Review / Killzone 2 (PS3)

One of the most controversial titles of the PlayStation 3’s early promotion, Killzone 2 has been a great looming presence over everything that has gone on and around the platform. That said, a lot has happened since E3 2005 and Sony has had to get used to an environment where it is isn’t the boss of the market – and arguably isn’t anywhere close. With this in mind, how does Killzone 2 live up to the hype and weight of hope that was put upon it?

There is an elephant in the room that is apparent from the moment the game begins, however, I’m going to hang fire for a moment before jumping into it. The premise of Killzone 2 is incredibly simple, as an act of retaliation to the events of previous Killzone titles, the ISA (interchangeable with USA) is taking the fight straight to the Evil Emporer Scolar Visari of the remarkably Third-Reichesque Planet Helgan. The entire game works through the stages of the invasion of Helgan – from the first landings through to the final climactic battle.

There is an interesting subtext throughout the game of the main characters as aggressive invaders, rather than innocent defenders who would rather “live and let live”. And while the Helghast armies are a cruel a faceless war machine there is an element of amorality to all that happens which makes the righteous zeal of your ISA comrades appear clumsy and unbefitting to the events.

Now to the elephant in the room: Killzone 2 is gorgeous! It is remarkable (or perhaps not) to think that this game has been in development since the early days of the console – however its use of the the PlayStation 3’s architecture and power is unsurpassed and in many way realizes many of the initial hopes and promises made by Sony. The detail of the environments, characters and everything that flies through the air between them is fantastic. There is a real sense of claustrophobia and heat in the look of the game which bears down on the player with all the reasonable pressure that could be expected of a horrendous sci-fi warzone such as Helgan.

However the success of the Killzone 2’s visceral experience isn’t just in the look of the game, there are numerous elements at play that all contribute to the feeling of intensity. The AI appears particularly clever: maneuvering around the player, responding to fire, using cover and always actively seeking to exploit weaknesses in the player’s strategy. Killzone 2 proves that solid AI can prevent combat from becoming a monotonous cut and paste experience, every engagement is different by virtue of the enemy tactically responding to their own environment and challenging threats – as such you too need to put thought into your approach to each situation. Combat isn’t quite as calculated as, for example, Brothers in Arms, however it is essential on higher difficulties. The level of strategic combat does dip toward the climactic scenes where the game becomes arbitrarily difficult in the final, thoughtless battle with a hoard of Helghast Troops followed by the final boss.

This breed of intelligent behavior only works, however, on the condition that characters move in realistic ways and exhibit human mannerisms. Things as simple as enemies ducking when facing fire, or hats flying off when shot, make a huge difference to the overall experience. One of the most entertaining elements, and there is some sadistic fun to be had here, of Killzone 2 is the way enemies react when shot. It is difficult to put into words how they writhe in the air with each successive shot that punches through them.

This is where things get interesting. For the most part the Helghast are faceless warrior-ants on the great anthill of Helgan. However, it is only when shot up, falling ragdoll to the ground, that they ooze humanity. There is something deeper in seeing one of these imperial tools scramble to his feet as he flees for cover, only to fall short and get churned to pieces by machine gun fire – yet it’s so subtle that if you blink you might miss it. Of course, a lot of this kind of movement does get overplayed – and often seeing enemies windmill through the air as they fall to the ground is little more than downright silly.

The sound design is also impeccable. Hiding behind cover can be a thrilling experience by the sound of bullets skimming over the top of your head alone. The game is also much easier to play through a surround sound system, giving you a surprisingly clearer sonic picture of events on the battlefield. It’s great if you have a surround sound system, but if all you have is the mono speaker on your television then placing the source of that gunfire, or which door that voice came from behind might be a little tricky.

Killzone 2 walks a fine line with its environments. Helgan is a dark, dreadful planet full of all the bland high-rises and grey streets stereotypical of the Soviet Bloc. There is a dreadful danger, however, that in creating this world they don’t slip into copying and pasting the same environments over and over in a similar manner to the repetitive citadels of Resistance 2. Killzone 2 manages to keep some diversity between levels, from the city to a speeding train to the desert wastes, whilst keeping a certain amount of consistency and familiarity. Most importantly, the environments never get to the point of being ridiculous and all manage to fit seamlessly within the wider narrative.

I’ve put off discussing the characters up to this point because, frankly, they are one of the game’s weakest links. The Helghast are supposed to be the game’s faceless enemies, yet the banal, cavalier, G.I. Joe attitude of the ISA troops raises doubts as to which group are in fact the most boring to engage with. While the cut scenes are wonderfully animated and cinematic, unless they’re muted they are certain to be spoilt by the disappointingly cliched dialogue. For a lot of the game, the main character Sev (though he might have been called Generic Hero 1 for all he brings to the plot) hangs out with one particular comrade, Rico. Though it is nice to have a companion who can genuinely contribute in the tougher battles (though it does make co-operative play quite conspicuous by its absence) he does outstay his welcome on a number of occasions. Furthermore, whenever he bites the dust (and given his often sub-par level of intelligence, that can be quite often) its up to Sev to trek over to wherever he is and bring him back from the dead.

The game’s online modes are solid and, past the 8 or so hour campaign, a nice place to continue playing. Again, most of the offline mode’s positives and gameplay features make their away across bar a couple of relatively minor exceptions (such as the ability to stick to cover). A nice to touch to online battles is seamless transition between rounds and gameplay modes – not halting play throughout the entirety of the game. Online battles can support anything up to 32 players, the results are tight and intimate skirmishes that demand and reward teamwork and tactical play – at many times more so than the one/two man army play that characterizes a lot of the campaign. Furthermore, everything that can be achieved online can be replicated offline with AI opponents. Again though the absence of any offline multiplayer renders it redundant.

In many ways Killzone 2 is the kind of game we had hoped would permeate the entirety of the PlayStation 3’s catalog – It’s beautiful, cinematic, intense, intelligent and has great online functionality. Not without its flaws, the most pronounced of which are in the screenplay and characterization, the game would have appeared so much stronger if it hadn’t been for all the weight of expectation laid upon it. Not to mention the extended wait! That aside, the game is definitely worth the investment for FPS fans looking for some exclusive Sony IP to really bring alive their catalog. We can only hope that Guerrilla Games get the next one (or something new perhaps) out a little faster next time.

+

  • Wonderful, engrossing audio-visual experience
  • Intelligent, thought provoking gameplay
  • Strong online multiplayer

  • Poor, cliched characters and screenplay
  • Ever heard of co-op?
  • Thoughtless final battles
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