If Killzone 2 helped set the bar for graphics early in the PlayStation 3's life, then Mercenary has been handed the torch for Sony's handheld. Perhaps one of the best examples of the device's power, Killzone Mercenary almost seamlessly executes with sharp environments and high-quality animation. Though there is some recognizable pop-in to textures as you move through the environment, it's never jarring – even in a preview build, which I'd expect to look worse than the final game when it ships in September.
"The most difficult thing, honestly, was untangling all the code from Killzone 3," Guerrilla Cambridge Senior Producer Mark Green tells me about bringing the Killzone Engine to the Vita.
But good looks aren't the only thing Killzone Mercenary has going for it; this game is all about the money. Though the Killzone franchise usually features a battle between two factions (the good-guy ISA Forces and the evil, invading Helghast army), Mercenary diverges from soldiers in the war. You play as gun-for-hire Arran Danner, offering services of destruction and mayhem to whomever has the deepest pockets. The campaign spans the timeline of the entire series, bringing players back to areas from previous Killzone games, seen from a new, fiscally minded participant.
While the game is built from the ground up, areas that have appeared in previous Killzone games come with the added benefit of established architecture. "You know what the area's supposed to look like, so you don't have to have the guys scratching their heads coming up with a whole new theme," says Green.
"In retelling the story, we've been able to show new people and newcomers to the Killzone franchise the relationship between the ISA and the Helghast, what that's all about and what the roots of the story are. Whereas anyone who knows Killzone will get new nuggets and learn even more."
Playing the single-player campaign, Danner earns money accomplishing missions, carrying out secondary objectives, collecting intel and dealing death. Using this money on the black market, at kiosks littered throughout the world, players can shop for new gear and special Van-Guard abilities, which act much like kill streaks in Call of Duty. One ability, for example, paints a reticle over enemies when they come within eyesight, allowing players to tap on the screen to unleash a devastating rocket in their direction. For a more brutal touch, one Van-Guard ability gives players control of a double-bladed drone, which can target enemies and lunge at them with a deadly melee attack.
The black market helps to cover narrative holes that may naturally appear in the series by introducing new weaponry and abilities that were not available in the earliest games. From a narrative perspective, Green says, being tied to this purchasable "latest tech from Earth" allows the team the freedom to create content that has yet to be seen.
Controls in Mercenary take some cues from other first-person shooters on the Vita, but offer refinements. You can tap the screen to swap weapons, but still cycle weapons with the face buttons. Tapping the grenade icon will equip it; pushing the shoulder button will throw it. Sprinting can be executed multiple ways: double-tap the rear touch screen or tap the circle button (also used to crouch) while walking to initiate a run. Running and tapping the circle will activate a slide, perfect for rushing between cover.
Killzone's cover system works well here, automatically sticking Danner to object when he's near and enabling him to peek over and snap back to position if things get too hectic. Melee combat has been completely transferred to the touch screen, with arrows leading the way in brutal swipes.
In a mission taking place on the Helghan home world, before the invasion of capital city Pyrrhus, Danner's objective is to gain control of cannons keeping the ISA Forces at bay and turn them on the Helghan battle cruisers. Environments are small and, in this instance, end up collapsing into battle arenas where Helghast forces would continuously pour in. Turn off a shield, enemies pour in; flip a switch, enemies pour in; hack a computer, pour; excitement gained from such objectives, poor.
When you enter an area, it's typically being patrolled by guards. Figuring out how to defeat them is almost a puzzle and it works well. But in many cases during my demo, you may step over an invisible line (or an actual visible trap) and activate a near-infinite well of bad guys that immediately know where you are. Gating these engagements behind scripts mean that combat scenarios will always play out the same way, whereas more dynamic areas are infinitely more interesting. It's a classic issue, and one that Killzone needs desperately to abandon.
Four versus four multiplayer across six maps is also included, allowing players to bring any unlocked or purchased content from the single-player into the online fray. The purpose behind this is to ensure players never have to reset the experience for any reason.
"I play a lot of single-player before I go and play multiplayer and I feel left behind," Green says. "And the game director plays a lot of multiplayer and ends up playing single-player going, 'Why do I have to start with nothing? I've been playing this game for months.'"
Whatever ancient evil Guerrilla Cambridge had to collect souls for in order to get Killzone Mercenary to look as good as it does, it's probably well worth the eternal damnation. But what Mercenary needs now is focus on making enemy engagement more natural, rather than turning on a faucet.
Killzone Mercenary launches exclusively for the PlayStation Vita on September 17.