While other PlayStation 3 games, most notably MotorStorm, have shrugged off the stigma of E3 2005's "target renders", Killzone 2's journey to release seems as turbulent today as the bumpy, computer-generated air-to-ground D-Day deployment that first dropped jaws almost three years ago.
The good news for PS3's ardent supporters, then, is that what we're standing on the show floor at Sony's PlayStation Day event in London controlling isn't that far away from what the handsome CG of 2005 predicted: we're on an airborne landing craft with chattering squad-mates gripping the rails tightly, flying low towards a riverside industrial complex as Helghast forces pepper the sky with anti-aircraft gunfire. They're having some luck, too, nailing the craft that's just ahead of us in the magic carpet convoy, which explodes and is consumed by thick cotton wool smoke, and sends lifeless bodies flying past our heads before the Gears of War-style in-game cut-scene switches to a view from the banks of the Corinth River, and captures our safe but violent landing.
Then it's straight into the eyes of Sev, the player-character, and into the action. Clicking L3 to sprint forward, we take up a cover position behind a wall by holding L1, and use the left analogue stick to lean out to the right and take in the scene. Wiry steel spikes protrude from the mashed up concrete block we're up against like bones poking out of compound fractures, while ahead of us advancing ISA troopers find protection behind shipping containers half-buried in the riverbank and hastily erected metal fencing - for all the alien world like windbreakers at the seaside, topped with barbed wire coils - covers the hunched lateral movement of squad-mates eager to join them. We're on a broad sandy riverbank crisscrossed by bridges, which connect to battered grey industrial buildings that have been bandaged in places with protective metal sheeting. Helmeted enemy troopers with their deep red eyes scurry along eminent walkways and terraces. Taking this all in is little trouble, as the left-stick lean mechanic offers the freedom to peer around cover but also over it, guiding the aiming reticule onto entrenched Helghast with the right stick before we open fire with R1.
As with Gears, Grand Theft Auto IV and other cover-based shooters, clicking the right stick at this point allows you to look down the iron sights - or in the case of Killzone 2's standard-issue assault rifle, through the green tinting of glass-and-iron sights - to zoom in slightly and reduce the margin of error. As you fire, the ringing sound of bullets being fed to the hammer becomes shriller to signify that your magazine is emptying, and Sev reloads with a flourish, raising his gun elaborately into view so that you can marvel at the duct tape texture on the clip he's slapping into place, the specular highlight of the metal above the tape, and the rougher, almost leathery casing around the gun barrel.
But enough dawdling, because a squad-mate ahead is being cut down by a gun emplacement on one of the bridges that leans over the rat-run of metal windbreakers, and we're encouraged to take over his rocket launcher when he snuffs it. Holding square to replace the assault rifle and hoist it onto our shoulder, we turn towards the on-screen objective marker - the big gun - and fire. The result not only dispatches the gunner, but shatters the arch of the bridge, allowing everyone to advance. Legging it through the tumbling debris and veering right, we're reinforced by another landing craft, which buzzes routinely past our head on a shimmering haze of matter-of-fact science-fiction, depositing its macho occupants in our path as Helghast APCs do likewise further up the riverbank where a massive floodgate bars the way forward.
After the initial dense and oppressive landing and beachhead sequence, the level's opened up, allowing us to zip between a spread of concrete blocks as we take out the opposition. The cover system does its job again, although having to click R3 every time you stick your head out of cover to employ iron sights is more hands-on than we're used to, and switching to our sidearm, a meaty revolver, allows us to line up some satisfying headshots. Our squad-mates provide effective assistance, too, clearing out the rest, leaving us with a moment to catch our breath and investigate other areas of the control pad: L2, for instance, performs a pulverising melee attack, and can be tapped twice for a two-hit combo, uppercutting with the assault rifle butt and then bringing it down on a victim's head. For research purposes, we do this to an injured squaddie propped up against a rock awaiting extraction, and blood splashes obediently from his head, although we're not able to visibly break his face.
Then we and a chap called Garza are told to go off and open the floodgate. When we move over to Garza and press circle, he helpfully boosts us onto a platform and we turn to pull him up, before climbing onto a narrow lift and heading into the second part of the demo level, Stahl Warehouse. Up to now, Killzone 2 has stuck to a glum palette of sawdust browns, damp blues and iron greys, but it's had a gloomy brightness to it; as we head indoors, the nuclear beige of the cloudy sky can only break through in shafts, so things are darker and claustrophobic. Ascending a staircase with Garza we emerge onto a raised gangway that loops around the small warehouse interior, allowing us to fire down on Helghast for once as they scamper around large crates covered in tarpaulin and palettes of cans and boxes. Firing at a canister, at first the gas inside gushes out of the hole, sending the cylinder erratically across the floor, before it explodes, helpfully igniting some of the red explosive barrels.
But the Helghast aren't hapless, and are capable of throwing grenades accurately; this, coupled with the need to keep activating iron sights, keeps us on the move. This isn't a game where you can hunker down somewhere safe and systematically headshot everyone, and enemies react to our own grenades by getting out of their way. When bullets do connect (most satisfyingly when we've shot out the thin panel of waist-high cover they're hiding behind), the damage registers locationally and we get a nice reaction and ragdoll death. Physics are applied to some objects - boxes, canisters, set-piece items like the bridge - but mostly for effect. Having negotiated the warehouse floor, Helghast turn the tables by smashing through the ceiling panels and raining down on where we came in via zip-lines, but we're practised now and they don't last long.
After moving outside again to the floodgate control room, Killzone 2 has one more novelty for us: using the Sixaxis to turn the valve. Pressing the circle button, we then grab the valve with both hands (L1 and R1) and twist the pad left, as though rotating a steering wheel, before releasing the shoulder buttons, returning our hands to 10 and 2 to take hold again and repeating the action. After a few twists, the floodgate opens, and we're able to leave the control room, dispatching our last few Helghast enemies just outside, and stand on a ledge above the opening we created to watch our armoured vehicles trundle through. At which point we make for a nearby doorway on Garza's tail and the game fades to black, before showing us a highlight reel of what comes next: shootouts of greater scope, and firing a turret Howitzer at the side of a building, which then falls completely apart. But what to make of Killzone 2 on the basis of all this?
Well, impressions are likely to be muted in some quarters for a simple reason: this is a Call of Duty 4-style trail of interactive set-pieces, and for that to work the actions that trigger each event have to be carefully measured and anticipated by the script, or the illusion falls apart. It's like a train ride through the haunted house at a funfair: things pop out at you on cue, and spotlights and sound effects are used to direct your attention. At the moment, Killzone 2's script is playing out at a set speed, and it's possible to get ahead of it, so that you have to wait for Garza to get his cue to move forward, or behind it, so that your squad wipes out the opposition in a showcase fire-fight while you're still fumbling over the buttons. It sounds like a massive problem, and it has big implications for those of us trying to preview the game, but it's just an unfortunate byproduct of designing a game this way; the illusion's only fit to judge when it's complete.
That said, there's already a distinctive urgency to the combat. It's not so different to anything else on the market in some respects - you can hold one big gun and one small one, scarlet trickles into your desaturating vision to indicate a build-up of damage, there's a lot of military banter - but being forced to move around and keep aiming manually takes us out of our comfort zone again, as invading an alien planet probably ought to, with the lean-and-peek cover system allowing for precision. Meanwhile your enemies, while easy enough to overwhelm in the bit we played, are clearly not stupid. Once again, though, what we've been shown and played through is open to interpretation, and predicts more than it instructs. With Killzone 2 now down for a February 2009 release, expect us to get more extensive exposure to the game later in the year, when we stand a better chance of getting to know one of the PS3's most interesting shooters.
Killzone 2 is due out in February 2009 on PS3.