Is it possible for the hype of a game to completely fuel both its designers and its fans eagerly awaiting its release? In the case of Guerrilla Games' upcoming Killzone 2, the answer is an emphatic yes; the developers knew that they wanted to meet or surpass the action of the now infamous E3 trailer and have been trying to perfect their anticipated shooter. As far as fans were concerned, they were hoping that Killzone 2 would be the system seller and showcase for the PlayStation 3 -- a game that could conceivably rival that of Halo and Gears of War. Fortunately, the wait is almost over, because Killzone 2 will be released at the end of next month. That might seem a bit far away, but believe me when I say that the wait has been well worth it. Killzone 2 is an outstanding evolution of the franchise, a bullet and adrenaline-fueled rampage against an implacable enemy and a fantastic shooter for the PS3.
Killzone 2 is actually the third chapter in the series, following the original PS2 shooter and Killzone: Liberation, a third-person action title on the PSP. While players don't need to have played either one of those games to understand what's going on in Killzone 2, fans of the franchise will see connections between the three games with familiar characters popping up and events being referenced. The basic thrust of the story takes place after the events of Liberation, where the ISA has finally gotten tired of being invaded and attacked on its world of Vekta. While the relative success of repelling the Helghast has worked, the ISA has decided to take the fight back to Emperor Visari. Believing that the Helghast spirit has been broken by their losses on Vekta, the ISA launches a "revenge" invasion against the world of Helghan with the goal of capturing Visari and forcing the Helghast to stand down. Of course, the ISA quickly discovers that this is not the case at all, and as the soldiers discover that the Helghast spirit is just as fierce on their home world than ever before, they also that discover the Helghast have new weapons to unleash on their foes.
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Unlike the previous games, you're not stepping into the boots of Templar, the hero of the first two titles, who's been promoted up the ranks to become a commander of a fleet and his own troops. Instead, you'll take on the Helghast as Sev, part of a four-man team known as Alpha Squad. Led by Rico (who players might remember from the first two games), Sev and his other teammates, Garza and Natko, fight their way across Helghan through ten separate missions that will take you about eight to ten hours to complete. Each mission you embark on has multiple checkpoints and objectives that you'll complete, and these will cover large battles, ambushes, choke points, house to house fighting and even vehicular and turret sequences. Of all the segments, I kind of wish that the vehicles and turrets were expanded because you get a sense of truly affecting and turning the tide of the location that you're in with these weapons at your disposal.
The story of the game is pretty good for what it is. Themes of fascism and militaristic aggression, revenge and the costs of war echo rampantly throughout the entire title. There are a few dips here and there within the story. Rico is just as annoying and unlikable as ever; it's to the point where you can't help but hope that he meets an unsavory end in a sequel. The ending could've also ended on a much stronger note, particularly when compared to the final battle, which can be a serious challenge of your accuracy and ability to handle threats from all sides. When compared to that fight, the decision made at the end of the game is a poor choice -- it's obviously the weaker of two actions that could've driven the franchise forward. However, with that being said, the majority of the plot does an excellent job of driving the action throughout the campaign, which will give you a ton of action, hellish warfare to fight and survive through, and moments that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Much of this is driven by the incredible presentation of the title, which makes you feel like you've fallen into the middle of a warzone. Guerrilla has managed to make a technical masterpiece for the system that first-person shooters on the PS3 will be judged by from here on out. Whether it's the insanity of watching soldiers getting immolated by flamethrowers and ripped to shreds by bullets or avoiding the numerous explosions that rock your team's position, you frequently feel as though someone has you in their sights and is just getting ready to pull the trigger. This chaotic sense is only enhanced more by the start of just about every mission, which frequently has a dramatic crash or other striking moment occur before control is given to you. For example, when you crash land in the first level, you're almost given a burst of adrenaline because you've just managed to avoid bodies and the wreckage of a fellow lander that went flying past you. Leaping off that and into the fray really gives you a sense of how short the life expectancy of any soldier in this war is and draws you into the fight in a way that few cutscenes could do.
Of course, there's much more to the visual sense of the game than simply the presentation of the battlefield. Particle effects are rather striking, primarily when an RPG shell goes off and kicks dirt and dust into the air, obscuring your vision for a second as the detritus showers to the ground. Items that are set on fire, like tapestries and other cloth will burn and turn into ash, with wisps of fabric blowing in the wind. Many of the detailed environments, which range from the corrugated siding walls and balconies of Helghast cities to the stone supports of buildings and service areas, are destructible, allowing you to feel the impact of a firefight. The shattered pillars, splintered boxes and other rubble that can dominate a room is a nice touch to the amount of havoc you and the enemy will wreak. The lighting effects within Killzone 2 are incredible, primarily because everything from a Helghast's illuminated eyes to the lights on a soldier's uniform casts some amount of light. The kinetic movements that you get from Helghast troops as you shoot one ensures that each death will be unique and wildly varied based on what you used to eliminate that soldier. The rattle of guns, the screams of the dying, the echo of explosions that are all perfectly done within 7.1 sound, and a soundtrack that's great; it is touches like these that add up to an eye-catching sense of realism, particularly as you move through each location and take out the dozens of Helghast that await you.
Even more creative is the use of the motion sensitivity, which doesn't feel gimmicky in the context of the game actions. Guerrilla obviously spent time thinking about how to best use Sony's motion features, and it shows when it comes down to sequences like turning valves so that your troops can get through gates or setting explosives by tilting the controller to light the fuses on a charge before pulling out the remote detonator. However, perhaps the most astute use is with the sniper rifle, which asks you to hold the controller steady to increase the accuracy of the shot instead of pressing a button to hold your breath. What's great about this is that it also takes into account the action that's going on around you instead of making you immune to the explosions or external pressure, so if a grenade goes off close to you, the concussive blast (and resulting shockwave) will throw off your shot regardless of how little movement you had with the gun. This gives a larger sense of immersion as you're playing the game, and makes it much more challenging to pick off enemies with a string of headshots.
That being said, there are still some technical issues that crop up here and there. There are a number of low resolution shadows that pop up on environments and character models, particularly when they're talking, which can detract from the action that's going on. The same can be said for the texture pop-in that will snap into view, frequently on camera pans of a location. Add to this some of the aliasing and even the grain filters, which give the game depth but are also a double-edged sword because it almost feels like they're overused in some areas. It also is strange to see that for all of the visual attention paid to just about every aspect of the world, there are two elements that you see frequently that look atrocious. The resuscitation beam that you use to revive teammates that have taken too much damage looks horrible – it's almost as if you're projecting an EKG into your friend. Similarly, for as great as the fire looks, the stream of goo that comes out of the flamethrowers in the game looks fugly and fake; it's not nearly as bad looking once it hits a surface.
There are also some minor technical things that pop up that are much more of an inconvenience than a true gripe. For one thing, Guerrilla made the decision to avoid an install and run everything off the disc. While it's a laudable decision, it's also a strange one; every now and then, you'll get little hitches in play that last a few seconds while the game loads up the next section. It's not a horrendous load by any stretch of the imagination (perhaps a second or two at the longest), but the little hiccups do stand out across the span of the game. Similarly, the voice acting is, for the most part, pretty bad. While Brian Cox does an excellent Emperor Visari and Radec projects menace as the Emperor's lapdog, the rest of the dialogue that's delivered feels somewhat forced. Part of it could be the overabundant use of profanity that just feels as though it was thrown in as filler instead of being delivered naturally. In many ways, some of the more profane lines almost feel as though a group of kids that are just experimenting with cursing are reciting dialogue.
While the story is a solo campaign, you get the sense that there is a distinct co-op feeling to it, because you are almost always partnered with one or more soldiers as you run through the various environments. Frequently, you'll find that these guys will wind up helping you accomplish your tasks such as lifting you to the tops of walls or hacking doors so that you can proceed to different areas. However, you'll also find that these guys are rather useful in battles and will often wind up taking out enemies that you hadn't seen or alert you to the presence of some threat. For the most part, your allies are intelligent and will act on their own, providing cover fire when you try to flank enemies or taking their cues from you during the larger battle sequences when you and a regiment are part of a large offensive, As you push up during some fights, you'll notice that allied troops will run behind you to give support. If you start to fall back or are repulsed by some enemies, your squad will seek cover. However, every now and then, particularly when you're in the middle of a hallway or trying to move through a door, you'll notice that a character will block your progress, forcing you to give a rifle butt to the head to make them move out of your way.
Enemy AI is good as well – unlike the previous Killzone games, you'll discover a larger variety of Helghast soldiers, all of whom will use different tactics, that are looking to wipe you from the face of their planet. For example, assault troopers (the standard soldiers that people see in billboards or most video clips) will frequently use cover and attempt to take you out from a distance, while shock troopers will throw smoke and frag grenades as distraction tactics, switching to machine guns and eventually pulling out knives for close quarter strikes. There are even heavy infantry, robotic drones and other hazards that you'll need to watch out for. Because many of your battles will mix groups of Helghast together, you'll frequently need to figure out which threat you want to attack and do so quickly before you're flanked or pinned down.
This does come with a slight caveat, however, because of just how the difficulty level affects the intelligence of the soldiers. On Recruit or Trooper (the two easier difficulty levels), soldiers will sometimes hesitate in unrealistic ways, presumably to give beginners a better chance to succeed. However, watching some soldiers wait before charging at me or running towards a thrown grenade is incomprehensible. On the higher difficulty levels, particularly Elite (the difficulty you unlock after beating the game once), you'll find that the AI is incredibly tough, taking little to no time to line up headshots and use their group tactics to show you absolutely no mercy. For instance, during one troop charge, I notice that three soldiers tossed grenades to force me to retreat, which was all a distraction for a fourth soldier to come up and blast me from the side. While they might still hesitate for a second or run to a grenade, these were the rare exceptions on the harder levels. If you're a shooter fan, definitely make Veteran your first step and then take on Elite for a true challenge. You'll find that the same tactics you used on the previous difficulty levels simply won't cut it because these enemies are way too good.
Success on these harder levels comes only if you master the cover system, which is truly a vital part of the gameplay. Killzone 2 isn't a run 'n' gun kind of a shooter – if you leave yourself open, the enemies will focus their attention on you quickly and throw plenty of grenades and fire rifle bursts your way (if they're not already firing rockets at your position or turrets that is). Instead, you can use cover by pressing L2, which will allow you to attach yourself to pillars, barricades and just about any surface. This way, you can line up a shot on an enemy or cook a grenade in safety before throwing it, ensuring that targets will be destroyed without a chance for escape. Of course, you'll have to be careful because cover can be eliminated by enemy bullets and grenades, so you'll always have to keep an eye out for being flushed out of cover and into danger, where you'll have to rely on your wits and (hopefully) a good trigger finger to survive.
As you run through the game, you'll find that you'll be able to carry one primary weapon as well as a secondary backup pistol with unlimited ammo. You'll have a large number of weapons to choose from to fill that primary slot, including submachine guns, rocket launchers and sniper rifles. Sev will also pack a knife and two different kinds of grenades, which he can switch back and forth between at any time. However, players will need to get somewhat accustomed to the recoil of the primary weapon that they choose, as the climb from the recoil of firing each gun varies wildly. Some of this is minimized by aiming and firing down the sights of the gun, but for the most part, players will learn that burst firing is more important that straight out full auto with these enemies. That can be somewhat tricky to do, especially when a Helghast is barreling down on you and you realize that these guys can take an incredible amount of bullets and keep coming at you for more (a fact that is quickly impressed on you within the first level). However, I found that this wasn't entirely a make or break issue for me, and one that I could quickly adjust to.
When you've beaten the single-player campaign once (or a couple of times if you're trying to farm trophies), there's an extensive multiplayer component waiting for you, which is an awesome experience to play through. Not only is it incredibly deep, but there's a ton of things for newcomers and experienced veterans, which will ensure that people will play this game for many months to come. Multiplayer is broken into two segments: Skirmish and Warzone. Skirmish is the offline component of multiplayer, and is effectively a practice arena where you can take on up to 15 bots in multiplayer matches. You can pick all of your criteria for your rounds and test yourself against the bots, which all react to you based on the difficulty level that you set for them (again, going off the game's four difficulty settings). You'll also decide the match types you want to play, many of which are familiar to multiplayer veterans. Body Count is Team Deathmatch; Search and Retrieve is essentially Capture the Flag; and Capture and Hold is a zone-based mode.
Search and Destroy tasks one team with trying to blow up a location with two explosives before time runs out, while the other side attempts to defend that target and defuse any placed explosives. Assassination marks one player for death, and that player has to avoid being killed by rivals to score. What's great about the Skirmish mode is that it allows newcomers to get a sense of the maps that will be played within the online space, as well as the various classes and abilities granted within the multiplayer component of Killzone 2. Veterans can also get some skill as well, testing themselves against the stronger elite bots. While I still wish that the bots in Skirmish used their abilities or reviving beams more, it's at least refreshing to feel as though you're not going to instantly be a sitting duck.
Warzone, on the other hand, is where things get interesting, and much more than the simple fact that your objectives constantly change to keep you on your toes. Players initially start out as a soldier, who can equip a limited amount of weapons and has one grenade and very little else to sustain him. However, just about anything that you do within a Warzone match, from placing a bomb during a Search and Destroy round to helping hold a checkpoint and destroying enemy turrets (along with killing your opponents), gives you points. The more you play, the more points you earn, and if your side happens to win the round, you get a 1.5x multiplier for your points. These go towards earning one of 12 ranks, which allows you to progress from a lowly private to a masterful general once you get to 2,800 points of online service. On top of these ranks, however, are additional player classes that you'll unlock, each of which carries its own kind of abilities and specialties.
There are six classes in all, ranging from medics that can revive players to Saboteurs that can disguise themselves to look like their enemies for stealth kills. While choosing a particular class allows you to do specific things on the battlefield, if you want to unlock the true potential of that class, you're going to need to acquire ribbons and medals, which are progress-based rewards for doing specific actions. For example, if you're a tactician, and you manage to place five spawn points in a round, you earn a ribbon. If you earn eight of those ribbons, you then earn a Spawn point medal, which unlocks the ability to create air support robots. This then starts you on a new ribbon/medal path, which will eventually lead you to be able to combine your skills with another class. This means that you could essentially create a death dealing medic that places sentry turrets behind him to cover his tracks, or an Assault Saboteur that can run through enemy lines and drop proximity mines that blow up whenever an enemy nears them. The fact that you can match so many different combinations and that it's based solely on medals will definitely keep people playing for a long time.
The eight maps that are selected for multiplayer are really designed to amplify the amount of chaos that goes on within an online map, and considering that you can have up to 32 players in one round (which can include bots as well if you don't have enough people), the destruction can quickly ramp up. Helping out in this respect is the inclusion of a Squad feature, which allows one player to be a squad leader for his friends. This automatically gives all members a dedicated channel for communication of tactics. It also allows players to instantly spawn back in on the Squad Leader's position, providing instant reinforcements during a Capture and Hold round or extra soldiers during an Assassination attempt.
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