It was inevitable that at some stage Sony would recognise the hit potential of releasing a first-person shooter to take on the might of Halo - the surprise is that it's taken fully four years of the PS2's lifespan for a first party candidate to emerge. But let's not beat around the bush here: Killzone doesn't hold a candle to any of the FPS greats despite the bewildering level of hype heaped upon it in the run up to its release. Sure, it looks great in the screenshots, but just wait until you play it. You'll soon have all the evidence you need to come to the rapid conclusion that Guerrilla's efforts occasionally crawl out of the war-torn mire, only to get crushed under the rubble of their own failings.
In basic terms, Killzone is a war game where you, the ISA Regiments, are under attack by the Helghast on the planet Vekta, following a breach of the defence system. Not that you'd know why they're attacking or their motives from playing the damn thing, but the premise of Killzone is actually quite intriguing if you dig deep enough. The masked Nazi-stormtrooper-esque Helghast were actually once human themselves, having been somewhat mutated when they colonized the toxic planet of Helghan, and for reasons poorly explained have decided to go on a galaxy domination binge, starting with Vekta, the Earth-like planet that forms the basis of the game. To be fair, it may as well be Earth. It looks like Earth. They look like an advanced military force. You won't really care either way; Killzone's fairly lavish and detailed cut-scenes initially look promising, but lack the narrative hook to really endear you to any of the characters or pull you into the game.
War torn dystopia
Throwing you into one frantic war-torn scene after another, Killzone is, for all its future war premise, another extremely linear war-time FPS where fighting the next wave of enemies is essentially all that matters. It's Call Of Duty and Medal Of Honour in another time zone - the game mechanics have been imported more or less wholesale, although with a degree of difficulty and intelligence that might scare off fans of the sort of run and gun where enemies drop to the floor in three quick hits. Although the 'Normal' difficulty has been seriously toned down since the ferocious toughness of the fully formed preview build we got hold of back in September, it's still a game that makes you work hard for your kills, with most of your standard arsenal woefully inadequate in dealing with the Helghast masses.
It seems that someone at Sony demanded that Killzone's difficulty level was set to more sane realms, but a sweet spot has been found that still allows Guerrilla to show off some of its more impressive AI techniques that occasionally reveal the Helghast to have an uncanny knack for self preservation - making finishing off clusters of enemies a far more challenging prospect than you'd normally expect from a console shooter. Whack it up to the Hard difficulty setting and it's one of the most unforgiving shooters out there, really making you work for the right to kill thanks to a combination of high enemy hit points, weedy health on your side and some of the most underpowered weapons we've ever come across in a videogame. When one of your buddy grunts utters "We'll secure the area, you go on ahead", we truly wanted to punch his lights out. What, go on ahead and fight ten bastard-hard enemies with this popgun while you stand around having a ciggie? Genius.
But while these intense firefights provide a decent challenge, and in small doses can be a tense, even exciting snapshot into what the game was trying to achieve, it becomes overwhelmingly evident very early on that all that changes about the gameplay are the weapons and the locations. All you get to fight are Helghast masses, wearing roughly the same uniforms, with only minor differences between their weapons and insignia allowing you to tell the difference, all barking the same endlessly repetitive war cries until you're blue in the face with listening to them; providing you haven't already passed out holding your breath waiting for the game to introduce any real variety at all.
30 seconds of pain, over and over
Although Bungie has received a fair bit of stick for its 'thirty seconds of fun over and over' mantra that it designs its Halo games to, at least it didn't substitute 'fun' for 'pain' as we have here, and had the decency to introduce different enemies, for crying out loud. Killzone's decision to build an entire game around ostensibly the same enemies is simply a bizarre one, and not a very compelling one at that. After two hours you're certain new enemy variations will arrive to present a new challenge; maybe with new tactics and a more fearsome design. But no. Maybe they'll be dressed in white, take a bit more damage and wield a slightly better gun, but it's ostensibly more of the same until you get utterly tired of it all.
With eleven chapters to wade through (each normally broken up into about four sections) it's unlikely to last all that long; most of the first half can be cracked in under an hour on your first run through, and even the more challenging end-of-chapter sections won't hold you up for all that long. Providing you don't fall prey to the dreaded inconsiderate and inconsistent checkpoint save system that seems to only go AWOL when you really need it. The chances are you'll not be too happy to get right to the end of a chapter, cop it on the last enemy (who will probably appear out of nowhere wielding an RPG, or be manning a previously unseen machine gun turret) and be forced to backtrack through the last 20 minute's worth. If there's one thing we can't stand in FPSs it's being forced to backtrack. You wouldn't like us when we're backtracking.
As a result of a few hugely frustrating failures, you learn to be a lot more careful playing Killzone - every battle has the potential to be a Game Over screen in the making, so you find yourself tentatively backing off from every encounter until you're sure you've got it right, and retreating every time you cop a shot so that your health bar can recharge a few notches. It is tense; it can have its moments of enjoyment as a result, but let's not pretend that a dodgy checkpoint save mechanic is the future of gaming. It's a lazy way of arbitrarily upping the difficulty, and the tension only comes from the fact that you really don't want to have to go through the whole rigmarole again. It's not as if you actually want to run through another cut and paste section repeating the same fire fights for fun, only to turn the corner and find roughly the same battles awaiting you all over again.
Ctrl C, Ctrl V
If Guerrilla has learned anything from Bungie, it's that incomprehensibly tedious trick of cut and paste level design. At first, the shattered cityscape trench warfare doesn't reveal this, nor does the office block section or the sewers for that matter - but once you hit the shopping mall section, followed by the endlessly tedious dock environment, it starts screaming "We couldn't be arsed!" at you. At our most exasperated Captain Templar utters the immortal line: "The journey is long and arduous, yet we must press on." We couldn't help but nod at the former sentiments. Long and arduous indeed, as we stared blankly at the Nintendo DS sat awaiting our attention in front of us, neglected in order to review this. We've no doubt that years of hard work went into Killzone, and we feel for those people over at Guerrilla, but to the casual observer all they're going to see is a fairly bog standard game with repetitive levels populated by the same old enemies. How is that in any way exciting? The truth is, sadly, that it isn't.
To add to the sense of disappointment, the visuals don't even deliver anywhere near the promise that the totally misleading screenshots suggested. At first glance, the shattered landscapes look immensely detailed, but not only are they somewhat bland and grainy, the frame rate is so sluggish as to ruin any sense of immersion you might have been expecting. Turn up the heat in a big battle and the action would make pea soup set on simmer for half an hour seem like running water in its fluidity. The thing is, there's nothing standout amazing about the visuals in any case. Sure, the cut-scene facial detail is very pleasing, but that's soon spoiled by puppet lip-synching.
It's not as if the game's making use of a higher resolution than normal, packing the world with incredible detail or pulling off the kind of fancy physics tricks that would be associated with such stress. In fact, apart from water coolers copping it in a firefight, it's hard to identify anything approaching real world physics - even the death animations get caught in the scenery much of the time. But some of the worst visual crimes are reserved for the in-game facial detail, which has an amusing tendency to pop onto the characters faces at the very last moment, making them look faintly eerie as a consequence. For sure, the levels have an acceptable level of detail, but that's all it is. It's not a game you'll be wowing your friends with, showing them how far the PS2 has come. We'll probably have to wait for Criterion's Black for that.
"Get your shit together and start acting like soldiers"
And what of the vaunted AI? At one point one of the characters utters "Get your shit together and start acting like soldiers." We're still not sure if he was talking about us or the enemy AI. Having been massively toned down to make the game vaguely playable (a wise decision, it turns out), it manages to be simultaneously convincing and utterly dumb. One minute the Helghast are ganging up on you to tremendous effect, taking up dynamic cover points and creeping around to take you out, the next they're standing blissfully unaware that you've just sniped the guy standing next to them. If you're in line of sight the AI is remarkably reactive, but exploit their apparent inability to see anything to the side of them, coupled with slow reactions to turning to face side-on attacks and it suddenly looks very weak indeed. The potential was there, there's no doubt, but in practice it veers between the unplayably hard and the dense.
Much of the associated difficulty comes from a very poorly implemented control system that makes basic sniping a heinously sensitive chore, while even making minor adjustments to close up firefights seems to be a black art. It's something you adjust to in time, but alarming and costly mistakes are but a joypad lurch away. But while the likes of us will persist with ropey controls to get the job done, we can't imagine the casual gamer looking for the PS2's answer to Halo will. It's so crucial to make the game feel right from the off, and it's painfully evident that Killzone simply doesn't achieve this basic goal.
One of the game's potential saving graces also falls largely flat, sadly; that of allowing players to choose from one of four characters to play the game from. To kick off with you'll be controlling Captain Templar, a thoroughly generic clean cut ISA recruit with no special abilities other than being able to cop more damage than the others. Luger, the token female, comes in at Chapter 2 equipped with thermal vision and the ability to sneak through otherwise inaccessible areas, while Rico enters the scene in the chapter after that as the Heavy Weapons chap, leaving Hakha (voiced in typically biting style by Sean Pertwee) following as the runt of the litter in the fourth episode as the Helghast turncoat able to bypass enemy security. In theory, offering four ways to play each chapter ought to provide plenty of replay value, but in practice it's not as interesting as you might imagine; although playing as Rico feels like cheating, thanks to his uber death gun that minces everything in its path.
Just your average disappointment
So, we've dealt with the thoroughly average and ultimately disappointing single-player campaign, which leaves the Battlefields multiplayer (16-player online, or offline with bots) to save the day. We certainly admire the effort Guerrilla has gone to in order to prove what the PS2 is capable of, but we're left wondering if it was all in vain. As ever there's single and team-based Deathmatch to test your itchy trigger finger, the assault-based team mode Domination (control switches around the map), a variation on Domination called Defend and Destroy (defend two key objectives while destroying your opponents) and a capture the flag variant called Supply Drop (capture containers dropped around the map). Although it's hard to knock these well established game types, they've also been done to death. If you can muster 16 players then there's the usual multiplayer fun in prospect, but next to something like Halo 2's options and offerings it looks almost embarrassingly outclassed. It's not a deal clincher, put it that way, but is admittedly one of the better PS2 Online offerings, and on the plus side 16-player support is a major bonus.
Killzone was, quite obviously, burdened with the kind of expectations that it was never likely to deliver on. But for a rapidly excitable press campaign determined to push this as a Halo-beater the game may well have been viewed in a more sensible light, but unfortunately for Sony, Guerrilla neither has the pedigree nor the design talents to really make the most of what the PS2 has to offer. The PS2 has always been the toughest machine to make standout FPSs for, and the sad fact is by the time an exceptionally talented team unlocks the true power of the machine, the bar will have been raised so far out of sight that no-one will even care; rather like the now-forgotten achievements in the latter days of the PSone. That Killzone doesn't live up to expectations shouldn't come as a major surprise to anyone; that Sony has chosen to release such a damp squib at this outrageously competitive time of year most definitely is. If you chose to ignore any of the major contenders this year, make sure it's Killzone - you won't have missed much.