We may be on the cusp of a new console generation, but we’d be surprised if any of the PlayStation 4’s launch window titles made a bigger visual impression than Killzone: Mercenary. The hotly anticipated spin-off from the recently restructured Guerrilla Cambridge is a sensory showstopper, pushing the PlayStation Vita’s underexplored hardware further than it’s ever ventured before. While titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies have made iffy arguments in favour of first-person shooters finding a home on Sony’s supercharged handheld, the British-based studio’s return to the Alpha Centauri system peppers any previous attempts with an impassioned round of StA-52 assault rifle fire. This is a technological tour de force – and a considerately constructed action game to boot.

You play as a customarily chumpish combat conduit named Arran Danner, a rough-and-ready gun-for-hire allied with the Phantom Talon Corps, a semi-shady mercenary unit fronted by the rugged Commander Anders Benoit. Employed by the familiar faction the ISA, the protagonist is sent on a suicide mission to assist in the liberation of a war-torn Vekta, kickstarting a rebellion which sees the beleaguered bloc push back against its iconic extraterrestrial adversaries, and take its intergalactic war to the Helghast’s home planet. The campaign runs in parallel to many of the most memorable moments from the trilogy, adding flavour to some of the series’ biggest plot points.

The fact that you fight for a finance-fuelled firm augments ample opportunity for copious story twists, and consequentially there’s more bickering and backstabbing – both figuratively and literally – than a reality TV show throughout the course of the exclusive’s five hour adventure. It’s a largely predictable affair, with none of the characters – aside from the exaggerated Eastern European underground market trader Blackjack – breaking free from the boring bug that infected Sev, Narville, and the vast majority of the series’ console cast. Fortunately, the narrative does delve a little deeper into the idea that the ISA may not be quite as ethical as previous instalments have painted them, exploring a sliver of the enormous pool of backstory that fuels the franchise.

It’s not necessarily an outstanding piece of fiction, but it does provide the backdrop for nine single player missions, which will see you traipsing through the vibrant skylines of Vekta and the murky corridors of Helghan. While the series has been criticised for its miserable makeup in the past, this spin-off subscribes to the Killzone: Shadow Fall school of thinking, meandering between oversaturated cityscapes and oppressive underworlds swifter than a poorly piloted ISA Intruder. There’s a decent range of locales, many of which are repurposed throughout the multiplayer mode to maximise map diversity. You’ll visit a run-down fishing village, a neon-infused marketplace, and an Orwellian judicial department. The disparate environments add variety to the campaign, and really make you feel like you’re always exploring somewhere fresh and exotic. This is aided by an outstanding art direction, which gives the universe a sense of believability. It’s an impressive achievement for a handheld game.

And as already alluded, the technological accomplishments are staggering. Guerrilla Cambridge has not just created a game that masquerades as a PlayStation 3 title, but could actually pass as one. The subtleties in texture work, lighting, and post-processing effects are comparable to a full-scale console release, and run in native resolution on the handheld’s super sharp OLED display. Some of the visual tricks are nothing short of mind-boggling, with lighting reflecting naturally on rain-slicked tarmac, and gunfire illuminating dark corridors with each pull of the trigger. It’s sensational, and is so impressive that it even puts launch window titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Unit 13 to shame. The only real disappointment is that the framerate does hitch when the action gets hectic or the game autosaves, but this is an ignorable issue for the most part, even if it does persist throughout the entirety of the campaign.

Whether you notice it or not, the action is enjoyable throughout. Firing meaty machine guns has always been the hallmark of Guerrilla Games’ sci-fi series, and Killzone: Mercenary captures that aspect with ease. The trademark heft of previous entries is subdued ever so slightly in this instalment, opting for a more pacey style that sits somewhere closer to the franchise’s upcoming PS4 follow-up. That doesn’t mean that the weapons aren’t fun to fire, though, with punchy sound design and excellent recoil animations augmenting each firearm in the exclusive’s artillery with a brutal appeal. There’s plenty to choose from, too, with dozens of submachine guns, snipers, sidearms, and shotguns available in both multiplayer and single player. These are purchased using cash that you earn as you play, and once unlocked can be incorporated into your loadouts in either mode.

As the title indicates, money factors heavily into the experience. You can purchase anything from the offset, as long as you’ve got the funds to fuel your desires. You earn cash by killing enemies, completing objectives, surpassing medal criteria, and scoring highly in online matches. In addition to splashing out on new weapons, you can also purchase grenades, armour, and Vanguards. The latter items are rechargeable power-ups that work a little like perks, allowing you to deploy drones that electrocute your enemies, jam communication channels, and rain down fury on your foes. That these can be employed in both single player and multiplayer implements some interesting strategies, though some options are inherently more useful than others. You will develop attachments to certain types of equipment, but the solo mode at least forces you to experiment.

While the campaign will take you around five hours to complete on the standard difficulty setting, it’s designed with replayability in mind. Much like in Nintendo 64 classic GoldenEye 007, there are alternative objectives that you can tackle for each of the game’s nine missions. These can be attempted on different difficulty tiers, and demand that you approach each mission in a unique way. You may be forced to use a sniper rifle, for example, and land a specific number of headshots, or complete a mission in a designated timeframe without being detected. These challenges really highlight the variety that’s built into each mission – you can approach combat scenarios in many different ways, including stealth – and add an enormous amount of replay value to the core solo experience. That the stages can be completed in around 30 minutes also makes them perfect for bitesized play sessions, though the fact that you’re forced to watch lengthy cutscenes each time you boot up a new level will start to grate after a while.

All of your progress is tracked by the game, and represented by a Valour card. This is reassigned daily, and can increase and decrease depending on your performance. If you’ve fared particularly well online, for example, you’ll score a higher class of card – the suit is determined by your preferred weapon type – making you more valuable to the other players. Killing an opponent will prompt them to drop their card, which you can then snatch for a cash bonus. Of course, if you’re carrying a higher value card, then that makes you a priority target, giving the game a nice balance. Any cards that you do collect can be used to form decks, but it’s a shame that these can’t be traded with friends and strangers via Near.

It’s also unfortunate that you can’t do more with your escalating wealth. While there are plenty of weapons to keep you occupied, you will reach a point where you feel like you’ve got a good range of firearms and accessories. You can’t purchase upgrades for any of the guns – there are no scopes or attachments for you to invest in – and the reward loop can feel a little flat as a consequence. A side mode where you use your finances to purchase shares and send your recruits on missions a la Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood would have been appreciated, especially when you feel like furthering your progress without engaging in any first-person action. Unfortunately, there’s nothing like that in the game.

Still, the online component is addictive enough. There are three modes to choose from: Mercenary Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare, and Warzone. Each playlist supports up to eight players, with the latter offering the same rotating combat objectives as its predecessors. Here you’ll cycle between different mini-missions, which require you to kill your counterparts, collect Valour cards, and occassionally cross-examine your foes. Injuring an enemy allows you to initiate an interrogation, which can be achieved using a tranquiliser or landing a few non-fatal shots. You’ll need to swipe the touchscreen to complete these sequences, but the animations can be a bit drawn out – particularly in single player – leaving you unfairly vulnerable when you execute the finisher.

Warzone is definitely the most enjoyable mode available in the multiplayer suite, but the nature of these matches mean that they can drag on for 20 minutes or longer. As such, if you’re looking for a more condensed experience, Mercenary Warfare – which is essentially free-for-all – and Guerrilla Warfare – an alternative name for Team Deathmatch – serve as better options. All of the playlists are buoyed by slick netcode, and we never experienced any instances of lag, though this is obviously going to depend on your connection.

Perhaps most impressive is that the game retains its visual flair online, with all of the maps maintaining the variety and environmental fidelity of the core campaign. The stages are quite small, and subsequently ensure that firefights are fairly enclosed, but this makes sense given the rather slender player count. Unfortunately, this renders a lot of the long-range weapons unnecessary, as you’re more likely to find yourself sprinting around the battlefield directing submachine gun fire at anything that dares to cross your path. There are a few open stretches on the Inlet and Refinery maps that make distance engagements a possibility, but given the accuracy of many of the assault rifles, you’ll probably find yourself plumping up for one of those rather than assuming the role of a true sniper.

It’s a minor niggle, though, in a game that achieves almost everything that it sets out to do. The only real disappointment is that in focusing on creating a best-in-class first-person experience on a format that’s been forced to make do with disappointing imitators up until now, Guerrilla Cambridge hasn’t really done anything to distance the title from the dozens of comparative experiences already available on consoles. Granted, there’s a novelty attached to stabbing enemies in the face while you’re sitting on the train, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that you’ll have seen much of what the game has to offer on a television screen before.

Conclusion

Killzone: Mercenary would be worth its pay packet on the PS3, but Guerrilla Cambridge deserves a bonus for squeezing the adventure onto the Vita. The game may struggle to shrug off the gameplay staples that have plagued its parent genre over the past few years, but it still sits in a salary bracket several tiers above its portable first-person peers. Graphically astounding and packing some serious online firepower, this is the high-budget handheld hit that you’ve been waiting for.