‘Epic’ is a word that is loosely banded around the videogame industry. In practically every press release pimping the latest game that comes fluttering into our inbox, we find that very noun used nonchalantly by publishers trying to convince us that its game will be the next big thing. There are very few games that I’d personally describe as epic, only a handful in fact; Oblivion, Shadow of the Colossus, Metal Gear Solid, God of War and Grand Theft Auto spring to mind. As for first person shooters? Well, not really. Perhaps I could add Call of Duty 4 and Resistance 2 to the list if I was feeling particularly generous, but after a week of playing Killzone 2, I have a new understanding of the word epic, and those two games, as great as they are, don’t quite fit into that category. Killzone 2, however, is as epic a game as I’ve ever played; it’s a chaotic, intense, and cinematic experience that blows every other shooter right out of the water. Shout it from the rooftops folks, “Killzone 2 has arrived!” And if it isn’t the system seller that the Sony bigwigs are hoping for, they might as well pack their bags and shut down HQ, because Killzone 2 will simply blow you away!
When you’re sitting in front of your television screen with Killzone 2 blaring in all its HD glory, it’s a sight to truly behold. Guerrilla Games has harnessed the power of the PS3 to produce a magnificent looking game, better than anything ever seen on a console before. The smog of war expands and rises as fights build in ferocity, smoke trails from the tips of steaming shotguns drift dreamily away in the breeze, gusts of wind toss around loose debris as muzzles flash and grenades light up the night sky, and blood trickles down walls where Helghast lay slain as thunder and lightning roar over the bleak landscape. Amidst the chaos, drop-ships busily fly overhead laying down reinforcements as bullets ricochet and spark off metal and concrete surfaces. There’s so much cool stuff to see within every nook and cranny of Killzone 2, and it’s all set against a backdrop of magnificent post-apocalyptic scenery. Every current-gen graphical technique, from motion blur to depth-based color grading, has been used to full effect here, and it has paid off spectacularly.
Killzone 2 is an intensely atmospheric and cinematic experience that grabs you by the throat from the first moment you descend on the Helghan capital, and never slows down as it drags you through intensive battles across its turbulent universe. It’s made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and a tingle rise up and down my spine, and there aren’t many games that have done that. In one scene, where you fight furiously against a squad of RPG-armed Helghast that is nested in a building across the street, you jump on a mounted chain gun and can literally bring the building gradually to its knees as you chip away at the brickwork and then watch it crash to the ground in a cloud of smoke. Visually, it’s just one of the many amazing things that you’ll witness while tackling the hordes of aggressive, intelligent Helghast.
Guns look remarkably realistic as well, with shotguns that shed cartridges each time you shoot, assault rifles that recoil and spark with each trigger press, and flamethrowers that blast out impressive-looking fire and cause equally dramatic damage to any object or person that crosses your path. It doesn’t stop there, either; character animations are equally outstanding. Each time you kill an enemy you can expect to see a unique animation, as they react realistically depending on which part of the anatomy you hit. They also interact with objects in the area, falling off balconies, slumping over cover, or flying in the air and then landing at your feet when you’ve set off a grenade or shot an exploding barrel. Hit a Helghast in the stomach and he’ll buckle over and stagger backwards before slowly dropping to the ground. Aim for his head and you’ll see his helmet get knocked clean off as he staggers from side to side trying to regain his balance. Power up the flamethrower and watch enemies hold their head, scream and zigzag around aimlessly, searching haplessly for a way to extinguish the flames. The action in Killzone 2 rises in intensity the more you progress, and at its heart-thumping best it’s a visual bombardment on the senses, an exciting, bold, and powerful invitation to any other developer who wants to see just how to utilize the power of the PlayStation 3 and make a gripping first person shooter.
So, Killzone 2 looks the part, but you probably knew that already. Let’s move on to the actual gameplay. The majority of mechanics in the game, from the pistol/assault rifle/sniper weapon set and lean and peak cover system to the vehicle combat and ‘defend and attack’ objectives, are all tried and tested formulas, so there’s nothing particularly new and innovative to see here. The difference is that every single aspect of the game been implemented to the highest of standards — with the exception of the generic Humans vs. Aliens storyline, that is. In this respect, the scriptwriters are evidently from the same school of thought as the team who wrote Kane & Lynch. They obviously thought that if a character says “f**k” or “s**t” often enough, it makes the game gritty and realistic. It doesn’t, and despite some brilliantly rendered and dramatic cut-scenes, it’s a forgettable tale.
The story follows two warring factions: the Helghast and the ISA. The Helghast, although descended from humans, are a mutant breed who look fantastically threatening with their helmets, cloaks, and three-eyed orange goggles wrapped around their heads. These mutants are exiled on the planet Helghan, where the ISA (that’s you), a team of Special Forces, invade in order to take down the Helghast leader. That’s really all you need to know. You’re the good guys and you’re after the bad guys, and they’re as tough as old boots. Simple. The storyline soon faded to the back of my mind, which may have been because I was distracted, and at times even stunned, by some of the most fiercely contested combat that I’ve faced in a videogame, not to mention the manner in which I was thrown from one battle to the next with barely any time to catch my breath. In all seriousness, an uninspired storyline isn’t an issue when you have gameplay as potent as this.
Killzone 2 gets it right on so many levels. The map design offers many options for attacking and defending with multi-tiered levels with multiple pathways, mounted weapons, combat vehicles, and spots of cover to duck behind wherever you go. The mixture of pacing makes it so unpredictable, with battles that range from slower-paced open warfare across city streets where grabbing a weapon with a sight is paramount, to frenetic close-quarters combat where you might crash open a door and stumble upon a Helghast ambush. Time to pick up the shotgun! Even on the easiest difficulty setting, Killzone 2 has its really tough moments, situations where you’ll be pinned down and have to think quickly to try and make an escape. For the most part though, it’s is all about moving up the battlefield with your allies, pushing the enemy back and taking them out one at a time, or taking out a group with a cleverly thrown grenade, all while trying not to get yourself killed. This is where the cover system comes nicely into play.
The cover system works seamlessly with the rest of the gameplay. You can hide behind or press yourself up against any object by pressing L2, and then lean to the side or over cover to shoot at the enemy, or even blind fire by pressing down on R2. Snaking pathways ensure that there’s plenty of opportunity to move methodically up the battlefield and use cover if you so wish. Although you will absolutely have to make use of cover during some of the more chaotic battles, there’s still plenty of opportunity for aggressive run-and-gun warfare. It’s during these moments that Killzone 2 really captures the anarchy and brutality of war, and its these powerful instances — when I’ve ran at full pelt at the Helghast picking them off one by one, or threw a grenade through doorway and then steamed in armed with a flamethrower — that I’ll seek to replay over and over again. For me, it’s when Killzone 2 is at its best — when you don’t fear the Helghast.
That may sound strange, but early on I would only move from cover once I was positive the coast was clear. This is because the Helghast react so intelligently and mercilessly to what’s going on around them — yet another area where Killzone 2 excels. The A.I. backs off when they feel overwhelmed, dives for cover at appropriate times, and presses forward when they see you’re struggling. Peak your head around a corner and within a couple of seconds you’ll be pinpointed and targeted by grenades, RPGs, AA guns or any weapon they can get their hands on. Try and run away, through a building perhaps, and they’ll soon come after you. The enemy can be extremely unforgiving at times, which is why I sometimes wish I had a human partner to back me up. Alas, there’s no cooperative play in Killzone 2. Throughout the game, I couldn’t help thinking that due to the excellent map design, the cover system, and particularly the tough A.I., co-op play was made for it. It’s unfair to hold the exclusion of co-op against Killzone 2, however, as the sheer technical feat of implementing co-op into a game so graphically advanced must be near-impossible. Still, co-op would have been an amazing feature.
It’s good that your computer allies are just as intelligent as the Helghast, otherwise there would have been a severe imbalance between the two sides. We’re all used to playing shooters where your teammates don’t really help you at all, and often even get in the way. The great thing about your team in Killzone 2 is that they always work with you. They’ll often come to your rescue, as you do for them when they’re in a spot of bother. You can heal your teammates, and while they can’t return the favor, the majority of the time they’ll look after you quite nicely anyway. If your allies see you press forward they’ll come with you, taking up strategic positions along the way. You hold back and they’ll often hold back with you, only moving forward when it’s safe to do so. This is what gives you the confidence to sometimes take that run-and-gun attitude. When you know that your teammates will try their hardest to get your back, it makes all the difference.
The weapons and the way they handle also make a huge difference to the gameplay. There aren’t any MP5s that feel like peashooters or shotguns that lack a true punch here — they all, bar the knife, feel like powerful weapons of destruction. While they cater to different styles of gameplay, unlike some shooters, I haven’t found a firm favorite. Getting up close and personal with the shotgun and blasting a Helghast six feet backwards is equally as satisfying as slaughtering a group of enemies with a spray of bullets from a sub-machine gun. The guns handle impeccably, and it’s easy enough to get to grips with the weapons right from the outset. They recoil realistically, feel heavy, look authentic and pack one hell of a punch. Oh, and they sound amazing! Try jumping on an AA gun and you’ll feel its power as you pummel any Helghast unfortunate enough to get in the way and pick holes in heavy cover. Hop into a tank, which handles very nicely, and you can pinpoint Helghast sitting in towers armed with RPGs and blow them to smithereens with little effort. Although there’s nothing innovative about the weaponry, each has been afforded the utmost care in its creation, which has resulted in a trusty and commanding weapon set that help create the illusion of a being in a real war.
It’s clear from the very beginning that a lot of care and fine detail has gone into Killzone 2 in order to make it an enjoyable, frustration-free game. Even the small touches, such as the implementation of Sixaxis motion sensing (you plant explosives and turn valves by twisting the controller), or the lack of a HUD, or simply the minuscule option to press ‘Up’ on the D-Pad to bring up an on-screen marker telling you where to head next, are all features that make the Killzone experience so enjoyable. There’s plenty more to look forward to throughout your time with the game, but ultimately it’s all about the battles. Defending Visari Square from an onslaught of Helghast led by two Giant Slayers is just one scenario amongst many other brilliant battle scenes that are coming your way.
Excited? You certainly should be. For fans of the first person shooter genre, Killzone 2 is unequivocally the best thing to have happened to the PlayStation 3 thus far.