The PS Vita should have been the ultimate portable system for first-person shooters. It feels weird to be talking in past tense about a system that's only been out for a year, but at the same time it sometimes seems like it's already too late. Sony's had two chances, with both Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified, and both games turned out disappointing. Declassified was by all accounts a train wreck.
So my question going into a hands-on preview with Killzone: Mercenary last night was simple: what makes this any different?
I asked the game's director, Mathijs de Jonge, who cited a combination of the right franchise and the right amount of time. It's been in development for years, which has given Guerilla the time they needed to fully utilize the Killzone 3 engine on Vita. Plus, elements like gyroscope-controlled sniper rifle scopes, which could seem out of place, translated directly from the core console games Killzone 2 and Killzone 3, which allowed players to aim using the accelerometers in their PS3 controllers.
So how does it all feel? Well, it's fine. It's too early and, frankly, there wasn't enough gameplay to determine whether Killzone: Mercenary will be the killer shooter that Vita fans have wanted. I played a brief 15 or 20-minute single-player level, plus a few rounds of six-player multiplayer (Mercenary supports up to eight players per match).
Multiplayer featured a number of loadouts to choose from, my favorite being a heavy with a large-magazine LMG and a shotgun for backup. That shotgun was killer for up-close combat, but a slow firing rate and long reload times on both weapons tempered that raw power.
The single-player level opened with an exciting sky-dive behind enemy lines, though with limited controls it felt more like a cut scene. I infiltrated a control center and hacked the enemy's massive anti-air turrets, defending various structures as waves of Helghans fell to my bullets.
Both modes share a lot, most importantly currency. Every kill and action you take in Killzone: Mercenary earns you money, which can then be put toward guns, equipment and upgrades for your custom loadouts in both single- and multiplayer. The cash pool, shared throughout both modes, is essentially the same system you'll find in other shooters, only thinly veiled by a simple narrative excuse—you're a mercenary in this Killzone game, and your fee improves with your performance.
The gameplay itself feels solid. Like the other Killzone games, it's not the most fast-paced shooter. But the controls work well, despite some overused touch-screen melee commands and one button being used for cover, crouching, sliding, and sprinting. That takes some getting used to.
There are some great applications of the Vita's unique characteristics, though—the Porcupine, for example, is a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher that, once charged, fires where you aim by tapping on the touchscreen. You keep your other weapon equipped, so the touchscreen use simply complements whatever else you're already doing.
On top of that, the game looks great, despite its typical grey-brown aesthetic. With everything it's got going on visually it's easily the most graphically advanced Vita game yet. Hopefully the rest of the game stands up to long-term scrutiny; with just these small snippets of gameplay it was impossible to tell, but at least Killzone: Mercenary has potential.