You expect firstparty developers to lean a little more heavily on their host platform’s featureset than those making multiplatform games, and this is no exception. Vita’s touch controls are used extensively in Killzone: Mercenary, but rarely feel crowbarred in. There is nothing as obviously forced as Uncharted: Golden Abyss’s brass rubbing, and the sole example of a touchscreen doing what a button does better is weapon switching, which is mapped to a small icon on the right of the screen.
It’s not without its gimmicks, of course. There’s a hacking minigame, in which you match geometric shapes into a central hexagon like a timed cyberpunk version of Trivial Pursuit. Then there’s the melee attack, which was always likely to find itself on the touchscreen on a platform without clickable analogue sticks. Tap triangle when close to an enemy, draw a line in the direction dictated by an onscreen arrow and you’ll trigger a brutal canned animation: a knife plunging into a cranium, eyeball, throat or testicle – and even, for some reason, an armpit – before a bloodied corpse slumps to the floor.
There’s equally useful, although distinctly less bloody, implementation of touch controls in the VAN-Guard systems: special weapons dropped into the levels at specific points or purchased from Blackjack, an arms dealer whose wares can be accessed at crates dotted generously around the gameworld. The Porcupine is a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher which highlights available targets in red circles, waiting to be tapped. With Sky Fury, you do much the same, albeit from an aerial drone’s grainy view and with the rockets replaced with precision lasers. Carapace deploys a movable shield in front of you; Ghost is a cloaking device; and Mantys Engine kills enemies by plunging its twin spikes into their heads, your character automatically cloaked while you move the drone using the analogue sticks.
Of all Vita’s features it’s the right stick that makes the strongest case for an FPS on a handheld, and while Mercenary may be the least mechanically fudged shooter on a portable to date, it’s still far from ideal. There’s not a lot of travel on these twin sticks, and while you’ll quickly adjust to the need for precise aiming – expect your first half-hour to be full of diagonal movements where you wanted horizontal ones – the difficulty of making finer adjustments proves problematic, even in the long term. It’s not helped by Vita’s display (big for a handheld, but not for a console FPS), making even enemies in the middle distance almost impossible to see. You’ll come to rely on the icon popup that confirms a kill and awards you Credits, a persistent currency across Mercenary’s campaign and multiplayer modes.
There’s narrative justification for this economic artifice, though, and the clue’s in the name. As the titular mercenary you’re motivated by money, not the triumph of good over evil, and as such the campaign sees you back both the humans and the Helghast. It works on a story level, too, blurring the lines between good and evil with humanity’s discovery of a virus that could wipe out one side or the other and end the war for good, providing ample justification for you taking up arms with Killzone’s crimson-eyed antagonists. Keeping with series tradition, voice acting is hammily perfunctory, the standard back-and-forth of gruff human space marines and the Helghast’s pitch-shifted cockneys. It’s told well enough, but unskippable cutscenes are ill-suited to a portable game, especially one as focused on replay value as this.
Finish the campaign and a chapter-select screen gives you immediate access to any of the game’s nine missions. All can be replayed on higher difficulties for bigger payouts, but the real long game comes in the form of four class-based objectives: these might ask you to finish the level in 20 minutes, get a set number of stealth or melee kills, headshot a certain target, or free hostages who are being held in small corners of the map you’re likely to have missed the first time around. Sadly it’s all or nothing, and you’ll rapidly become well acquainted with the Mission Failed screen. There are countless hours of replay value, but only perfectionists with a high tolerance for frustration will see them.
Thankfully, you can take your Credit balance into multiplayer, which boasts the usual free-for-all and team deathmatch variants and a headline gametype, Warzone, in which two teams battle for a series of shifting objectives. First you have to pick up Valor cards dropped by fallen enemies in a manner reminiscent of Call Of Duty’s Kill Confirmed mode. Later you’ll have to hack VAN-Guard terminals using the campaign’s touchscreen minigame, and melee kill opponents for intel before a standard shootout closes things out. At 25 minutes long, a Warzone match is no game of COD, but it’s a dynamic spin on the multiplayer FPS’s run-and-gun template – although your leaden turning and aiming speed tends to mean that gunfights are won by whoever spots and shoots first.
The great myth of gaming handhelds, and Sony’s in particular, is that what players want most are console experiences condensed to a smaller screen, with fewer inputs. Mercenary feels like its big-screen cousin, it looks fantastic, it has a serviceable multiplayer, and its controls neither feel compromised by Vita’s lack of secondary triggers and clickable sticks nor undermined by crowbarred touch controls. It is, in other words, a competent handheld version of Killzone, and those who bought a Vita on that promise will be amply satisfied. Others will squint, line up their sights on a speck in the middle distance, squeeze the trigger and hope for the popup confirming their aim was true, and wonder if this is really what handheld gaming should be.