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.