There must be a good reason why Sony has, until now, stayed well clear of producing a first person shooter in the last ten years. Maybe it believed, like a lot of other publishers, that it was a PC genre that didn't really work well enough on a joypad, or that commercially they just weren't as big a draw. Certainly that was true enough in the days of the PSone, when excellent attempts like Argonaut's Alien Resurrection were roundly ignored, and even the brave conversion of Quake II flopped. What probably changed the Sony development chiefs' minds was when the likes of Halo and Medal of Honor: Frontline came along and sold millions. Money changes everything. It came as little surprise, then, to hear that Sony had signed up a game that promised to be a 'Halo beater'. Some claim.
After months of whispers and press-generated hype, Killzone finds itself in the unwelcome position of having a lot to prove. This isn't necessarily what Sony wanted, but at the same time it can hardly feel uncomfortable that its first all-new title for a while happens to be generating the sort of excitement reserved for sequels or new offerings from established developers. Curiously, Dutch team Guerrilla (formerly known as Lost Boys) doesn't have a memorable track record, and in fact (via another team) recently released the roundly-cussed Shellshock. So why exactly is everyone getting so excited? Because Sony has finally gotten round to releasing an FPS, or because of the excitable (and baseless, at the time they were originally uttered) 'Halo-beater' claims? Lord knows. If someone, whether it's members of the press or the marketing team, relentlessly hypes something up, eventually people start believing it. Is it time to start believing? That's what we intend to find out...
Fire at Will? Which one's Will?
Killzone isn't your average shooter. You know, the ones where you blast your way through a never ending procession of drones in an experience that, for all its grandeur and pretensions, ends up feeling about as close to a real-life firefight as a duck shoot at a fairground. Up they pop: blam. Three lemmings at 2 o'clock: Cher-Ching. Some at 11:45: keep it simple! This, for many of us, sums up the Medal of Honor school of game design, where most enemies are no more than a vague distraction, mere cannon fodder to make us feel like heroes. But once you've played a few of these games, the thrill begins to diminish. The same old game mechanics keep re-appearing. By the 30th samey shooter, you want to shake the copycat game designers into some kind of life. To a large extent, Guerrilla evidently feels the same; Killzone wants to change the way we approach a firefight.
In most games in this genre, it's an excuse to be utterly gung-ho. Charging in, all guns blazing, at 40 miles per hour (because, apparently, that's how fast we run in relative terms in these games) and generally behaving like a pissed off Charles Bronson on an amphetamine drip. With 14 guns strapped to our rippling torso. This approach got us through the novelty years when the genre was fresh and the technology was ripping along at a startling pace, but now we crave a fresh approach. A more considered set of AI routines. Enemies that don't just leap out begging to be killed. Killzone does exactly that.
In the 12 missions that we've played so far, Killzone makes you sweat more or less every step of the way. Try and play Killzone the way you're used to playing an FPS and you'll last about five seconds flat before being dumped back to the start of your checkpoint. The differentiator in Killzone is without question its AI - a set of enemies that work together, take up different positions, take cover and generally make life very difficult for you. It's a system that Guerrilla has reportedly had to tone down because it was "too good", so you'll always have the advantage. Killzone is never impossible - that wouldn't make it a fun game either - but somewhere within the game is a very good balance of tough playability that forces you into a very different mindset when approaching every clutch of enemies.
Essentially where the Halo comparisons come in is Killzone's adherence to the "thirty seconds of fun over and over" principle. That's probably the neatest way to sum up what's going on with Guerrilla's game, in that what you're tasked with is very samey, very repetitive, but that each micro-battle can be a joyous challenge in its own right. The storyline cuts in every now and then, but it's very much bolted on. You won't especially care and so far the narrative hasn't really engaged us in any memorable way. What you will be gripped by are the battles. Outdoor trench warfare in near future cityscapes, indoor office battles in ruined, collapsing complexes, outdoor park battles. It's seat of the pants stuff, sneaking past cover points and breaking the necks of the unwary, sprinting between gunfire and hiding behind trees, cooking grenades and tossing exploding death into a pack, sniping distant aggressors across ruined tower blocks, shotgun-blasting unsuspecting sentries as they walk around the corner, and watching in admiration as they react differently to all the little tricks you try and pull.
The masked Helghast aggressors that give you such a hard time and that face throughout the game are apparently "an invading militaristic separatist faction... set out to decimate the ISA forces [that's you] and colonize the planet". The 'planet' being the "nearby colony of Vecta, one of the interplanetary colonies that humans have established outside of Earth". It certainly looks like Earth. There's no reason to suspect, without this prior knowledge, to believe it's set anywhere else, but there you go. What's more interesting than the rather wafer thin premise is that battles which would last a few seconds in other games go on for five minutes or more in Killzone. There may only be a handful of enemies to dispatch in each segment you come across, but by god do they make you work your little tusch off to survive the onslaught. So deadly is their aim, and so attuned is their response time to your arrival, you'll be lucky to loose off more than a few well-placed rounds before you're scuttling off to find cover so that your (very Halo-esque) health recharges.
Ultimately, from our six or so hours of solid play, it's the intensity of the firefights, this single factor that has intrigued us, and incentivises us to continue onwards into its eleven distinct areas, and find out what the differences are between the four different characters that you can play as, as the game unfolds.
Take away this one crucial factor and, actually, Killzone doesn't seem all that different, special or exciting. Harsh? Not at all. Yes, the graphics look very presentable in the screenshots, but actually in the 'flesh' don't really have the wow factor you might have been anticipating. It's a very gritty, grainy, dark approach that's by no means unattractive (and in some respects suit the premise), but it won't have your eyes bulging out of your head wondering how they managed to drag such trickery out of the PS2. There's little in the way of lighting effects, very little in terms of physics routines (enemies slump down dead convincingly, panes of glass crack and smash and the odd water cooler gets knocked asunder, but that's about it), texture detail isn't up to a great deal, the outdoor foliage could be better and the frame rate appears to be around the 30 mark. On top of that, so far we've seen just one enemy in the opening three sections of the game over 12 levels - and unless there's a bit more variation, we're slightly concerned as to how the single-player facet of the game will hold our interest.
The press blurb talks of some 27 weapons to get to grips with. So far we've seen a mere fraction of that. By default you're armed with a fairly hopeless pistol (which you'll never ever use), and two slots for a machinegun and shotgun (which can be swapped out later when you find others lying around), the latter two of which also come equipped with an immensely crucial and powerful secondary fire. Grenades come at a premium as you'd expect, as does the occasional appearance of sniper rifles, but of course, what the enemy leaves lying around tends to end up being your weapons of choice, and so far they're proving to be a chunky selection that never seem quite as powerful as you want them to be. Either that, or those Helghast really are quite hard bastards to shift - especially when they keep such effective cover much of the time, as well as being bloody good shots.
Online multiplayer is, of course, one of the key facets of the package, but is still being worked on in the run up to its release, and is the reason the game has been held back by a few weeks. Suffice to say we know precious little about it at the moment apart from the fact that it supports 12 players simultaneously, with voice chat and comms in both team-based and competitive flavours. Apart from a few unfinished cut-scenes, what we've played so far is a decent chunk of the (finished) single player game. With any luck we'll have licked the (extensive) single-player campaign by the time the multiplayer is ready to go, and we can give you the definitive lowdown on the game then.
Shut up about Halo will ya?
It's a contentious statement to call Killzone a Halo-beater, and lazily trivialises what it has to offer. For a start Killzone feels nothing like it. It's infinitely tougher than Halo, or any other console FPS we've ever played for that matter. In many respects it has more in common with the uber hardcore Rainbow Six 'death is just a shot away' principle than a by the numbers run-and-gun, but that's not likely to grab the headlines is it? As a hardcore shooter, Killzone is a refreshing addition to the fray, and looks certain to pick up a strong following. It's not an everyman game, though, and some won't take to it's often unforgiving gameplay style. But for those in need of a real challenge, it's definitely one to watch. Just try and ignore the hype until then and find out for yourself nearer the time.
Killzone is released on November 21st, exclusively on PlayStation 2. You can find a bunch of new screenshots here.