Killzone: Mercenary PS Vita review – stunning Vekta graphics can’t save Guerrilla’s missed opportunity

[Update: There's a 1.2GB day one patch for Killzone Mercenary addressing "general stability fixes & performance optimisations".]

It’s a technical marvel, you understand. Watching a game that looks at first glance indistinguishable from Killzone 3 run on the Vita’s pint-sized circuitry is one of few novelties that never really wears off throughout Aaron Danner’s handheld Higg-massacre.

Killzone: Mercenary PS Vita review

Textures do give away a lower fidelity standard when you really peer at them up close, of course they do. But you’re rarely given apt pause for technical note-taking before a fresh batch of future-cockney-Nazis arrives to disturb your frames-per-second count. And that’s the point, really. Killzone Mercenary pulls out every bit of sleight of hand it can to give the impression of PS3 visuals on less-than-PS3 hardware.

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It goes without saying then that this is one of the best-looking titles on the platform. The hipster in me doesn’t want to give it the accolade outright and ignore the artistry of Hotline Miami et al, but in terms of aping the triple-A title it’s peerless. Helghast eyes drench the screen with that famous crimson, sharply rendered weapons fill corridors with smoke and blood and melee encounters are animated with trademark Guerrilla enthusiasm.

Newer territory for the Dutch studio is on-the-fly loadout customisation by means of Blackjack the arms dealer. His vending machines appear after every couple of checkpoints, brimming with new weapons, armour and VAN-Guard devices, the latter offering absurdly powerful power-ups on cooldown timers, like the flying scissor-drone called the Mantys, or the Porcupine rocket system that gives you unlimited projectiles for a brief period, and highlights all enemies on your HUD. Clearing entire squads is as easy as tapping at the screen a couple of times.

Blackjack doesn’t just give this stuff away, mind. Arms dealers not being known for their charity, you’ll need to earn each piece of kit by amassing points in combat. Assigning bonuses for headshots, melee kills, multi-kills and grenade massacres adds another level of challenge to each encounter, incentivising smart and varied executions for maximum points. The option to switch between any number of assault rifles, shotguns, snipers and RPGs shows that Guerrilla wants you to play each level several times. To figure out the best weapon for the coming conflict, and then to go back and challenge yourself by picking the least practical.

“Sharply rendered weapons fill corridors with smoke and blood, and melee encounters are animated with trademark Guerrilla enthusiasm”

 

Mercenary does an admirable job of distilling a triple-A storyline and a handful of visually distinctive locations into its campaign, but it’s the smart streamlining into a handheld experience that turns out to be its strongest asset. This is a leaner game comprised of smaller missions, jettisoning the spectacle of KZs 2 and 3′s larger set-pieces and replacing them with tighter spaces. For the most part that works out just fine: those tight spaces are funnelled to bring enemies closer to you and force more of the mid-to-close range combat you’d rather see on the Vita screen.

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