PlayStation 2 owners had great hopes for Killzone in late 2004. Whether or not Sony ever mentioned Killzone in the same breath as Halo doesn't matter. For PS2 gamers this was to be the game that ended Bungie's reign as console FPS king, so when the game was released on a wave of disappointing review scores there was an industry wide sigh. Sony, the dominant force in console gaming, simply couldn't produce a must-own FPS. Resistance has filled the gap on the PS3, even if we weren't exactly blown away by the recent sequel, but ever since that famous E3 video in May 2005 there's only been one FPS PS3 gamers wanted to see: Killzone 2 is riding on a wave of hype that would flatten the original game, so a let down this time will probably end the series for good.
That might seem overly negative, but Guerrilla, the Dutch developer that's become a key part of Sony's European development, really has to deliver this time. So far the only game of note to come from the studio is the PSP game Killzone: Liberation, so there's a definite sense that Killzone 2 is far from a guaranteed triple-A title. The pressure must be immense, and with the game coming out in February, it's likely to set the tone for 2009. So, after spending a whole afternoon with a work in progress build, just how is it shaping up?
First things first. You've probably seen screenshots and online videos of the game in action, but nothing prepares you for how good Killzone 2 looks. We got a glimpse of what Guerrilla was capable of with its frame-rate challenged PS2 original, but here it seems it's had the time to show just what the PS3 can do. Compared to other PS3 heavy hitters, like Resistance 2, it's as if we've entered a new generation. Whereas Insomniac's fun shooter at times felt rather run of the mill in design and quality, Killzone 2 drips with detail and depth. No matter where you look there's something to marvel at - be it a subtle smoke effect, realistically subdued lighting or a near photo realistic expanse of water.
We reckon Gears of War 2 is easily the best looking shooter currently available for consoles, but Killzone 2 has that beaten from what we've seen. Apart from what can only be described as a slight softness, this is the closest we've come to any game matching the wow factor we got from playing Crysis and its semi-sequel Warhead. Incredible blur effects are a key component, bathing the game in a CGI quality varnish that will take some beating.
A special mention must also go to the audio, with the game including some of the meatiest sounding weapons ever to grace a shooter. Having played Killzone 2 for hours we loaded up a few old favourites for comparison, and weapons that had felt solid now felt disappointingly feeble. The guns in Killzone 2 have a kick that will give your eardrums a battering if you've got an impressive sound setup. Voice work for your squad mates is apparently placeholder, but on the whole it's still impressive, with plenty of profanities flying across the battlefield.
All this visual and audio splendour would count for nothing if the game behind it wasn't up to scratch, but thankfully the levels we've played suggest this won't be a repeat of Guerrilla's first effort. The FPS action feels like a cross between the intense shoot outs seen in Call of Duty and Battlefield and the cover-based gameplay of Gears of War and Rainbow Six. The result is an in your face shooter that is deceptively difficult, requiring more thought than onlookers might expect. Charging in is an option that can work, but do so against too many enemies and you'll be dead almost instantly. Taking cover (while remaining in first person) gives you some respite from the enemy onslaught, but don't think this is Gears of War - you don't feel nearly as nimble as Marcus and co.
So far there's definitely a good mix between corridor shooting, more open battlefields and the varying number of enemies those situations throw at you. The Helghast don't mess around either, running straight at you if you're messing about behind cover for too long. The AI in the original Killzone became quite laughable at times with enemies seemingly drawn to bullets like ducks to water, so seeing them take cover, react as you'd expect to an impending grenade explosion and generally try to flush you out with a degree of intelligence comes as a pleasant surprise. The intensity of battles in what we've played so far certainly means the AI can get away with a few slip ups, so we don't know if this will reach Halo levels of excellence, but it probably doesn't have to - we were often too busy running for cover to notice what enemies were doing.
If there are any criticisms to be made at this stage, the frame rate certainly needs some optimising (but with a few months of development time remaining this shouldn't be a problem) and the tight field of view does from time to time make things feel a little overly constricted. It might just be us, but the main character's view point appears to be very low - so much so that we thought we might be accidentally crouching. A few other things rubbed us the wrong way too, such as not being able to have the iron-sight view on a press/depress toggle like in CoD and the way the cover system feels slightly laboured - we're not sure remaining in first-person works in the game's favour and currently feel switching to third-person as in Rainbow Six would work better. Some Sixaxis motion control elements also feel rather tacked on, despite at least being well thought out.
Something we've yet to get a good handle on is the story, which to be honest we couldn't get much of a feel for during our time with the preview build. Say what you like about Halo, but millions of people know the ins and outs of Bungie's storyline, and despite Killzone 2 being the third game in the series, most people are likely to be unsure if the Helghast are aliens or just an opposing human army. Geurrilla needs to make sure that Killzone newcomers aren't struggling to get to grips with what's going on. Equally important is the 32-player online multiplayer, which we're happy to report is shaping up extremely well, as our previous hands-on reports testify to.
It's fair to say that we're impressed by Killzone 2. Hype can work in two ways. A good game on the back of years of hype can change the industry forever (Halo), whereas a bad game on the back of a wave of hype can tarnish a brand. Two bad games in a row can end it forever. From what we've seen Killzone 2 not only has a chance of becoming the leading PS3 FPS, but also the leading FPS on all platforms, both on and offline. If Guerrilla can even come close to achieving such greatness PS3 gamers will be in for a hell of a treat in February.