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Review

Review: Killzone 2

The PS3's biggest, most important game of its life so far is finally here. Spoiler free.

Games come and go. In the vapid mindset of ADD-riddled joystick junkies whatever is today’s big hitter will be forgotten about just as swiftly as it was announced, its brief moment in history reduced to an arbitrary score on a website like this and a save game not loaded for months. Sony’s decision to show Killzone 2, in its embryonic (and pre-recorded) state at E3 almost 4 years ago is now considered by most to be a masterful move; one of initial deception but ultimately serving to kick off a hype train that would continue to roll and roll almost without input from Sony itself, gathering steam with every morsel of information until its new, loyal fan base finally have the completed disks.

We’ve waited, patiently, and now it’s here: was it worth the wait, or will Killzone 2 be a victim of its very own unachievable target video and thus quickly dumped unceremoniously like all the others, filling up pre-owned shelves all over the world?

Premise

It’s a tough call, and we’re not joking. Regardless of everything Guerrilla has managed to wring out of the PlayStation 3, this is still just a first person shooter. Whether that sentence cements your expectations or breaks your heart is irrelevant: anyone expecting the Second Coming will be disappointed, and no amount of hyperbole for the glorious aesthetics will change the fact that the mechanics here can be somewhat tired, by definition.

In 2005 this would have been groundbreaking stuff, but when we’ve been treated so well with genre classics since that E3, almost everything Killzone 2 expects of you you’ll have done before, and there shouldn’t be a single surprise in the entire single player campaign – whether by dark corridors, overpowered shotguns, b-movie plot ‘twists’ or Horde-esque defend-the-post segments. Naturally, there’s only so far you can take titles like this, but please, when you’re ripping off the cellophane, remember that this is only a shooter. Only a shooter, but what were you wanting?

Gameplay

There’s a moment in Killzone 2 when you realise that this is how all war games should be: intense, stressful and with the very real promise of death around every corner, and it’s right at the very beginning of the second chapter. The introduction cut-scene is the one we’ve all seen a hundred times, but this time it’s real-time and you’re very much part of the action; once on the ground, with tracers flashing past and your ever diminishing squad dying all around you it looks, sounds and feels exactly like a war game should. It’s brilliant; in fact, pulse raising, sweat producingly brilliant, and you swear to yourself that this is utterly the finest videogame ever created.

And then 15 minutes later you’ll find yourself alone save for the presence of a bumbling idiotic squad mate, hugely inept and incapable of surviving more than 30 seconds without you having to rush over and hold down circle to revive him with your magical electro-shock thing, whilst all the time taking seemingly random pot-shots at embedded, entrenched Helghast planted firmly on the horizon with big turrets. Sure, the game has already taught you to flank, but when you can’t tell Private Ryan there which way to go and it’s half a mile back to the nearest rifle with a scope, well, it’s frustrating, crushing, disappointing. What happened to the war? Where did the initial verve and destructive spirit go?

It’s called pacing, and sometimes Killzone 2 does it terribly. We can see what they tried to do, and on a second run through the game (we’re currently on our third) you’re better positioned to remember to pack the long range sniper rather than the stubbly little SMG, and on a higher difficulty level these long, drawn-out affairs give you chance to breathe, chance to settle in. But Killzone 2’s story mode, with its often laughable acting and poorly scripted, bloated middle-level sections often feels like padding – it’s as if the game was originally five hours of amazing, high impact videogaming a year ago, but then it grazed on a diet of forum-fear, scared half to death of the rabid internet ready to pounce on anything shorter than Final Fantasy VII.

It’s funny though, because it doesn’t really matter – you’ll get through the fluff and the sticky bottlenecks in the campaign, eventually, because you’ll know that as the action ramps back up, as you emerge from a dark dank sewer or some flickery warehouse, that the next section will bring you right back into the war with a thump, and as Hell literally kicks off again the ten minutes spent shooting at a 5 pixel high Hig will be right at the back of your mind as you struggle, scampering to safety. Bullets race around you, explosions rock the ground, the enemy close in, smoke kicks up, the lightning bears down. This is how all war games should be, and when it gets it right, Killzone 2 is devastating.

Visuals

We’ve touched on the visuals before: they really are wonderful and just like you we’ve poured over whatever videos the internet could serve up before being hastily removed from public view over the months. There are oddities, minor nicks in the armour, and those with an eye for detail will notice them without prompting, but nothing can prepare you for how the game looks as a whole on your own HD television. Each level has its own distinct visual style, not just in terms of architecture and environment, but also the prevalent colour scheme, the weather, the scale and the scope of the landscape. Much like the original Halo, you’ll have your own favourite sections of the game (you can revisit levels at will) not only because of the events but also because of the graphics: they’re that good.

The variety can be staggering. Sure, we’ve all seen war-torn beaches and discarded warehouses before, but the way the game intersperses these with reckless abandon is hugely impressive, even intra-level. There’s also precious little backtracking and next to no repetition as you make your way through the game. We’re sure you’ve all played the demo to death, but rest assured that the game opens up dramatically from there on in and plays host to some amazing set pieces towards the end.

The animation warrants special attention – the various Helghast walk, strut and march about convincingly enough, but when they spot you they’ll act exactly as you’d expect they would, which is initially slightly unnerving. We’re not suggesting Guerrilla has perfected the art of human motion capture, but when coupled with the often super-smart AI, in packs these guys can be lethal – even on the default difficulty level. It’s the clever blend of animation, modelling and texture detail that really brings the game to life, and when coupled with the motion blur and depth of field it’s hard to find a better looking shooter on any console. Yes, it lacks the crisp, razor sharp textures of Uncharted but Helghan is home to a variety of much richer visual treats, and whilst the lighting isn’t perfect it’s only because it looks so damned real that you start toying with it to try and make it slip up.

Sound

The audio too is award-worthy. The game’s composer, Joris de Man, is back in fine form here with a fully orchestrated score comprising a new dynamic music system developed by Sony just for this game, and almost 30 minutes of brilliant, emotive tracks recorded at London’s Abbey Road studios. Whilst the in-game music is digitally triggered via MIDI to respond to the player’s actions in real time, the half hour of cutscenes in the game required entirely live music and de Man has delivered a powerful, driving score, which is always at the forefront of the action. The intensity and drive is determined by not only the level and the area, but also the enemy AI and how many enemies are closing in on your squad, reacting and changing constantly.

As we’ve discussed in the past, Killzone 2 utilises up to four distinct aural effects on each and every sound in the game, all processed in amazing 7.1 surround sound. Reverb levels adapt to the location and distance from the player, envelopes wrap spot effects based on the surroundings, and decays and echoes add a final layer of unrivalled real-time engineering. And in response to criticism of the first game, Killzone 2 has over 17,000 lines of dialogue, so repetition and even familiar voices will be at an absolute minimum, although once injured your team’s repertoire is limited to little more than an annoying “Medic, medic”. Oft forgotten in videogames, the time and money invested here has clearly been well spent, enriching Killzone 2 considerably.

Next Gen

Right from the off it’s clear that Guerrilla have poured their heart and soul into the presentation of Killzone 2. The menus shake and blur, crippled with static, as if you’re reading an abandoned PDA battered by bullets, and the loading screens can be manipulated with the SixAxis controls, a clever and welcome diversion to otherwise moderate load times. It’s worth mentioning that there’s no initial install and once in a level there’s no loading, even to respawn after death, surely the mark of a wildly powerful streaming level system. There are SixAxis sections within the main game too, but they’re so cleverly done that it’s more instinct than anything else – the loading of triggered mines is smart enough, but the way Guerilla has worked the motion control into the sniper rifle just made us grin and nod like some deranged idiot. Small things, but they all add up.

Naturally, Killzone 2 is also loaded with Trophies, about a fifth awarded for the story progression, a few for tallying up totals and the rest spread between hide and seek challenges and the multiplayer. And it’s here that we need to justify the score, because as good as the game is we’ve only been able to sample half of what Killzone 2 is all about: Sony, bless them, have switched off the multiplayer servers until nearer release, so this can only be a review of the game’s single player mode – half of the game. Yes, there’s a bot-driven skirmish mode, but it’s only practice for the real event and an excuse to run around and learn the maps before SCEE switch on the servers. Until they do, it’s impossible to judge how well the online play is handled – we can’t comment on lag, level layouts, game modes and the tiered rank system, and it would be unfair of us to guess, so naturally we’ll follow up this review with the multiplayer one as soon as we possibly can, and then you’ll have a score out of 10.

Conclusion

So, is Killzone 2 everything it’s meant to be? Does it live up to the hype? Of course it does, and thus it absolutely warrants a 5/5 score. It has its frustrating moments, it has its fair share of dull, lifeless blasting and, yes, it would have benefitted from a co-op option, but the problems are few and far between and stand out more because we so desperately wanted this to be flawless. For the most part Killzone 2 is utterly, mesmerisingly brilliant and polished to perfection: the gunplay is solid, the controls, once tuned to your liking are superbly weighted and intuitive and the action, when good, is relentless. Time will tell whether or not the single player campaign will be held in as high regard as we’d all want it to be, but right here, right now, this is as good as it gets.

Just remember, it’s only a shooter.

5/5

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