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Killzone Mercenary Preview: The console-quality Vita shooter you've been waiting for

30 August 2013

Killzone Mercenary isn't just a worthy successor to the Killzone name. In some ways, it's an even better game.

And it's only on PlayStation Vita.

I don't write these words lightly. Killzone 2 is among my favorite shooters of all time. Killzone 3, while missing some of the second game's poignant darkness, was a worthy sequel that tightened the series' controls and opened up to lively, large environments and interesting settings. In contrast, Killzone Mercenary retreads familiar ground... so far. This isn't our review of the game--look for Mike Harradence's full thoughts and score next week--so I'm only allowed to talk about the first couple levels. But what I've played has me very impressed.

Killzone Mercenary is the console-quality Vita shooter you've been waiting for. And Oh. My. God, is it fun.

Some of that fun factor owes itself to Killzone series staples that, omnipresent in Guerrilla's PlayStation exclusive, make a return here. Awe-inspiring Helghast architecture towers over you. Beautiful plants add color to war-torn science-fiction high rises and plazas. The guttural chatter of Helghast soldiers spurs you to defeat their evil, and those iconic orange eyes making lining up headshots both easy and satisfying. All of that, plus the series' trademark music, jaw-dropping setpiece moments, and gorgeous lighting make for a traditional Killzone experience in all the best ways--except it's running on Vita.

The power of that simple fact--this is Killzone on your Vita--cannot be overstated. The four hours I've played of Mercenary leading up to this preview were all played on bus rides to and from work. In those 20 to 30-minute chunks, I felt the thrill of glide-suiting behind enemy lines, equipping stealthy armor to reduce my noise level, and spending money on a signal jammer to prevent Helghast patrols from calling back-up. Indeed, these are only a few of the unique gameplay twists that Mercenary adds on top of the already excellent Killzone formula. That's why I'm so excited for Mercenary after so little time with it. Four missions in, there are already so many interesting, well-executed additions that I can't believe were introduced in what I considered, until now, to be a spin-off title.

Take currency, for instance. Damn near everything you do in-game, from scoring headshots and melee kills to hacking terminals and scavenging ammo, nets you cash for purchasing weapons, armor, equipment, and VAN-GUARD deployables. These all come from Blackjack, an arms dealer accessible between missions and at shops scattered around every level. All the hallmarks of an addictive, intriguing experience are here, and it proves to be so. Periodic sales tempt you to spend your hard-won cash on items you wouldn't normally consider. And your cash is hard-won; two or three missions in, the game stops compensating for the "newness" of playing an FPS on Vita and starts kicking your ass if you're sitting on yours. Cash doesn't come quickly, either, so every success feels significant and every purchase feels meaningful.

These aren't easy choices, folks. A room full of Helghast might look a tempting target for stealthy shenanigans (generally, worth more than the opposite), but if you get caught mid-stab, you're going to have several Helghast bearing down on you at the same time--from multiple directions. Any Killzone veteran will know what comes next. Swift death awaits.

VAN-GUARD deployables also spice up the proceedings in a way that's reminiscent of the OWL drone from my hands-on demo of Killzone: Shadow Fall at E3. Some of these special items, from off-screen missile launchers to deployable shields, use the front touchscreen in intuitive ways. Others don't bother. They're all a joy to use, and deciding which is worth investment during the early missions isn't easy. I don't know how long the campaign is (yet), so it's tough to say whether purchase decisions will remain difficult as cash flow increases, but I won't be sorely disappointed either way--a balanced arsenal is interesting, but I'm chomping at the bit to get my hands on more toys.

Multiplayer wrinkles set Killzone Mercenary apart from its predecessors, too. The series' standard mode, Warzone, is the competitive backbone, but the Valor Card system fuels extra intensity. Every day, you're assigned a Valor Card (between Two and Ace) that reflects your recent performance compared to other players. Whenever you die in combat, your unique Valor Card appears over your corpse as a pick-up. For opponents, it's a tasty target, because the better your Valor Card, the more cash they'll get for picking it up. Of course, dropped Valor Cards also make for great bait; there's a good chance your downed enemy's friends have crosshairs trained on what he or she left behind, so moving fast--or fighting the temptation--is a must.

The best part? Accrued cash is shared between all KIllzone Mercenary experiences. If you tire of single-player missions, hop into multiplayer for awhile. You'll have more cash to spend when you return (or, vice versa, if competitive frustration mounts).

Then again, I don't imagine anyone will be tiring of Killzone Mercenary's single-player missions quickly. There's a wealth of content on offer, including alternate mission versions with extra (or different) objectives after your first completion of a given level. These secondary objectives cater to different playstyles, so there's plenty of reason to backtrack, extra cash notwithstanding. But perhaps more importantly, aiming and shooting feels excellent--the default sensitivity is perfect for the limited range of Vita's analog sticks, and the (optional) motion sensor aiming for fine adjustments down-sight runs circles around the same mechanic in Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Uncharted's motion sensor aiming was a noble first attempt, but Killzone Mercenary absolutely nails it.

I'll let Mike Harradence cover the finer points of the game's story and characters in his review next Wednesday, but suffice it to say, you should be very, very excited for Killzone Mercenary--if only because, now, Killzone: Shadow Fall doesn't have to live up to prior console entries. It has to live up to Killzone Mercenary.


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