How Killzone: Mercenary plans to be a console-quality handheld FPS

It seems like a perfect fit.

The design of Sony's PlayStation Vita suggests that the line between console, handheld and mobile games doesn't have to be so thick. The Vita sports two analog sticks, like the consoles that came before it. In a nod to the smartphone and tablet revolution of the last half decade its display doubles as a touchscreen. Even the backside of the handheld includes a giant pasture for touch input. But there's at least one dominant genre that hasn't made a smooth transition to the PS Vita.

Despite the graphical leaps over its PSP predecessor, despite is dual analog sticks, since its early 2012 release, there haven't been many first-person shooters. And those that have been released haven't been lauded with praise. Resistance: Burnings Skies earned a 6.5/10 and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified scored a 2/10.

Guerrilla Cambridge hopes to change things this September with Killzone: Mercenary. We spent some time with a single level from the campaign, then spent some more time and discovered that there was plenty we missed the first time around.

We also spoke with the developers about how they planned to build a console quality FPS for a handheld that's begging for it, what they've learned and what's changed along the way.

PLAY TO THE STRENGTHS OF THE SYSTEM

PS Vita can act like a console, but it can't be a console. The hardware — both external and internal — simply isn't designed for the task. But that doesn't mean it can't be like a console, or that it can't do things that a console can't, and all of those things are apparent within minutes of hopping into Killzone: Mercenary.

It began with a cutscene that set the stage for the operation, laying the foundation for what's explicit in the game's title: You're a mercenary, a gun for hire. You're going in, you're doing your dirty work pitted against others presumably dirtier than you.

The level itself begins with a second cutscene, which sees your character hop out of a plane and ride a wingsuit to the place you'll be doing your shooting. You can see the entire level as your character flies in unassisted, and it looks fairly small. On the ground, gun in hand, it feels much bigger. There's plenty to explore and even different paths to take through the level that we didn't notice our first time around. (Though to be fair, we were being shot at.)

We asked senior producer Mark Green if this kind of level structure — contained, vertical, multi-pathed — would be emblematic of rest of Killzone: Mercenary.

"The structure of Mercenary was an area of the design where we really wanted to introduce features that would support the play patterns associated with mobile gaming," Green told Polygon. "The challenge for us was to maintain the feeling of a AAA console game whilst integrating this new structure. During the project's conceptual phase we identified three things we wanted to achieve with the game structure; to blur the separation between single and multiplayer, offer variety that would encourage replay of the single player missions, and create a competitive player progression system that would be current and accessible to all players no matter when they joined the community of how heavily they played."

PROVIDE OPTIONS

Killzone: Mercenary controls just as I expected, with the analog sticks behaving like their console counterparts. Though it took a few minutes to get used to the quirks and sensitivity of the stubby little sticks, it became effortless in minutes, if never quite as accurate as it could have been with a full-size controller. Like in any Call of Duty game, the left bumper brings up the sights, while the right bumper pulls the trigger.

Of course, the PS Vita also includes large touch-sensitive areas on the front and back of the handheld, and Guerrilla Cambridge uses these in several, almost always optional ways. For example, there are three ways to pick up ammo: You can tap on the ammo directly, tap on the HUD element floating above the ammo or tap on the triangle hardware button. Those options, Green told us, are a deliberate implementations designed to give players "the opportunity to discover which input they preferred whilst offering consistency."

"What we found when we used touchscreen gestures for these mechanics, is that it did two things," Green said. "Firstly the action interaction felt much more tactile and engaging, for example the Brutal Melee gesture actually represents the killing motion. In the case of VAN-guards and hacking, the touchscreen mirrors the use of the wrist mounted device by the player character in-game. Secondly, the player had to think much more about when to do these types of interaction as there is a skill element that makes the event take time and therefore leaves the player vulnerable. This created some interesting risk/reward mechanics."

BE WILLING TO LEARN AND CHANGE

Creating an FPS for the handheld still involves mapping uncharted territory, and Guerrilla Cambridge experimented with many iterations of controls and design for the Killzone: Mercenary. They and others playtested the game, and the developers implemented changes implemented changes based on what they learned worked the best.

Scattered throughout the level we played were weapon containers run by a character called Blackjack. Players earn in-game currency for just about everything they do, from killing their enemies to picking up ammo, and can use that currency at Blackjack's armories to purchase new weapons and armor.

In its first pass, Guerrilla Cambridge only placed the armories at the beginning of a level, but the developers learned that there was a better way. The final version of the game is based on the principle that players "can tailor their load-out to support whatever play style they want to use" so "the mission design further supports this by offering a variety of routes through and entry points into encounters."

"In early versions of the game, Blackjack was only available in the front end, so the player had to make their load-out choice and then stick to it throughout the mission," Green said. "We found that this was overly restrictive and that many players wanted the ability to change their loadout much more frequently, so we introduced the armories into the missions themselves. We found this gave players much more freedom and really helped support them in adapting their play styles to fit the current objective or encounter."

Killzone: Mercenary is slated for a Sept. 10, 2013 release. You can sign up for the multiplayer beta until July 17.

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