Review: Killzone 2 for PS3 - The Ultimate Shooter Experience
After years in the making, an insurmountable amount of hype and negativity, positivity and pessimism, it's finally here. It's been a long and hard battle for Guerrilla Games (GG) these past few years.
Having to try and match up to the massive expectations of the community. Mine were also huge, so the question is, how has Killzone 2 fared against them?
To get a sense of what the sequel has achieved, I'll start with the original Killzone, a game that never quite grabbed me in the way I'd hoped. Sure, it had impressive visual and artistic appeal, a fairly decent story and likeable characters. But the gunplay (number of bullets needed to down enemies/aiming/controls), technical issues and pacing, left me wanting more and ultimately in my eyes designated it to being simply mediocre and ever shy of greatness.
Then along came Killzone Liberation, a PSP title that in many ways proved that GG had more to offer. It was a solid little third person shooter, but not quite enough to remove anxieties that the developers had what it took to make the sequel AAA.
Naturally the first thing that will hit you about the game is the incredible presentation values and visuals. From the opening cut scene which is both powerful and bold, to the very first time you lay your eyes on the gameplay visuals, the game is set to stun.
The graphics throughout the title are nothing short of breathtaking and exude a level of all-encompassing technical sophistication simply non-existent in other console titles thus far. Almost everything in the game has an impressive aesthetic appeal about it, most notably the lighting, complexity of level geometry and the detail of weapon models.
Attention to detail manages to entwine itself in almost every facet of the games visuals. Volumetric smoke from explosions and gun fire sways and drags across the screen with realistic opacity and a sense that it is affected by wind. Every shot fired depending on the weapon and material evokes a violent reaction of physics affected sparks, debris, particles and even heat haze.
Gas canisters will leak, burn and smoulder, dust will plume around levels, and lightning will light up an entire level and everything in it in the blink of an eye. Shadows are dynamic and react to surroundings and everything in them. Directional motion blur, barely a jaggy in sight, excellent character models, you name it this game ticks nearly every box. Heck, your character even leaves footprints!
Possibly the only complaints with the visuals could be the odd low res texture here and there, and rare frame rate drops (usually only when all hell is breaking loose on screen). But in the grand scheme of things, these are severe nitpicks. Especially when the game doesn't require an install and has only a handful of load screens, one per level (most loads are split second affairs that occur in game).
Killzone 2 not only corrects the technical faults of its predecessor, but sets a new benchmark for all other console games to come.
Contrary to belief, while the visuals may be the first thing that inspires awe, they are not the most addictive thing about the title, nor what will keep players coming back for more. No, that, I'd have to hand to the fantastic gunplay on offer.
Killzone 2 controls and handles quite different to other shooters. You will quickly notice everything has a great sense of weight and realism to it. This game demands effort and isn't shy about reminding the player they are wearing heavy armour, or that they are carrying a heavy, cold chunky tool of death that doesn't give free kills, but instead makes you earn them. There is the bare minimum auto aim on offer here; KZ2 will not hold your hand in any way.
Whilst the controls and aiming may seem alien at first (to some I'd imagine they will feel alien for a while), stick with them, learn and practise them and if you have what it takes, you will create such a symphony of death that your killing spree's might almost be regarded as a work of art.
Here, it's all about delicacy and precision, a heavy hand and lack of patience will get you nowhere. Learn to use the variance of the analogues, to use subtle touches when needed, to make use of the extra efficiency and accuracy of short controlled bursts, and you'll be rewarded by the bucket load.
On the topic of patience, the games inclusion of a first person cover system really aids in giving fire fights an added tactical dimension. Whilst the cover system doesn't work flawlessly (some walls are immune to cover, and the fact that you can't move whilst reloading is a tad annoying), it is on the whole quite functional and successful at what it tries to achieve.
On the harder difficulties in the game, you will find that cover will act as your Guardian Angel. Run in guns blazing and you'll likely meet a black screen of death in seconds. Cover will save your life more times than you can count, and often times you will have no choice but to cower behind cover, clinging on to dear life as enemies pin you down with near frustrating ferocity. Use it wisely though, and it can be key to dominating the enemy, controlling waves and ensuring you retain an upper hand.
Much talk has been made of Killzone 2's AI, a part of the game I was always concerned about. I'm happy to report that those concerns were unfounded. The game's AI for the most part is very potent indeed, especially on the harder difficulties. Enemies will not shy away from pinning, flanking or melee'ing you, working together in a team, using the environment (and cover) to their own advantage, darting about avoiding gun fire, placing well aimed grenades right at your feet, or knowing when to bail when things go belly up.
One particularly impressive element of the AI is the way enemies sometimes slouch behind cover until you can no longer see the top of their heads. They'll do this (on harder difficulties) when they sense a bullet go whizzing past their head, and once they do duck completely behind cover, they will pop up at a different (unknown to you) spot behind that cover to take quick pot shots at you. A breath of fresh air from the usual 'hold your aiming reticule above their head till they pop up' manoeuvre.
The same praises cannot be sung for the squad AI, which is competent, but not exactly overly intelligent. They will often come to your aid, maybe even save your life shooting enemies you were unaware of, but other times they'll target the wrong enemies, die too often or end up getting in your way.
One of the games other features that really adds to the sense of immersion and quality of gunplay on offer is the brilliant hit detection system. Enemies react realistically in orchestrated harmony to each and every one of your bullets. Excellent physics amalgamated with motion captured animations and extreme blood splatter, make things feel real; give kills an added sense of devastation and feedback.
Everything here reacts in a tactile way. Weapons give you the correct amount of punch and kick, and every bullet you fire has a sense of lethality about it. These elements couple together to make kills that much more satisfying and consistently fun which in turn ensures killing never gets too repetitive.
The audio in the game is generally superlative (but not always, read on) and also really adds to the sense of immersion. Each weapon has a unique and effective sound effect.
Rifle fire will thunder, bullets will whizz, muzzles flare, shell casings ping, all with commendable clarity and grunt giving optimal feedback. Some sounds you will grow accustom to, one's that have more of a tactical emphasis, like the rising beeps of a cooking grenade, symbolising when you should be running for dear life.
The soundtrack in my opinion is one of the greatest achievements in the game. The music has an almost Hollywood blockbuster esque appeal about it, invoking numerous reactions from the player. Most commonly tension, the bleak harsh reality of war, the growing fear/sense of battle or a rise in motivation to help usher the player on.
This time the soundtrack also has more cutting and raw audio elements, akin to sounds found in The Dark Knight, which in my opinion work perfectly given the dark, moody subdued harshness of the Helghan world and the battles that unfold within it.
The dynamic implementation of audio matches gameplay succinctly, and helps keep things intense when needed, or calming when not. Tempo, ferocity of instruments, volume, the intensity of a track etc are often extenuated based on specific actions within the game.
Where the quality of audio falters however, is with the Voice Acting (VA), which sometimes works, and other times has a level of cheese or detachment that is near cringe worthy. Certain narrative segments help to get across the narrative successfully, allow us to get a sense of a character or scenario, but don't expect anything overly deep or engaging here, you'll find nothing of the sort.
The problem is usually not with the VA itself, but with the script or lines on offer. I didn't go in expecting Oscar winning performances, so it didn't leave me particularly disappointed, but honestly, this is classic soldier/grunt extreme crude, rude, overly confident and unnecessary VA right here. You will hear curses left and right, and other insults that are laughable.
Now and again though, the VA will get a decent reaction out of you, the odd smile, laughter (when something is meant to be funny), odd bit of anger, tension and what not. The main cut scenes are done pretty well, and the Helghan VA is especially good. Characters like Natko don't work quite as well however.
The campaign took me roughly 8 hours on Trooper (Normal, one of 4 different difficulties) and around 10 hours on Veteran (Hard). Overall it's a decent length, nothing too long and meaty, but not so short that it leaves you wanting more. In-fact by the end you wouldn't be embarrassed to feel slightly exhausted.
This is one very intense game that requires a lot of input from beginning to end. It's also one of my negatives with the campaign. That negative being that the beginning few levels of the game are perhaps too intense (first quarter or more). The game starts with a bang, and doesn't let up, in-fact; it only keeps getting more and more intense.
This aids getting across the notion that this Helghan war is brutal and demoralising, but can also be too much to take in early on. Thankfully, after the first quarter or so the game starts to have more balanced pacing, with more moments allowing you time to breath, explore, or enjoy the world and characters on offer. It's after this point that the game really starts to excel. Levels become more varied, gameplay more diverse (weapons, turrets, enemies, mechs etc) and the narrative begins to flesh out and get a bit more personal.
The early segments of the game tend to take place in very urban type environments, however later on things open out a bit more. There is a decent amount of level diversity, but nothing too extreme. Not the level diversity of say Gears 2 or Resistance 2, but more than Gears 1 or Call of Duty 4. It's just enough to keep things fresh. Just don't expect any bright colours and grassy fields.
Whilst there is variety on offer, most of it still has a bleak and harsh appeal about it, which fits perfectly in-line with the nature of planet Helghan. Some of the levels do however have spectacular set pieces that literally make jaws drop.
As much as the gunplay in KZ2 is rewarding and satisfying, the game delivers in just enough little trinkets or gameplay mix ups to keep things constantly engaging. Thrown in among the mayhem are some interesting and rather unique weapons such as the Electricity gun, that makes you feel near God like in power if only for a very brief, but oh so satisfying time, a bolt gun that not only impales enemies but whose harpoons detonate, a flamethrower that pours molten napalm over screaming (literally screaming) enemies, and then there's turrets, anti-aircraft guns, a tank and a mech (etc) thrown in the mix for good measure.
These things certainly help spice up the gameplay, and make the experience that little bit more unforgettable. Some of the segments are particularly awesome and really make you grin with glee and enthusiasm. Controlling the Mech (which can run, and jump quite high!), was particularly fun. Again, there are some brilliant little aesthetic touches, such as the Mech's health bar being indicated by cracks on its glass cockpit or electricity and sparks flying everywhere within it.
The story in the title is one of the weaker aspects of the game. It certainly had great potential with the complex background story; however the story within the game barely touches on this. Go in expecting to learn a lot about the Killzone world, history, saga and reasons for the war, and you will leave disappointed. Killzone 2's story focuses squarely on Team Alpha and the discoveries, actions, missions and objectives of the characters within it, through the eyes of the main character (Sev).
There are some nice little twists thrown in throughout the game, that certainly help the narrative by, but none are particularly ground breaking or memorable. It's a relatively standard military affair here, with some decent and fairly interesting characters thrown in (Radec, Viscari, Sev, Rico, Templar etc).
The online multiplayer (MP) component of the game is actually the star of the show. This is the part that will keep you coming back for more, and this will likely be the thing that not only gives the game lasting appeal, but seals it as a fps classic.
The brilliant thing about KZ2's MP is that it brings all the functionality and polish of popular online shooters from the past (COD4 and TF2 for example) but gives them an injection of realism and tactility, along with 32 players, visuals that near enough match the single player campaign and dedicated servers for lag free gaming too. Minimal auto aim, realistic aiming, motion, character reactions and so forth make for some highly addictive online play.
Mix that in with the fantastic reward system (unlock multiple badges that give you different skills and abilities, far more comprehensive than unlocking perks in COD4 for example), amazing level design (multiple access points and routes to segments/action points on maps, vertical spanning gameplay as well as horizontal), a decent array of weapons (each one with unique functionality and learning curve) and the dynamic missions (constantly changing mission objectives for diverse play) and you have a winning formula.
The badge system is particularly well balanced and impressive. Giving an extra level of team and tactical play rarely found in shooters. For example, if the objective is Search and Retrieve (Capture the Flag variant), you can switch to Assault class for the extra speed boost and armour, that way once you get the Propaganda Speaker (flag) you can sprint across the map double as fast.
Find that the enemies are controlling your spawn point? Switch to tactician and plant a second team spawn point elsewhere, perhaps behind the enemies for a tactical flanking advantage. Search and Destroy? (Planting a bomb at the enemy base.) Switch to Saboteur so you can temporarily cloak in to an enemy skin, to try and walk straight in to the enemy base and plant the bomb near undetected! If your base is the one where the bomb is to be planted, why not switch to Technician and set up turrets surrounding the bomb point to protect it from enemies.
These are just a few examples as to the sheer range of tactical options on offer because of the badge system. As you gain more experience, you can also mix secondary badges with primary one's for even more variance in play. This ultimately brings me to an indirect negative of the MP component. In many ways it may be a touch beginner un-friendly.
Whilst there is a ranking system to ensure that if players want, they only play against similar ranked players, the game still demands a lot from players and has a fairly steep learning curve to boot. Learning all the ins and outs of the badges, even earning the badges themselves (which can take countless hours) can be quite a feat. One that I'd imagine only the very hardcore of gamers will truly appreciate and explore to the fullest.
Thankfully, there are online and offline bots for people to play with as to gain some practise before going in for the real thing, as well as a whole host of options for online play (choose specific badges, weapons, maps, modes, friendly fire on off, number of bots etc).
The clan system (set up or join clans, arrange clan matches and bet clan valour points), the online website stat tracking, the online tactical battle replays and the Lobby system (32 man lobby's where players stay in the lobby after each game until leaving) all help to booster the community aspects of the game.
Killzone 2 is certainly more of an evolutionary leap in shooters than it is revolutionary. It is true that it does little new. Outside of the first person cover system, the hit detection system, the added sense of realism and the rather comprehensive multiplayer mode, it is underneath it all, a slightly standard fps affair.
In that it chooses to stick to the underlying mechanics previously explored in the genre. You will go from certain box or corridor like areas to another, in sequential order as you defeat waves of enemies. You will go along a relatively linear and controlled path (there are however numerous levels that allow you some degree of freedom to how you approach a particular area or gun fight), it does have a linear story with fairly straightforward progression.
However, none of these things necessarily take away from the game or the merit of how well it does these things.
What Killzone 2 does is take all these elements previously found within the genre, and execute them with such cinematic splendour, realistic tactility, aesthetic beauty, technical wizardry, rewarding satisfaction and polish, that it ends up defining its own little niche. This is the true Hollywood multimillion dollar blockbuster come to gaming, but with an added raw and cut throat pang.
Whilst you may have done similar things in other shooters that you will be doing in Killzone 2, the chances are you will have never done them quite like this. Take shooting a shotgun for example, a common weapon in most shooters. I've not found one of them as satisfying as the one in KZ2. The moment you pull that trigger you become the harbinger of death.
Heads will fly; blood will gush out in an over exaggerated spherical explosion, you will hear the crunch, crack and squelch of battered body and you will see the enemy fly back in completely believably fashion. And you will love it. And you will want more, and more. And that is what separates KZ2 from other shooters. It is true gun porn.
This is the most realistic, cinematic and tactile shooter to grace a system. And while it may have its flaws, it's polished to such perfection that you'd be hard pressed not to forgive most of them. Aside from the lack of co-op (a sorely missed feature, but one made up for with everything else on offer), there's an engaging highly repayable epic SP campaign, an extremely sophisticated and comprehensive online multiplayer component, numerous unlockables and more.
This game is fantastic value for money, and stands a chance at being the PS3's "it" online shooter for months if not years to come. It's also the best show piece graphically for the console yet, so as long as you're not expecting anything overly innovative and not expecting Oscar winning performances, go grab the game now.
In my honest opinion it is one of the, if not the best shooter of the generation and I say that after completing the game 4 times and putting in over 100 hours in the multiplayer. See you online soon!