Killzone 2 - PS3 - First Look review

As far as major PS3 exclusives go, Killzone 2 is the one that Sony have pinned their hopes on the heaviest so far. Guerrilla, developers of the relatively lukewarmly received earlier title in the series, have thankfully revelled in this unique opportunity, and knocked up a title that all PS3 owners are bound to thoroughly enjoy.

An astonishingly huge amount of time and effort has been made to display Killzone 2’s sumptuous graphics over the last year, and it’s to Guerrilla’s credit that the full game does indeed hit those heights. At points you’ll be reluctant to believe that your PS3 is truly pushing so much power and it does - at points - make all other titles on every single console out there seem at least a generation behind.

The way the dust drifts over the battlefield; how cover splinters and buckles under the weight of the firepower levelled upon it; the way the Helghast crumble as you blast a shotgun in their face. At times Killzone 2 looks absolutely astonishing. At others, it’s a little more traditional. Certain levels have a bland appearance, with the (admittedly expected and fitting) backdrops almost universally consisting of variations of brown and grey. Good looking browns and greys, but at some points they do lack the real wow factor that others pack.

But as important as aesthetics can be to a modern gaming masterpiece, you can’t polish up gaming disaster and expect it to somehow transform into a much loved title. And like the aesthetics, Killzone 2 drifts between the absolutely sublime, and the totally derivative.

Taking to the battlefield as "Sev", part of the four-man Alpha team, you usually find yourself fighting alongside at least one of your squad. You can’t prompt them to a certain part of cover, nor can you urge them to take on one particular enemy. What you can do however is give them a quick blast of something from a handheld zapper when they finally succumb to the bullets and help them back on their way. However, if you happen to come close to death - with a fantastic drop into black and white and muffled sound effects - then the screen goes white and you restart from the last checkpoint. There’s no chance of revival for you.

Behind those glowing red eyes of the Helghast is an obviously powerful brain. It’s one of those features that all shooters promise, but in Killzone 2 they truly will flank you, and toss grenades to flush you out of cover. They’re not daft when on the defensive too. We managed to spot them shifting around whilst behind cover, so you can’t simply zoom in on the spot where you’d expect them to pop-up and blast their heads off their shoulders. A quite special touch for those tired of shooter clichés.

Not only do the Helghast have a brain, but most are armoured up the eyeballs. Unless you bag a headshot, they’ll soak up bullets like they’re going out of fashion, and you’ll easily waste half a clip taking down just one enemy. Thankfully ammo is plentiful, meaning you’ll rarely have to drop back to the incredibly underwhelming pistol that’s constantly in your armoury. The Rainbow Six/Gears of War esque cover system that’s dropped into by a swift hold of the left trigger certainly helps, and it’s a fantastic addition and certainly helps in what is considerably much slower paced than most other FPS titles currently on the market.

Though the majority of the Helghast army is made up of identikit foot soldiers, there are a few other varieties to spice things up a touch. Certain more acrobatic Helghast have no shame in rushing at you waving a knife at your face, and the huge hulking enemies packing huge machine guns need to be worked around so you can blast the handy exploding bottles strapped to their backs.

Flying enemies do a damn good job of rising the frustration levels as they flit from spot to spot, causing you to waste clip after clip trying to blast them out of the sky. Huge boss type enemies are infrequent, and do little new than every other FPS boss before them. They’re almost universally the standard, shoot here to open up weak spot and then attack until your ammo stocks are out. Not quite the revolution we’d hoped for.

Again, level design drifts from the sublime to the ridiculous with absolute ease. At times you’ll find nipping from cover to cover taking on enemies an absolute joy. You’ll be flushing enemies out with grenades, popping out to take a few pot shots, and truly feel like you’re making a difference.

Then, and for absolutely no reason, the game suddenly decides that its sole intention is to frustrate the living daylights out of you. Out of nowhere, enemies will head from half a dozen locations, leaving you with no obvious cover and you’ll be spinning round in a circle as the screen goes white and you’re dropped back to the last checkpoint. And then you’ll do the same thing again. And again. And again. At least until you discover that one little hidey hole, or perfect moment to toss a grenade that opens up a path.

The included cutscenes, rather than take over in what are usually the dullest sections of warfare, seem to cut out potentially thrilling set pieces. Particularly during the first few levels you’ll wonder just what could have been if you’d taken part in that brief piece of action, rather than let the game show you what happens.

If it seems like we’ve talked a lot about the poor moments in Killzone 2; it’s only because you all know what it does well already. You know it’s gorgeous, you know that it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun, and you know that the multiplayer options - featuring all the standard FPS options, but lacking the cover system making for a much more frantic gameplay experience - aren’t going to reach the pinnacle of the Call of Duty series. But not many seem eager to point out all the obvious flaws that detract from what could have been a fantastic experience. A real shame.

Verdict

As stunningly gorgeous as Killzone 2 truly can be, like its elder sibling, it’s lacking that certain something to really nudge it right to the very top of the pack.

We can live with a short single-player campaign, the clichéd storyline and inane chatter from your squad mates, and we can suffer through the odd sudden jarring difficulty jumps that the game frequently tosses in your general direction. But the simple fact is that Killzone 2 simply doesn’t have all the pieces to take it right to the very top.

It comes close, but at the moment it's looking like its going to be an 8 rather than 9 out of 10, let's hope the online playing will push it towards a top score.

Killzone 2 on the PS3 is due out at the end of February.