This gun’s for hire
I love my Vita. I really do. As someone who’s never been a huge fan of handheld gaming, I think it bridges the gap perfectly between the full console experience and traditionally scaled-back portable offerings. Your first-party support and adamant courtship of the indie community has given the system a fairly diverse library, one that’s only shaping up to get better with time. I’ve encountered more pleasant gaming surprises on the Vita than I ever expected. I’m telling you this because, more than anything, I want you to know that my next bit of advice is coming from a hopeful, helpful place.
Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, please stop trying to put first-person shooters on the Vita. I get it. I really do. It’s a popular genre, and you feel like your library is inadequate if it’s missing a go-to FPS game. Halo sold the Xbox! Call of Duty is the biggest thing ever! You want the Vita to cut off a nice big slice of that money pie. But after playing through your three most heralded attempts—Resistance: Burning Skies, Call of Duty: Black Ops – Declassified, and now Killzone: Mercenary—I’m not convinced that’s the best course of action.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Killzone: Mercenary never reaches the depths plumbed by those other two titles, and there are moments—especially in the multiplayer modes—where it starts to come into its own. This is plainly an effort that was well informed by those earlier failures and designed from the ground up to improve upon their shortcomings. While development duties were still passed off to a B-team, you’ve made it clear that the newly renamed Guerrilla Cambridge would work closely with their Dutch big brother to keep the spirit of the franchise intact. And, in some areas, that effort seems to have paid dividends.
The visuals capture the clean futurism and gritty battlefields that define the Killzone aesthetic, harnessing the Vita’s power to deliver striking, polished environments. Creating a single shared economy, ranking, and loadout system for both single- and multiplayer helps remove a lot of the grind that plagues many modern online FPS games. The selection of weapons offers a decent amount of diversity, albeit without the depth of individual customization. The VAN-Guards—essentially Mercenary‘s answer to Call of Duty‘s killstreak rewards—are smartly implemented. Since they charge up with every point earned, don’t reset on death, and also drop into multiplayer matches at random intervals, they’re less of a positive feedback loop for good players and more an accessible feature anyone can earn to give themselves a fighting chance. I’m a huge fan of the fact that players have a chance to counter melee attacks and save themselves from a frustrating death.
Unfortunately, all those bits of clever design are being layered on top of a fundamentally middling base. For starters, the campaign doesn’t feel nearly meaty enough. According to the game’s own stats page, I managed to beat it in a little over three-and-a-half hours. I imagine that timer falls a little short of my actual playing time—but not by much. Sony, you promised me an intriguing premise: Mercenary Arran Danner cashes in by playing both sides of the Helghan conflict against each other, exploring the moral ambiguity of a war that’s been. Instead, I got a paint-by-numbers story where Danner is constantly betrayed by caricatures on both sides, ultimately saving the world in stereotypically heroic fashion. The paycheck is a coincidence, not a motivation. Like the narrative, the combat encounters are rote, boring, and thoroughly uninspired. Try as I might, I can’t recall a single memorable gameplay moment, just a fuzzy mess of perfectly average gunfights.
Multiplayer fares better, but not dramatically so. Mercenary only offers three game modes: free-for-all, team deathmatch, and one marginally interesting objective-based option called Warzone that breaks each match into five rounds with different goals. These criteria include killing opponents, picking up the Valor cards they drop upon death, interrogating them, and, in the largest departure, hacking the VAN-Guard drop pods that fall into the map.. In practice, it’s overlong and not nearly as varied as it could be. Still, the entire suite works well for what it is. It’s neat to be able to pick up my Vita and hop into a quick multiplayer match during a few moments of downtime, even if I know I could have an infinitely more enjoyable time with any number of console shooters.
The real underlying problem is that Mercenary‘s core gameplay stalls out a few ticks above basic adequacy—and the hardware deserves most of the blame. The controls are functional but wholly inelegant, with lots of context sensitivity and awkward positioning trying to compensate for the Vita’s limited button layout. Thankfully, there aren’t many forced touchscreen controls, though the most common usage, the melee attack, is an utter nuisance. It’s not the simple fact that you need to swipe the screen multiple times to run your knife through an opponent’s skull—it’s that you’re completely vulnerable for the entire 10-second ordeal. I lost count of the times I stealthily approached an enemy, only to be spotted and gunned down by another while I helplessly swatted my finger at the screen. It’s not fun, and it’s not, as your promotional copy seems to imply, immersively “brutal.” It’s a gimmick, and a cumbersome one at that.
Worst of all, though, were the dozens of times I seemingly placed my sniper rifle’s crosshairs directly on top of an enemy’s head, only to pull the trigger and miss because I was off by an imperceptible degree on the Vita’s screen. These aren’t infrequent annoyances. They’re the prevailing trend.
To be clear, Mercenary is the best first-person-shooter experience currently available on the Vita—but, at this point, that’s a bit like being the King of Tonga. It’s a high honor within your own little realm, sure, but the rest of the world probably isn’t going to swoon or genuflect in your presence. The rest of the world probably isn’t going to remember you exist five minutes after you leave the room.
So, yes, Sony, you’ve improved upon your past efforts and delivered a somewhat passable first-person shooter on the Vita. With a few more attempts, you might even be able to make a genuinely good one. But given the track record so far, I’m not sure if that endeavor is anything more than a fool’s errand. Unlike your prior attempts, Killzone: Mercenary doesn’t suffer most because it’s poorly made or ill conceived. It suffers most because it’s a square peg being aggressively socketed into a round hole.
|Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge • Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 09.10.2013|
Mercenary is solely remarkable for being the best first-person shooter on a platform with a terrible track record in that genre. The crowded control scheme, uninspired campaign, and limited multiplayer options are completely outclassed by most home-console shooters. If, however, you’re truly desperate to fill that gaping genre hole in your Vita’s library, you won’t have a totally miserable time here.
|The Good||The best FPS on the Vita to date…|
|The Bad||…but not a particularly good one by big-boy shooter standards.|
|The Ugly||Getting gunned down during the 10 seconds it takes to melee an enemy.|
|Killzone: Mercenary is a PlayStation Vita exclusive.|