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Perhaps all the time spent on Killzone 2's triumphant AI explains its inversely mediocre solo campaign, full of one boring objective after another. Fight from one end of a linear level to another. Push some buttons in a room. Take out an RPG team. Pilot a tank for a couple moments. Cruise the battlefield in an agile exoskeletal suit for a couple more. A game with Killzone 2's pedigree could (and should) have offered better.
The campaign's also packing a few non sequiturs. Why can you heal your squad mates, but they'll never lift a finger to help you? Why give players the best weapon in the game for half a level, then inexplicably yank it when the next one loads? And occasionally you'll be teased by toys, e.g. "We've got buggies man!" only to be dragged through a cutscene and dropped off without laying a finger on the steering column.
Enemies that spawn when you pass a hidden threshold are also irritatingly deterministic, tainted by heavy-handed scripting. In spots, they'll be disgorged through inaccessible cracks or from behind ledges they can navigate but you're not allowed to. Die a couple times and you'll spot these seams. When you do, even brilliant AI won't hide the arbitrary way enemies backfill behind corrugated nubs of cover to fill some kill quota.
Still, once they're in position, the Helghast flow across the battlefield with eerie dexterity and assault with ferocious skill. It's something to behold when you eventually encounter mass fields of fire in which both sides oscillate back and forth like water poured between cups, retreating only to advance again with the momentum of an effective forward thrust. Moments like those almost make up for the rest of the campaign's shortcomings.
Almost, but not quite, which is where multiplayer steps in and earns Killzone 2 its stars. There's an offline skirmish mode that lets you practice against deviously clever AI "bots," but the real money's online against other players. That mode's called Warzone, and it offers an evolving class-driven experience for up to 32 players, built around five game types that cycle as you play and swap win states on the fly.
"Search and Retrieve," which entails nabbing a tiny speaker spouting propaganda, is basically capture the flag, while "Search and Destroy" has you deploying explosive charges at the opposition's base (or preventing them from doing the same to yours). "Bodycount" is team deathmatch, "Capture and Hold," is king of the hill, and "Assassination" designates random players on both sides as temporary point-based execution targets.
So there's variety, and dynamism besides (the game types change automatically as win conditions are met). But the really clever part involves Warzone's six RPG-like classes, which run the gamut from support roles to disruptive saboteurs.
Everyone starts with the same kit: an assault rifle, a pistol, and a grenade. As you take out enemies and accomplish tasks, you accrue points, which buff your score and yield special badges and ribbons. The higher your score, the more stuff you can carry. With enough points, you can create squads that enhance your ability to communicate with squad mates – even spawn near squad leaders.
The badges and ribbons add to the roleplaying vibe with upgradeable class perks. Engineers, for example, can gain the ability to set automated turrets that target enemies, then rank up to add the option to repair ammunition dispensers, automated turrets, and mounted guns. Saboteurs, at the other end of the class system, can acquire the knack of looking like one of their opponents, then rank up and add the ability to throw proximity-detonated "sticky" C4 charges.
Still not deep enough for you? Classes aren't just static columns of one-way abilities, they can actually intersect and overlap. If you toil long enough and tally up the requisite essentials, you'll have the option to couple one class's abilities with another. Want a Medic who uses the Tactician's air support sentry bots to cover his curative ministrations? How about a (virtually) invisible Scout who employs the Saboteur's C4-laying ability to sneak behind enemy lines and plant incendiary surprises? The combinative role-playing possibilities are countless, the outcomes (which also iterate dependent on play styles) appreciably spontaneous, and the organic process by which matches evolve simply fascinating to watch.
Which, speaking of watching, brings us full circle to Killzone 2's looks. Make no mistake, it's a looker. But so what? At some point the visual novelty wears thin and you're left for posterity with a game that either worked, or didn't, or fell somewhere in that limbo-land between.
So it's fortunate that Killzone 2 not only works, but in most cases excels. Even its mediocre campaign improves if you treat it as I suspect its developer's intended – a series of pitched battles designed to showcase an AI that's at worst entirely competent, and at best, entirely remarkable.
PCW Score: 90%
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