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Killzone Mercenary review: Hired gun


From a superficial perspective, Killzone: Mercenary is about as rote a shooter as you'll find. It stars former soldier Arran Danner who has opted for a more lucrative life as a mercenary, battling the Helghast invasion as part of the Phantom Talon Corporation. This sets the plot up for many cliché twists and overwrought scenes of dramatic betrayal that players will see coming miles away. And yet, despite its tired storytelling, Killzone: Mercenary largely succeeds by focusing on the sort of well-polished, frenetic first-person shooter gameplay rarely see on the PlayStation Vita (though not for lack of trying).

When you first step into the world of Killzone: Mercenary, you'll notice its gorgeous graphics. There's no hyperbole in saying these are some of the best the Vita has ever seen – Killzone: Mercenary could very easily pass as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 game. Fans of earlier Killzone games might find this worrying, as the series has earned a reputation for being overloaded with cutscenes that, while attractive, remove control from players for lengthy stretches of time. The developers behind Killzone: Mercenary seem to have learned their lesson on this front. Mercenary does feature periodic interludes, but they're primarily used to segue into and out of missions, and seldom last more than a few moments.

Of course, this added autonomy would mean nothing if the gameplay were not worthwhile. Thankfully, in a pure, gut-level way, Killzone: Mercenary stands alongside almost any recent shooter – for better or worse.

Gallery: Killzone: Mercenary | 7 Photos

Mercenary's controls, which use the Vita's shoulder buttons to fire and aim, while relying on the face buttons for actions like reloading, ducking into cover and opening doors, should be immediately familiar to anyone with recent shooter experience. Weapons too have a traditional feel about them. Shotguns deal out an appreciable kick with each shot, sniper rifle shots leave a crisp crack hanging in the air and the explosions you'll inevitably trigger deliver just the right amount of cataclysmic bang. The enemy AI in Killzone: Mercenary is also good, and while no one would call the Helghast grunts truly smart, it is refreshing to see them attempt to flank players and flee when wounded.

A lot of care went into properly modeling the violent bits of Mercenary, which lends players even more reason to explore the game's surprisingly large arsenal. Though your mercenary can only tote two weapons at once (with optional equipment tacked on), each level features numerous weapons vending machines where you can purchase new gear or swap out one gun for another. Finding your enemies too far away to effectively slaughter? Swap out your shotgun for a sniper rifle. Too many enemies swarming you? Pick from one of many automatic rifles.

While a few of the weapons seem slightly over-powered, the variety and balance of Mercenary's armory means that there usually isn't a single best way to work through a mission. The only time this freedom falters is in later levels, which often pit you against scenarios that seem to require a specific loadout (distant enemies needing a sniper rifle, huge enemy masses with mechanized backup begging for a rocket launcher, etc). For the most part, however, how you play is up to you. This lends an almost arcade-like feel to each mission, and earning more cash to buy better weapons and armor provides a far more impelling reason to replay missions than anything written in Mercenary's plot.

In addition to Mercenary's satisfying combat mechanics, the developers have also managed to take advantage of the Vita's unique features in sparing but enjoyable fashion. In any given mission you might be tasked with sneaking up on a foe, then disengaging the lock he was guarding. Stealth kills and hacking both use the touch screen – the former requiring a quick slash of your finger and the latter having you match shapes under pressure. Unlike the touch screen antics in other Vita games, these diversions are short and maintain the tension of the missions themselves, thanks largely to the constant threat of gunfire – or an alarm which promises to summon even more gunfire should you fail a hack. There are no truly safe moments in Mercenary, but the controls are intuitive and designed in such a familiar fashion that you'll rarely feel you were killed by a poor design choice.

These intuitive elements are a double-edged sword, however. While it's nice to see a developer ape much more powerful consoles to a degree that anyone familiar with shooters should be able to pick up and play the game immediately, these same choices have prevented Killzone: Mercenary from offering anything truly novel. There's very little in this shooter that you haven't seen previously in any number of other shooters, and while it's all executed surprisingly well on the Vita, there's no one element that really stands out.

Killzone Mercenary review Hired gun
Also, given Killzone: Mercenary's focus on delivering a high-quality shooter for the Vita, many players will be expecting multiplayer to live up the same standard as the campaign, and unfortunately that's where the game starts to fall apart. The modes themselves are fine – solo and team deathmatch, along with the objective-based Warzone – but enjoying an online match is often more trouble than it's worth. I had little trouble connecting to 8-player matches and was never once dropped from a game, but I repeatedly found my bullets trailing behind enemies, and the in-game action noticeably lagged far more often than you'd expect from a modern shooter. Hopefully this is just the result of poor netcode and can be fixed with a simple patch, because when Mercenary's multiplayer does work, it performs admirably. [Note: A day one patch has been released for Killzone Mercenary, aimed at improving stability and online connectivity. After playing with the patch installed, I can confirm that lag is now less of an issue, though it remains periodically problematic.]

The core mechanics of Killzone: Mercenary serve as a good lesson in how to create a shooter with a big-budget, console feel on a handheld. While it's hamstrung by flaky multiplayer functionality and a lack of new ideas, it is impressive just how well the first-person action of the Killzone franchise has translated to the Vita. As competent as it is, however, Killzone: Mercenary is teetering on the edge of being something truly great, if only it could shake the dusty conventions of the modern first-person shooter genre it's trying so hard to adhere to.

This review is based on a PSN of Killzone: Mercenary, provided by Sony.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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