Killzone

Halo had helped to give console players the world over who had never tasted what an FPS was a reason to sit up and pay attention to a genre that PC gamers had long taken for granted. Dominating the charts on the Xbox and arguably becoming its most popular blockbuster, it would help to push the new, scrappy console from Redmond into the jaded limelight. Halo would quickly earn a reputation whose mere mention in any of Bungie’s future plans immediately elicited a storm of speculation and eager anticipation thanks to its most vocal fans.

Sony’s PS2, comfortable in its market lead and with seemingly little else to concern its dominance, opted to take a bite out of the thunder generated by Bungie’s epic sci-fi masterpiece by bringing in Dutch based developer Guerilla after reviewing a technical demo that they had done to show where they had wanted to take their console. Their game, Killzone, would eventually be the result and be euphemistically tagged with the bold moniker of “The Halo Killer”. Blending the rough edged flavor of a WW2 conflict with the sophisticated nuances of science fiction, Killzone would soon become the recipient of the early honors given to its promise and become a legend even before it was released with the hype machine relentlessly espousing its virtues with every screenshot.

I haven’t played Killzone until very recently, in part to try out another FPS shooter for the PS2 especially one that had an interesting background to it. But I was also curious to see where much of the excitement was coming from when Killzone PS3 was announced for Sony’s newest hardware. To those that already know the end of this story, this review will only tread over much of what has already been covered in due course by many others. For those that do not and are curious to know why there is an undercurrent of anticipation for its sequel due out on Sony’s next big system like I was, the next few minutes may help add to the story why.

Killzone was attacked on the PS2. It is not available for other consoles.

The Second Helghast War

Killzone takes place in the future when humankind has begun to colonize the stars. The planet of Helghast, a harsh and unforgiving world, becomes home to some of these early settlers who attempt to tame it and make it theirs. Unfortunately for them, it was discovered later that the atmosphere had anomalies that eventually played havoc with their biology. Forced to adapt and engineer solutions to their plight, the Helghans that survive and are born into this brutal world tend to be larger and stronger than their human roots but with the tradeoff that they can no longer breath normal air as we would (aside from those who are half human). For whatever reasons that are not made all that clear, their suffering eventually translates into the First Helghan War against Earth. Earth wins and, in nod to the Treaty of Versailles forced on Germany following the First World War, apparently force severe reparations on the Helghast which eventually engenders the kind of bitterness that would make their desperation look to a leader with a vision for their future as a united race. They eventually get their wish and embark on a crash re-armament program to bolster a military that had been cut off at the knees by the victors.

As the game begins, the opening speech by the new Helghast supreme leader in a brilliant CG scene eerily reminiscent of those captured by Leni Riefenstahl for her Triumph of the Will, Scolar Visari (voiced by Brian Cox), rallies his defeated people into the juggernaut that will take what they believe is rightfully theirs. In short order, the Helghast launch their attack against Vekta, a colony world friendly to Earth, and fly past the strangely silent SD Platform defenses in orbit over Vekta that were said to be ‘most sophisticated defense mechanism ever created by Humankind’. Taking up positions over the planet as they blitz the surface with the forces they land, the Second Helghast War has begun.

Gameplay

Killzone’s story helps to set the epic stage of the conflict that eventually unfolds around four soldiers that come together through chance to succeed in their mission to do what they can to stop the Helghast. A lot of attention has been focused on the setting as evinced above and through dozens of press clips, translating down to the gameplay. Although this is the future, think of the future in terms of the Colonial Marines from Aliens where bullets, not rayguns, fancy starships, or personal forcefields, speak on the battlefield.

The controls are pretty straightforward and function as well as they should, with both analog sticks being used for movement and aiming and the buttons for your weapons and for the occasional “action” that you can perform on the battlefield such as mantling over certain obstructions to climbing ladders, or in beating a Helghast soldier senseless with whatever is in your hands. There’s no jumping in the game and the “mantling” feature that you can occasionally do is completely dependent on whether or not certain obstacles have that “hot spot” which doesn’t work very well.

I found myself having to run around certain sandbag barriers just because that “sweet spot” wasn’t anywhere near them. Another “sweet spot” issue is the fact that you can’t do a melee attack at will but are, instead, dependent on a ‘fist’ icon popping up telling you that you can do one when you’re close to a hapless grunt, unlike in Halo which allowed you to freely smash whatever was in your way at will. Instead of a regenerating shield, you recover some of your damage on your own as you ‘self heal’ to some degree, although if you take a heavy beating, don’t expect all of it to come back until you find a heal pack.

You start out as Jan Templar, a captain of the ISA’s (International Strategic Arms) Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) that finds himself in the middle of a meat grinder as he tries to hold off several waves of Helghast coming across a battlefield strewn with burnt trees, craters, and trenches filled with desperate defenders. Many of the levels in the game make use of the environment, using trenches, cover, ruins, and tunnels. As a result, much of the gameplay revolves around carefully moving ahead instead of simply rushing forward to take on the enemy which will get you killed extremely quickly. Players expecting a faster paced action title may find themselves disappointed in the paced approach that Killzone will force themselves to adopt.

This isn’t helped by the fact that even if you draw a bead on someone in front of you, not all of your bullets will go in the same direction. While this can possibly be explained in saying that it simulates the wild splay of your bullets from recoil, to most gamers that don’t watch the Military Channel 24/7, this dose of supposed realism will not be something that everyone will appreciate, especially when quite a few FPS titles have already convinced many players to expect their shots to go where their reticule expects them to. This strange split personality between ‘realism’ and ‘casual gaming’ that Killzone appears to suffer from permeates much of the game.

The weapons themselves aren’t very satisfying, although they sound nice. The two main assault rifles in the game don’t really feel any different other than in how many bullets they can both expend in a single clip…the Helghast weapon having more bullets because of its crazy inaccuracy. The scope on your sniper rifle drifts with no real way to steady it, and then we have the grenades. Throwing grenades is also a massive chore, especially when the game whips into a self-aware animation to show your hands and arms pull out a grenade, the pin, and then try to guesstimate how to lob it. You can cook ‘nades, which is nice, but when it comes time to aim it just behind that barricade ahead, don’t expect your throwing arm to get it to where you think it should go. It flies through the air with the grace of a concrete football.

It’s a good thing that the ISA has sent friends to help keep the fire off of you as you take a few seconds to lob that grenade. Jan will eventually be joined by three others, all of which have their own little handy nuances. Rico, the mouthy ISA Regular sergeant who speaks fluent Vektan F-Bomb, is handy with heavy weapons and carries his own minigun that comes equipped with a rocket attachment. Luger is the assassin of the group, capable of using her silenced pistol to take out distant foes and has the ability to use a special set of nightvision goggles. Then there’s the third operative that Jan will meet, someone whose talents for subterfuge will help the group in unexpected ways.

As the game goes on, the different chapters that it is divided into will allow you to choose between who you have in your squad to fight through them with, giving you the option to go in heavy or take the more subtle approach if that’s your style although most of the action will still turn into lead filled firefights. Some of the levels even offer alternative ways to tackle some of the skirmishes and in-game objectives that you might receive. For example, there are some crawlspaces and climbable obstacles that only Luger can get into that can help tilt the approach to some of these areas in different ways. should you go in with Rico blazing a path or go for a subtle approach with Luger and find a way to drop in behind your foes for a surprise?

There are quite a few weapons in the game to get a hold of and a lot of ammunition to find. In addition to whatever specialized weapon each of the team may have, you can find and pick up whatever else you find in the field ranging from rocket launchers to machine guns. You can even throw away your special weapon and pick up something else that you may think is more effective (with the possible exception of Rico’s minigun, although there are quite a few bullet boxes around to keep it fed). You can only carry three weapons at a time, so picking and choosing what to keep will definitely have an impact on how much of a challenge the next firefight will be.

Progress is marked with the use of autosaved checkpoints, although this added to the frustration factor more than it had helped in some cases. For the most part, it worked well to keep you from having to backtrack too far to get back to where you had died. But some levels may not make use of checkpoints to save your progress, meaning that if you die, you get to repeat the last half hour of fighting that you may have had to shoot through. When you accomplish certain objectives that come up, it would have been nice for it to save your progress every time you did but it doesn’t so be warned.

Thinking Man’s Shooter

Although it is nice to have your squad mates along with you in battle, they’re not the smartest bunch in the war. Fortunately for you, they’re immortal so no matter how much punishment they take or expose themselves to because they’re tripping over each other to get around certain obstacles, you won’t have to worry about them so much as you do for yourself. You can’t order them around either, just kind of lead the way to the next objective and hope they have the cajones to actually shoot back. Many times, they’ll just kind of stand around and act as meat targets for the enemy which helps to draw some of that attention away from you. If you accidentally fill Rico’s head with lead when he steps out in front of you while firing, don’t worry.

The enemy AI for the Helghast teeters between being occasionally smart enough to dig in behind cover to being as dense as a lead tipped round. Many of the low level grunts that come at you will do so despite seeing their comrades fall in droves around them, but this can probably be explained by the single minded discipline instilled in them to keep moving forward…just as the commissars of Stalinist Russia pushed Red Army regulars into battle at the end of their rifles in keeping with the WW2 analogy that Killzone is based on.

But not every player out there is a history buff and there are no commissars that I could see, and it doesn’t really instill a whole lot of respect for the Helghast other than the fact that they can take enough bullets to turn their bodies into living magazines. This is further reinforced by seeing some soldiers just stand there as they get pegged with bullets from a distance screaming in pain as you hit them but remaining in place, others ignoring you completely as they run by to attack your friends, blowing themselves up by accident with a grenade, or even blocking each other like the Helghast version of the Three Stooges while going up stairs or through doorways leaving themselves completely open for you to mow them down.

Face of the Enemy

Guerilla attempted to push the PS2 to its breaking point with their render engine in Killzone and the visuals reflect this unevenly thanks to a host of technical oddities. Some of the outdoor scenes and battlefield areas look fantastic with detailed textures and architecture. Other areas look pretty bad, with flat, badly lit textures and some strangeness with their LOD renderer. In some cases, I’d walk up to one of my own team mates and watch them suddenly go from a low res poly model with blurred textures to a highly detailed soldier the next second. Some levels are like this as well, suddenly going from low detail to high right before your eyes. One level even fell apart when the console failed to render part of it, forcing me to restart from the last checkpoint to refresh what it was trying to do.

There are also frame rate issues throughout the game, especially in some of the more open and larger areas with a lot of activity going on. Some of the dust and particle effects can visibly slow the action, but not to the degree that the game becomes unplayable. It’s still possible to hold your own against the technology that is trying to stop you, but it’s still a pretty jarring experience to suddenly wonder why the performance may become choppy on minute and then okay the next.

There are also invisible walls everywhere. Not only are you restricted by not being able to jump over crates unless they have the mantling sweet spot, the wide open expanse of some of the battlefields and ruins are rife with invisible geometry that keeps you contained. Some ruins that look like they would be climbable with sloping surfaces simply aren’t and the edges of some platforms and openings are simply impassable to prevent you from exploring too far. This only reinforces the generally linear feel of much of the gameplay despite the various means with which to approach certain objectives.

Reloading is also a drawn out affair, with another lengthy and self-aware animation to show it off. While it looks pretty cool, it also has the tendency to force the camera to look down at the weapon you’re reloading which can be disorienting. There’s also no way to cancel it if the enemy happens to simply run up to you while you try and fuss with the melee button, keeping an eye open for the fist icon that you must wait for.

Killzone also attempts to cover the spectrum of war locales by throwing everything at you from urban canyons to jungle swamps to a sort of “D-Day” landing where you have to defend the beach as opposed to taking it. Early on, the levels feel varied although later, it simply feels as if many of them become filler levels, beating the jungle and seaside dock themes to death in particular. Most of the action is still focused on defeating squads of dull witted soldiers, so plodding through these areas can feel repetitive especially when you’re once again doing the whole ‘cover, shoot, cover’ gambit to get through another jungle swamp.

The design for each of the main characters help to make each of them stand out, especially for the cinematics, although the number of Helghast regulars that come for you quickly wears out their welcome, something that is broken up with the occasional elite or specialized trooper that can make a surprise appearance on the field and simply take more bullets to kill. In an interesting note, the regular Helghast soldiers appear to have been inspired by the anime series Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade, almost down to their Germanically inspired helmets and glowing eye scopes. Whether or not this was intentional, anime fans were quick to point this out…especially since both Jin Roh and Killzone derive their worlds from WW2 inspired source material.

The sounds for the game are pretty good for the weapons and the environmentals. The voice acting for the major players in the game, from Brian Cox’s (Troy, X2) performance as Helghast Supreme Leader, Scolar Visari, to Ronny Cox’s (Total Recall, Robocop) portrayal of the brutal and desperate ISA General Adams, help in making these characters more than simple faces in the game…especially that of Adams. The same cannot be said for the Helghast soldiers who will repeat ad nauseaum most of their lines, no matter who they are. If you thought that your fellow soldiers were talkie bastards in Call of Duty 2, Killzone beat them to the punch years ago. And while I like mature language well enough in any game I play, if Rico were as effective a fighter as he was in dropping F-bombs, he might have been a lot more useful than as a meat shield.

Helghast soldiers will not only repeat their lines until you shoot them dead, but will sound as if they’re yelling them into your ears no matter how far they seem to be. As soon as you hear “They’re over here!” and have no idea of where that soldier is, you at least know that there’s someone there…somewhere. Unless Jan and his group were tapped into their private bandwidth, it was just weird to hear them right next to you while watching them run from a half a mile away.

The music, performed as much of it was by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, adds to the epic wartime approach that Guerilla has been looking to achieve with Killzone. From the opening menu screens as the Helghast march plays to that provided for the levels and many of the cut scenes, Guerilla has managed to put together a stirring collection of tunes to accompany the action.

Lone Wolves

Although Bungie has had practice in developing sci-fi worlds from their experience with Marathon, Guerilla’s attempts to do just that are evident in Killzone and in what was done to help create a universe that could put it in the same league as Halo. As you may have already guessed, Killzone’s ambitious story draws a large number of parallels to the events following First World War and the era of WW2 as it pulls elements from history into its sci-fi based setting, something the developers and general press did not make a secret of. For a shooter, it doesn’t do a half bad job in providing some context for the player, but at the same time it glosses over quite a bit of the otherwise interesting background to thrust them into the action as quickly as possible.

A comic series was also planned out to help shed some prequel light onto it by focusing on one of your squadmates (Rico), but was never published. At the time of this review, Amazon continues to lists it as “Volume 1” and there’s even a panel inside the back of the manual (of the original release…I don’t know if they included it in the “Greatest Hits” release of the title) of the only art that we’ll probably ever see in print of the defunct series outside of a few leaked panels on the web.

There was also mention that Joe Dever of Lone Wolf fame and sometime game design contributor had a hand in the development of the storyline. Fans of his books were quick to point out the use of the name “Helghast” in the game…a name that has also been used for a kind of creature from his most famous series of novels. For some odd reason, though, I couldn’t find his name in the manual and there wasn’t much else released that covered his reported work for the story behind it. If he contributed more than just the name for the enemy in the game, I guess that’s all we have to work with. The manual also tries to fill in the blanks by providing snippets throughout its pages on the source of the current conflict and details on why it happened , but it’s still not a whole lot to go on in comparison to the material provided for Halo within its own documentation. Killzone’s story is most definitely focused on the “now” rather than providing a context with any past tangent which may make many of the reasons for why the Helghast are so dead set against the Vektans vague at best.

The cuts that help to tell the story in between the major chapters are well done and help to flesh out the characters and show that there’s quite a bit more going on than meets the eye. Some of the characters, in particular General Adams and Colonel Hakha, come across as more than in just being two more faces among so many others in a game title. Ronny Cox’s performance as ISA General Adams, in particular, displays a believable edge that deftly avoids becoming another canned moment in gaming exposition. Not all of the storylines are resolved, however, such as the implied romance between Luger and Jan Templar, supposedly being saved for the planned follow ups. The verbal jousting between Rico and Hakha was interesting, but it felt contrived as we had no idea why Rico has a hard on for hating the Helghans…something that was to be explained in the defunct comics. The party politics between the squad members isn’t bad on the whole, but the game tends to gloss over much of these points to keep the player moving. As for the ending, it nicely sets the stage for the sequels that are expected to follow.

There is some replayability to the title in who you choose to tackle some of the chapters with, with some dialogue changing up to reflect your choice as well as what objectives will be covered. For those objectives that you can’t help with because of your character choice, the game takes control of your other team members to lead them away to their tasks leaving you alone in certain situations to try and survive until you can meet up with them again.

Killzone also offers multiplayer options for those that have the online adapter for the PS2, offering up different game types such as simple Deathmatch between sixteen players to team based modes such as Supply Drop or Assault. If you don’t, you can also play with or against a second player in its offline mode, offering the same modes of play. If you want to practice your skill against bots in your own private game, Killzone will let you get a handle on the dodgy sights.

War Front

Killzone’s ambitious backdrop and epic trappings would have been ultimately lost within its technical issues and rather straightforward gameplay if it didn’t succeed in occasionally bringing home some of the gritty action in a lengthy single player campaign. But while Killzone’s gameplay may not have matched the kind of intensity that Guerilla and SCEA have attempted to inspire with their blend of WW2 action and interplanetary war, it helps to set up an interesting fiction from which Guerilla can continue to build upon, something that many are looking forward to seeing more of in its planned sequels. Ignoring for once the moniker that it had been given, FPS fans may still find something to like here even without trendy vehicles, inspiring many to anticipate the next great battle in the Second Helghan War.

– World 1-1

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