Money Over Everything: Killzone Mercenary [Review]

Is Killzone Mercenary Vita's killer app?

Killzone: Mercenary

When I play a portable game from a well know series like Killzone I usually expect it to be a “lite” version of what you would find on a console – Subpar AI, “meh” level design, etc.  I haven’t played a Killzone game since the first one so I can’t compare it to modern games in the series, but if Killzone Mercenary is the lite version of what people have been playing on console then I have truly been missing out.

Killzone Mercenary feels like anything but a lite version of any shooter.  From a visual perspective it looks awesome.  With the exception of the effect you see when enemies are on fire (which is a little cloudy), the game looks phenomenal.  When I previewed the game the only level that was available was one where I had to take control of anti-air batteries on the Helghan homeworld and turn them on the Helghast.  This had a pretty dark feel to it – very cold, with steel all over the place, and grim dark skies.  I thought this would reflect the overall look of the game because I knew most of it would take place on the Helghan homeworld.  Even though I thought it looked good, I’m glad I was wrong.

You do a few missions on Vekta, a world held by the ISA, and that place looks very different.  Even though the Helghan are attacking and you can definitely see the effects of that, the area still feels like a vibrant and bustling city (when the Helghan aren’t attacking that is).  It’s what I would imagine a city of a prosperous future would look like, and when you compare it to the locations on the Helghan homeworld it helps to visually demonstrate the difference between the two societies.  On the Helghan homeworld, however, the scenery isn’t all of the same.  While the overall theme felt the same, when you switch locations while on the Helghan homeworld there is a noticeable difference in how it looks.  The game’s scenery may all not be beautiful, but it definitely helps set the tone for the game.

One thing that surprised me in the preview was how flexible the gameplay was, and it became even more flexible in the full release.  If you want to you can you can push forward, guns blazing.  This attracts more enemies to you, but if you’re looking to have fun gun fights I wouldn’t call this a penalty.  On the flip side of that you can play stealthy – sneaking behind enemies, taking them out with silenced weapons, and using various paths and hatches to move about the level undetected.

Killzone: Mercenary

Sound is a factor in this game, so if you are trying to play it stealth you need to keep it quiet.  Walking quickly, running, shooting, and even jumping are enough to alert an enemy to your presence.  In one particular instance I was in the ceiling of a research lab, planning my attack so I could wipe out the opposition quietly.  I jumped over a beam and that was more than enough to put the guards on alert.  It’s not like you need to be very close to an enemy to draw their attention – their range of hearing is fair, but goes pretty far.  Stealth play seems rather easy at first, but later on things become much more difficult as you try to take out an enemy without other enemies seeing you.

If you decide to play loud it brings out other great attributes of Killzone Mercenary like AI and level design.  I’m not going to tell you these are the smartest soldiers in video game history, but they flank, create crossfire, and have good accuracy.  In many shooters you get so used to enemies wasting most of their bullets on the air around you, but here if you stay out in the open for too long you’ll start getting pelted.  While there are quite a few waist-high barricades and various other objects available for you to use as cover, thinking you’re going to play a game of whack-a-mole with your enemies would be the wrong idea.

If you stay in any area for too long you should expect to see a grenade (or a few) coming your way to flush you out.  On top of that, enemies love setting up crossfire and flanking.  The thing that makes flanking interesting in this game is that the levels aren’t just boxes where you are having shootouts across the room.  They are designed in such a way that you can approach your enemies from multiple angles and directions, but at the same time, so can they.  It’s not uncommon to have enemies attempting to suppress you from a distance, while enemies with stronger, shorter range weapons push forward from the side and try to get the drop on you (And that’s when there is only one level to the area).

Many of the areas have sections above or below for enemies to take positions and make gun fights more interesting.  Think you have yourself covered from the enemies?  Think again when a sniper pops out a floor above you.  It’s difficult to cover all of the angles in many of the areas, but it makes for some interesting game play.  I also liked the fact that the enemies weren’t all-knowing.  If you managed to duck out of sight and they couldn’t’ track you, they would either look for you, or apply pressure in the last place they saw you.  This makes it so you can still get the drop on enemies even during a gun fight.

Killzone: Mercenary

While the level design is ultimately linear, there are multiple pathways you can take to reach your final objective; pathways that could greatly change your experience in these levels.  Some pathways take you to areas where stealth is more of an advantage, and other take you through areas that put you head-to-head with enemies.  This is where exploring levels can be rewarding, as I found several pathways or alternate entrances to areas by poking around a bit.  I remember a time when I had to go through a lab filled with enemies, but I found an alternate entrance which led me to the rafters above the enemies – allowing me a chance to get the drop on them.

Exploring also gives you a chance to find more intel; there are six pieces of intel you can gather in each level which gives you a bit more background story.  You find out more about the ISA and Helghast, but also may find out more about Blackjack — an arms dealer that keeps you supplied throughout the game.  Blackjack stations are common throughout your entire play-through, and there you can resupply your current weapons and buy new weapons.

The weapon selection is not too large, but is sizable.  You can choose guns like assault rifles, SMGs, LMGs, and sniper rifles for your primary and pistols and shotguns for your secondary weapon.  Most weapons are loud, but there is a selection of silenced weapons as well for those who like to play stealth.  You can also purchase and switch between Vanguard Systems here.  Vanguard Systems are what you would call your “special ability” in this game.  It can range from having a cloak, to deploying a stealth killing robot, or even having shoulder mounted missiles.  Vanguard Systems drain over time or through use depending on which one you use, and can be recharged by killing enemies and picking up their ammo.   Once I got settled in with a group of weapons I really didn’t see the need to switch from them.  Until I started the multiplayer, that is.

All money earned (by completing objectives, killing enemies, picking up items, etc) and weapons purchased work in single and multiplayer.  So if you’ve played through the single player before the multiplayer, you should either already have a nice arsenal of weapons or at least have the money to buy a decent set of weapons and armor.  There is a deathmatch, team deathmatch, and objective based mode.  The great level design that is used in the single player can also be seen in the multiplayer, as most of the maps you play are areas of the game you’ve seen before.  Match making was fast and the netcode was smooth.  All of this combines to make a great multiplayer experience, one that I had a fun time playing.  That says a lot, considering I try to stay away from console shooter multiplayer like the plague.

After playing Killzone Mercenary I can honestly say that it is the best game I have played on the Vita.  It’s also the first game that I feel has really brought the FULL console experience to a mobile platform.  Killzone Mercenary could easily be a PS3 title, but I’m glad they gave me a reason to pull out my Vita again.  As someone who hasn’t played a Killzone game since the original, Killzone Mercenary has sparked my interest in the series, and now I look forward to checking out the rest of the games.  If anyone is looking for an example of how to make games on the Vita, Killzone Mercenary can provide a lesson or two.

Jarret Redding
Jarret Redding
Jarret Redding

Executive Director

Jarret is Executive Director as well as one of the founding members of Mash Those Buttons. He plays all types of games, but tends to lean more toward FPS, Stealth, and Combat games.

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