Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Killzone 2

Guerilla Games


For gamers firmly entrenched in Sony’s hardware ecosystem, the Killzone series has been a blessing doled out every few years. After the initial Killzone was released in 2004 for the PS2, its first sequel Killzone: Liberation followed two years later on the PSP, trading in its FPS roots for a top-down, isometric melange of genres: primarily a sci-fi dungeon-crawler with a healthy injection of guns, upgrades and action shooter DNA.

Enter the third game in the series, Killzone 2, and the noble fight is taken to the Helghans’ planet, Helghast. There’s a fair resonance with more contemporary political warfare here, as you oversee a group of marines taking on the indoctrinated troops of a charismatic leader. There’s a stolen experimental nuclear weapon tossed in the mix for good measure, although it feels more like a token WMD justification to invade the planet.

Having missed the first instalment in the series, I suppose I didn’t buy into the game’s revenge theme – taking the fight to the initial aggressors of the interplanetary war – but strangely enough that worked to my advantage, as there suddenly appeared shades of policy I wouldn’t otherwise have considered: this wasn’t my war, one might say, and yet there I was, trying to dismantle the military power of a questionably sane foreign leader, one red-eyed enemy soldier at a time. All Killzone 2 needed for a more uncomfortable resonance would have been a fight over a resource more tangible than propaganda and more believable than a super-nuke.

It is propaganda and the impact of martyrdom on warfare, however, that forms the central moral to the game – it’s a subtle take on the morality and consequences of war. Without giving away too much of the ending, it’s patently obvious that ending a battle is much more difficult than beginning one. (Another sequel or two should wrap things up quite nicely, though.)

To survive on any but the easiest difficulty setting, you’ll need to master the game’s cover system, aim accurately, and predict enemy AI – pretty much par for the FPS course, apart from the fact that Killzone 2’s enemy soldiers are damned smart. They duck quickly, weave unpredictably, and hold cover positions better than any NPCs I’ve seen, and put paid to any thought of traditional run-and-gun tactics.

Killzone 2 outshines even its stellar campaign mode in the multiplayer arena: the 32-player matches include support for four 4-player squads on each team and offer seven combat classes to choose from, although the unlocking system to reach the different classes and abilities takes grinding to a new level. Multiplayer maps spread both horizontally and vertically, and offer a surfeit of cover, ambush spots and atmospheric wreckage for some of the most exciting PvP combat you’ll see this side of the console divide.

There are remarkably few shortcomings in the game (though the omission of co-op play through the campaign is foremost), and even the tacked-on sixaxis controls – mostly for interacting with set-pieces in the game environment and keeping your reticle steady while sniping – don’t detract terribly much, laggy as they are. Level design is stellar, with alternate ways to approach different situations and clever use of architecture as dividers and channels for the game’s action. Where Bungie famously designed the Halo series around 30-second bites of action, Killzone 2 seems to be set up around two-minute set-pieces – enough for players to get breathless and stressed out, but not too much to deal with at any one time, despite the bullets-akimbo nature of each minor battle.

The gruff stereotypical manly-men are certainly present and (for the most part) accounted for, but where Gears 2 offered glamour and glory, Killzone 2 brings the grit and the guts. If you’ll pardon the belaboured analogy, the comparison between the two games could be roughly equivalent to that between their two native consoles – Microsoft throws enough money at its target market, and some of it sticks; Sony throws enough money (and development time) at a franchise, and suddenly there’s a solid first-person follow-up to Killzone. Not that either games are the product of first-party developers, but it’s still telling to see the sorts of games that each console attracts as exclusive releases.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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