Killzone Mercenary: hands-on preview

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With dual analogue sticks, a fairly large screen, impressive graphical oomf and decent processing power, the Vita might seem like an ideal candidate for FPS games. So why hasn’t it been flooded with such titles? It seems that Killzone: Mercenary might unwittingly provide the answer.

The preview code includes one mission which, after the mostly unskippable briefing, kicks off with a brief quasi-interactive wingsuit jump (bringing back unwelcome Black Ops II memories). I neither know nor care who the chap jumping with me is, but he gets shot down before we even hit the ground. The guy talking at me over the radio cares only slightly more about this than I do.

It’s clear that said intro is designed to make the player coo over the graphics and, even when control is handed over to the player in full, it remains an attractive game (though still a few steps behind the PS3). It’s immediately, identifiably Killzone – dirty industrial styled level and, of course, Helghast wandering around looking for something to kill. There are differences however, one of the main ones being the complimentary gatling gun which assaults you with a constant barrage of awards and rewards.

I didn’t see this bit, and of course I wasn’t playing from a third person perspective either…

HEADSHOT screams the on-screen text, when I shoot somebody in the head. SCAVENGER it cries, when I pick up some ammo (yes, here you manually pick up ammo dropped by enemies, and get a pat on the head for doing so). MELEE it declares, when I successfully complete the overly simple touchscreen QTE. BRONZE TRAVELLER AWARD whoops the message and accompanying picture, for reasons I don’t pretend to understand. There’s even a STEALTH BONUS if you can make it to a certain area without setting off the alarm. Every time such commentary pops up on the screen, you earn a little cash.

Dotted around the level are boxes used to access what’s basically a shop. You can top up your ammo here but, more interestingly, you can also buy new weapons and armour, and pay a nominal fee to swap something you’re carrying with an unlocked item. As now seems to be standard, you can only carry one primary and one secondary weapon at a time. Which you choose makes a genuine difference in terms of recoil, damage, clip size, and so on. Some are even equipped with silencers (such as the demo’s default weapons). There’s also support tech to be had – the best I tried was the Porcupine, which gives you a generous amount of rockets to fire by tapping automatically-targeted enemies on the touchscreen.

The touchscreen is used for this, and other functions such as the simple act of swapping weapons, because of the Vita’s limited number of buttons. Today’s FPS games are complicated beasts that demand use of every last corner of your joypad (or a good chunk of your keyboard), and it’s easy to forget that the Vita has four buttons less than a DualShock. So it is that the ‘interact’ button doubles up for you melee attack (perhaps why it’s not automatic?), and if you switch off the rear touchpad function for sprinting (highly recommended), you’ll instead jog along by tapping the crouch button while moving. Throwing grenades is collateral damage here. There’s no dedicated button – tap the on-screen icon to equip them, then you can throw one with your shoot button. If you want to throw more than one, you’ll have to re-equip them each time. It’s a little awkward, and far from instinctive.

Despite Sony’s apparent reluctance to release screenshots of the actual game, it does look very good. Not THIS good, of course.

More worrying is the simple act of aiming and shooting. It’s unintentionally amusing how the reload animation obscures almost the entire screen, and Killzone’s chunky style can initially make a handheld version look a little too crowded – but this is easily overcome. It’s awkward (if realistic) that aiming down the sights reduces your peripheral vision to basically zero but, again, this isn’t really the problem. The problem is that swinging your gun around for precision aiming feels a little…off. You can adjust sensitivity, but this can only do so much. It took me a while to figure out what’s wrong, but I think that it’s ultimately down to the physical qualities of the Vita’s sticks – i.e. they’re too small.

In terms of actually using the Vita’s sticks, of course, there’s no problem. It’s not like your thumbs go shooting off the edge at random. As they’re so much smaller than DualShock sticks however, that also means that the associated deadzones and (for want of a better word) ‘livezones’ are also smaller. After years of playing FPS games with a joypad, I really struggled to attain the same level of precision in my aiming. It would seem that this is something of which the developers are fully aware – it’s impossible to not notice the generosity of the auto-aim, and the best tactic is often to simply allow it to help guide your hand and shoot from the hip. Especially on the hardest difficulty.

The demo doesn’t reveal a lot of the game, but what there is is very well designed. As mentioned, your loadout really can affect how you play, and after going through the level three times (once on each difficulty) I was pleasantly surprised at how it didn’t play exactly the same each time. It’s not the game itself, but the nature of the machine it’s running on, which threatens to sweep the legs from under the experience. This is especially true on the hardest difficulty, where the extra split second or two needed to line up a shot or throw a grenade can be enough to take the last few bullets that kill you. Will the final code feature some tweaks to fix this? Was I thrown in at the deep end, and the full game builds you up at a decent pace until you’ve mastered the controls? I hope so – because this is a game with a lot of potential.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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