Preview: Killzone: Mercenary aims to deliver a console experience on the Vita

Despite being out for nearly a year now, the PlayStation Vita still lacks that signature shooter title. As Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies taught us, it's not easy to replicate the console gaming experience on a handheld device -- even with a device as impressive as the Vita. That could all change this September, however, with the release of Killzone: Mercenary.

Developed by Guerilla Cambridge (formerly Sony Cambridge), Killzone: Mercenary is attempting to bridge the gap between console and handheld. Judging from what I saw at a Sony game showcase this week -- which consisted of a brief presentation and some hands-on time with both the game's single- and multiplayer offerings -- I believe there is plenty of reason for Vita owners to be excited.

And it all starts with the series' console roots. The single-player campaign begins just after the conclusion of the original Killzone and Killzone: Liberation. This time, though, you're not playing as an ISA or Helghan soldier. Instead, you're playing as Arran Danner, a hired-gun who is part of the private military corporation Phantom.

Killzone: Mercenary Arran

Danner is not out to fight "the good fight". Rather, he's out to fight the "highest-paid fight." As a mercenary, this allows you to experience both sides of the war, choosing your own way to tackle missions with your own loadout. It's all about the money with Danner. Each contract you complete earns you cash, and the better you play, the higher the payout. Never has the game's motto -- "War is Our Business -- been more true. My only worry is that this lust for money could limite Danner into a one-dimensional character, though it's hard to tell based on a brief hands-on demo.

Upon booting up the single player campaign, I was thrown into what appeared to be an early mission. A brief, but impressive cutscene set up the story which sent Danner to the Helghan homeworld. This contract served as a nice introduction to the game's Vita-specific controls. With the dual analog sticks, I felt right as home as I moved and aimed smoothly throughout the level. Some at the event complained Mercenary felt a little slow and heavy, though I believe this is all personal preference as I enjoyed the realistic feel to it.

Being on the Vita, Mercenary takes full advantage of the system's functionality, though it's not always in the game's best interest. Brutal melee kills are performed by swiping the screen, but require the redundant action of first having to press triangle or the center of the screen. Double tapping the rear touchpad enables a sprint, which is fine when you get used to it, and many of the game's special weapons -- known as Van-Guards -- typically require some sort of touchscreen action. Unfortunately, it looks like Killzone: Mercenary does fall victim to some of the annoying gimmicks, such as having to swipe the touchscreen to simply pull a lever -- I can do without the micromanaging of pulling a simple lever. Also, what should be the fluid act of throwing a grenade first requires you to tap the screen to switch to the explosive and then tap the right shoulder button to throw it. Needless to say, many of the time-consuming actions that required me to press the screen first resulted in my death.

Killzone Mercenary

Graphically, Killzone Mercenary looks and feels like its console counterparts. Running on a form of the Killzone 3 engine, those familiar to the series will easily welcome the dark and gritty environment. And, as I said, with the Vita's impressive capabilities, there is little-to-no lag or frame rate issues.

As mentioned before, Danner is out to fight the highest paid fight, and the game's emphasis on money is immediately apparent as you kill your first enemy. For each kill, you are rewarded with in-game money that you can spend on better weapons. The more impressive the kill (scoring a headshot or performing a "Brutal Melee" attack), the more money you are rewarded with. Just about every action you perform will earn you money, even scouring a soldier's dead body for ammo. Best of all, all of your earnings in single player carry over to multiplayer and vice versa. It's all collected in a seamless bank account that unites both modes.

Speaking of multiplayer, I had a few go-arounds with the game's Mercenary Mode, which is basically an eight player free-for all. We played on Shoreline, a small, multi-tiered map that forced confrontation. At its core, Mercenary Mode is a simple free-for-all deathmatch; although, Killzone: Mercenary does offer a few twists to make the multiplayer experience unique.

Killzone Mercenary gameplay

For instance, it looks like Killzone: Mercenary is ditching the overall leaderboard for a new system that relies on Valor Cards. Basically, this is a system that scores your most recent play using a scale of playing cards - 2 through Ace. The better you play, the higher your Valor Card worth. Valor Cards are dropping upon death, allowing anyone to pick it up. Outside of providing some additional currency, I couldn't see much more of an effect to this system, outside of bragging rights.

Multiplayer is true to the game's emphasis on money. Just like in the single-player mode, cash is earned for all sorts of actions, getting kills, earning kill streaks, picking up Valor Cards, etc. Similarly, the more impressive the kill, the more money. So what is all this money you earn used for?

In the demo, we were introduced to five distinct loadouts, each offering different primary and secondary weapons ranging from pistols to SMGs to assault rights. All of the money earned in the game can be spent through the in-game black market dealer to purchase weapons and upgrades. Additionally, it seems as though this in-game store can be updated on a regular basis to allow for weapon sales.

Killzone Mercenary

On the whole, it looks like Guerilla Cambridge has placed a lot of emphasis on the game's multiplayer component. Killzone: Mercenary offers a up to 4v4 on six maps, and three modes including Warzone, which has you play five consecutive rounds with alternating objectives. Using the Vita's Party app, you'll instantly be able to join friends' games and chat with them in-game or in a lobby.

The fact of the matter is the PlayStation Vita is still looking for its staple shooter. Based on what I've seen so far, Killzone: Mercenary is shaping up to be the kind of game that will make you want to go out and purchase a Vita. I certainly liked what I saw, but there's still plenty of work to be done with the game, especially with streamlining the Vita's functionality. Regardless, Killzone: Mercenary's impressive visuals, fluid gameplay, and full-fledged campaign and multiplayer modes provide a solid foundation.

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