Killzone 2 has much to prove. The first Killzone, released for the PS2 back in 2004, was hailed as a "Halo killer" before release, a rather unfair burden that it ultimately failed to shoulder. Graphically ambitious, its tale of ferocious future war was perhaps too much for the poor old black obelisk to handle. The frame-rate was sticky, the draw distance short. Review scores, inevitably, were mediocre. Then there was that big kerfuffle about pre-rendered footage, screenshots that were scrutinised to an impossible degree, and the lingering insistence from vocal gaming "enthusiasts" that each new PS3 exclusive must apparently single-handedly prove the worth of the console in every conceivable way.
Comparisons to Halo were the blunt sticks used to bludgeon the game in 2004, and it seems unavoidable that Gears of War will be the new benchmark against which Sony's current great grey hope will be judged by fans of kneejerk comparison. Both, after all, feature a quartet of tough-talking soldiers pushing behind alien enemy lines, both take real-time environmental detail to grimy new levels, and both are structured as a relentless military campaign, with constantly changing primary objectives providing the backbone for the level structure. Where gameplay is concerned, however, Killzone still has more in common with PC shooters like Rainbow Six than any supposed console rival.
Not helping the Gears comparisons, the first five levels of Killzone 2 form one long, almost constant firefight. From the moment your landing platform hits the acrid soil of Helghan, you're defending a convoy into the heart of the capital, Pyrrhus, as Helghast troops block you at every turn. The first level is Corinth River, and it's here that you get to sample the new first-person cover system for the first time. Killzone is nothing if not tactical, and those approaching it with a run-and-gun mentality - or just hoping to be able to absorb damage and shoot from the hip - are doomed to frequent bloody death. Thankfully, taking cover is simple and intuitive. Holding L2 snaps you to whatever cover you're standing alongside. If it's low cover, you automatically crouch to suit.
The left stick can then be used to sidle left or right behind your makeshift defences, leaning out when you reach the end, while pressing up pops you over the top to return fire. Should your gun run dry while standing, you'll automatically drop back behind cover while you reload. You can also blindfire over the top. Damage is indicated by splatters of blood around your peripheral vision, indicating the direction of the shots, and the game uses the now-traditional recharging health system. The blood creeps in, colours drain out and if you can't find a safe spot, you'll be face-down in a heartbeat.
Weapons are mostly low key, with a natural emphasis on small arms. There are rocket and grenade launchers, but these are scarce and generally best saved for tougher foes. Instead, you swiftly settle into the rhythm of the game - sweeping and clearing entrenched areas, pressing forward one piece of cover at a time. Shooting on the fly is a good way to waste ammo, and most of your kills come from short, controlled bursts taken down the iron sights view from a safe vantage point. Finding these strategic sanctuaries becomes increasingly tricky as the game evolves, but that's all part of the challenge.
Movement can feel sluggish to begin with, but that's because you're moving like an actual soldier would. Stick sensitivity can be tweaked, but this sense of weight is constant - and important. You're not playing as a floating gun, hovering around a battlefield, and the feeling that you have actual in-game mass helps to ground the combat even further in the realm of the real.
There are no rocket-powered leaps here, but pressing the jump button next to an obstacle of scaleable height allows you to vault over it. Although you don't see your hands actually propelling you over, it feels a lot like Mirror's Edge in terms of physical heft and momentum. You also have limited interactions with scenery objects like switches, valves and explosive charges. The latter two make use of the Sixaxis motion sensor to turn and lock them into place, while the steadiness of your hand on the controller determines how stable your sniper shots will be.
Enemy AI, one of the sore points in the first game, seems convincingly tough, even at normal difficulty. They'll use cover as effectively as you do, try to flank your position, flush you out with grenades and even duck, roll and shuffle to safety if they're caught in the open. If a Helghast trooper is making a break for different cover, and you start firing in front of them, they'll stop and try to head back the way they came. A small touch, perhaps, but indicative of the intelligence you're up against. Their lifelike responses are made more convincing thanks to some excellent animation, which holds fairly steady across all the character models and environments. When a fellow member of Alpha Squad busts a door down with his shoulder, there's genuine weight and momentum to the action. Flags and tarpaulins flutter angrily in the constantly raging Helghan storms, while swirls of dust and billows of smoke display particle effects that manage to be impressive without feeling distractingly showy.
After Corinth River, the game evolves its storyline alongside the journey of the ISA convoy into enemy territory. Blood Meridian brings you up against the Helghast's most terrible technology: Arc Towers. These use an electrically charged metallic element to deliver lightning strikes with surgical precision. Needless to say, you're the one sent to bring it down. From there, you encounter a ferocious siege stand-off in Visari Square, get separated from your unit in the Salamum District, and finally find a way to get the ISA spearhead across the Salamun Bridge and into the capital palace where Scolar Visari, the despotic Helghast leader, hopefully awaits his fate.
It doesn't work out like that, of course, but to say any more would be unfair at this point. Thankfully, just as the game is starting to feel more than a little samey, after five levels of painstaking progress through the grey and black shanty town streets of Pyrrhus, it opens out after the sixth level and even takes a sharp narrative left turn. The environments change from claustrophobic streets to a more open-plan layouts, and the colour palette starts to evolve beyond the deliberately oppressive murk that has surrounded you so far. You also, finally, get to play with some of the vehicles.
Prior to launch, Kristan said of the original that it was "not an everyman game" and it quickly becomes apparent that the same holds true for this belated follow-up. This is a deliberately paced tactical game, where death is a constant threat and basic knowledge of workable military tactics will serve you well. It's brutal, sometimes fussily so, and many will find its unforgiving nature a turn-off. Plenty more, however, should relish a high-profile game with a truly hardcore style, especially with production values as polished as this.
There's much more to be said, of course, but you'll have to wait until next month to see if the whole game can deliver on its early promise.
Killzone 2 is due out exclusively for PS3 in February. We'll have our review up in a few short weeks.