Killzone 2 is finally here, and the PS3's breathlessly awaited exclusive first-person shooter looks spectacularly depressing, like a heliographing bandolier buckled round a nuclear missile pointed at an everlasting free-fire zone.
Think exquisitely grim, then grimly rust-colored – tortured landscapes swirled with blinding sand and clots of dirt that geyser as artillery shells arc and plummet like shooting stars. Think meshes of destructible rack and ruin structures and neo-classical complexes festooned with Futura-styled aphorisms, policed by red-eyed shock troops reminiscent of Nazi Germany's sturmtruppen.
Yes, Killzone 2 looks good. Startlingly good. As good as you've heard, and then some. But is it the shot in the arm the PS3 needs? A chance for Sony's punditry-pummeled console to kick-start 2009 with its best foot forward?
Exhale. The answer is yes, as long as you're willing to treat its conventional campaign as less the main course than a warm-up for its superior skirmish and online components.
But first some background on the game's two squabbling factions, since it's more than you'll glean from the game itself. Think bad guys versus good guys shorn of moral subtlety, aka the International Strategic Alliance (or ISA – that's you) versus the fascist Helghast Empire, battling over planetary resources in some far-flung future.
The original Killzone for PS2 saw the Helghast launch an interplanetary war by invading the ISA colony planet Vekta, which the ISA eventually repelled. In Killzone: Liberation for the PSP, the ISA managed to boot the Helghast off Vekta altogether.
In Killzone 2, then, turnabout's fair play: The ISA opt to invade the Helghast home world, whooping and fist-bumping all the way.
A propaganda clip starring Helghast overlord Scolar Visari plays at the outset. Visari's a Marlon Brando lookalike whose pallid head emerges from shadow at the video's end like a fist pushed through chocolate. It's Apocalypse Now for Dummies, without the river, patrol boat, or Dennis Hopper's space-time fractions. The usual "Imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever," or something similarly Orwellian.
Itching for revenge, the ISA assemble in towering drop-ships above Pyrrhus, the Helghan capital. It's like the Normandy invasion by way of Warhammer 40k. In fact you huddle on floating platforms that actually resemble hovering "Higgins" LCVPs. That they lack armor-plated siding makes as much sense as carving holes in shields, but who needs logic when style pays dividends. Moments later you're spraying bullets and double-timing for cover, and that's when you realize...
Well not quite, but after popping your first few Helghast Assault Troops in Killzone 2, you'll notice they're not your average bowling alley tenpins.
For starters, they'll keep their bodies effectively concealed and peek judiciously. They're as quick as you to employ blind-fire (firing from behind cover without looking) and they'll lay curtains of bullets across the battlefield to keep you hunkered and unnerved. They'll even lob grenades to flush you out of hidey-holes instead of charging headlong, and fire through complex geometry to prevent you from settling in a corner.
There's more. The game utilizes a first-person cover system that homages Ubisoft's Rainbow Six Vegas – hold down a shoulder trigger to stick to walls, wiggle the joystick to poke your weapons around objects, release to unlimber. The kicker? Killzone 2's enemy's use cover every bit as ably as you on your best day.
Lay down suppressive fire and the opposition responds in kind, flanking and skewering you with enfilade fire. Enemies know how to move effectively and do so swiftly, whether mantling along walls or darting between swathes of cover. They're tough to confuse, and only rarely peel away from safe zones to stand unprotected while unloading a clip or two.
Head-shots are dear, because bodies can absorb up to six or seven. The Helghast are altered humans – tougher than you – so they take more than a few pops to drop. Bullets spin enemies off-center, making even stunned targets a challenge to finish off. Uncontrolled fire aggravated by weapons recoil can draw your aim off target and give the enemy critical seconds to recover and return the favor.
Nothing's perfect, and in this case it's the friendly AI that's suffers. Despite promises that your squad mates will stay out of your way, they don't, occasionally wandering into your line of fire. That's bad enough, but then they chastise you for it. In open terrain, they'll stay behind you, but when you're changing directions rapidly in narrow areas like tunnels or stairways, they get confused, often impeding your progress or compromising your line of sight. It's a minor defect, but an annoying one just the same.