Killzone: Mercenary 1

Ever since we first nestled our thumbs on the PlayStation Vita’s petite but precise analogue sticks, we’ve been gunning for a good first-person shooter. Nihilistic Software did the best that it could with a bad hand, deploying Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified into a regrettable crossfire of criticism. Reports suggest that the Californian company was forced to develop the titles at a brisk clip, an unenviable fate that Guerrilla Cambridge has fortunately eluded. In fact, the earliest footage of Killzone: Mercenary first shot into sight during the handheld’s initial unveiling in 2011, making the mobile murder simulator one of the most hotly anticipated outings in the portable’s pipeline. But has that additional production time culminated in a console-quality classic, or another undercooked affair?

Set shortly after the conclusion of the first game in Sony’s futuristic franchise, the spin-off casts you in the steel toe cap boots of Arran Danner, a former UCA operative turned ruthless gun-for-hire. With the protagonist’s allegiance available to the highest bidder, the title promises to pair you with both the ISA and the Helghast. Our hands-on found us aligning with the former, sabotaging satellite arrays and subsequently destroying several spacecrafts in an offshore Helghan stronghold not far from the putrid planet’s principal province, Pyrrhus.

Killzone: Mercenary 2

Make no mistake, this is the visual tour-de-force that your blockbuster-starved system’s been screaming for. The opening sequence sees you infiltrating the aforementioned fortress by leaping from the back of a roofless hovercraft and swooping onto a nearby boardwalk, all while lightning snaps overhead and explosions light up the foreground. It’s unashamedly Michael Bay, but as a demonstration of the Vita’s prowess, it’s a nice reminder of the grunt hiding behind the hardware’s high-resolution display.

Perhaps most impressive is that the game appears to run at the system’s native resolution – or at least close to it. Gone are the slightly hazy textures from the device’s first generation titles, replaced by a clean visual appearance that’s only muddied by the natural grit of the Helghast homeworld. There are some framerate hiccups in this early build, but they only tend to occur when the title’s streaming in new textures and environments – and they may well be cleaned up entirely by the time that the game’s ready to report for duty in early September.

Killzone: Mercenary 3

Fortunately, the shooter isn’t all swish scenery and no substance – it actually plays excellently, too. Controlling much like any other modern first-person shooter, the title retains the franchise’s trademark heft, but manages to feel responsive at the same time. Crouching behind objects – boxes, walls, and other conveniently positioned architecture – snaps you into cover, which you’ll need to do frequently, owing to the fact that your futuristic foes aren’t fools. You’ll regularly find yourself flanked and forced around the battlefield, as grenades and gunfire prevent you from sitting in one spot for too long.

As a result, the gunfights feel frantic and furious, and are aided enormously by the chunkiness of your artillery. The weapons chug in an unruly manner that’s befitting of the franchise’s console heritage, animating your orange-eyed adversaries into deadly breakdances as you pick them off. Everything that you do in the game is rewarded with a financial incentive, which can then be invested at remote stores to expand your arsenal options, and also augment new abilities and loadouts. It’s a fun loop, and the promise of an interlinked single player and multiplayer campaign sounds mightily compelling. There are even individual weapon and skill challenges that you’ll unlock as you perform certain actions and progress through the game.

Killzone: Mercenary 4

But it’s the little details that really create the illusion that you’re playing a full PlayStation 3 release. The sound of your potshots hollow as your clip empties, for example, while the enemies react naturally to your gunfire, clutching at the appendages that you’re targeting. There are some control hiccups: the sprint and crouch commands clumsily reside on the same button, although you can use the rear touchpad to run if you prefer. Likewise, the title furthers Uncharted: Golden Abyss’ penchant for unnecessary touchscreen actions, forcing you to swipe the screen in order to finish a melee attack, or pull a lever. These are largely ignorable irritations, though, and the Vita’s unique control interfaces are largely treated in intelligent ways.

For instance, you can switch on a tilt aiming option, which, much like in Drake’s portable adventure, allows you to fine-tune your shots when you’re aiming down the sights. Meanwhile, a hacking minigame sees you matching symbols by tapping icons, as a clock counts down at the top of the screen. Lastly, a rocket launcher-esque weapon enables you to auto-lock foes by touching them with a daring digit. It’s simple, but it feels tactile, and it reinforces the notion that Guerrilla Cambridge has spent a lot of time exploring the best methods to make the most out of the handheld.

Killzone: Mercenary 5

The only real disappointment is that the narrative seems as unimaginative as ever. You’re constantly accompanied by radio chatter throughout the action, but we found it difficult to focus on our accomplice’s commentary. The full game will allegedly explore some deeper themes, as Danner begins to question his own morals as a mercenary. But the series doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to story, and nothing that we’ve seen thus far has convinced us that the spin-off is going to rectify that.

Still, in the span of a solitary assignment, Killzone: Mercenary managed to really impress us. The visuals are hotter than the inside of a Helghast helmet, the weapons are deadly, and there’s plenty of promise in the shooter’s financial reward loop. And that bodes well for the hotly anticipated multiplayer mode, which aims to transpose the brutality of the single player action into a compact, competitive campaign. Like a rookie soldier rising through the ranks, the title may still need to prove its worth in a changing market – but based purely on this initial showing, it's got the shots to back up its status.

Is your trigger finger itching to get to work in Killzone: Mercenary? Where does the first-person shooter rank in your Vita wishlist? Let us know in the comments section below.