Everybody has a game or series that they just don't quite quite "get", something they have difficulty deciphering just what the fuss is all about. For me one of those franchises is the PlayStation exclusive first person shooter Killzone and, it seems I'm not alone in that view. I've always admired its universe, packed with striking World War 2 similarities and the powerful representation of a corrupt evil dictatorship lording over a civilization populated entirely by series antagonists the terrifying Helghast adorned in their instantly recognizedisable orange eyed uniforms. Regardless of my passion for the world developers Guerrilla Games had built the heavy trudging gameplay and somewhat stiff shooting mechanics failed to keep me invested for anything more than passing encounters with the series.
With that in mind it's unusual that like many PlayStation Vita owners I find myself eagerly anticipating the latest series entry Killzone: Mercenary. For the first time players will be able to take a full Killzone first person shooter experience on the go complete with a full deep competitive online mode. Killzone isn't the first FPS to come to Vita, the Sony owned Resistance series and Activision's colossal Call of Duty were both previously been released onto the hardware back in 2012 to a tepid response from fans and critics alike; both developed by the same company – Nihilistic Software. Owners of the powerhouse portable are hoping that it's Guerrilla Cambridge's first go at Killzone that will prove to be Vita's FPS savior and buck the genres trend of disappointment on the portable. Sony seems confident in the game as PlayStation Plus subscribers were treated to an open beta of the online multiplayer earlier last week which I've spent some time with.
Allow me to start my impressions by saying how amazed I am that the 4v4 rounds run incredibly smoothly with little to no lag issues, through my time playing I've never seen a player disconnect once in play. The highest praise which I can impart upon Killzone Mercenary is how perfectly it emulates Killzone 3's gameplay; the engine has been ported to the Vita so sublimely it replicates the previous PS3 instalment to such a degree it's like playing a console quality game in the palm of your hand. Even with my qualms over previous entries gameplay I thoroughly enjoyed every round I played. Without a shadow of doubt if the beta is any indication Killzone could very easily be the FPS Vita has been waiting for.
Killzone Mercenary bears a stronger visual and gameplay resemblance to its predecessors than it does to upcoming PS4 launch title Killzone: Shadowfall. Locations accessible by players in the beta are awash with the series traditional war torn brown and gray palette. The controls are much tighter than expected considering the jump to a handheld; There is a slight adjustment period but players should acclimatise fairly quickly after which both aiming and movement feel responsive and precise. Mercenary controls undoubtedly and surprisingly better than any previous portable FPS thanks to the Vita's twin thumb sticks and happily feels as comfortable as playing on a home console like the PS3. Touch screen functionality is present but thankfully uninvasive – most touch inputs are also mapped to a button press allowing players to choose which they prefer. Only the intuitive knife kill inputs require swiping the touch screen, missing these touch QTE's allows enemies to counter or escape the attack adding extra level of skill to actions, whether this will simply become an annoyance however remains to be seen.
As previously stated all beta activity is restricted to one map named Shoreline that draws heavy inspiration from locales of Killzone past, it hasn't yet been announced how many maps will feature in the full retail release. Shoreline is well constructed with blend of sub terrain tunnels, open plan arenas and some strategic high ground for snipers – perfect for the 4v4 matches the multiplayer revolves around. Once the released the game will feature three competitive online modes: Mercenary Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare and Warzone – Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Objectives respectively. For the purpose of beta players are restricted to Warzone only. Within Warzone the two rival factions, ISA and Helghast, face off against one another attempting to fulfill alternatives objectives before their rivals in order to score points.
Warzone matches consist of five rounds featuring four different types of alternating objective. The round kicks off with the first of the five objectives named bounty. In bounty players must face off against each other like a traditional deathmatch, though unlike a traditional deathmach players must also collect the bounty card rivals drop upon their defeat, meaning that sniping won't do much good unless you can swoop in to collect the reward . In addition to collecting defeated foes bounty card if team mates are quick enough they jump to the rescue and save a deceased ally's card before the opposing forces claim the kill. The objective is quick paced and engaging, it sets up the rest of the match perfectly guiding players to work as a team to ensure the successful collection of cards.
Next up on the playlist is hacker, this objective type pops up in list twice as both the second and fourth rounds. In this mode VAN-guard capsules are dropped onto the map, within these capsules are special temporary power ups, players who hack them are randomly assigned a boon, which include but aren't limited to air-to-surface missiles, a personal stealth generator and an arc launcher that zaps foes in close proximity into submission. Claiming the booty within these capsules takes a good amount of teamwork as hacking one requires the hacker to take part in a mini game of matching symbols, whilst doing so they become vulnerable to fire becoming reliant on allies to cover them. The mini game is simple enough to be an intuitive twist on the usual opening animation and timer without becoming a nuisance; additionally rewards skilled players who will be able to claim the prizes with more ease.
Smack in the middle at round three is interrogation. The goal in interrogation is to sneak up on rivals and dispatch them using Mercenary's violent knife attacks. These strikes use the previously mentioned touch screen QTE's making killing a group of foes in quick succession impossible, instead they need to be isolated; picked off one at a time. The round makes for an exciting diversion from the wonderful gun play forcing combatants to switch up tactics to get the drop on foes. This is the lowest scoring round in the stack of challenges as in many games I played combatants continued to simply shoot each other rather than attempting to interrogate with knife kills making point scoring difficult.
After a fourth round consisting of another go at hacker players are treated to a more traditional closing round – body count. With body count the teams are pitted against each other within normal team death match rules, points are awarded to each side whenever a rival combatant is slain by an ally. The mode does not take much more describing than that and is a delightful way to close the mayhem. Since most players seem to play this way 90% of the time it's where the points are made up and losing teams can make miraculous come backs. Overall the Warzone mode is a good laugh and strong indicator of the strength of Killzones gameplay. The final round body count simply makes me excited to play a standard team deathmatch.
Like most online shooting titles every "positive" action awards players with experience, actions like: kills, head shots, picking up ammo and completing objectives etc. Experience in Killzone also doubles as credits, the in game currency used to buy new weapons, armor and items that help tailor your character to your preferred play style. When the game launches actions from the single player will also allow the collection of credits adding a cross mode value to the currency giving player a choice of how they earn. Online the credit approach is a friendly system that allows players to advance along the paths they desire rather than a pre-determined system that locks players out of upgrades depending on their level. Speaking of which.
Although players are assigned ranks and levels in a traditional sense Killzone also features an additional indicator of skill. Remember the bounty cards that need to be collected in the first round of the Warzone? Well these are tailored to represent players skill level combined with their play style. Each card is represented by a card from a traditional deck, players earn a rank from 2 to Ace depending on how much money they earned the previous day, the more credits earned the higher the representation. The suit is awarded depending on which weapons players scored the most kills with the previous day. Collecting the cards earns players awards and gives them incentive to kill as many types of players to collect their cards as possible. Additionally the card is a better indicator of current skill than a level.
In the end the small slice on offer in Killzone Mercenary's beta exudes hope for the title, the fact Sony allowed the game to go to open beta a few weeks before launch should be a strong indicator that they feel confident; with good reason. What's available to play is a well-polished tightly controlled engrossing multiplayer experience littered with a good variety of exciting game modes. The unique bounty card system feels right at home on a portable system where players may not get a chance to play every single day. I was a Killzone fan going to Mercury but it's slick fun gameplay won me over now I'm eagerly awaiting the release. Open Beta is now available for all Vita owners who want to check it out. Check back soon for a full review.