Version tested: PlayStation 3
It's easy to be blinded by the sideshow with Killzone 2. Any platform exclusive is going to attract the wrong sort of attention in the current console climate, and when the game in question is the sequel to a poorly received last-gen title, the stakes are raised even higher. Sitting down to evaluate it, you can feel the clutter hovering over your shoulder. Texture maps are scrutinised for the slightest flaw, frame rates obsessed over, AI team-mates subjected to Mensa tests.
Fortunately, Killzone 2 makes it easy to ignore them. Let those with vested interests debate the pointless minutiae. For those pining for a muscular, aggressive military shooter, whose console has the biggest balls soon becomes a minor concern. It swiftly becomes apparent that Killzone 2 isn't going to be pushing beyond the boundaries of its genre. That could be taken as lack of ambition, but in context it feels more like creative focus - this is a game that polishes existing concepts to a compelling shine, rather than colouring outside the lines in search of new patterns.
So it is that you find yourself controlling Sgt. Tomas "Sev" Sevchenko, one of a quartet of tough-talking space soldiers tasked with bringing down the despotic Visari and his Helghast armies. Visari has stolen an experimental nuke which could turn the tide of the war, and you're in the midst of the spearhead battling to retrieve it before the launch codes are compromised.
Joining you are Master Sergeant Rico Velasquez, a grizzled veteran of the first game; Lance Corporal Dante Garza, who fills your quip-happy good ol' boy quota; and Corporal Shawn Natko, the obligatory possibly-psychotic demolitions guy. All could have been drawn from any shooter of the last five years, and it's only the mixture of convincing animation and above-average voice acting that brings them to life. The script certainly doesn't help much, since most of it seems to consist of people barking "F*** dis shit!" and "Go! Go!" over and over.
For much of the game, you'll be accompanied by at least one of these gruff stereotypes, but it's far from a squad game. They'll react fairly intelligently to the situation, but their presence ultimately only serves to remind you there's no co-operative mode, and Killzone 2 constantly feels like a game designed for co-op. There are often multiple ways to approach each level, different routes that take you up, over and through the crumbling Helghast architecture. Since you're unable to tell your AI partner to take the high road, you'll inevitably wish for a human friend who could really take advantage of these strategic opportunities. It's a baffling omission, and Killzone 2's most obvious weakness.
Story may not be the game's strongest suit, but all that's really required is enough information to keep you pressing ahead through the military campaign that makes up the single-player missions. Each stage flows into the next and, apart from a couple of deviations from form involving a gun turret and a mech suit later in the game, the goal is clearly to create a tense, claustrophobic experience that convinces you that you're pushing into hostile alien territory, one bloody, dusty inch at a time.
This is not the game to play if you want to be able to pop through a door, spray the enemy with lead and watch them all keel over. The Helghast are armoured and (most of the time) they're smart. Taking them down requires patience, cover and short controlled bursts of accurate fire. Sure, you can probably take down a solitary grunt by peppering him with a wild spray, and if you opt for the lowest difficulty then this tactic becomes a lot more workable, at the cost of your self-esteem, but the moments when you'll be faced with just one enemy are few and far between.
For the most part, they attack in squads. They'll flank you. They'll use grenades to flush you out. They'll take it in turns to keep you busy with suppressing fire, then wait for you to reload and rush your position. Die, restart and take a different approach, try a different angle of attack, and you'll see the enemy reacting to your actions rather than simply popping out of the same cover spots like sideshow ducks. The landscape may not change as often as some would like, you're battling the same enemies from the start of the game through to the end, and there are few obvious set-piece moments, but that's because the gameplay itself is the set-piece. Battling your way across Salamun Bridge may not sound particularly amazing in theory, but in practice it's the sort of seriously meaty tactical challenge that too few shooters bother with these days.
Weapons are realistic, with only one gun in the whole game - a Helghan electricity cannon - that tips the scales a little too far into silly sci-fi territory. It is justified by the story, however, and it's awesome, so it's not a criticism. Small arms are your best resource for the majority of the game, and you soon come to trust the intuitive cover system, which automatically glues you to whatever you're hiding behind and allows you to slide side to side and pop out to return fire. Long-distance headshots are possible, but by no means easy, so the pride taken in each Helghan downed is earned.
In fact, so rewarding and dynamic are the firefights that it's the moments where the game slips into videogame cliché that let it down. A confrontation with a flying gunship wears the Boss Battle template a little too snugly, requiring you to shoot electricity pylons to hold it still while you break out the rocket launcher. Heavily armoured shock troopers must be shot in the face so they turn around, allowing you to blast at the explosive tanks on their back. These scripted reactions are unwelcome reminders of the genre's artifice, and rather than adding exciting peaks to the gameplay, they feel like predictable troughs that must be bashed aside in order to carry on with the truly fun stuff.
There are flies elsewhere in the ointment too. The dual-weapon system forces you to think critically about your ammo reserves, where the risk of running dry must be weighed against the perils of a dash across open ground to grab another gun. Unfortunately, your default sidearm is always a pistol and a fairly useless one at that. Rare are the times when you'll need to bust it out, effectively reducing your useful armament options to whatever else you've found.
It's also rather odd that, should another character fall in battle, you're able to revive them with a handheld zapper. They'll pretty much writhe and call out in agony for as long as it takes you to reach them - their location marked by a handy arrow - but you get no such benefit. If you take enough hits that the red mist closes in, you fall down dead and nobody does a damn thing to help. The revival system also makes a mockery of a later plot development, which I won't spoil. Suffice to say that anyone who wondered why Cloud didn't just use a Phoenix Down on Aeris will face a similar clash between the needs of the story and the mechanics of the gameplay.
Such considerations are less worrying taken in the larger context, however. The internet will no doubt rage for weeks as to whether Killzone 2 is the best-looking console game evah, but it's fair to say that if there's a list, it's going to be near the top. What truly impresses, however, isn't the obvious eye-catching elements but the smaller moments - little things that are so natural that you often don't notice them; those little eddies of dust blowing around a deserted slum village, the way you can be subliminally tipped-off to enemies by a subtle change in light or shadow ahead.
Of course, when the game decides that it needs to get your attention, the results are phenomenal. The brief gun-turret section takes you high above the caustic clouds of Helghan and finds you engaged in a furious aerial battle, played out against a gorgeous sunset. The descent into Tharsis Refinery, on the other hand, is a plunge into hell itself, a breathtaking ride on a speeding automated train, where the wind snaps tarpaulins like bullwhips and the constant, infernal noise threatens to blot out even the loudest gunfire.
No shooter can survive on single-player alone these days, and as with the solo campaign, the online element concentrates on delivering a brutally focused and nourishing experience within otherwise expected parameters. Not much has changed since the multiplayer beta (which we covered in some detail a little while ago), so you get eight maps, drawn from the single-player campaign, and five different game modes. There are variations on Capture the Flag, Deathmatch and Search and Destroy, as well as base-capturing objectives and the enormously fun Assassination mode. There's no cover system in multiplayer, as gameplay naturally skews more to the run-and-gun style of play than the slower, more tactical main story.
All maps and game modes can be mixed and matched to your liking, and online play is split between Warzone, which supports the full 32-player line-up, and Mini-Frag, which caters for smaller matches of up to eight. One on One is self-explanatory, and ideal for more intimate stalk-and-slay games with a very special friend. Suitable maps are automatically chosen for the number of players, and various factors can be modified by using different badges and medals, just as in Call of Duty and similar shooters. It's all impressively flexible, within its rather narrow feature-set, and the host can dictate the terms of any match, either by using preset conditions such as No Pistols, or using on of six empty custom slots to fine-tune their own rule-set.
It's the sort of multiplayer experience that becomes richer the longer you play. You start with just one character class, two rifles and a pistol. Each kill is worth one point, with bonuses for meeting certain victory conditions, and provided you're halfway decent you'll soon have ranked up enough to start tailoring your character to your preferred style of play. It's really only once you've unlocked these options that the multiplayer comes to life, feeling narrow in scope at first but offering enviable depth in the long term.
For those without friends, or just wanting to brush up their skills, the Skirmish option allows you to play against up to 15 AI bots on any of the maps. It's more enjoyable than it may sound, simply because the AI is generally pretty dependable and scales nicely. An AI assassination target, for instance, will automatically find a safe spot and keep his back to the wall, which is more than can be said for some of the human players I've encountered. You carry your stats from the online games into these practice bouts, but it doesn't seem to work the other way - you can't grind your level higher by playing repeated offline games against easy CPU enemies.
Taken as a whole, Killzone 2 doesn't initially seem to offer enough to justify the superlatives that have been dutifully set aside by the PS3 faithful. Despite the often-stunning graphics, it's often derivative of other titles and doesn't - on the surface - seem to have much that distinguishes it from the herd.
It's deceptive though. This is a methodical shooter that makes few concessions to those not already interested in its single-minded approach to cover-based military action. I've compared it to Rainbow Six in the past, but it also calls to mind F.E.A.R, another tough tactical effort that was often misunderstood by those expecting a frag-happy spook hunt. Killzone 2 is a taut and muscular game, a shooter that gives back more than you put in, provided you have the intestinal fortitude. It may take its time revealing its true depths and pleasures, but the journey is well worth taking. Between Killzone 2's unforgiving grit and Resistance 2's alien-bursting excess, the PS3 finally has both ends of the shooter spectrum covered in grand style.
9 / 10