Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Sony's 32-player FPS Killzone 2 is the best-looking game on the PS3. And that's going by a multiplayer beta of a game that's not even finished. The graphics are, in places, almost too good to be true. Salamun Market, a large, war-torn above ground area that is one of three playable maps in the beta, grabbed my jaw, slammed it onto the floor and gun bucked it into oblivion. Your average Killzone 2 multiplayer match is a frenetic, intense experience, but as you make your way towards the chaos from your spawn point, you'll be compelled to stop, pan the camera around and gawp. The skyline in Salamun Market, blood red with distant explosions, frightening clouds and billowing smoke, is a wonder to behold. In Radec Academy the indoor structures, overturned vehicles and the textures of mere handrails and steps are all hugely impressive. We'll be honest, many developers have struggled so far to make the most of the PS3's undoubted graphical potential. Sony-owned Guerilla games is not one of them.
Yes, there's a hell of a lot of motion blur, yes, it's very, very, very grey, and no, it doesn't look as good as that movie from E3 2005, but it fits in the context of what Killzone 2 is - a gritty, science fiction shooter that makes no apology for the fact that its game world is depressing, war-torn and bleak. If LittleBigPlanet is the PS3's super cute poodle, then Killzone 2 is its savage Rottweiler.
Of course, graphics alone do not make a great competitive multiplayer shooter, so it's great to find that the gameplay is both fresh and familiar fun. Imagine the kind of game Team Fortress 2 would give birth to if it had an illicit love affair with Call of Duty 4 - that's the kind of experience Killzone 2 provides. There's a heavy emphasis on classes, some of which seem to have been directly inspired by Valve's stylised shooter, and a heavy emphasis on levelling up, now a required feature in the post CoD4 FPS world, with L1 iron sight aiming and R1 shooting.
There are seven available classes, each with their own roles and abilities. The Rifleman is the default troop type. The Scout can disappear Predator style with the camo suit. The Engineer can build automated turrets (incredibly annoying!), the Medic can revive dying allies (when you're downed you writhe around in agony for ten seconds before you respawn, each second providing a sickening rumble on the DualShock 3), the Assault Trooper is a heavy weapons specialist, the Tactician can lay down smoke grenades that act as spawn points (a tactic that is already proving incredibly useful) and the Saboteur can disguise himself as an enemy player. Ring any bells Valve fans?
The CoD4 feeling is less pronounced, but it's still there. Killzone 2 plays slower than CoD4, and the pace of an average match can sometimes feel more like a war of attrition than a frag-fest, but already the tactics players are using seem airlifted straight out of Modern Combat. It doesn't take many hits to kill, and it doesn't take many hits to be killed. There's no Halo 3-style shield system, so you have to think carefully about where you're going and where enemies might be. There's a lot of zooming in and inching your sight into gaps in the environment from which you'll be able to take pot shots from relative safety, which doesn't provide the immediacy of a run and gun shooter, but will appeal to your average CoD player.
The levelling up system, however, is where the CoD influence is felt the most. At the end of each match you'll get a certain amount of experience points that feed into your overall rank. As you increase in rank you'll unlock different abilities. At Corporal you can create and join a squad, at sergeant you can create a new clan, at sergeant first class you unlock the SMG and Shotgun for the default soldier class and, further down the line, you'll unlock badges which open up the other classes. Badges can be mixed and matched, allowing you to incorporate abilities from two classes into your own, hybrid class, which we reckon is a cool touch and should help prevent a scarcity of healers most class-based FPS games suffer from.
Where Killzone 2 excels is in making your average match a varied and intense experience. The Warzone match type, which is the one currently provided by the beta, includes five different missions that rotate every five minutes, or when they're failed or completed by either the ISA or the Helghast. The Warzone game type on the Radec Academy map, a medium sized indoor level great for close quarters fighting, for example, might have you at the start protecting a randomly selected member of your team in the Assassination mission, then, five minutes later, it might switch to the Search and Retrieve mission, which charges both teams with picking up and holding on to a propaganda machine. Then it might be Search and Destroy, which charges you with disarming a number of explosives before the five minute time limit is up, which might lead on to Assassination again, except this time the opposing team is the one on guard duty, followed by a quick Body Count mission, which is essentially a race to the highest number of kills, then a Capture and Hold mission, which is pretty much King of the Hill, and finally Search and Destroy again, except this time you need to place the charges and defend them. All this is linked together by the screaming military voice of an ISA commander, or the creepy, almost undead tones of a Helghast.
At the end of a Warzone match, which can last over half an hour, whichever faction has won the most missions wins the round, and experience points are dished out according to your personal performance and team performance. It's actually brilliant fun, although at times it can feel like a slog. Luckily there are other game types, including Mini Frag (max eight players), and single mission game types which go by a lot quicker, if you don't fancy a hardcore session.
Killzone 2 has the potential to be the best PS3 exclusive online shooter experience around when it's released next February. It's definitely miles better than Haze, but even more impressive is that the beta has even been keeping us from playing Resistance 2's multiplayer. Will it be a better competitive shooter than Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat and Call of Duty: World at War? Only time will tell. So far, though, so very good.
Killzone 2 is set for release exclusively on PS3 in February 2009.