Killzone has always been the Ryan Reynolds of video games: Attractive and competent, but also bland and inexplicably prolific. You don't have to know much about the series, though, to realize what developer Guerrilla Games aspires to.
Just a few minutes into Mercenary, your hacker pal successfully breaks into a network and utters the nearly reflexive response, "I'm in." And not long after that, swarms of approaching enemies provoke the ubiquitous cry of "We've got company!" In just 15 minutes, my first Killzone experience told me all I needed to know: This game is going to be dumb.
Killzone Mercenary approaches the series' long-standing conflict between the ISA (the goodies) and Helghast forces (the baddies) from an outsider's perspective; the Gordon Freeman-style blank-slate protagonist Arran Danner acts as the titular merc and a savvy opportunist looking to line his pockets via some very dirty jobs. Unfortunately, this point of view only highlights the series' cartoonishly black-and-white morality, despite Guerilla Games' attempt to add some nuance and tackle the ambiguities of war. That said, it's difficult for any story to have subtleties when the antagonists have glowing red eyes, British accents, and the word "hell" in their name. Even Star Wars didn't go that far.
I get the feeling that Killzone Mercenary is meant to appeal to an outdated mindset, one Sony also employed during the PSP era: That "console-style" experiences are, somehow, inherently superior. While the Vita certainly lords over the 3DS in terms of pure horsepower, Nintendo always sought to redefine portable games as different from their console brothers, but still just as good. Mercenary reminds me a lot of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, at least in terms of its developers' insecurity with working on a handheld platform; the sheer spectacle of the game screams, "Look! Look what we did on this small screen! Aren't you impressed?" Unfortunately, the novelty of seeing PS3-level graphics rendered in real-time between your thumbs soon wears off as soon as Mercenary makes its by-the-numbers approach apparent.
As a reviewer, my job has rarely been easier: If you've played any FPS from the past generation, you've played Killzone: Mercenary. Straightforward levels with "go here, hit button" limited environmental interaction? Yep. In-game partners who only serve to incessantly nag you about the next easy-to-find objective? Sure. A Call of Duty-style ranking system? Of course. Monster closets? Check. Putting a child character in danger for the sake of cheap pathos? You bet. The obligatory plot twist a la BioShock? Mmm-hmm. Turret sequences? Oh, you better believe it. Killzone: Mercenary reflects the same kind of triple-A stagnation seen in its console siblings: basically, the idea that certain genres have been "figured out," and game development boils down to smashing new content into a prefab mold.
At first, it seems as if Mercenary offers a variety of ways to approach missions; the points you earn from killing enemies can be spent on various weapons, armor, and accessories tailor-made for specific strategies. But while Mercenary offers a handful of stealth options, they really only work in the areas they're intended to work. In fact, Mercenary so often falls back on sending waves upon waves of enemies at you that it's best to disregard stealth outside of the few instances where its levels only populate themselves with a few enemies at a time. As a fan of the Metal Gear franchise, which makes stealth and non-lethal approaches viable 99.9% of the time, I'm disappointed to see Mercenary give this creative play style nothing but lip service.
In an attempt to expand upon the nine missions in Mercenary's campaign, the game offers rewards for playing through levels again while meeting certain objectives, like killing a certain number of enemies in a specific way, or finishing within a prescribed time limit. These arbitrary objectives don't change the experience all that much, and, to be completely honest, when I was done with Killzone: Mercenary, I was done with Killzone Mercenary. Unfortunately, Sony's attempt to bring the console FPS experience to their ailing handheld worked a little too well by offering the same take on a genre you've likely played to death by now. First-person shooters still have plenty of room for improvement and innovation, but Killzone: Mercenary is content to sit in its comfortable little rut.
- Visuals: Killzone: Mercenary sells itself on spectacle, which it has in spades -- even if its levels don't look all that different from each other. Hope you like military installations!
- Audio: Nothing stands out as particularly interesting, and the various NPCs you'll meet do their best to annoy you by regurgitating the same sound clips ad nauseam.
- Interface: Thankfully, Mercenary makes for an unexpectedly comfortable experience, even with the Vita's tiny analog sticks. And its obligatory touchscreen features aren't nearly as clumsy as they could be.
- Lasting Appeal: Mercenary makes a shallow attempt to incentivize replays, but it's hard to believe anyone would want to jump back in after the final mission comes to a close.