Bringing a building to its knees with a turret; nailing a gas canister and watching it spiral out of control; pinning a Helghast to a wall with the bolt gun and watching him writhe in agony; letting rip with the superb flamethrower; watching hundreds of bullets whiz and ping, sending chunks of concrete flying off of pillars and exposing electrical cabling underneath; marvelling at the most stunning, eye-catching war torn backgrounds and skylines your gaming eyes ever did see, makes Killzone 2 the best looking game ever made – a jaw dropping graphical showcase from start to finish.
Then there are the animations. Oh, the glorious animations. In many ways, the Helghast, or “cockney Nazis”, steal the show from Killzone 2’s disappointingly generic Alpha Squad. For one, you see them more often than you see yourself, the personality-starved Sergeant Sev. Two, when you do see them, you’re almost always shooting them, which results in more satisfying limb jolting and spine spazzing than in a Rambo flick. The weapon reload animations are a work of art, often distracting the eye when you should be paying attention to what’s fixed squarely in your targeting reticule instead. Some take what feels like ages – the grenade launcher, the flamethrower – but they’re all worth it. In fact, when new weapons are introduced into the game, it’s just as much fun finding out what they look like to reload as it is to discover how destructive they are.
Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the AI. The Helghast are smart, to the point where they’re actually genuinely hard to kill. Your typical fire fight in Killzone 2 plays out like this: move forward into a new area of war-torn Helghan, the Helghast home planet, get assaulted by numerous Helghast, find cover, fight for your life. The Helghast, with their creepy red eyes and gas mask-filtered voices, aren’t dumb. They use cover at least as well as you do. They flank at least as well as you do. They fire at least as accurately as you do. They use grenades at least as appropriately as you do. They retreat, they regroup, they assault, they suppress, all at least as well as you do. In short, they’re bastards who don’t pop their heads out of cover just so you can whack-a-mole them on the head. If you try run and gun in Killzone 2 you’re going to get your ass handed to you. You need to think. This is not mindless violence, just… war.
Killzone 2’s stupendous graphical effects combine to provide an incredibly realistic experience, despite the fantastical sci-fi premise. Realistic and relentless. For some, working through the game’s somewhat brief 10 mission campaign will feel like a slog. That’s not a slight, but a deliberate move on Guerrilla’s part. The game’s levels are designed to play out like a series of intense fire fights that need to be battled through in order to progress, with few set pieces or breaks in pace. From the moment you’re spat out onto the battlefield from one of those now infamous flying soldier carriers to the game’s last, adrenaline-pumping battle, Killzone 2 is a roller coaster ride of endless death.
That Killzone 2’s campaign feels like the opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan is in part due to the incredible graphics, but there’s also a more subtle technique at play. Killzone 2’s perspective is set slightly lower compared with other FPS games, to the point where you sometimes feel like a midget when you’re fighting alongside other members of Alpha Squad. The view seems significantly narrower than in other games as well, almost as if someone’s pressed the zoom function on your TV remote and not told you. As a result, Killzone 2 feel more claustrophobic, more intense, more heart-thumping. When the HUD drains of colour and blood covers half the screen, you feel very, very alone, but very, very involved.
Then there are the controls, which will perhaps prove to be more of a deal-breaking factor than any other for some gamers. At first, the controls feel terrible. There’s an almost sluggish feel; a tiny but noticeable delay between pressing a direction with the Sixaxis thumb sticks and the shifting of the targeting reticule. Sev’s not fast, and he’s no super soldier. He can’t jump 20 feet in the air, like Master Chief, or roadie run as if a speeding bullet, like Marcus Fenix. Guerrilla’s gone for a more considered, realistic approach, grounded in a semblance of reality.
Having to snap to cover with the L2 button, (the default control set-up), forces your left hand to do things it really wasn’t built for. The sniper rifle highlights this perfectly. As you’d expect, you zoom by clicking in the right thumb stick. However, to get the maximum zoom you then need to press up on the d-pad, which, when you’re pressing L2 to stay in cover, can be more mind-melting than an episode of the Krypton Factor.
The point though, is that you do get used to Killzone 2’s unique controls. Eventually your brain starts to catch up with the game, and you find yourself compensating for the delay in movement and accurate targeting. You come to know that Sev takes a while to turn corners when you’re clicking in the right thumb stick to sprint. After a while, perhaps by the second or third mission, it all starts to come together.
Perhaps Guerrilla Games’ greatest achievement is that the Amsterdam development studio has somehow managed to make a game that, at times, not only reaches the graphical fidelity of that E3 2005 trailer, but even surpasses it. A debate has raged in the VideoGamer.com office in the last month: are Killzone 2’s graphics better than Crysis’? In many ways, it’s an unfair comparison, since Crysis is open world, but it’s fun to argue about that sort of thing.
Killzone 2 has been called many things: Sony’s Halo killer, better than Gears of War 2, that sort of nonsense. Why Halo? Because it’s a first-party FPS, a system seller, a reason to fork out £299 on a PS3. Why Gears of War 2? Because it’s grey. Comparisons with Halo are silly, so different are the experiences. Comparisons with Gears of War 2 are equally pointless. Killzone 2 has this perception of being grey, like, some people reckon, Gears of War. Yes, it’s dank and gritty and war torn and depressing, but that’s only telling half the story. After mission five Killzone 2 moves from the urban street battles of the Helghan capital city to more expansive, colourful environments that not only add variety to the scenery, but add much needed changes in pace and gameplay. There are ridiculously fun turret-centred levels, tanks to play with and, get this, even a mech level.
Really, Killzone 2 is more like Sony’s answer to Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat, without the invisible enemy spawn-ending barriers. The single-player campaign has that same visceral, in your face, fast-paced feel to it. Each fire fight pits a set number of Helghast against you that need to be killed before the saving symbol flashes in the top-left corner of the screen and relief washes over you. Defend an area against waves of enemies; attack a heavily defended position until there’s no-one left, that sort of thing. Then auto-save, move forward and repeat.
There’s a moment towards the end of the game when this gameplay technique reaches its fun-filled peak. Sev and the rest of the ISA invasion force are storming a heavily guarded structure. At the start you think, there’s absolutely no way I’m going to do this – there’s just too many of them, and they’re too dug into cover. But you inch forward, suppressing, flanking, taking out Helghast one at a time. As bullets whiz by your head and cover gets torn apart by mini-guns, as grenade explosions rock the earth, as the whole world seems to be coming down around you, you slowly but surely gain ground until suddenly there’s no-one left to kill and the game saves. Sit back, inhale, exhale, notice your heart racing, a ringing in your ears, your palms sweating, your fingers shaking. This is what you bought your PS3 for.
The graphics, then, are what make Killzone 2. They’re what make it the triple-A title it is. They’re what made forum goers across the internet salivate over animated gifs torn from snippets of gameplay footage. And they’re what make the game great despite its obvious failings.
You retry after every frustrating death because every single Helghast kill feels as if it’s too good to be true. You soldier through the repetitive mission objectives because what you’re looking at feels as if it’s being beamed in from a console from the future. You ignore the linear design because the levels slap you in the face and refuse to let you think about anything else. The graphics, the sheer technical monstrosity that is Killzone 2, unequivocally make up for its failings.
Which are, in no particular order, story, dialogue, personality and the complete non-event that is the promise of skewed morality. First, the story. The premise is that the ISA has invaded the Helghast home planet in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to capture Scolar Visari, the Hitler-esque dictator who’s got his trigger-finger on the nuclear warheads he nabbed at the end of the PSP game, Killzone: Liberation. The plot might have been interesting, but really it’s not. You don’t care that the Helghast has some kind of secret weapon up its sleeve. You don’t care about any of the human characters, whether they’re from the four-man Alpha Squad or the ISA at large. Indeed the game almost admits that the plot isn’t the point right from the off – there’s little effort at explaining what’s gone before, what’s going on as you’re playing or what effect the anti-climactic ending has on the story as a whole. The point, rather, is to point, shoot, kill, and be impressed.
The dialogue is another bone of contention. Testosterone-fuelled, profanity-filled one-liners have grated for a couple of years now, due in no small part to the popularity of the Gears of War franchise. Although not as ridiculously meaty as Delta Squad, Alpha Squad’s members are just as stereotypical – muscle-bound US marines with personalities so devoid of complexity that they make WWE wrestlers look like Oscar-winning actors.
That’s to be expected, perhaps. A necessary gaming evil, maybe. What’s more disappointing is how Killzone 2 completely ignores the promise of moral ambiguity Guerrilla made in the run up to the game’s release. This won’t be a clear cut, black and white, good guy versus bad guy yarn, we were told. Are the Helghast simply misunderstood? Should we be surprised they’ve got issues when their home planet is ravaged by relentless gales and terrifying electrical storms? Is Scolar Visari just doing right by his people? None of these questions are even given a cursory glance until the game’s last moment, an event that feels more like a primary school right and wrong lesson than philosophical beard scratcher. No, forget tear-jerking drama or shocking twists, Killzone 2 is all about blowing stuff up and looking great doing it. It’s no more complex a conundrum than that. Anyone expecting any more from the game will be disappointed. Anyone expecting any more from the game is missing the point.
The multiplayer is absolutely class. It’s called Warzone, a mode that pits up to 32 players in an ISA versus Helghast kill-em-up broken up by dynamically switching five-minute objectives. At the end of a Warzone match, which can last up to half an hour, whichever faction has won the most missions wins the round, and experience points are dished out accordingly. Killzone 2’s got an in-depth progression system as well as seven playable classes to sink your teeth into. Think Team Fortress 2 spliced with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and you’re halfway there. It’s all a bit confusing, but about as good as anyone could have hoped for. Much of the appeal won’t be known for a few months, of course, but Warzone could be the best online experience on the PS3.
Why isn’t Killzone 2 a perfect 10? The lack of a co-op mode is the biggest reason. It seems an odd choice, not just because co-op is modern day shooter de rigueur, but because it feels as if the game was built for it and then, right at the last minute, the feature was cut. For about 90 per cent of the game you’re playing alongside at least one other member of Delta Squad. More often than not it’s two of you versus the world, or a boss. There are times when you’ll play Killzone 2 and think, wow, that would have rocked with a mate, and then feel a little sad because you’re not. Even if the game’s too demanding to allow two players to take on the Helghast on one console, why not facilitate the feature across PSN?
Killzone 2’s been hyped waaaay too much, of course. And, no, it doesn’t live up to the hype, because if it did it would be the greatest FPS of all time, which it isn’t. But it is the best PS3-exclusive to date. Better even than LittleBigPlanet and Metal Gear Solid 4. Two years into the console’s life cycle, the undoubted graphical potential of the machine has been realised – Killzone 2 unleashes the power of the PS3 – nothing on any console comes close. The sheer OMG!-ness of the experience makes Killzone 2 worth buying a PS3 for. And, given how much they cost, that’s one hell of a compliment.