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Killzone: Mercenary hands-on: We're only in it for the money

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Killzone: Mercenary for PlayStation Vita is billed by its creators as a "fresh take on the Killzone experience," casting players not as an ISA or Helghast soldier, but as a killer for hire who has no interest in who wins the war, only in earning the fattest paycheck.

"This time you're not an army grunt who follows orders," Killzone: Mercenary game director Mathijs de Jonge said at a preview event in Hollywood. "These guys don't play by any rules or fight for any flag. You get to pick your own gear and tactics, as long as you get results."

Players will assume the role of Arran Danner in Killzone: Mercenary. Danner's a member of the private military corporation Phantom, which accepts contracts that span the events of past Killzone games, offering bits of context and color to memorable moments from Killzone 2, Killzone 3 and Killzone Liberation.

In one contract, de Jonge says, players will establish a beachhead during the invasion of the Helghan, as featured at the beginning of Killzone 2. Other contracts will flesh out their own narrative threads, including one in which players are tasked with extracting the son of an ISA ambassador.

Completing those contracts in Mercenary's single-player campaign — which de Jonge estimates will run from six to eight hours — will earn players cash. In fact, "every action, every kill, every contract" is a payout, de Jonge says. Players will earn money for killing Helghast soldiers and earn more for taking them out with headshots. They'll even earn a few bucks for taking out security cameras and salvaging ammunition from corpses during the campaign.

All that in-game cash goes into a single bank account, whether players are racking up kills in competitive multiplayer or progressing through the campaign. That money can be spent on upgrades and unlocks in any mode, boosting a player's firepower or granting new access to armor and gadgets, thanks to a black market arms dealer named Blackjack.

During today's PlayStation event, we spent time with one of Killzone: Mercenary's single-player missions in which Danner was tasked with flying via wing suit into a Helghast stronghold and taking out an Arc Cannon installation. While we laid waste to Helghast soldiers by shooting and brutally stabbing them, Danner's commander at Phantom barked out orders through a headset, reminding him just how much money he'd be making for completing the mission.

The single-player contract mission highlighted some of the Vita-specific controls featured in Killzone: Mercenary. Players must swipe the Vita's touchscreen in order to pull levers and switches, as well as complete brutal melee kills with a knife. The Vita's touchscreen hardware will be used lightly, it seems, complementing sniper rifle aiming and while using special weapons known as Van-Guards.

The rear touchpad on the Vita will get some play as well; players must double tap the touchpad to sprint, a control scheme that is not nearly as dreadful as that may sound.

Killzone: Mercenary's multiplayer mode will support up to eight players across six maps. In a free-for-all deathmatch mode playable at Sony's event, we got a preview of Mercenary's customizable loadouts for multiplayer, which offered us access to assault rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles and SMGs. We also got a preview of the game's Van-Guards, special abilities — like a stealth camo cloaking device and orbital Ion Cannon — that bring killstreak-like variety to multiplayer.

Multiplayer battles in Mercenary played competently enough, at a slower, heavier pace that feels in line with Killzone's pedigree. Noteworthy was how developer Guerrilla Cambridge implemented an interesting Vita-specific gameplay component to the game's melee attacks. If a player attacks another player from behind with a melee attack, the attacker will have an advantage in that up-close kill, taking out their opponent with one stab. But if both players are facing each other, they'll each be presented with a random touchscreen command, forcing both players to swipe the screen quickly, either to perform the kill or block the kill.

Killzone: Mercenary appears to be one of the better first-person shooters for the PlayStation Vita — something of a dubious distinction, given the quality of franchise entries Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies — and retains the dark, dreary atmosphere of past Killzone games.

Killzone: Mercenary will be released for PlayStation Vita on Sept. 17 in North America.

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