If there's one title that I was particularly excited since the day I prepurchased the Vita, it was Killzone 3. Sadly, the ability to play it in the comfort of my own bed with Sony's portable via remote play would never happen. Luckily, I had the next best thing waiting for me on the horizon: an actual, portable version of Killzone called Killzone: Mercenary. Ironically in purchasing the game I somehow managed to get exactly what I wanted while simultaneously getting the complete opposite of what I was looking for.
It's a long story, but maybe if I explain my experience with the portable title and my expectations together you can see why I feel like I'm both stabbed in the back by the developers and, at the same time, blown away by the best portable shooting experience I've ever had (and I had many, prior to owning a Vita).
The Visuals are Mindblowing.
Actual in game screenshot with HUD turned off for clarity.
I know the Vita is powerful and Killzone is known for its graphical calibur, but... Wow. Killzone: Mercenary looks every bit as good as its third Home Console release counterpart, and the moment I got into the beta I couldn't believe my eyes. Most of me was convinced that the footage they showcased in trailers was actually either CGI or done on the PS3 before downscaling to the Vita, but Mercenary is abso-freakin'-lutely gorgeous, from the water details, to the glowing Helghast eyes, to the high res textures, and even the animation style and quality. I would have settled for crisp, but Killzone: Mercenary devs really outdid themselves, although sadly that doesn't atually show until you first land on Helghan (Vekta is your typical, bland(ish) crisp and clean industrial city), with its environmental details popping out like a true next gen game.
Sometimes it's just too pretty. By this I mean that there are many points in the game which are effectively cutscenes, such as that sequence where you first fly into Helghan with wingsuits and watch as battles unfold around you. But these sequences have no gameplay. They're just there to look pretty, although they do give you the ability to look around with your camera. I would have much rather preferred to be able to dodge incoming fire, myself, and stick the landing.
The AI is Actually Good.
That's not to say that the AI in Killzone was ever particularly bad, but given that it is a portable title that's already wasting so much power trying to push 30fps at such a high grapical fidelity, it's amazing Killzone: Mercenary has AI, let alone good ones. True, at times they can be predictable, running into your bullets mindlessly. At times, however, they can get creative, dodging shots and ducking into cover. In some cases, they'll actually dive behind your mountable minigun to prevent you from being able to use it against them. Even more interestingly is that they have actual stealth recognition. You can complete some encounters without ever being seen or noticed, or even having to shoot them at all.
The Single Player is Easily the Best Part
Nobody saw this coming from an opinion article, I'm sure (as I didn't, either), but of all things expected out of a Killzone game, having a single player campaign that is actually better than the multiplayer experience is just short of blasphemy. Killzone has a bit of a history of less-than-stellar/formulaic campaigns coupled with unique and exciting multiplayer. Killzone: Mercenary, instead, provides an incredibly fun campaign that I actually played through multiple times, though I am admittedly getting a little burnt out. Of course, it makes sense, given that Killzone: Merenary is a portable title, so a strong single player component is only logical. Though that's not to sell the multiplayer short.
NOBODY expects the Vektan inquisition!
The reason the campaign mode stands above the rest of the franchise's campaigns is that it gives so many options and variety. With the exception of a single level, you never have to sit for a long time on a mounted minigun. You never have to pick up a sniper rifle and take enemies out from afar while you watch a teammate's back. You never have to do a mandatory stealth segment or interrogate a captain, as good as it is in the game. Pretty much every weapon is unlockable and available to you each time you start a mission and you can swap your loadouts, including equipment and the killstreak-esque VAN-Guards, by visiting one of the numerous scattered Blackjack shop, and experimenting with new kinds of tactics and combinations gives plenty of room to keep playing again and again many times.
The Single Player isn't Exactly "Portable."
"Aaaaaaah!" -Macaulay Culkin
Kind of a major problem for me is that there's not a lot of things to do in Killzone: Mercenary apart from the campaign. Killzone 3 had Botzone (which I still believe should have splitcreen, DAMNIT GUERILLA!), and while the multiplayer is available in places where I have an internet connection, the only time I really play my Vita is when I am away from home, riding public transit for hours on end. Daily.
So it saddens me to see that Killzone: Mercenary doesn't have a Botzone available for me to blast the Helghast and ISA in short bursts, forcing me to only play the game via lengthy levels in the campaign's 9 missions. I generally wouldn't mind, but I would have liked to see some way to play short bursts of each campaign level (like in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger) with a bit of randomization to make things interesting (Yes, I play a lot of Payday 2 and L4D2, don't judge me), or at least a survival mode a la MW3. You already have the perfect mechanics for it, considering you have those Blackjack shops to keep things fresh.
On top of this, in my experience I wasn't able to save checkpoints during the campaign, resorting in me having to actually finish the level before I can switch to another application. Which is quite a lot of time for a portable game.
The Multiplayer isn't Killzone...
Sadly the multiplayer element doesn't really feel like a real Killzone game. Sure, you've got the lag-free online, the incredible sense of weight, the Helghast duking it out with the ISA with brutal melee, and all the weapons from the series as well as fresh, new ones, such as the explosive-round, chargable, burst fire sniper rifle (that's a mouthful). But in reality the game actually feels more akin to Call of Duty.
Think about it. The maps are smallish. There are no classes, but there are loadouts. Heck, there's even "killstreaks" (VAN-Guards), which cause people to generally ignore objectives and instead focus on getting kills, which is a major dent on the Warzone gamemode. True, you can get them quite easily even if you're bad at the game, and they even drop out of the sky at random like powerups, but the idea that you remove actual class based teamwork from the franchise in the portable version in place of powerful in-game rewards isn't really Killzone.
... But it is Really Fun.
Given that the competition was really underwhelming, I'm grateful that Killzone: Mercenary has an absolutely entertaining multiplayer, let alone a passable one. Warzone is still there, albeit not in all its glory, though it does provide two unique Vita specific modes as well as Kill Confirmed, my all time favorite mode by far next to Capture the Flag. Despite the game being more akin to Call of Duty than Killzone, Killzone: Mercenary tosses in quite a lot of new and interesting things. On one hand, melee is more interactive, so even though you can spam the triangle button to melee and never actually miss, you still can't just go about meleeing everybody, primarily due to the fact that the right touchscreen prompt can actually cause your enemy to counter, a first for multiplayer FPS gaming in general. And it works quite well, actually. It makes close range combat all the more intense in ways I've never seen before. On top of that, the "interrogation" mechanic from the single player campaign is also a mechanic in multiplayer (and a Warzone objective, actually) which is really clever: sneak up on an enemy from behind or sedate him with a tranq gun or injure him with bullets (but not kill him), then "melee" him and follow the touch screen prompts and the enemy locations will be revealed on the map, and you score a point in the interrogation objective. You can even revive injured teammates without having to be a medic class, another first for competitive multiplayer shooters as far as I can tell, and it works great.
In The End, I Quite Enjoyed Myself.
That's all we really ask for when we play video games, after all. Killzone: Mercenary didn't turn out like I expected, almost at all, but by and large it was worthy of the cost I and see myself still playing this game for a while in the foreseeable future. I'm genuinely more excited about the prospect of a Killzone: Mercenary sequel rather than Killzone: Shadow Fall, if only for the single player, and given that the former is a portable title and the latter is an HD console title, that's quite a victory for Guerrilla Cambridge.