The world of Killzone: Mercenary is a violent one, full of unlikeable people. War is a constant, with the glowy-eyed Helghast slaughtering the ostensibly-good ISA (who basically chased them onto the apocalyptic, toxic planet Helghan in the first place) and vice versa, military and political leaders with hidden personal agendas, and weapons dealers who want to keep war going as long as possible to maximize sales. Good times.
You play as Arran Danner, a mute mercenary. From the first time you interrogate a Helghast, beating him until he gives you information, and then slitting his throat or breaking his neck after getting whatever information he had to offer, you might not Arran very much either. All you really know about him is that he’s willing to kill for anyone willing to pay and the closest thing he has to a friend is BlackJack, a black-market arms dealer who has somehow set up weapons stockpiles all over Helghan.
While this setup might not sound too welcoming or friendly, it provides you with ample opportunity to shoot, stab, explode, and otherwise end people in violent ways. And that’s where things get fun.
In the midst of all the grisly violence and depressing drama, there’s a strangely cheerful and arcadey feedback loop: kill an enemy, get some money, buy a new toy that allows you to kill an enemy in a new way that rewards you with more money. Each time you do something that gets you a bit of cash, the name of whatever task you’ve accomplished appears onscreen with a friendly little “bleep” and the amount you’ve earned.
Unlike most FPSes, you can’t use enemy weapons. Kill an enemy and they’ll just drop (nearly) universal ammo, which means your hard-earned money on upgrading your arsenal. You get one primary weapon, one secondary weapon, one type of grenade, one type of body armor, and one Van-Guard.
While most of these are pretty self-explanatory, the Van-Guard is sort of a wildcard. Each one is a piece of special technology that gives Danner an extra little edge in battle. The Porcupine gives you shoulder-mounted, touchscreen-controlled homing missiles that are really handy for clearing out drop ships before their troops can hit the ground. The Mantys Engine is a silent, flying drone you control remotely that will puncture the head of whoever you sneak up on with its robotic pincers. Carapace generates a shield that blocks bullets coming from the direction you’re facing, but drops it for a while if you start shooting. It also comes stored in a tiny little package, so activating it looks pretty neat… and it’s always nice to have a little bit more breathing room while under fire.
The sheer amount of Blackjack weapon caches in each level (or “contract” as the game calls them) allows you to customize yourself for each different room as long as you have the cash, and that makes the game a lot more interesting. While you could destroy everyone in the room in a gory firefight, why not buy a silenced weapon to take out the security cameras, use the Mantys Engine to clear the room of most of the guards, interrogate the higher-ranked soldier to get one of the collectible pieces of information, and grab an extra 500 dollars as a stealth bonus?
On that note, it’s pretty nice that the game presents stealth as a legitimate option most of the time, too…
That customization-heavy, one-toybox-per-room structure makes Mercenary a good fit for Vita. Each room in a contract feels like a distinct event. Sure, you can muscle your way through everything if you want, but each room seems to ask something different of the player, and answering that request is rewarding. For instance, you might be able to crawl through underground tunnels to flank your enemies in one area, but in the next might have you ziplining over an occupied skybridge (or knifing your way through it), and finding a proper method and loadout for each situation just feels good.
One of my favorite moments came a fight with a man in a giant mech suit that had me ducking through what little cover an embassy garden provided me from his missiles. After a couple of failed attempts with my go-to machine gun, I decided to burn the rest of my cash to take a chance on an armor-piercing sniper rifle. When coupled with the rocket launcher I had as my secondary weapon, I felt like I’d found the key to beating him. What could have been a slog against a bullet sponge (like the last fight in the game, unfortunately), turned into a game of cat and mouse. I’d pop out of cover to take whatever shots I could at him before running or sliding over to someplace his bullets couldn’t reach. I never expected that being able to experiement with my equipment so easily would bring out the fun in an FPS boss…
Speaking of surprises, while I didn’t like the majority of the people in the game, the way that the story was told drew me in. So many shooters are focused on the fact that you’re one guy ending the war or saving the world, it was interesting that this game seemed to be set alongside bigger, more significant wartime events. I just wish the game was willing to maintain the smaller scale narratively instead of ultimately making your job one of interplanetary significance. Honestly, when I felt like I was a small part of a bigger event, it made the war in question feel bigger, and made me want to try the other Killzone games.
It was nice to play a game about war that had you fight on both sides of a conflict, too. Surprisingly, I ended up empathizing more with the Helghast than I did the ISA. While both are willing to do terrible things, it’s kind of cool that you end up in direct communication with (and reading in-character intel from) both sides, and interesting to hear how inhumanely they refer to one another. Although the general unlikeability of the characters put me off at first, I was hooked by about the midway point.
Food for Thought:
1. Although the missions are really well structured for playing in bursts, if you quit the game or return to the main menu, you’ve got to start at the very beginning of whatever (usually 20 or more minute) contract you’ve been playing. The checkpoints don’t count as saves. This was something of an unpleasant surprise.
2. I really like the way Killzone Mercenary uses the touchscreen. They basically provide two extra buttons to the right and left of the d-pad and square buttons respectively. It didn’t take long to adapt, and I never felt like my thumbs were getting in the way or that I lost anything by not having L2 and R2 buttons. Tracing a line along an enemy to melee them after initiating melee with triangle felt a bit less natural, but I got used to it by the end.