Heavy Rain may have been the cover star of the Games Convention, with LittleBigPlanet jumping around in the background, but Killzone 2 was there as well, hidden away, much as it was at E3, with Guerrilla's Eric Boltjes and others keen to talk to the press about the multiplayer ahead of the game's increasingly close February 2009 release.
For this latest airing of the multiplayer, Boltjes wants to get across how accessible the game will be. "For us it meant that everybody, regardless of whether they're a new player to the FPS genre or if they're an experienced online player should be able to go online, join games and start playing the game as quickly as possible," he says. But getting seamlessly into the action isn't the only concern. It's how to keep people there once they're in, and get them used to the game's features without overwhelming them.
"We really want to introduce new features gradually, so as you play, as you score points you unlock new things," he adds. "You get new features and then still have enough scope left for the more advanced features for our hardcore audience to still be interested over the longer term."
To help get players used to all this, Killzone 2 will include computer-controlled enemy bots in both offline and online multiplayer - firstly as a means of giving players an offline safe haven to learn the ropes, and secondly to give the option of fleshing out matches where you might want a few more players and can't be bothered to wait around for the lobbies to fill up. Boltjes says the bots "mimic human behaviour" (hopefully not singing inanely) and will "pretty much do anything that a player can do online as well, including play all the missions, use all the abilities and use all the weapons", although we're not given the chance to see them in action.
Continuing with the 'everyone can play' mantra, Boltjes adds that this emphasis on accessibility runs throughout every design decision. "We want to make sure that players aren't just thrown into the deep end, so almost every feature in Killzone 2 multiplayer unlocks as you score points and as you join games. This system allows for a very natural learning curve throughout because the player is introduced more slowly to every feature, one by one."
As we noted at length in our huge Killzone 2 multiplayer preview last month, Killzone 2's online feature list is absolutely exhaustive. There's five game types (assassinations, body-count, capture and hold, search and destroy, and CTF variant search and retrieve) and eight maps, with each map capable of supporting every game type. Some of the maps will be better suited for 2-16 players, while others support up to 32 players. That said, if you want to cram 32 players into a smaller map, you can do just that.
Cunningly, players will also be able to create a session that allows them to play through each game type on the same map - with a massive amount of customisation possible. "We want you to play the game just the way you like it - you can create any type of game and change almost every aspect of it," says Boltjes. So, if the host so desires, they can specify the exact weapon types present, bomb defusal times, revival time, the skill level of players that can join the game, and even password the session if you really want to keep the great unwashed out.
Game progression is a big deal, too, with Guerrilla keen to make it "as transparent as possible". "At the end of every game, you see how many points you've scored," Boltjes points out, although we probably guessed that one. "You can see if you've ranked up, you see what you've unlocked, how you can use it and how it benefits you. The game features 12 military ranks, each unlocking new features. In addition we have 46 different medals which you earn by doing special things in the game, such as doing ten headshots or reviving ten people.
"Each of these weapons and medals also give you more features to play online, and to top it all off, there are more than 100 different player statistics that we track [via Killzone.com], so you can track your own progression as well, such as number of kills, time spent online, or even how many health packs you've picked up," he continues. "As you play the game, you learn more about it, and you learn more about how you want to experience and play the game itself. Some people like sniping, some people like playing in a team, some people like playing with big weapons. We've really tried to support specific player preferences." You can even set up your own clan homepage. Mercy be.
As previously revealed, players can also look forward a class-based "badge" system where you can mix-and-match abilities (such as medic and a scout), and numerous incentives to get involved with clan-based activities, such as a "unique Valour betting system" that encourages clans to duke it out for valour points in various tournaments to climb a leaderboard. Squad options will also feature, and will allow players to create squads in-game, with the ability to switch between voice channels as you play. It's all in the name of "inspiring team play".
With so much information to digest, we aren't perhaps the ideal candidates to be facing off against the designers of the game, but they let us loose anyway, giving us our first opportunity to sample some of this mayhem first-hand. First impressions, sadly, are fleeting, giving us little more than a chance to take in the general look and feel of the environments and a few of the in-game weaponry from both the Helghast perspective as well as the ISA soldiers.
Regarding the former, the session kicks off by spawning us into one of the maps designed for smaller parties. It's a classic symmetrical deathmatch arena - a deserted factory complex, with tight, multi-tiered narrow metal gantries crisscrossing a stark grey building and concrete staircases descending into a gloomy basement. Visually it's very much in-keeping with the crumbling concrete hell that features so prominently in the main game, with cracked walls, filthy floors and a colour palette out of Trainspotting. It's dusty, oppressive, atmospheric and dangerous, and makes Silent Hill look like a Mr. Sheen advert.
Armed with standard assault rifle and pistol, it's a straightforward close-quarters battle. Aiming feels a little spongy at first, but with good use of the claustrophobic zoom view, it proves quite rewarding to look down the sights of the gun and pick enemies off with measured accuracy.
In a second, somewhat bigger map, we also get to experience fighting against big scary robotic airborne sentry drones and turrets that hover and blast you on sight. We're told that players will be able to deploy sentries at strategic locations, but not exactly how we'll go about doing that. Battlefield-style, possibly. Apparently some will depend on the type of terrain: for example, calling in air cover will require line-of-sight, which is only possible in the more expansive outdoor maps.
As we discover, taking on this AI threat adds an extra distraction, so taking them out quickly and efficiently is paramount. Peeking out from behind cover and doing so with a sniper rifle initially proves effective, but also a little risky given the number of times we get shot in the back trying to be sneaky and clever. But that's partly because our opponents actually made the game and doubtlessly second-guessed our intentions, and also because we aren't really paying much attention to the mini-map in the top left of the screen, which offers a vital visual cue as to what was about to blast us to bits.
In summary, your bumbling correspondent is absolutely hopeless, but then so is everyone else who had a go in Leipzig. The most important thing is that Guerrilla clearly wants accessibility and depth; a double-act to rival Halo, in other words, and has an extensive feature-set, a promising engine and a monster website to tie it all together. With the release of the game potentially just six months away, expect some movement on the multiplayer beta in the very near future - along with more expansive impressions of both single-player and multiplayer here on Eurogamer.
Killzone 2 is due for release on PlayStation 3 in February 2009. A public multiplayer beta is scheduled prior to release, and additional multiplayer maps will be made available for download post-launch. Check out our separate Killzone 2 single-player hands-on preview for more on that.