After a successful outing on the PS2 in 2004, and another on the PSP two years later, Guerrilla Games is set to launch an assault on PS3 with Killzone 2. Sony's first major exclusive of the year, Killzone 2 launches late this month across the globe. At Digital Chumps, we were happy to receive a review code build of the game in late December that we've been playing and testing with ever since. It's also important to note that Killzone 2 went gold less than three weeks later, so this review code we have is extremely close to the final retail code. With that said, let's examine PS3's first big title of the year, Killzone 2.
The Campaign – ISA Takes It To the Helghast
In case you haven't played or are familiar with the first two Killzone games, the basic premise is that there are two major armies engaged in seemingly endless battle over colonization and territory. In each of the three games, including Killzone 2, gamers control the forces of the International Strategic Alliance, or ISA, from the planet Vekta and your enemy are the Helghast, from the planet Helghan. With Killzone and Killzone: Liberation, Guerrilla Games put players in control of Jan Templar, at first a Captain and then later in Liberation a Major in the ISA (although in the first Killzone there were three other characters you could use in missions after you encountered them in the story). With Killzone, the mission was to repel the Helghast invasion of Vekta, in Liberation, set two months later, the Helghast still occupied much of Vekta. Jan Templar, Shadow Marshall Luger, and heavy gunner Rico are dispatched to confront the Helghast threat in a slightly more covert way as they fight to rescue important hostages and ultimately confront General Metrac.
That bit of history out of the way, Killzone 2 fast forwards us two years after the events of Liberation at the outset of another invasion. Only this time, the invaders aren't the Helghan, but the ISA instead. Their mission? Capture Helghan Emperor Scolar Visari and bring and end to this constant war. It won't be Jan Templar spearheading operations, however; the now Colonel is holding down the fort aboard the massive ship, The New Sun, as you discover during the opening cutscene in the first mission. Instead, you'll be bashing Helghan as Sergeant Tomas "Sev" Sevchenko. During the opening minutes of the first mission on the New Sun, Sev will encounter Templar and Rico as well as several new faces to the series including Corporal Dante Garza, Corporal Shawn Natko, and ISA engineer and scientist Evelyn. Moments later, Alpha Team gets the call to prepare for deployment. You'll follow Garza to an Intruder, those small flying personnel carriers seen in the trailers from E3 years ago, and the the invasion goes full tilt from there.
First Impressions, Weapons, Balance...
Alpha Team's Intruder takes heavy fire while approaching the Helghan surface and crash lands short of the intended LZ. The action starts right here and now, and doesn't cease for another ten hours of gameplay. I should mention that my ten hour, eleven minute campaign time was done on the Veteran (Hard) difficulty, with two lower difficulty settings available and one higher one available, too.
Already by this point, maybe ten minutes into my total play time, I was firmly impressed with the gorgeous graphics. I'll elaborate more on the visuals later, but suffice it to say that once the combat began on Helghan, one of my first thoughts was 'wow – this really has a next-gen look and feel to it.' That's a thought that would last through much of the game, but does not describe the entire experience, as I'll explain moving forward.
Sev and the Alpha Team will do battle over the course of ten missions that take players across the harsh Helghan planet scape. You will visit Helghan bases, battle your way through a large Helghan city, push across a massive bridge, ride a Helghan train, do battle in an ore refinery, fight aboard the New Sun, storm across the Maelstra Barrens in a mech, and finally reach the front doors of Visari's Palace.
Each mission is made up of multiple checkpoints, usually between five and seven, at which time the game saves your progress that you can start from again at any point by navigating to it in the Main Menu. So, you cannot save anywhere in Killzone 2, but with the exception of four or five instances in the campaign, I found the distribution of the checkpoints to be balanced and reasonable.
'Balanced and reasonable' could be used to describe several other aspects of the campaign, too. The amount, availability, and overall balance of the weapons in Killzone 2 is nicely done. You start with the M82-G ISA Assault Rifle, but you'll have uncovered all of the weapons by the eighth mission. A detailed weapons list can be found on the playstation.com forums, but your list would include the: M82-G, M4 Revolver, M13 Semi-Auto Shotgun, M1 LMG, and M80 Rocket Launcher for the ISA. Helghast weapons you'll encounter include the StA-52 LAR, StA-18 Pistol, StA11 SMG, StA14 Semi-Auto Rifle, VC9 Rocket Launcher, VC-32 Sniper Rifle, M327 Grenade Launcher, StA-3 LMG, VC1 Flamethrower, VC21 Bolt Gun, and VC5 Electricity Gun. There are also two types of frag grenades, your trusty knife, and about a half dozen or slightly more instances where you need to hop onto an emplaced gun to wipe out droves of Helghast. Furthermore, there are even a two parts in the campaign where you are controlling a tank in third person view and a exoskeleton/mech in first person view.
It's interesting to note that the M4 Revolver has infinite ammo, although I never found it very useful given the abundance of weapons and ammo throughout the campaign. The Electricity Gun also has infinite ammo, and it's perfect for taking out ATACs. You'll often conveniently find the 'right' weapon for whatever job you're about to stumble into, which the previous two Killzone games did a lot of. I'm not sure if I prefer this type of 'foreshadowing' or not, but I thought it worthy of mention.
With that many weapons in game, you might expect to be able to carry several, but you'd be wrong. You can only carry one primary weapon at a time, along with both grenade types, your knife, and revolver. I wish there were a way to temporarily carry a second primary weapon somehow – it'd have definitely been useful in the final boss fight. In temporarily carrying a second primary weapon, I just mean that it would be neat if you could pick up another secondary weapon and at least be able to carry it to a different spot and just drop it so that you could switch to it while hunkered down in cover, for example. Regardless, I do agree with limiting weapon carry ability. Oh, and also of note is that your friendly AI help, which primarily comes in the form of Garza, Natko, and Rico, cannot drop their weapon and pick up another, even if the situation calls for using a better weapon than say Rico's wildly inaccurate chaingun. This was the cause of some frustration for me especially during the final battle, but overall it's not really an issue, just a point to make in a case that examines the AI, which I'll do more of throughout this review.
I thought that the flow of Helghan forces bearing down on you was well balanced, too. There are times where you are extraordinarily outnumbered, but in these moments you either have a distance advantage, lots of friendly AI, emplaced guns, or really good coverage to work with (and two other times you're in control of a vehicle). Killzone 2 does a great job of bringing just the right amount of action at the right times; sometimes there is little to no resistance and other times there are dozens of Helghan to deal with. And while there isn't a great deal of variety in how the Helghan look, the weapons they use also keeps their attacks balanced and interesting, ranging from their standard StA-52 rifle to flamethrowers, rocket launchers, running knife attacks, even tanks and snipers on rare occasion. Bigger Helghan foe include Heavies, packing a lot of armor and chain guns, and those nasty ATAC flying robotic drones.
AI, The Good And the Bad
Any discussion of a first person shooter campaign isn't complete without taking a good look at the AI that you'll encounter. In Killzone 2, much like in Killzone and in parts of Killzone Liberation, there are a lot of times when you will be running around with another member of Alpha Team, sometimes more than one, and other times with over a dozen generic ISA soldiers. For most of the campaign, you team up with Garza, and during the latter missions you are with Rico. In any event, one thing that struck me almost immediately during play was just how little variety there was to what the AI could say, and how often what they said didn't make any sense. For example, no matter what the situation or where the AI was located relative to myself, if I was taking damage, I'd almost inevitably hear Garza or Rico shout, “Sev, get to cover!” – and that just got so old after about the tenth time. Another favorite of mine was “I'm taking heavy fire!” when there is like one Helghan shooting at my friendly AI partner; their dramatic call for help was just a little cheesy given that we're all supposed to be battle hardened warriors and that he was facing only a single Helghan. Lastly, the desperate calls of “Reloading!” were often cause for a smirk and head shaking because they hadn't even been shooting before needing to reload. There is also a tremendous amount of cursing in the campaign too, especially from the loud and foul mouthed Rico. Expect to hear f-this, f-that dozens of times as you play through; and just like the rest of the dialogue that isn't directly scripted to a moment in the game, it gets repetitive and frankly embarrassing.
Now if I could say that my only frustrations or disappointments with the AI were these dialogue moments, that'd be an accomplishment. However, more troubling issues remain. Perhaps my biggest smack-on-the-forehead moment comes in the AI's inability to ever truly help you. Much like in the original Killzone, Resistance, and Call of Duty games, the friendly AI are primarily there to add atmosphere, realism, and more targets for the enemy AI to shoot at, thereby making those impossible situations of being outnumbered manageable for the player. With Killzone 2 it's basically the same thing; your AI won't score many kills, but they do make for good distractions so that you might be able to get the kill. That said, the Alpha Team members can also take mortal injury, and when this happens they're no longer effective; they collapse to the ground and an indicator above their head shows how far away they are from you. If you can get to them, you can revive them by using your special medical gun, that zaps them with a ray of something and they're up o their feet, as good as new.
While I can appreciate that the primary friendly AI are able to become incapacitated and revived, I would have also liked to have seen them have the ability to save me, too. Remember Star Wars: Republic Commando? Republic Commando was a superb squad based FPS from several years ago that featured the innovative ability for your friendly AI team members to come over and rescue or revive you should you have taken too much damage (heck, there was even a character named Sev in that game). With Killzone 2, you're apparently the only one trained and equipped with the magical medic gun which seems unreasonable and is never explained in any way; give the AI the ability to revive me even just once per mission and I'd have been more pleased with the campaign. Not having the ability to revive you might seem more like a gameplay mechanic decision than an AI problem, but I think the two in this case go hand and hand; at least those primary friendly AI that can be revived have a much more resilient health system than you, although you can never know for sure what their health level is at. This only happened to me once, but you can, for whatever reason, not make it to the downed AI after several minutes; when this happened to me, the AI was automatically resurrected, but it must have been at least five minutes after their falling.
Another point about the friendly AI I would include in this review is in their behavior; at times, they're as gung ho as ever, charging ahead into a situation they cannot hope to survive, leaving you to work your way up to them for the rescue. More often, however, they take lots of cover and can be just a little slow to follow behind you and help. It can be interesting to sit back in cover and watch the friendly AI do battle with the CPU; much like other games in the genre, you'll basically witness an episode of the old GI Joe cartoon whereby there is a lot of guns firing and yelling, but little actually happening, which is of course where you come in to do all of the real legwork. Having the friendly AI do too much work wouldn't be good either, so it's definitely a balance that has to be achieved, but I think as far as that goes the friendly AI is a little bit more on the useless side, especially when you catch them shooting into the ground when an enemy is below, which Rico liked to do during the final battle.
I may make it sound like the friendly is terrible, but ultimately it's not – it's just a little disappointing. Seeing the trailers, reading the hype, playing through the first two Killzone games, Resistance 2, and Call of Duty World At War in the last two or so months, I was hoping for a substantial difference in the abilities of the AI in Killzone 2, but that frankly isn't there. It's not the case that there is suddenly no more room in the genre for another AI outing like this, but I was just hoping Killzone 2 was going to bring with it a new era of advanced friendly AI intelligence. It doesn't, but in the end the AI does it's job 'well enough' to do it's part in making the campaign an engaging and fun experience.
The enemy AI do their part too, and almost 'too well,' you might say, in a good way. In fact, I was much more impressed with the enemy AI than that of the friendly AI. The Helghast defend their home with a pleasing ferocity that will definitely keep you on your toes. Keep in mind I played through on Hard, so it'll obviously be an easier experience on Normal or Easy. That said, the Helghast know all about taking good cover, blind firing, and using a variety of weapons including frag grenades and RPGs, even smoke grenades (although these are rare), to harass and assault you and your ISA comrades. It's actually pretty rare to catch a Helghast soldier in full, plain view unless you were able to get on his flank, happen to be in between him or cover (like in a melee situation), or catch them running between cover points. Often times you'll need to flush them out with a grenade or get just enough of an angle on them when they're in cover to get the kill. Taking lots of cover and using walls to lean out and fire is your best bet, although interestingly enough you cannot blindfire like the enemy can. As for trying to run into a Helghast for a quick melee or knife kill, that can work but most times there is too much distance to cover or too many Helghast to deal with to be successful. Knifing is certainly the most effective attack when next to a Helghast though, as when you arm your knife Sev automatically slashes to the left and right once upon drawing his blade, which makes for quick, effective kills.
Controls, More Thoughts On Campaign
Killzone 2 utilizes a familiar, and also customizable, control scheme. The default control scheme worked well for me, and includes these functions: Take Cover/Crouch (L2), Melee (L1), Knife (D-Pad R), Frag (D-Pad D), Direction Marker (D-Pad U), Run (L3), Zoom (R3), Grenade Throw (R2), Fire (R1), Cycle weapons (Triangle), Reload/Pickup Weapon (Square/Hold Square), Jump (X), and Use (O). Most of these should be self explanatory, but I'd like to bring special attention to the handy Direction Marker; when you press Up on the D-Pad, a small orange arrow will appear on screen indicating where you need to be going. I found this feature very useful throughout various parts of the campaign because really, in a fast paced intense battle-focused game like this, the last thing you want to have to worry about is where you're supposed to go.
Killzone 2 also utilizes the SIXAXIS control functions too, and the rumble of the DualShock3, too. In fact, playing through Killzone 2 took my DualShock3 from full charge to zero about one and a half times due to all the rumbling. For SIXAXIS motion controls, Killzone 2 includes three uses of motion control found in arming charges, turning valves, and increasing accuracy with the sniper rifle. For the valves, you press R2 and L2, at which point Sev places his hands on the valve at the 10 and 2 o'clock position. Then, turn the controller to the left (about ninety degrees) just like you would to turn a valve. You repeat this three or four times to complete the task; I thought this was a neat use of the motion controls in that it adds some interactivity and works consistently. Another use comes in the form of wall mounted explosives that you will have at your disposal only when needed. When you press Circle to plant the charge, you have to arm it by swinging the controller to the left, and then to the right so that Sev moves his hand and activates both fuses. Lastly, sniping is more accurate if you hold the controller evenly and steadily, which is cool.
Before closing up thoughts on the campaign, Trophy hunters and gamers in general should be aware that there are two types of collectibles in each mission of Killzone 2: suitcases and Helghast icons. Suitcases are hidden throughout the game world and are collected simply by walking over them. Helghast icons are these golden emblems of the Helghast symbol that are hidden around Helghan that you must shoot to activate; in collecting all of these hidden items, you earn a couple of Trophies. The good thing is, once you've collected the item, it's collected for good, and you don't have to worry about trying to find it again on subsequent play-throughs.
(this next paragraph contains some spoilers)
To this point, I've discussed a lot of the aspects of the campaign, most of which I've liked or enjoyed, and some of which I found disappointing or frustrating. On the whole, Killzone 2's campaign is great. *SPOILERS* It's not as completely polished and badass as I was hoping for, but it's still a very intense, captivating, and fun single player experience that leaves the door wide open to a sequel, but that also sees the end of a couple of keys characters in the saga. *END SPOILERS* For as much focus as the multiplayer component of Killzone 2 received in development, and will receive from the developers and gamers alike upon release, it's a commendable thing that Guerrilla Games put this much effort into the campaign. With any luck, there will be a free co-op add-on released in the coming weeks, which would definitely warrant another play through.
Killzone 2's visuals have been something of discussion for years, ever since those trailers from E3 2005. If you're like me, you're skeptical of trailers and screenshots, and you withhold judgment until you can get a hands on impression of the game in question. With Killzone 2, I was eager to do just that, and it was the fantastic visuals from right from the start of the campaign which really wowed me and gave me the impression that this was truly a next-gen console game. Guerrilla Games has achieved some startling results with Killzone 2 that you can enjoy throughout the entire campaign; fluid framerates that for me only slowed down for a frame or two during the seamless loading points or when a lot of Helghan were on fire from the flame thrower made the experience all the more impressive. I love the detail of the in game characters' too, their facial expressions especially. All of the animations are great, with everything looking solid and no visible clipping or tearing glitches either. The smoke and dust effects are sweet too, especially when a brick pillar or structure takes damage and bits of it chip off. I didn't think this effect was used enough, but you'll know it when you'll see it, and it's a great little bit of detail.
Overall the visual experience is truly something special, and even more so being on a console, but I won't go as far as to say these are the best FPS visuals you've ever seen. If you've only played FPS consoles, there is a distinct possibility of that, but I think it's very important to also realize that the vast majority of Killzone 2 is comprised of dark colors – lots of blacks, browns, and grays, and to me that just can't be as beautiful as something like Folklore or Uncharted (although those are aren't FPS). Still, Killzone 2 is an impressive visual feat.
For the audio side of the Killzone 2, there's a lot to like. If you're lucky enough to have it, Killzone 2 will pump out in 7.1 surround sound, bringing all the grit of war to your ears. I've already commented on the lack of variety in the AI dialogue, and the over use of cursing, but the other sounds in the game do a nice job of getting you in the atmosphere. I can't honestly say that there are any particularly memorable sounds of the game that inspired some kind of either fear or particular excitement, but nevertheless the sound effects are good. The soundtrack, not a huge part of the experience, is good as well.
The second major component to Killzone 2 is the multiplayer system. Multiplayer in Killzone 2 is comprised of offline play and online battle through the PSN. Offline play is sadly lacking a cooperative mode for the campaign, but I wouldn't be too surprised if that wasn't released sometime in the future in the form of DLC (hopefully free DLC). For now, in offline play you can setup bot matches to learn the maps and modes and challenge yourself by giving the bot AI a difficulty setting from the Easy to Very Hard (same choices as you have for the campaign).
Bots on Veteran and Elite are super tough and will definitely give you a stout challenge. Another cool thing about doing Bot battles is that you can see various ranks and classes above yours – more on those shortly. You can also only add up to 15 bots, by the way, even though in online play matches can be as large as 32 (either all people or a mixture of people and bots).
In Warzone, the online multiplayer component of Killzone 2, there is a whole lot going on, frankly speaking. Let's take a look at the numbers: there are eight maps, five modes, eleven ranks, seven classes, and dozens of ribbons, medals, and badges to be earned as well, and it wouldn't surprise me if future online updates increase these numbers, or at least some of them.
The eight maps include the two from the multiplayer beta as well as six others; the list is: Pyrrhus Rise, Salamun Market, Helghan Industries, Visari Hammer, Radec Academy, Tharsis Depot, Blood Gracht, and Corinth Crossing. All eight of these maps are derived from areas from the campaign so that helps in getting familiar with them fast. Each map is setup in such a way that both sides have a small base of sorts with bot controlled turrets; this is your primary safe spawn point, but your spawn points are able to vary depending on if you have a Tactician on your team dropping spawn points. That said, each map includes plenty of cover points, multiple heights, and all eight are pretty nice, although none of them really stood out as my favorite or least favorite.
The five modes included are: Bodycount, Search And Retrieve, Assassination, Capture And Hold, and Search And Destroy. By default these modes each run for five minutes, but can be over sooner if the attacker's objectives are achieved sooner. For Bodycount, this is straight-forward team deathmatch, the side with the most kills after five minutes wins the round. For Search And Retrieve, an object spawns on the map (an in game pointer will show you where to go and how far away you are) that your team must locate, retrieve, and return to base – basically CTF, except without the flag and the location of the object changes. Assassination is one of my favorites; in this mode, a member of a team is chosen at random as the target. That person's team has thirty seconds to locate this team member and form a protection strategy for him while the other team must wait these thirty seconds to learn who it is they're after. Once the thirty seconds are up, the attacking team is given directions on where the target is via the direction marker, and they have to try to kill the target. Capture And Hold mode is like Domination from the old Unreal Tournament days; usually three areas on the map are designated with markers and each team must get to these points and defend them. Lastly, Search And Destroy requires one team to get to two or three locations, plant a bomb, and have it explode before the other team can defuse it. During a typical match, usually one map is loaded up and all of these rounds are played in seamless succession, with a generic narrator voice (a gruff sounding military commander for the ISA, and a raspy Helghast leader for Helghast) announcing to all of the players on each team what the mode and objective are, although your HUD tells you this information too.
The eleven ranks available in game are unlocked simply by playing and earning experience points. You earn points by killing the enemy, getting the most kills in Bodycount, retrieving the object in Search And Retrieve, etc., there all kinds of ways to earn some points, but you won't really know how many points you have earned until the entire round is over and one team loses or wins. Also, if your team wins, you get a 1.5x multiplier added to your point total. You'll begin as a Corporal, with the ability to form up squads in the middle of the game (useful for keeping tabs on your buddies as you'll be able to see their health status on your HUD), but you can rank all the way to General. The ranks, required points, and abilities/unlockables are:
Sergeant – 100 – Create A Clan
Sergeant 1st Class – 200 – Can start with SMG or Shotgun
Master Sergeant – 350 – Medic Badge
Sergeant Major – 550 – Can start with Light Machine Gun
Lieutenant – 8000 – Engineer Badge
Captain – 1100 – Can start with VC9 Rocket Launcher
Major – 1450 – Tactician Badge
Lieutenant Colonel – 1850 – Assault Badge
Colonel – 2300 – Saboteur Badge
General – 2800 – Scout Badge
It's also worth noting that you can filter the online games list to only those that have players of your rank, so you don't accidentally join a match with a bunch of Generals and get thrashed, for example.
Badges can be added or removed from your character during play. There are a variety of combinations for the various classes that you can find out more about on the playstation.com forums, but for the basics, here is a breakdown: Medic Badge lets you heal others, Engineer Badge allows you to deploy an automated turret, Tacticians can throw colored smoke grenades that serve as spawn points, Assault Badge wearers have stronger armor, Saboteurs can disguise themselves as the enemy, and Scouts are nearly invisible. There are many ways to combine these classes, including doing things like Medic-Medic, which has the added bonus of being able to drop health packs to players, or you can do any combination of say Assault-Scout or Tactician-Engineer – it's quite an exhaustive list and the variety of play options that are opened up by this is really exciting and interesting.
Another nice feature to multiplayer are the ribbons and medals you can earn by achieving various feats like getting 10% or more of the kills in a Bodycount round, healing the most teammates, and so forth. You can view the requirements for the ribbons and medals by looking at the My Statistics option in the main multiplayer menu. As a side note to that, ribbons are earned before medals, and it takes eight ribbons to get a medal, which give you further abilities including things like being able to carry more grenades, for example.
All in all, the multiplayer aspect of Killzone 2 is massive and addictive. For the majority of gamers, it will strongly outweigh the campaign and should keep online players very busy for weeks and months to come. It's also worth noting that in the online matches I was able to participate in, I never experienced a hiccup or any kind of issue I would attribute to network code.
One final point I would make about the online integration is something that was also done with Killzone: Liberation, and that is the inclusion of a link to killzone.com in the game's main menu. From here you can read up on tutorials, FAQs, game news, and all that good stuff.
**Editor's Note: I would also like to thank everyone that joined our Killzone 2 live chat a couple of weeks ago! A special thanks to Diddydan, MrE, Lazzy128, NeoFatality, algorithman, Nicktheman, d-ray, kobefancam, and Paradasian. Also a hello to Appo and gamesnskate!