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.
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.