Sony's Vita has had a tough ride. Released to much fanfare, a lack of titles has combined with the high price of the thing to send the handheld into a death spiral it seems unlikely to recover from. Unlikely, however, doesn't mean there's no hope; given the right set of circumstances, there's still a chance that one of the best handhelds ever created might yet find its feet.
Enter Killzone: Mercenary.
After the extremely poor showing of Call of Duty on the Vita, and the generally lacklustre nature of many of the mutli-console games that also appear on the device, my hopes for a portable Killzone weren't high. When I found out it was in development at Guerrilla Cambridge (the team formerly known as SCE Cambridge, responsible for games like MediEvil and the PSP port of LittleBigPlanet), my interest was piqued. When I saw the trailer... despite myself, I couldn't help but be a little bit excited; it looks nice and the idea of a big-budget game in your pocket is a compelling one.
Now I've played it, and talked to the game's art director, Tom Jones. Now I know much more about what to expect. Now I'm genuinely excited at the prospect of getting my hands on the full game later this year; it is, if you haven't already guessed, damn good.
In case you're unfamiliar with the game, you play as a mercenary; a gun for hire, working for whoever pays you the most - even if that's the Helghast (the "enemies" in the Killzone universe.) Starting straight after Killzone (1), the game revisits many of the events of both that game and Killzone 2, offering up a new perspective on the story of those games, without necessitating that you're already familiar with them.
The section I was able to play saw me navigate a cave environment, explore a vast open space between giant cliff-like structures, and then head indoors - all the while going toe-to-toe with enemy forces (in this case, glowing-eyed chaps I took to be Helghast.)
Combat is a combination of classic, twin-stick first-person shooter action and a light touch-screen layer that sits on top of it. With it, you can - for example - quick select a grenade or, on initiating a melee kill, swipe in the indicated direction to finish off your foe. While neither is strictly necessary, they both still work just fine and provide a slightly different feel that should help (even if only in a small way) to differentiate the experience.
Much more successful in terms of control innovation is the integration of the rear touch pad of the Vita as a method of adjusting the sniper scope's zoom. A simple slide up zooms in, then down zooms out. Rather than having a fixed level of zoom, then, you have precision control as to how much magnification you use, and you can adjust it very quickly between the extremes. It feels natural and works incredibly well.
Similarly, the visuals were striking and not just because of the Vita's incredible screen. The art direction, ably supported by the Killzone 3 engine on which the game runs, is outstanding. Enemies look menacing, the world is richly detailed, and the lighting model puts many fully-fledged console games to shame.
When you're walking around in a cave, that's exactly what it feels like. I didn't need to look up to know I was in this vast outdoor space (but I still did, and it looked incredible), and the light bloom that appeared as I went from dark to light spaces was amazingly realistic (and I should know; going outside at E3 really blows your retinas out). The indoor section, too, was grounded in reality, with lighting that felt like the artificial light you'd expect from fluorescent tubes and the like.
Good looks are, of course, wasted on a game that's no fun to play. Fortunately, that too is nothing Mercenary needs to worry about. Gunplay felt just like it does in Killzone 3, and enemies were engaging to fight with. Exploration, too, was enjoyable - helped in no small part by the huge variety in the spaces I got to explore.
After my experience with Mercenary, I also got some hands on time with it's big brother, Killzone: Shadow Fall for PlayStation 4 (look forward to Conrad's thoughts on it soon.) While that is also looking amazing, Mercenary doesn't feel inferior to it. The game seems to be getting the lavish attention Vita owners have been praying for, and is absolutely one to watch very closely indeed. Hang in there, Vita; there's hope for you yet.
The Good: A spectacularly good FPS in your pocket
The Bad: It's on Vita; the audience there is tiny
The Ugly: May be overlooked