get the job done. He’s scattered drop boxes all over both Vekta and Helghan, playing both sides of the fence – just like you. He’s happy to sell you anything you need… for a price. He’s got an array of primary and secondary firearms as well as grenades, armor and van-guards. Primary weapons consist of automatic rifles, sniper rifles and machine guns – while secondary weapons are handguns, shotguns, grenade launchers and RPGs. Grenade types range from gas to proximity, covering all the steps in-between. Armor is all about stats; trade mobility for silence, or protection for both… you get six options, choose wisely here.
The last part of the equation at Blackjack’s armory is the van-guard. Van-guards are a set of eight different technologies designed to give you an edge in your missions. They vary greatly in function and usage; ranging from a “ghost generator” that makes you practically invisible until you use a weapon – to a signal jammer or a controllable drone. There are many options here and each has its own unique strengths, but they are very expensive. The cheapest van-guard runs 7500 Vektan dollars (the jammer), while the most expensive is over twice that (sky fury, a long range attack drone). That likely makes these options the most expensive pieces of your arsenal, and a choice you must consider carefully when just starting out. The most seasoned players might even choose to forego them on their initial play-through; as they only really become necessary when dealing with the non-primary modes or multiplayer.
There is however, a way to get them without paying. Sometimes during a mission (or in multiplayer), Blackjack will send you one free of charge and a rocket will jam into the ground – creating a yellow dot on your mini map. Hacking these capsules will give you a free van-guard. It’s good for business, don’t you know?
Ah, multiplayer – the word tends to sound more like the name of a beautiful woman than a mode in the game when I say it, so be thankful I’m typing. Multiplayer in Killzone is heavenly for me; I’ve been lucky to have very few connection problems outside being in a party (which never seems to net us the same teams, or even a working match sometimes). Game play in multiplayer is like butter; smooth and comforting. Whether it’s taking out the enemy Helghast by popping their melons with your sniper rifle, or countering some ISA jerk’s melee and then shooting him in his stupid face – Killzone Mercenary delivers on every level. The maps are the perfect size for eight players to be confined to and still have enough room to hide or suck up every last moment of action, as long as you’re not getting a bad respawn (which I fully expect to be remedied as quick as possible). Each of the six multiplayer areas are modeled after parts of single player levels, giving a slightly cohesive feel to the game – and for the record, they’re just as pretty as their single-player counterparts.
Modes in multiplayer are threefold; Mercenary Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare and Warzone. Mercenary Warfare is your typical ten minute free-for-all, with you going head to head with all seven other players. Guerrilla Warfare and Warzone are both team type game modes, with you and three other players taking on another group of four – with Guerrilla Warfare it’s straight kills-for-points, while Warzone takes a completely different approach.
Warzone is a mode built around modes; five of them to be exact. Each mode lasts five minutes and has you going on a scavenger hunt of sorts. The first of the five modes is called Bounty Hunter and deals with valor cards; a suited card representing your skill status as a player. Collect them from your enemies’ dead bodies (they float there once the enemy expires) to gain a point each and up your team’s score in the first round. The second and fourth rounds are about hacking van-guard capsules for five points each; you get ten seconds to solve two encryption blocks while hopefully not getting shot in the process (there’s that team bit coming into play). The third round is all about interrogation, using the same method as getting intel from officers – but on the enemy players instead. As with hacking, interrogation requires a bit of skill and is therefore also worth five points each. The fifth and final round is a straight up session of Body Count (basically, Guerrilla Warfare) until the clock runs out.
All multiplayer games end with a table of your stats and scores, along with a screen allotting you any bonuses you’re due for performance. You’re then able to change up your load-out in a 60 second wait between rounds. This is actually a noted improvement from the two minute wait present in the beta and allows you to get more games in quicker, without the need to get distracted while waiting.
The controls for Killzone Mercenary are gold in my opinion; they’ve really done something wonderful here and found the perfect balance between ease and need. The controls are fairly typical of a first person shooter, with some exceptions and options based on the uniqueness of the Vita. I want to state right off that this is NOT Call of Duty, and as such does not have the same feel when playing – the game is just a step slower in pacing and has a more realistic feel to the movement and aiming. The only 100% mandatory Vita exceptions to the “typical FPS controls” rules are the ones involving the touchscreen that aren’t mapped to buttons – the swipe command when issuing a melee-type maneuver and the zoom on the sniper scope. All the other basic commands are mapped directly to buttons as well as being mirrored on the touchscreen/pad gestures. It seems like they’ve made an attempt to give you the best of both worlds while maximizing the usage of the somewhat limited amount of buttons the Vita has (four less than the DualShock 3). Congratulations, Guerrilla Cambridge – you’ve succeeded in creating the first decently controlled first person shooter on a handheld. Good job.
Graphics are #&@%ing beautiful to say the least, though I admit it’s hard to tell sometimes – Vekta and Helghan have some er… plain architecture. A quick look at the beams of sunlight bursting through a nearby window as you first gain control of Danner in “Justice for All” will tell you that the Killzone 3 engine is no slouch on Vita though – beneath the almost sterile-looking interiors of the intact structures lie a ton of beauty waiting to be found. I don’t have to tell you, let me show you. As long as the shot contains a mini-map, it’s not from a cutscene (which seem to mostly be rendered in-engine anyways).
Sound quality is top notch, as to be expected from the franchise. Voice-overs and sound effects are crisp and clear, with weapon noises keeping true to their various functions and duties. The devil’s in the details here, and even footsteps sound wonderful – running over the ground and through a puddle creates an audible splish-splash for example.
Killzone Mercenary engages the player in quite a few ways while staying true to the franchise’s roots as a hardcore first-person shooter. New elements like hacking, van-guards and the additional mission types only serve to add to the experience – not take away from it. Multiplayer maxes out at eight players, but never feels like you’re not in the action or are getting unfairly pummeled (unless you’re truly outmatched). The single player campaign is actually quite interesting, though more for the action and “seeing both sides” than an amazing story line – but then again Killzone has always been more about the action than the plot. Even so, there’s a few twists in there… you’ll see what I’m talking about. The cohesion of single player and multiplayer is the icing on the cake for me, though – as your money and armory items will carry across from single player to multiplayer almost seamlessly. My only quibble with this system is that they didn’t account for the five load-out options being available in campaign – which would’ve been nice for a quick swap at Blackjack. Oh and don’t worry guys – it seems to be a bit harder to accumulate money in single player, so you’re not going to purchase every weapon in a day.
If you haven’t gleaned it from how many words you’ve just read; I’m in love with this game. Though it still has a few minor faults, Killzone Mercenary is simply a ton of fun to play. Besides that, we’ve already seen how much support it’s being given – with a day one patch and all these beta testing phases, the developers obviously want to get this right and fix any issues that arise. In my opinion, this is the best first-person shooter on any handheld console. If you’re asking me if you should buy this game, my response is why haven’t you already?
Oh, and for the record; a play-through of the single player campaign in Primary mode (on veteran) took me around six to seven hours – so it’s not short either.