After a long gestation period, the initial embryonic CG trailer that dropped jaws at E3 2005 finally has a chance for vindication. With a near half-decade incubation, there are a lot of questions for Sony’s first heavy hitter of 2009. Is the battle against the Helghast worthy of the hyperbole?
While there may be considerable back-story to mine from the first Killzone and its PSP cousin, 2 wastes little in ham-fisted exposition, instead immediately thrusting you into scenes of war and invasion with a tinge of red-eyed fascism. There are nods to the past games, with Jan Templar appearing, albeit non-playable, but there’s always a subliminal premonition of the epic battle looming mere meters away.
Taking on the role of Sev, an International Strategic Alliance, or ISA, Sergeant, you invade the planet Helghan in an attempt to remove its charismatic dictator, Emperor Visari. In the previous games he attempted an invasion of his own on the ISA planet of Vekta, so there’s no shortage of motivation. You’re a grunt, not messed up in the politics, and it’s clear cut who the bad guys are, though it’s easy to get a little swayed by Visari’s bellicose speeches delivered by the excellent voice acting of Brian Cox.
It’s a simple story with a little something going on in the background coupled with some smart in-game situations and the obligatory handful of twists. It’s basically generic action movie 101, but it keeps things simple and accessible. Some of the foul language from squadmates can be a bit misplaced and gratuitous, but the story is enough to drive you through.
Killzone 2’s campaign offers a 10-hour trudge through the best the Helghast have to offer. Levels are divided into missions with various objectives, and an easy tap up on the D-pad will show you which way to proceed. Despite spending most of the game with comrades, there’s no co-op option, which is a disappointment.
Objectives will often have you paired up with another ISA soldier or sometimes a whole squad, and while they won’t steal too many kills, they’re far from cannon fodder. At least the enemies are often as intent on killing them as they are in killing you, which isn’t the case in a lot of games. Not to say they won’t rub you the wrong way at times.
Other times, Sev goes it alone. Things would be impossible if it weren’t for the old standby, the exploding barrel. The game doesn’t necessarily feel clichéd for it, but if there’s one big ding it’s that Killzone 2 doesn’t feel all that fresh.
The Helghast invasion loans itself to replaying. After beating a level you can jump to any section within it, and there’s tons of stat tracking to improve, collectables to find and trophies to be earned that don’t affect the game itself, which earns our kudos. A mission that may have dogged you the first time, can take on another light on replay, allowing you to stretch your tactical know-how. Even the lackluster early missions gain appeal.
Killzone 2 runs the gamut of shooter objectives: clear areas, man turrets and tanks, stand your ground, and blow things up. You also take on bosses that are sometimes bullet sponges and sometimes a bit more puzzling. You get hints barked at you almost immediately, which removes some of the experimentation--or trial and error--depending on your taste. The first couple levels are slow burners, but the pace picks up towards the second half of the game with some great set piece scenarios.
The guns are pretty standard fare, with sniper rifles, machine guns, and shotguns. A few esoteric weapons make the rounds, projecting bolts or spraying an electrical haze like a flamethrower. They’re fun to play around with, but not as trust worthy as the standard issue ISA rifle.
The online multiplayer component is called warzone, where the cover controls are dropped but you gain an incredible class system. It can be slow to start, as you’re limited on guns and abilities, but once you start gaining points and experimenting, it really opens up. Putting time into your strengths is rewarded, as class abilities are unlocked. Plus, the multiplayer is pretty dynamic with the objectives switching without any troublesome loading. It’s great to see how standard fare like assassination being followed up with a search and destroy mission can quickly change the game dynamic. If you don’t feel like playing with others, turn on some bots and enter skirmish mode to get a lay of the land.
These days, it’s standard fare for a game to have a multiplayer component, but Killzone 2 goes a step above. Classes may not be new, but they’re done well and the progression system is deep. The game modes are also easy to pickup, and allowing mid-match swapping is a small stroke of genius.
If you look for a lot of mileage out of your game purchases, Killzone 2 won’t disappoint. The single-player is relatively short, but there’ incentive to play it again. The multiplayer just keeps on giving.
The first reaction to Killzone 2’s controls may be harsh, but thankfully customizing sensitivity and button mapping is easy. Even after some fine tuning things can still feel lethargic from time to time, and peeking out of cover while trying to zoom in for a headshot is like playing twister with your fingers, but you eventually wrap your head--and hands--around it. But beware, reloading takes eons, so it’s important to watch your ammo count as well as your clip.
Sev’s also limited to two guns at a time--a main firearm and a pistol. You’ll often have to arm certain weapons for a specific situation, like a missile launcher for downing tanks. This can leave you without ammo, running for cover, and hopefully a machine gun. The pistols do in a pinch, but it still ultimately feels like a single-weapon system—especially when you take the weak melee and the awkward knife implementation into account. They’re small caveats, but you’ll get so good with your assault rifle that it can be hard to risk putting it down, even for an RPG.
The Helghast AI is pretty good. The hardest difficulty is a real challenge and even trying to blitz the opposition on easy will get you killed. You must proceed with caution. Killzone earns its name. You’ll be fighting for every inch and will die often. You’re punished for just about every misstep. As your health drains so does the color from the screen, making it harder to land shots or find cover. Ducking behind objects is very important. First-person shooters have dabbled in it, but here you can lock onto walls and peek over or to the side to riddle an enemy with bullets. It sets a methodical, slower pace.
By this point you’ve been watching Killzone 2 in motion for a few minutes. It’s obviously a beautiful game. There may be a few textures to nitpick, but that’s exactly what it would be: nitpicking. Sev’s military operation looks great, from flapping fabrics to Helghast soldiers reacting to each piece of shrapnel. If anything, its refusal to do anything garish holds it back. You want to see how a peaceful glade or even a suburban Helghast neighborhood would be rendered, but, for the most part, you’re stuck in a gray, dank war with just brief glimpses of light. It can be hard to notice a lot of the subtle touches, but if you look for them, oh boy. It also uses surround sound rather intelligently in a key point in the game.
Enemies tend to look similar, with only a few standouts. They’re easily identifiable by their glowing red eyes, and when they’re flanking or lobbing grenades into your makeshift foxhole, you won’t care what they look like as long as they’re dead.
While Killzone 2 is not re-imagining the genre, it’s solid, beautiful, and challenging, with excellent multiplayer that makes it well worth the 60 bones. It falls short of legendary, but it’s sure to offer anyone who takes the plunge a visceral, tactical treat for the thumbs and eyes. It may be tough to get into, but once it gets its hooks in it won’t let go.