It’s been two years since the Helghast forces besieged Vekta. Jan Templar, the protagonist in Killzone and Killzone: Liberation, is now a Colonel in charge of the ISA cruiser New Sun and the new protagonist, Sgt. Tomas “Sev” Sevchenko. Templar is finally getting his revenge as Killzone 2 opens with the ISA launching an assault on the Helghast’s home world, Helghan. As Sev takes the reins, you come to realize that the Helghast are as red-eyed and dogged as ever, and that there will be plenty of pain ahead.
The opening sequence quickly demonstrates three things: that your cohorts have a range of personalities that extend as far as the ‘k’ from the ‘f’ of their favorite four-letter curse word; something isn’t quite right; and, hot damn, this is a great-looking game.
I don’t expect nor require my action shooters to have Dante-esque allegories or Orwell-style retrospection, just some Jünger-style action that is linked together with enough incentive to do the damage. And that’s pretty much what Killzone 2 is, but with one exception: the characters are obnoxious. There is a fine line between the tongue-in-cheek machismo of Gears of War and the jock-throwing-a-temper-tantrum approach of Killzone 2. I don’t mind the testosterone dial cranked up to a thousand, but at least make the characters likeable; instead, all we’re given are a bunch of overly sensitive bow-up grunts whose vocabulary consists of about 75% expletives. It’s not intimidating in the least - it’s silly.
Getting past the cardboard characters, we then get to a world that is at once fascinating and a little strange. As you stroll to your drop pad in the beginning of the game, you will be taken aback at how cool the scene is: you’re on this needle-like ship, high above Helghast, seeing soldiers hustle about while you survey the sprawling landscape below. But then you get on this platform that has no seats, no seatbelts, nothing save a handlebar for the soldiers to hold on to while they plummet to the earth below. This makes absolutely no sense, and it’s so weird that it’s actually jarring. Little things like that are scattered throughout the game, particularly explosive barrels: a bridge you come across in the beginning has a turret on it, which happens to have a truck backed up behind it packed with barrels of explosive material. The Helghast are a military machine, so I would think they could reason out a better way to store volatile material. Then there is the fact that I could heal my fallen comrades but they couldn’t heal me, and I’m limited to one heavy firearm because I couldn’t dump my pistol for something more useful.
I know what you’re thinking: “Whatever. I don’t care about the story, the ISA’s haphazard safety protocols, or the Helghast’s stupid love of explosive barrels – Resistance 2 had a freaking bridge made out of submerged cars, for crying out loud!” Okay, you got me; there is nothing as bad as the bridge here. But there is one thing that I simply couldn’t shake in Killzone 2, which Resistance 2 was phenomenal for, and that is the controls. There is such a harsh dead zone around the analogue sticks – area of movement that doesn’t trigger anything on-screen – that the quick acceleration used to compensate makes the beginning a real chore and remains a nagging problem throughout. A post-release patch has addressed the controls to an extent, but they are still incredibly rigid and reminiscent of earlier first-person shooters on the PlayStation 2 – Half-Life and No One Lives Forever – rather than the silky smoothness of Resistance 2. I’ve read varying accounts as to why the controls are like this, but whether it’s intentional or not matters little as it is a pain regardless.
There was even a moment whenever one of my squadmates commented on how I wasn’t hitting my target and just wasting ammo. So aside from not helping me out, I was also reminded that I was having to fight the controls to get a proper line of sight – thanks, AI. The controls aren’t something you practice and cultivate, like a skill, but something you adapt to as best you can once you put in enough time to realize that they peak at ‘manageable.’
So with that said, why the score? Simple: Killzone 2 is a fun game. Fans of Resistance 2 will note that Insomniac’s offering is a string of exceptional moments, some really great stuff, that are linked together by stretches of corridor slogging. For a while, I was thinking that Killzone 2 was content to simply have a better pace and reserve the jaw-dropping moments for when you could steal a glimpse of the vast cityscape or the killer designs of the Helghast soldiers. That is, until I reached the third act.
The final stretch is when the game started to really go above and beyond. What was a chaotic and solid experience escalated into the realm of the exceptional. All of a sudden, you get this fantastic EXO (mech) suit to play in, which is actually handled much better than most mech-centric titles (more of it, please!), but you also get these moments of high intensity that are coupled with some fantastic sights – exactly what I had been waiting for. Taking a moment to reload on an overpass, I noticed that I was not only seeing a few buildings on fire but a massive city in ruins, with the fires still burning and explosions filling the sky. The little details of tarps flapping in the wind, dust kicking up from feet, the unfocused sight of the EXO’s controls, it all melds with the vistas of carnage to present a scope of warfare that is downright impressive. The pace is brisk throughout, but really picked up momentum in the homestretch and culminated in an ending I found surprisingly satisfying.
There are some sound mechanics as well. The covering system is a little strange, but effective; you won’t ‘hook’ on some objects, which can be a pain, but you get the ability to lean from corners and either pop up and fire or aim when crouching behind objects. Cover becomes increasingly important as you realize that the Helghast can take an insane amount of punishment – I typically had to engage in melee because half a clip wouldn’t do the job – and becomes quite fitting after a while. The motion-sensitive moments, to plant charges and turn wheels, are used sparingly and are responsive enough to keep them from being a burden. Checkpoints are also thankfully merciful. As a last nod to the single-player campaign, replayability is greatly increased by being able to play any objective within each mission on any difficulty.
Rounding off the Killzone 2 experience is the multiplayer mode, warzone. Sweet, sweet warzone. First and foremost, the design for all eight maps is absolutely phenomenal. I haven’t enjoyed a set of maps so much in a very long time – possibly back to when the Quake 2 engine ruled the roost. The maps feature sufficient amounts of both long-range and close combat to satisfy either crowd, with all of the nooks, crannies, and back passages that make deathmatch so much fun. An important note is that, similar to Ghost Recon: Advanced War Fighter, the cover mechanism no longer works in multiplayer: you crouch, which tightens the targeting reticule, but you will not get behind cover. The pace is also very fast, with the several general game modes (search and destroy, assassination, search and retrieve, capture and hold, and bodycount) rotating in real-time as objectives, until the round ends. Search filters can also be used to provide preferred modes, and there are plenty of servers to accommodate the different types. And for Helghast fans worried about being at a disadvantage because of the glowing red eyes, fear not, because the ISA having glowing blue beacons that help to even things out.
The class system is fantastic. You have to level up to unlock soldier types beyond the default rifleman (medic, assault, tactician, saboteur, scout, and engineer), as well as medals and weapons. I know that having to unlock items and abilities annoys some, but what makes it work so well here is that the default weapons are the workhorse assault rifles of both the ISA and Helghast forces (and each side can use the other’s in multiplayer), so you have weapons with good accuracy and rates of fire that are so versatile that people tend to stick with them long after unlocking the shotgun, submachine gun, and other weapons.
Your time at the bottom also teaches you some valuable lessons. While climbing through the ranks, you learn things like not having an active medic on your team sucks, and engineers and their turrets are a godsend when trying to defend a tight corridor. As fun as it is to blast away, the experience isn’t nearly as enjoyable when people aren’t playing their parts and utilizing the mix-and-match system of class, badge (speed boost, dispensable health packs, etc.) and weapon. The winning faction is also given a 1.5 multiplier, which is a great push to get people in the game and participating. Even things like forming a squad and being a squad leader require leveling, but are also equally rewarded with abilities like squad-level chat channels and clan challenges. Making people wait and get a feel for the entire system before jumping right in is an approach that, in my experience so far, has worked well.
Honors are also given out for performance in multiplayer. Players that play clean, get multiple kills, or run roughshod over the enemy are given ribbons that go towards medals. Medals also unlock bonuses, such as starting with additional ammo or unlocking additional class abilities. The layers of rewards and unlockables, especially when the latter are actually useful, make an addicting experience all the more so. I really cannot say enough good stuff about multiplayer: it’s an absolute blast, and those with broadband are going to be playing warzone for a very long time.
For those of you who aren’t able to take your PlayStation 3 online, there is always the skirmish mode. Unfortunately, it’s pretty barebones. While you can learn the maps and practice against bots, you cannot set the game mode, advance a character or do much of anything, really. A little salt in the wound is that you can only level your character through online play, and the ability to create customized practice games with bots also requires need a connection. I played skirmish for a bit, but the lack of even the ability to designate the current mode proved to be too limiting for my taste. Of course, split-screen and co-op would have gone a long way to alleviating your suffering, but alas, Guerrilla Games thought otherwise. You broadband-less folks will definitely want to rent first, in case skirmish doesn’t do it for you.
Killzone 2 is far from perfect, and can be downright annoying at times, but it also delivers a great experience. After beating the game – right at 8 hours on the default difficulty – I went back and played some levels on a harder difficulty and found myself still having a blast, especially after having gotten more acclimated to the fussy controls. With each objective being replayable from the menu screen, I was able to enjoy memorable moments. While the third act really brings the single-player campaign to a head, the multiplayer delivers throughout. If you have broadband and even the slightest interest in first-person shooters, then Killzone 2 is a must. The controls are stiff and can break your heart, but stick with it, because the warzone mode is pure magic and will provide the kind of longevity that makes this a PlayStation 3 essential.