Dazzling technical display that should have been so much more
Killzone 2 reviewed on PlayStation 3
It is generally considered that to criticise something for what it does not do is fallacious. After all, it deserves to be judged on its own merits in isolation from what it may or may not have been, and to do so could prove a disservice to its creators. Killzone 2 is ostensibly a shooting game and what it does, it does pretty well. The control scheme is adeptly tailored to the two stick set-up, its visuals are gloriously bombastic and the action itself is more than solid. All of this complemented by an audioscape that falls nothing short of remarkable and Artificial Intelligence that surpasses almost everything to have come before.
One would assume, then, that Killzone 2 is a great videogame and this is true to some degree; the experience as a whole just about measures up to what it sets out to be. It’s a terrible shame, then, that this goal had to be so achingly unambitious. So profoundly clichéd, so unsettlingly insipid are Killzone 2’s setting, premise, mission objectives, squad chatter, plotline and general structure that it quickly becomes frustrating. Not only that, but it proves folly to numerous genre pitfalls including poor pacing, action “corridors”, blatant and all too numerous set-pieces and pathetic, ham-fisted attempts at emotional scripting. Worst of all, Guerilla are evidently a ludicrously talented collective, but when it comes down to it they simply didn’t do enough with the excellent tools they created.
First of all, immersion. There’s low visibility with dust spraying all over the place. You spot a faint red glow through the thick clouds. Patiently, you line up a shot and squeeze the trigger. Your target hits the ground, limp. A woman radios you to signify the area is secure. Objective complete. These are the best moments of Killzone 2. It looks, sounds and feels like a battle at times, and the payoff is very rewarding indeed. This can be destroyed in the blink of an eye; as the camera pulls back, your partner drops a gay-joke laden with expletives and marches on like an All-American-Hero, as if precisely nothing has just taken place. There’s no pausing for breath, and had Guerilla taken a few lessons from Valve’s ten-year-old Half-Life with regards to careful pacing and identification with character a lot of problems would have been solved. It persistently breaks from the first person viewpoint, showing the player character as just another one-dimensional grunt. This renders the already laughably awful story unable to resonate with the person in front of the screen and ruins the illusion it strives so hard to build up. Additionally, the relentless audiovisual hammering the player is subjected to can be incredibly wearing after a few hours. A little downtime would have lent more of an atmosphere to proceedings, however the game seems content to fill these rare moments with head-in-hands embarrassing quips like “It’s quiet, a little too quiet”.
This brings us neatly on to the next point, tying into almost every lacklustre element of Killzone 2’s design. The aforementioned squad “banter” is downright atrocious and on occasion offensive to the player; for instance going to unprecedented lengths to insult our mothers. It’s the sort of nonsense one would expect from the average Xbox Live exchange, not planned dialogue in an important, Triple A, first-party release. To say that soldiers, whilst in a kill-or-be-killed situation, would try to temporarily combat their moral instincts through hollow jibes is one thing, but it’s hard to believe they actively revel in the death of fellow human beings as the buddies in this game appear to. Had my partner just electrocuted several men and watched them squirm, shrieking on the ground as they breathed their last, I certainly would not have complemented his murdering skills with an ebullient “Haha! Brutal!”
For a game so technically advanced, it’s odd that Killzone 2 feels in many regards lagging behind this generation of shooters. The touted dynamism is essentially quashed by restrictive environments that rarely offer anything other than a single path, and for once a little sneaking may have added depth to the gameplay. Although some scenery is destructible, it’s essentially peripheral to how the mission unfolds, unlike 2005’s Black, which had a similar feel and aesthetic, but utilised its degradable objects to great effect in gameplay terms by making allowances for environmental kills that went beyond the usual explosive barrels. They may have been carefully placed so the player didn’t stumble past them, but on the whole it worked, and something along those lines would have introduced a tad more variety to Killzone 2 - something it intrinsically lacks. Oh, it makes an attempt to spice things up with a few short, tacked-on vehicle sections, but little can compensate for its repetitive nature. This isn’t helped any by moments which seem so artificial and scripted that even a second or third play through an area can make them very easy to exploit. This worked in Doom, but in 2009 it’s very jarring to see, especially when the animation and surroundings on display are so lifelike.
It would be unfair to deride Killzone 2 so much as to rob it of its many considerable achievements. The cover system, despite inconsistencies, is the best yet in an FPS, and is paradoxically much more immersive and natural than that seen in Rainbow Six Vegas. Weapons have a great feel to them, and there’s a considered and balanced range of both light and heavy which caters to all tastes. Unfortunately, the player character is unable to carry more than one primary weapon at a time, and this, although more realistic than other games, leads to a lack of willingness to test out different play styles. Thankfully, ammunition is always plentiful and any Helghast firearm can be equipped, so it’s not a massive problem in the long run. The control system, although not to everyone’s taste, suits the console very well and results in one of the few shooters that arguably work better with a joypad than a mouse and keyboard. Online multiplayer, a class-based effort with some unique touches, will work very well for those who don’t tire of the experience as rapidly and proves that, out of the campaign’s damaging context, the shooting itself is actually of a high standard, though its longevity is to be questioned – the compelling and infinitely replayable Call of Duty 4 this is not. Finally, the earthy, tactical shootouts that are the centerpiece of the game are, when everything fits into place, some of the most satisfying the genre has borne witness to; however these glimpses of true brilliance are all to infrequent and only add to the frustration when one ponders what could have been.
“Violence has its own economy. Therefore, be thoughtful and precise in your investment” reads a Helghan propaganda plaque. Perhaps Guerilla should have paid a little more attention to it, because for all their precision in living up to that trailer, they appear to have applied little thought to how this should be balanced out as part of a much more interesting whole. Rather than producing a solid lump of exactly what was promised, perhaps some humble pie should have been swallowed and a more considered version of the game crafted. The chip on the shoulder may have been harder to shrug off in this situation, but we’d have been better off for it. Even just a few less man-hours spent polishing the lens-flare and a few more dedicated to turning an incredible engine into an incredible videogame would have elevated the Killzone 2 that is sitting on shelves into one of the greatest first person shooters ever made. Sadly, it isn’t, but don’t forget that what we get in its stead is not to be sniffed at.