Saturday, 26 February 2011

Killzone 2

After reading my original review of Killzone 2 again – republished (well, copy and pasted) below with a few corrections for grammar – early 2009 suddenly seems like such a long time ago. This was a time when the Playstation 3 was still struggling to gain momentum, a point in the console’s cycle where lauded exclusives had been falling, critically and commercially, by the wayside with alarming regularity (the much maligned likes of Heavenly Sword, Lair, Haze*), a point where there was little hint of the future innovations to come. The alarm bells, though understandable, proved a tad histrionic; the end of 2009 brought a certain little title by the name of Uncharted 2, and the Playstation 3 quickly stopped becoming the punchline for every fanboy’s console war joke. But Killzone 2’s release, in this turbulent context of early 2009, felt important in a way that the launch of the series’ second sequel – released yesterday in the UK – simply doesn’t.

Despite being an even more technically impressive production, Killzone 3 no longer needs to act as a billboard for the console’s capabilities; with the ‘wow’ factor (for want of a better phrase) missing, the focus has shifted to look at which criticisms of Killzone 2 Guerrila have taken on board and rectified. Some of the more regular complaints leveled at Killzone 2 were based on the repetition of its environments and misgivings about its narrative, which I touched upon back in February 2009. I felt the former was excusable, given the world’s sense of cohesion, although it sounds as though Killzone 3 has a much greater variety. I’ll be playing it this weekend and posting my thoughts at some point, although I won’t be holding my breath for improved characterization or plot of any descernible depth. Yes, Killzone 2 was very derivirative - but given the context of its place in the grander scheme of things there’s a sense that it couldn’t really have turned out any other way. It was more of a technical showcase then it was a first-person shooter to redefine this over-populated genre’s boundaries, but our eyes were too wide to care.

We’ve been here before of course. Back in 2003 the original Killzone was unveiled as the game that would emphatically wrestle the FPS initiative back to the PlayStation 2, away from Microsoft, Xbox and the mighty Halo. Blinded as the press and public were to some admittedly impressive technical demonstrations, the game went on to sell well over a million copies, presumably before anyone had the chance to realize just how many cracks there were beneath the invitingly shiny exterior and how poorly Killzone compared – if not in looks, then certainly in playability – to Bungie’s masterpiece (a game that appears to take on more and more significance as the years pass).

Skip forward two years to E3 2005. Killzone 2 is unveiled to an industry as the tech demo – sorry, game – that would cement PlayStation 3’s inevitable market leadership, even with the launch of the Xbox 360 just months away. Sony’s response appeared reminiscent of an advertising slogan Nintendo used in the months before the launch of Nintendo 64: “Is it worth the wait? Only if you want the best!” As we know, the PlayStation 3 has hardly had an easy ride since.

By now you’ll have already seen the corresponding score. Chances are you’ll have also made up your mind as to this review’s merits, or even those of Killzone 2 as a game overall. So for everyone disembarking at this point, the brief summation is thus: Killzone 2 does very few things that are new and it won’t exactly win the Pulitzer for its attempt at fiction, but it may just be the most accomplished slice of genre gaming this generation has yet produced, with every noteworthy strand of technology and game design collated into one console-defining title. Where others have innovated, Killzone 2 has refined to the nth degree; this approach may be considered cowardly, but it will work wonders for the average gamer.

What suggests Killzone 2 is such a successful creation is that after a while the soundbite-worthy features that stand out in the initial hours gradually give way to an experience that is all about the feel and the immersion of play, a factor that was sorely lacking from the original game. From the heaviness of movement to the debris that chips off each pillar through gunfire, the world of Killzone 2 is tangible, realistic and incredibly well conceived. The visuals, even after such blog-friendly hype, are astonishing, but would represent little more than a hollow victory were they not supporting this cohesive ethos. Narrative excepted – and it is a big exception – Guerrilla has placed a certain gravitas upon their vision of warfare and ensured that everything works towards this goal.

A case in point would be early on when your squad finds itself ambushed in one small corner of Visari Square by charging Helghast troops. Wave after wave of enemies appear, past the point that other FPS shooters would have reasonably given the player a break, but it never feels unfair; instead it’s the first intense set-piece in a game loaded with such encounters. By the end our ammo was down to single digits, our reaction one of being genuinely relieved to have survived. The final assault on Visari Palace is similar, a sustained battle during which every inch gained feels vital and where retreating even a few steps invites the Helghast forward.

Killzone 2 is a game that really benefits from a patient approach to combat, the now standard cover system adapted so that pushing forward on the left stick allows you to quickly duck out and fire before snapping back into place. This careful, grinding approach is somewhat at odds with the machismo that dominates practically everywhere else (from the name itself to the expletive-ridden script, Killzone 2 is the sort of game straight from the nightmares of Daily Mail readers), and is an example of contrasts and opposites that also extends to the campaign mode’s excellent structure. The flashpoints dotted throughout are certainly memorable, if only for their physicality, but they’re buffeted by some wonderful stretches of languor and isolation that significantly help the pacing. Prior to Suljeva Village the repetition of industrial environments threatens to become suffocating, but from Suljeva on, the game soars to a superbly judged climax; the intervening hours full of incident, tension and no little excitement. It’s clear that the last four years weren’t simply spent on pushing the PS3 hardware as far as possible, but in creating a world so cohesive that every successive mission feels like a natural progression from the last. Inconsequential narrative be damned (there are frequent pathetic attempts at investing the story with ‘emotion’ that make the Gears sequel look like Final Fantasy 7); Killzone 2 may have the most derivative campaign mode of the last few years, but it also has one of the very, very best.

One significant component of Killzone 2 that has yet to scale these aforementioned heights is the online multiplayer, though only for the simple reason that at the time of writing lobbies lie empty and arenas stand barren. For many, online play will be the determining factor of Killzone 2’s success and failure; reassuringly it’s clear that Guerrilla’s understanding of what makes for a compulsive multiplayer mode is as assured as their knack of cherry-picking ideas for the single-player game, a view also supported by our experience testing the November 2008 beta and hours spent in simulating with bots. Judging by the number of clans already being formed in anticipation, Killzone 2 appears to have captured the imagination of the wider PS3 community.

Again taking the template established by the usual FPS suspects, Killzone 2’s online play rewards perseverance and dedication, as more and more options are made available to the player, the more games, kills and points are racked up. Some will be intent on simply climbing up the promotional ladder (a gold trophy awaits future Generals), while others will relish the opportunity for personalisation that exists further down the line. Such a system ensures that there remains a motivation for returning to the game, should the promise of the tightest, most immersive online games since Modern Warfare not be enough. Expect this to dominate PSN for the remainder of 2009.

The irony here is that whereas Sony introduced the first, deeply disappointing, Killzone whilst in a position of unparalleled dominance (even five years on the PS2 is still a going sales concern), Killzone 2, this strangely beautiful testament to the industry as it stands today, arrives at a moment when the Japanese electronics giant has everything to prove within gaming. Countless lauded exclusives have spectacularly flopped since the PS3’s launch and the console’s market share is still less than glowing; there’s a sense that for history to repeat itself twice with another Killzone debacle, given the expectations, the jaw-dropping preview footage and the hordes of illiterate fanboys chomping at the bit, would have been catastrophic. Instead, the end result is nothing short of triumphant.

- This review was originally written for D+PAD Magazine; it looks a bit like this.

* Unable to remember the name of Free Radical Design's shooter, I Googled "PS3 EXCLUSIVE FIRST PERSON SHOOTER CRAP". Haze was the top result.

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