The best FPS on the Vita has a lot going for it, but leaves room for improvement.
Back in July, I wrote up a detailed breakdown of the Killzone Mercenary (KZM) single player beta I was provided. In the last week, I have been playing the final retail build and have been largely impressed. I began with the campaign, which puts you in the boots of Adrian Danner, former soldier turned merc. You are part of the Phantom Talon Corporation and take on high value missions for the top bidder. You're not interested in helping the ISA defeat the Helghast nor vice versa -- you're happy to play both sides as long as the money's good and the war is prolonged. Your partner in crime and the leader of the merc outfit is Benoit, and his lust for money is readily apparent from the opening mission briefing.
What really intrigued me about the concept for KZM's campaign is that you aren't aligned with either the ISA or Helghast in their seemingly endless war. I expected to be able to pick and choose contracts from either side and even steer the outcome of the war, or at least the story, with the choices I made. Unfortunately, none of that holds true -- there are nine missions, unlocked chronologically, and there's just one story. Despite this disappointment, the campaign was interesting and fun. The story, while partially predictable, had several interesting twists. After a few missions to help the ISA regain their composure against the Helghast onslaught, the plot changes, and you find yourself gunning down ISA soldiers. All the while, the fate of a bioweapon and a young boy caught in the middle rests in your hands. Both sides want you to deliver the goods as it would almost certainly give them the power to defeat the other. Rather than being on the "good" side, it's pretty cool playing right down the middle.
Fortunately, playing Killzone on the Vita is a treat. Guerilla Cambridge did a great job of bringing the FPS action to the handheld, and obviously a big reason this works is the dual analog sticks that control motion and view. You can enable motion or tilt aiming too, but, I didn't even bother -- using L2 sighting down works as good as always. You can also use the rear touchpad to sprint, although I found just tapping Circle while walking to be more reliable. There are several front touchscreen controls however, and these work very well. These include melee encounters, whereby you either tap the icon or (better yet) press Triangle to start a melee quick time event. For the melee QTE, you simply (and very quickly) draw a line that matches what appears on screen. If you're interrogating an officer, you'll have to do this a few times to get that Intel. Touch controls are also employed in the hacking mini-game which is surprisingly addictive and challenging at times. In it, you are presented with a series of polygons that are partially filled in with triangles. You then have six sets of similar polygons with triangles in them. The idea is to match the polygons up to eliminate all triangles. If you make a mistake, five seconds are knocked off of the clock. Hacking is used to progress story events and to unlock Intel. Front screen touch controls are also used to arm bombs with a simple twist motion, moving levers, and for tapping to target enemies with certain VAN-Guard devices.
A key component of KZM is money. Money is earned with every kill, with different amounts for different methods and enemy types. You also earn money from intel collection and completing missions, and more importantly money can be earned in the campaign or in multiplayer and that amount is available in whichever mode you play next. Money is required to use the Blackjack crates that are available in parts of each level, both in single player and multiplayer. Blackjack is a mysterious entity that is happy to sell you everything from the awesome Sky Fury VAN-Guard device to simple ammo refills. Players can purchase as much as they can afford, but your loadouts will always consist of a primary and secondary weapon, armor, grenade, and a VAN-Guard device. Primary weapons include the classic M82 assault rifle as well as sniper rifles, and secondary weapons included silenced arms as well as shotguns and explosives. Grenade types include frag, gas, pyro, and flash, and there are a few types of armor as well with different ballistic, mobility, and noise-making properties. VAN-Guard devices include some really cool stuff like the Sky Fury, which gives you a eye in the sky and the ability to drop ion cannon blasts from above. The Vultur shows you enemy positions through walls and floors, it's almost like cheating if you're playing 1v1 multiplayer. Other abilities include the Porcupine which fires multiple small rockets, the Ghost which projects a hologram, and a personal shield that moves with you. All VAN-Guard abilities have a lengthy recharge timer, although you can spend a good chunk of change at a Blackjack site to recharge it immediately.
Honestly, the amount of choice in weapons and VAN-Guard devices wasn't as useful as you might think. For the entire campaign, I used either the M82 or the Sta52 as my primary, and switched between a silenced pistol, a full auto shotgun, and ultimately a grenade launcher for secondary. For grenades, while I purchased three of the five available, the pyro ones turned out to be the most useful, and the Sky Fury VAN-Guard device (which isn't always useable due to jamming and being indoors) was always my choice for that category. That said, once you clear a mission you can go back and play it again in one of four different ways -- Primary, (the default, no conditions, original way), Precision, Covert, or Demolition. Precision play introduces criteria based on time, like completing the mission in x number of minutes or destroying both AA guns within five minutes of each other. In Covert mode, you're tasked with doing things like getting kills with the silenced weapons, avoiding setting off proximity mines, and do at least part of the mission in stealth. Finally with Demolition, it's all about bringing the pain with explosives. These alternate ways of replaying the missions is a great way to extend the otherwise short campaign (about 5.5 hours on Normal difficulty), and to earn extra money to use in single or multiplayer. You can also replay missions with a different difficulty setting, and, each mission has six pieces of Intel to collect. Intel can only be acquired in two ways: finding and hacking an intel terminal, or sneaking up on Helghast officer and Interrogating them. Both of these are more interactive and interesting than just stumbling upon an audio log or something, so I give the devs credit there.
Collecting Intel is but one of many different types of Medals you can earn. Stats are tracked in the campaign and in multiplayer, and they go towards a variety of categories including Weapon, Equipment, VAN-Guard, Multiplayer, Misc, and Mission. You can earn a Bronze medal by getting twenty-five kills with a certain weapon, for example. There are medals for doing so many Mercy kills (whereby an enemy is injured and unable to fight back, and you kill them before the bleed out), hacking x number of intel terminals, getting so many kills on moving targets, etc. There are medals available for every mission and multiplayer mode, too. For completionists, it's a pretty extensive list of accomplishments to trudge through, but I don't think they'll mean much to the average player. Perhaps more compelling to the average and hardcore player is the Valor Card system. Based on a standard deck of fifty-two cards, your Valor Card changes daily based on your ability to make money -- in other words, your KD ratio (as you lose money in the campaign for each death). Oh, you also have a typical ranking system based on XP, too. Anyway, Valor Cards are dropped by fallen enemies, although they disappear before long. In one of the Career Data screens, you can view all of the unique Valor Cards you have collected, which is a pretty cool way to see what levels of players you have gone up against online. If you can make certain 'hands' of cards, like royal flushes and the like, you earn significant cash bonuses.
Speaking of online, the community right now is obviously still in its infancy. The game doesn't street until the tenth, but there were several hundred media folks who got early access. Still, I had some difficulty in finding people to play online, but what matches I did play worked fine, although I never managed to get a full eight player game going. I also found it odd that I couldn't browse available games -- you can only host a new game that's either public or private, or start a game with your Party members. There is not ability, at least at this time, to search for games. Plus, if you start a game, you have to wait for at least one player to pop up for at least a moment before you can actually leave the lobby area. Worst yet, it doesn't appear that there is any kind of "Ready" feature -- so you have to wait two minutes for the countdown timer to expire before the map loads, and then another ten seconds or so for actual "deployment." Combined, this adds a lot of extra, unnecessary delay. It's odd to me that players can't actually configure a match themselves, either -- time limits and game types are already pre-set and I didn't see any way to pick the map.
Warzone is the deepest team based mode available, and its matches are based upon rotating modes of play that change every few minutes. These include: Bounty Hunter, where each team tries to collect the most Valor Cards from fallen enemies -- Hacker, where teams have to locate and secure VAN-Guard capsules -- Interrogator where you beat info out of your foes, and Body Count, which is about killing the opposition more than they kill you. Guerilla Warfare takes the concept of Body Count and puts a ten minute timer and forty kill count max on the action. Finally, Mercenary Warfare is a free-for-all deathmatch that lasts ten minutes and the top three killers get a bonus payment. None of these modes are exactly earth-shattering, but they're enjoyable. The maps, based at least loosely off of areas in the campaign, are well designed and feature a good blend of heights, open areas, and close quarters. The semi-random VAN-Guard capsule drops are great in that when those suckers drop, you can almost rest assured everyone is going to head that way, creating for some pretty intense exchanges. Whether or not the multiplayer community builds up and maintains itself post-launch will be interesting to see. I'm not aware of any planned DLC, but it could benefit from more maps. Also, a massive 1.2GB patch was just released that was full of general stability fixes. I spent most of my time in the campaign where I didn't experience any stability or performance issues at all, so hopefully this gigantic patch fixes up multiplayer lag and disconnects that some people are reporting.
Moving on, the presentation quality is outstanding. Graphically, it feels like I'm playing a PS3 game on a smaller screen. The game looks amazing and runs smoothly, and the art direction was solid, giving players reason to stop and look around at the environment and backgrounds. I think it would have been wise to give the protagonist a face and a voice to go along with his name, though. I thought the mission briefings were very nicely done thanks to the use of multiple small windows with wire-mesh and satellite imagery and cool tech stuff like that. Voiceovers and effects are good too, with the lead Helghast roles sounding the best. Fast load times and a easy-to-navigate menu are also pluses.
To the summary...