Killzone 2 has been delayed to February 2009. That's perhaps the most shocking news to come out of Sony's recent PlayStation Day in London. Definitely more shocking than, say, the fact that the PS3 has outsold the Xbox 360 in Europe. So I headed over to the ridiculously small Killzone 2 booth Sony had erected to get some answers and, hopefully, some hands on time with one of the PS3's most anticipated titles.
The booth was manned not by staff from developer Guerrilla Games, but by SCEE staff, staff who were perfectly knowledgeable about the game but perhaps a little ill-equipped to answer questions on the delay. "It's to do with our publishing schedule," said one. "We saw our line-up for 2008 and thought we could push it back." In other words, Sony doesn't want its two premier shooters, Killzone 2 and Resistance 2, going up against each other and suffering from reduced sales as a result.
Common sense prevails then. But that won't stop Killzone fans who have been waiting patiently for the sequel feeling bitterly disappointed by the news. Onto the second burning question then: will Killzone 2 be worth the wait? We joined the ridiculously long queue to get 20 minutes with the game to find out.
The first thing that hits you is the graphics. Whatever your opinion of the infamous 2005 "is it in-game or isn't it?" trailer, three years later and it looks like Guerrilla has made good on its promise. The graphical detail really is tremendous. Soldiers' faces contort realistically, enemy Helghast react differently depending on where you shoot them, explosions rain in from all directions, flying soldier carts land at a whim and platforms and cover crumble as the going gets tough. It really does look like the sci-fi version of the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. I'm impressed. Taken aback even. And all this from just looking at someone else playing the game.
But it also looks very grey. Very, very grey indeed. Whether this is a criticism or a compliment will depend on your personal outlook on the shooter genre as a whole, one which some say has grown a tad stale from focusing on being gritty. The Killzone 2 level demoed at PlayStation Day, called Corinth River (actually the second mission in the game, following a tutorial mission), is perhaps one of the greyest video game levels I've ever seen. The vehicles are grey. The soldiers are grey. The ground the soldiers land on in their first encounter with the Helghast is grey. The industrial structures, one of which you eventually infiltrate, are grey. Like I said, Killzone 2 looks very grey. It's the best-looking grey game I've ever seen.
But how does it play? From what we can glean from the 20 minutes or so it took to complete around five objectives from the start of the game's second mission, it's a solid, functional shooter that ticks all the right boxes, but leaves us feeling a tad under-whelmed in the wow factor.
The level begins with a soldier drop-off into a hot zone on the Helghast's home planet. And by hot, we actually mean burning so bright it's blotting out the sun. Alpha team is assigned to head the advance of Nemesis Convoy through the Helghast's outer defence. But things quickly go wrong, as you and your buddies are shot down. You land and bang! You're chucked straight into the action. Enemy fire whizzes past your head, explosions land metres from your feet, flinging debris across the minimal HUD, medics perform CPR on downed allies, soldiers point and shout, barking orders that are barely audible over the cacophony of chaos that envelopes you.
The Helghast have the high ground, positioned as they are on a raised bridge overlooking the carnage. Your fellow soldiers are being gunned down left, right and centre. Queue your first objective - destroy the Helghast ammo boxes. It's here that you get a taste for the controls. You've got what you'd expect from typical FPS dual analogue shenanigans, (L2 rifle butt, R2 grenade, analogues for aiming and movement) as well as a handy cover system - L1 snaps into cover. From there you can pop in and out and dispatch the Helghast from the safety of large rocks, embedded structures and anything else that looks like it might repel a bullet. Once you get the hang of the cover system, it actually works pretty well. The targeting reticule goes red whenever it moves over an enemy, green when it moves over an ally. As you fire the targeting reticule gets larger and accuracy reduces. Depending on what weapon you have equipped, clicking in R3 makes you look down the barrel of the gun, zooming in slightly and providing a small dot to aim with, ala Call of Duty 4.
With a tentative foothold gained on the "grey beach", it's onto the next objective - to assist the ISA at the Flood Gate. You move forward, reinforcements dropping in for both sides as you make you're way closer to the mark. You eventually arrive at the Flood Gate and find a number of soldiers moaning in pain. You revive them by moving up to them and pressing circle, all the while Helghast keep you on your toes. The SCEE representative says that reviving team mates will be crucial to your progression through the game, so we're happy to help.
Once done, you break off from the main force with Garza, a fellow soldier who acts as your guide towards the Flood Gate control room. We arrive at a section where Garza is on a raised level and reaches down to give you a hand up. You have no control over proceedings here - you simply move towards his hand and press the appropriate button. You both make your way into a warehouse-like interior. Helghast crash through the ceiling and start attacking. From a raised position, you can fire on barrels which, yes you guessed it, explode, taking out a number of Helghast in one shot. The funnier option, however, is shooting gas canisters, which then spiral madly out of control and smash into enemy soldiers.
With the Helghast cleared you reach the flood gate control room, dispatching an unfortunate enemy on the way. Here you need to turn a valve to open the flood gate. To do this you need to hold L1 and R1, as if they were controlling your hands, and twist the Sixaxis controller left until it's fully raised. Once completed, the next objective presents itself - to cross the canal and follow the convoy. But the screen goes blank, Killzone 2 bursts on screen and the demo ends before we get the chance to see what happens next.
Having spent our load on Killzone 2 we were left feeling encouraged and slightly under-whelmed all at the same time. Encouraged by the stunning graphics, how intense the single-player experience is shaping up and how the cover-based run and gun gameplay ticks all the right boxes, but under-whelmed by a lack of freshness. In some respects Killzone 2 could be Call of Duty 4 on an alien planet. Or, with the overloaded machismo, Gears of War in first person. This doesn't necessarily mean it will be an average game, or even an above average game. But it does mean that, from what we've seen, Killzone 2 needs a splash of innovation magic dust if it's to push the boundaries of the FPS genre, something we are desperately hoping Guerrilla manages to achieve between now and February next year.
Killzone 2 is due out for PS3 in February 2009.