The idea of putting a traditional first-person shooter on a handheld has been one of the golden geese of the last few years, desperately sought after but practically mythological. Prior to the launch of the Vita, the biggest challenge was mimicing the dual-stick control system players are used to on systems with only one stick, leading to a hilarious series of confused and hand-cramping ordeals on both the PSP and Nintendo DS (Metroid Prime: Hunters anyone?) The inclusion of two sticks on the Vita seemed like a shaft of light from the heavens. Would gamers finally be able to play Call of Duty on the toilet?
Well, no. Both of the early attempts, Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Declassified, were sub-par attempts, with Declassified being a straight-up embarassment.
It’s onto this dirty stage that Sony has trotted Killzone: Mercenary, hoping that this new take on the same old song and dance might sate the jaded and rowdy audience of Vita owners clammoring for a good shooter to take on-the-go.
On August 20th, Sony opened up the multiplayer beta of Mercenary for PS+ users, with everybody else getting folded in on the 28th, ahead of the official North American release on September 10th. Having finally freed up some space on my stupidly small 8gb memory card, I downloaded it and gave it a whirl. Here are some of my impressions.
(I’ve chosen to skip over the basics like graphics, framerate, and basic game systems. It runs well, is pretty, and generally has the same advancement system you’ve seen in every FPS since Modern Warfare. If you want more basic information, there’s a great post on the EU PS blog outlining them.)
Risk vs. Reward
When you first start playing Mercenary, you’re given a Valor card: the Joker. After a day, you’re given a card based on your performance compared to the entire population, which resets every day. If you’re doing well, it’ll climb all the way to the top rank, the Ace. Not having a great day? You might end up somewhere near the bottom. The suit of your card is determined by your choice of weapon, with assault rifles giving you a Clubs card, Spades for sniper rifles, and so on. While it doesn’t serve as a formal ranking system (which Mercenary still has) it’s an interesting snapshot of how a player’s doing that feeds into the reward system of the game.
Every time you kill someone, their Valor card drops on top of their body, providing whoever picks it up with an extra reward based on the value of it. If you take out a high value target, expect a big payout once you nab their card. You can even collect the cards, building up a unique stash at the end of each match. If you happen to collect a poker hand, you’ll even get a massive payout, adding an interesting veneer of unofficial bounty hunting to the game. Going for a flush of Spades? Better hunt down that jerk in the sniper’s nest.
Think the Kill Confirmed mode introduced in Modern Warfare 3, but applied to the entire game and teased out a little more.
Because you get the most bonuses from actually running over and picking up the card that falls directly on top of the enemy, there’s a strong emphasis on close quarters skirmishes, which plays to the strengths of the smaller maps and less robust engine. If you play the long game, you may generally be more effective, but you’ll be losing out on the cash.
At the same time, because the card’s value is based on the performance of the player it belongs to, there’s added value for vengeance. If you’re like me and find yourself pursuing vendettas in multiplayer matches, the valor card system will reward your determination with bonus cash, especially if you’re hunting down a worthy target.
The game’s melee attacks, which are referred to as BRUTAL melee attacks, have a similarly cathartic feel to them, tied into the entire risk vs. reward system of the game. If you sneak up on a guy, you engage a lengthy animation that involves you spinning them around, knocking them to the ground, and then slowly going to work on them with your knife, something that’s very likely going to get interrupted by a shotgun blast to the face. It’s a welcome change from the psychopathic knife dances of CoD, where certain perk loudouts created whirling dervishes of death on the battlefield. The weightiness of the melee kills makes each successful one feel all that more wonderful, a very deliberate middle finger from you to the victim, augmented by the judicious use of context sensitive touch screen swipes in order to pull it off.
Keep Your Grubby Hands Off My Screen
Thankfully we’re entering the phase in Vita development where touch screen integration is becoming a fun toy rather than a requirement. Unlike Resistance: Burning Skies, the touch screen is only necessary for a few tasks in Mercenary, such as changing sniper scope zoom levels or activating a BRUTAL melee attack through context sensitive swipes. Additionally, if you interact with one of the VAN-Guard drop pods for a one-time use combat boost, you’ll need to solve a very simple puzzle by tapping on an icon. Everything else is bound to the buttons and d-pad, with touchscreen options available but not required.
That said, the icons for weapon swapping on the right side of the screen are about the same distance from the thumbstick as the actual buttons, so I found myself defaulting to them more often than those on the crowded face of the Vita. You can tap the back screen to sprint or crouch, which is a decent replacement for the L3/R3 click functionality that’s lost on the Vita. You don’t have to take your fingers off the stick, but you can if you want to.
It’s this willingness to concede to the needs of the hardcore shooter community that really speak to the potential Mercenary has to succeed as a handheld FPS. Remember, this is the same group of people that still play Counter-strike 1.6 over the countless upgrades and sequels because they just like the feel of it, so it’s much more about the little details than the broad strokes for them. Something as simple as saying “we get it, touch screen controls are lame, you can use the buttons.” might be enough to earn the goodwill of a notoriously fickle playerbase.
Playing to the Platform
While the Killzone games are generally known for their weightiness, Mercenary eschews that for the more familiar run-and-gun skirmish model popularized by Call of Duty. This isn’t a game like Battlefield 3, where setting up a sniper’s nest with a spotter can lead to a soaring kill count, you want to stay on the move as much as possible.
It’s a smart choice that takes the limitations of the hardware into account. With small 4v4 maps, even one person removing themselves from the action in the name of tactics can slow down the pace to a crawl, so it’s nice to see the deliberate change in tone to address that.
Another brilliant move by Guerilla Cambridge is the design of the models. Taking the Vita’s tiny screen into consideration, they played up the well-known glowing visors of the Killzone series, making spotting enemies much easier among the game’s slightly muddy (although not especially so for the system) textures and models. Picking out targets is as easy as pointing your trigger towards to the glowing red or green helmet, no eye strain required.
The fact that players are so easy to pick out among the environments, as well as the lack of a prone position, really downplay the plodding sniper game that can ruin the breakneck pacing of a skirmish shooter. There’s no hiding when you’ve got a bright red spotlight attached to your face, so it’s in your best interest to keep moving.
Even after only a few matches, Killzone: Mercenary is showing its potential to be the Vita’s defining handheld shooter. It’s willingness to concede to the needs and desires of its playerbase while adding an interesting twist to the currency-based progression system currently in vogue among its peers shows that Guerilla Cambridge is paying attention.
Whether that pays off in the long run may have more to do with the strength of the Killzone name and the need for a shooter on the Vita more than the actual quality of the title. With the upcoming PS4 launch title Killzone: Shadowfall building buzz about the franchise and the potential for a boom in Vita ownership among PS4 early adopters, there’s a good chance Mercenary might step in and do what neither Burning Skies nor Declassified could: create a fun and engaging competitive shooter on a portable system.