It is both strange and sad that a portable machine that feels tailored for the first-person shooter genre doesn't have good shooting games to call its own. Resistance: Burning Skies was well hyped but ended up being so uninspiring that it placed the franchise on hiatus for a while. Call of Duty: Black Ops - Declassified wasanother heavily hyped shooter that performed poorly despite the franchise name behind it. One can make a case for the port of Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, but there's nothing in the genre that the Vita can really call its own. Sony is giving the genre another shot on the portable, this time with an offshoot of its other big first-person shooter franchise. Judging by the preview code for Killzone: Mercenary, this is some progress in the right direction.
Our preview build focused on the campaign and contained none of the multiplayer options. From the opening video, you learn that the war against the Helghast is finally turning, but at a high cost. With the war moving to Helghan, both sides are doing everything it can to regain the advantage. In the preview build's only mission, you've been hired by the ISA to get into a Helghan base and destroy the arc cannons that have been protecting their airspace.
For the most part, the portable incarnation of Killzone is quite similar to its console counterpart. The pacing is comparable in that you have small areas with little to no enemy presence followed by areas that are virtual monster closets, with swaths of enemies pouring out at predetermined times. Gunfights rely on you taking cover while getting the drop on enemies; you can't really absorb much damage, even with your regenerating health system in play. The Helghast are formidable, as they like taking cover and performing lots of blind fire. Don't expect them to react to more than you being directly in their line of sight. The mission in the preview build was quite lengthy and was almost the same length as a level in the console version. Considering that this is meant to be played on a portable machine and long blocks of time aren't guaranteed, the adherence to lengthy levels is questionable, but the frequent checkpoints might balance that out.
Everything you do in Mercenary results in cash, whether it's hitting headshots, killing specific enemy types, or picking up ammo from corpses. This cash can be used in black-market crates for ammo refills or new weaponry and equipment. All of your actions are also converted into XP for leveling up. The preview mentioned the XP changing your card rank, which in turn changes the bonuses you get every day, but we didn't see a demonstration of that on our press build.
Another thing that stood out was the expanded freedom in each mission. Though it doesn't share the open-endedness of a game like Far Cry 3, Mercenary shares the idea that you can approach a situation however you want. You can go in with guns blazing, mowing down all enemies with extreme prejudice. You can also opt to use stealth instead, and the game gives you the necessary tools to do that, such as: silenced pistols, remote-operated drones and cloaking devices. Noiseless melee kills and camera disabling are a few techniques, but don't expect more advanced stuff, like body concealment. The game does well in terms of balancing gameplay styles and mixing them together, though more playtime with different levels will determine if this balance holds up for the rest of the game.
Those who loved the heft of the weaponry in Killzone 2 will be disappointed that the team went for a Killzone 3 approach to combat, where weaponry felt lighter. The decision hurts more on the Vita due to the very loose analog stick movement, so unless you have mastered minute movements, expect to have very imperfect aim the first time you run the game.
Get used to the sensitivity of the analog sticks, and the layout is instantly familiar and the controls are rather responsive. Most of the shooters on the Vita tried desperately to force the use of gyroscope and touch-screen, but it's all optional here. The gyroscope-assisted aiming is good in terms of being able to fine-tune your shots in concert with the analog sticks. The opposite is true of the touch-screen, though. Even though you need to double-tap that to get into a sprint, the sensitivity of the pad means you'll sprint quite often. One thing that is unavoidable is the use of the touch-screen for melee, hacking minigames and weapon switching. It works well since there aren't other buttons available on the system, and the responsiveness is good, so don't expect to see many flubs, if at all, when performing a melee attack. However, expect your pacing and reaction time to be slower.
Killzone: Mercenary hits the PlayStation Vita on September 10, 2013, but by the time you read this, there should be an open beta for the multiplayer portion. If you're looking for a portable first-person shooter fix, hop into the open beta and give Killzone: Mercenary a shot.
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