In the four years that we’ve known about it, Killzone 2 has been all but defined by one incident, so let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: yes, Killzone 2 lives up to the infamous “target footage” clip that roused legions of skeptics at the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo. It even surpasses it, although if you’ve been following the game over the last few months, you probably know that already.
Above: You may even have seen this 2005/2008 comparison video
So, yes, Killzone 2 is a graphical powerhouse. No disputing that. Despite its dismally gray color palette, it renders the war-torn planet Helghan in meticulous detail, and the corridors, city streets and industrial hellholes you fight through feel like believable, lived-in environments. The gasmask-wearing, Nazi-like Helghast troops you’ll fight are just as beautifully rendered and animated, and it’s weirdly fun to watch them flail and jerk as you hammer their impossibly tough bodies with bullets.
More importantly, Killzone 2 is an excellent shooter that’s faster, prettier and much more chaotic than its predecessors. It’s also relentlessly gritty, and its weapons, vehicles and architecture are so low-tech and dingy that the action feels much closer to World War II than to your average space-marine shooter. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that this is the closest thing there is right now to a sci-fi Call of Duty.
Even with that said, Killzone 2 still has a lot more to prove than the average shooter. It’s one of the most important, make-it-or-break-it titles for the PS3, but it’s been met with heavy skepticism every step of the way. That’s not really surprising, given the game’s sketchy past. Aside from the spec footage, there’s the first PS2 game, which was hyped before release as a “Halo-killer” and instead turned out to be a slick but fairly slow-paced trudge through “realistic” sci-fi battles inspired by actual 20th-century warzones.
Above: The first Killzone. Average score on Metacritic – 70
Then there was the PSP sequel, Killzone: Liberation, which - despite improving on the original - wasn’t actually a shooter, and therefore didn’t say anything about developer Guerilla Games’ ability to craft one.
Above: Killzone: Liberation. Average score on Metacritic – 77
It also doesn’t help that “Killzone” is exactly the kind of ultra-generic name that uncreative cop-show writers use whenever they want to insert a “message” about “video violence” into the weekly murder plot.
All that stuff just makes what Killzone 2 has achieved that much more significant. Putting you into the boots of Sgt. Tomas “Sev” Sevchenko, a new character under the command of series regular Rico Velasquez, Killzone 2 throws you into the invasion of the inhospitable planet Helghan, which is roughly as significant within the game as marching into Berlin was during WWII. You’ll see every second of the campaign unfold through Sev’s eyes, from the first moments aboard his army’s gleaming dropship to the final confrontation with the Helghast leaders. His story’s fairly predictable (assuming you’ve ever seen a war movie), but it’s well told, and the characters – simple as they are – are memorable and likable enough to keep it from ever feeling generic.
Speaking of those characters, you’ll be accompanied at nearly all times by at least one of your three squadmates: there’s Rico (the barking thug), Natko (the grizzled asshole) and Garza (the smart one), who you’ll be spending the most time with. All three are generally competent, tough and useful in a fight, although Sev seems to be the only one with skills other than shooting a gun; you’re the only one who revives downed allies, sets explosives, switches weapons, drives vehicles or turns valve-like switches to open massive doors. Skilled or no, your squadmates are also really chatty, and their f-bomb-laced banter is a big part of what strings the story along.
They’re so integral to the story and game, in fact, that it’s surprising that co-op play wasn’t included as an option. To ignore it when it’s become such a common feature in shooters is one thing, but a game in which you rely on teammates to watch your back, lift you over obstacles and open doors seems tailor-made for charging through with a friend.
But whatever. The action holds up fine without a real buddy along. Killzone 2’s a pretty straightforward shooter, and most of your time will be spent just perforating squads of Helghast as you jog between primary objectives, which usually involve blowing something up or clearing the way for everyone else (both done with near-flawless use of Sixaxis motion controls). Sometimes you’ll even get to commandeer a tank, warship turret or robot exoskeleton, all of which are a lot of fun despite only showing up briefly for short-range runs.
When you’re on foot, sticking to cover plays a big role, and when the action gets thick, you can duck behind any waist-high object and lean out to shoot. In general it works well, but not always; the first-person perspective sometimes makes it difficult to judge how well you’re actually hidden, and it also feels strangely incomplete, because everyone except you is able to blind-fire around cover, while you have to poke your head out to aim.
At their best, the game’s firefights are crowded, pitched set pieces, with Helghast pouring in from every angle and doing their impressive best to duck out of your line of fire and get the drop on you. (At their worst, they’re typical corridor shootouts. But what pretty corridors!) You can only carry one “main” weapon (assault rifle, shotgun, flamethrower, etc.) into battle at a time, along with a pistol, knife and a handful of grenades. It’s a pain in the ass, but it makes planning ahead and conserving ammo especially important. It’s also easier than you’d think, because as enjoyable as it is, the action can get pretty predictable.
Probably the key flaw in Killzone 2 is how meticulously scripted it is. For example, if a Helghast is programmed to run to a certain location and then start shooting, he usually won’t shoot until he gets there, even if you’ve ambushed him and are filling him with holes. When enemies show up for a big set-piece battle, they’ll tend to show up the same way in the same places every time, enabling you to anticipate and pick them off if you’ve died and started the battle over. Some battles, meanwhile, will only begin or end if you’ve walked to a certain point on the map, triggering a key event. Noticing this stuff can help savvy players get ahead, sure, but it can also ruin any sense of immersion the game might have built up.
Then, there’s the business with Sev’s one-hit-kill knife that we reported earlier, which hasn’t been changed in the final version of the game. When you’re faced with a small squad of Helghast, no matter the difficulty level, it’s often easier to just run up and stab them all to death than it is to shoot it out with them. They usually don’t know how to deal with it and will almost always go down in one slash.
Above: This still applies, interestingly
Thankfully, none of that is a problem in multiplayer, in which 32 players can pick a team and fight over eight medium-sized maps. Each lengthy match cycles dynamically between up to five customizable game types: Search and Destroy (base defense), Body Count (team deathmatch), Search and Retrieve (capture the flag), Assassination (one marked-for-death player must be defended or killed) and Capture and Hold (control points).
Cycling between these gives each match a sense of being an actual full-scale battle, instead of just an aimless skirmish. Moreover, the Call of Duty-like ranking system, which enables you to form squads and use job badges (medic, sniper, etc.) as you accumulate points, will go a long way toward helping you forget how much of a slog playing through five straight game types on the same map can be.
If you'd like to get some reward-free practice in before going online, there's also a skirmish mode that'll enable you to play with up to 15 bots, which are surprisingly smart even on the lowest skill setting.
Halo 3? That depends on what you’re comparing. If it’s the campaign, then absolutely yes; for all its flash and epic scope, Halo 3’s razor-thin plot and candy-colored weapons feel flimsy next to Killzone 2’s urban grit. On the other hand, its endlessly customizable – and endlessly fun – multiplayer modes ensure that Halo 3 hangs onto its 10 score when faced with Killzone 2’s more straightforward offerings.
Call of Duty: World at War? Yes, but it’s a tight race. Killzone 2 is prettier, its characters are more interesting and there’s very little trench-fighting, which is fine with us. Also, its flamethrower is substantially more useful than CoD:WaW’s.
Gears of War 2? No. This one’s going to raise a lot of hackles, but Gears 2’s extreme brutality, imaginative level design, over-the-top weapons and wealth of (admittedly buggy) multiplayer options still manage to surpass Killzone 2. Killzone 2’s a purer FPS experience, but even rifle-butting legions of Helghast into submission can’t compare with the singular thrill of melting monsters with the Hammer of Dawn.
Resistance 2? Yes. Resistance 2 might be a little more colorful, and the weapons are definitely more imaginative, but the pieces don’t gel into an interesting whole quite as well as Killzone 2’s, and the Chimera just aren’t as compelling an enemy as the Helghast.
So there you go. Although it’s not everything we’d hoped for, Killzone 2 does live up to most of its hype, and it’s unquestionably the most important PS3 game of early 2009. Throw in some obligatory collectibles (intel briefcases and breakable Helghast symbols), a wealth of Trophies and a couple of ridiculously difficult boss fights, and Killzone 2’s compelling story and tightly paced action (maybe a little too tightly paced) make it a game that no PS3-owning shooter fan should be without.
Feb 2, 2009