When the first few screenshots of Killzone leaked out of the Guerrilla headquarters early last year, muted gasps could be heard in the offices of video game journalists up and down the land. The shots were quite stunning and bowled us over, mainly for two simple reasons. Firstly, we had the darkly visceral design of the playing areas on show, with a gritty urban near-future look that seemed as much influenced by modern the modern battlefield as it was by any science-fiction setting. Secondly, we had the brilliant simplicity of the Helghast who, looking like fully equipped alien-nazis with glowing devil eyes, are perhaps the best design of enemy foot soldier since the Star Wars storm trooper. That surely must be a killer combination, right? This is going to be great, isn’t it? Hell, it might even be a – dare I say it – Halo beater for the PS2? Ah, it must be. After all, screenshots never lie, do they?
The calm before the storm. Neat graphics for the PS2 though…
Well, every good video game franchise needs a decent back-story and Killzone certainly has a good one of those. It’s straight up classic sci-fi, but it works well. The cool intro sequence explains via a montage the history of the Helghast, telling of how a huge wave of humans left Earth to establish another society on a distant planet. Embarrassingly, the world on which they chose to set up shop was Helghan, which sounds like arguably the most inhospitable planet they could find. Helghan began to mutate the colonists, making all their hair fall out and leaving them looking a bit pasty in skin tone, but they stuck it out and, over a few years, they effectively became their own new race: the Helghast. Not a very pretty race, mind you, but a separate race all the same.
Of course, things change in the arena of intergalactic politics, and now the Helghast are coming home. They’ve had time to adjust, had time to build weapons and strengthen their armies, and now they plan to unleash a new assault upon humanity, starting with the nearby colony of Vekta. That’s where we come in.
“Yes… I am cool.”
In the single-player campaign you get to play through 11 missions of good old-fashioned tactical squad based urban warfare. Each mission is split into a handful of smaller chapters – for convenient level loading presumably – with each chapter playing out like a fifteen-minute skirmish between your team and whatever Helghast troops pop up as you invariably try to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’. Nothing new there – no – but one of Killzone’s strengths is the variety of settings and locations it uses. You start off with a little bit of classic trench work before being dropped straight in to the middle of a city ravaged by war, with burnt out buildings and vehicles being the order of the day – you know the sort of thing. After that the missions take you to a big industrial plant type place for a while, before moving you on to more exotic locations like deserts, jungles and mountain ranges, and then finally ending up on a cool orbital defence platform. There’s a lot of work gone into making the backgrounds look very detailed, so there’s a lot to look at, and since the art direction on this project is exceptional, it’s well worth a look too.
“This is no time to sit down on the job Sergeant!”
The actual level design from a game play angle also is also consistently top draw and Guerrilla have been quite inventive at finding obstacles for you to navigate around, over or through while continuously engaging in hit-and-run firefights with the Helghast. In fact, you’ll often find yourself in battleground situations with all manner of cool wreckage readily available to use as cover, which is handy as you soon realize the combat system itself has been designed with the most cautious approach in mind. You’re gifted with a very responsive ducking ability easily accessible at L2, and pushing R3 allows your view to zoom in for steadier aiming with every weapon bar the heavy machine guns, which is equally handy. And you’d better get used to using those two buttons because you will, a lot, to the point where it should become second nature. Unless, that is, you’d rather be mowed down within the first few seconds – the choice, as they say, is yours.
Helghast troops are equally cautious and spend half their time concealed behind something or other, as do your men too, so I guarantee you’ll end up in many a situation where everyone involved is taking pot shots from behind various bits of scenery. And it’s just then, at times like those, crouching behind a smashed up car with time to look around as you wait for a gap in the steady stream of bullets whizzing overhead, where things slowly start to go wrong.
I’m not criticising the way Killzone handles the hit-and-run, duck and cover game play or the locations you get to fight in, far from it, because both those areas have been covered exceptionally. You get to snipe enemies from towers, at obscure angles through doorways or through wreckage, shoot rocket launchers at tanks, ambush enemy squads from atop hills, etc, etc, and so on. Yes – it’s all just simple run and shoot stuff, but it’s very varied run and shoot stuff that’s visually very entertaining, so you kind of get swept along following your nose from one location to another.
Or at least you would do if Killzone didn’t have a handful of huge glaring flaws.
The weak point in the Helghast’s armour is obviously the crotch.
You’ll soon notice that Killzone renders objects in several states of focus but has trouble keeping them at the right level. As you approach objects (or sometimes even troopers) you’ll notice the level of detail snap suddenly a grade sharper, like it used to in the old PSone days. Big black boxes when approached change to a shade of grey and magically become rounder at the edges – just like that – and walls dissolve and refill if you look at them from funny angles. Hell – I’ve even ran round a corner to see a guy stood there without a face as the game engine slowly retrieves it from its memory. I don’t need to tell you how much pop-up at this level can really alter the immersion level. No wonder the Helghast have such a basic look.
Actually, let’s talk about the Helghast. Yes they are really cool with an excellent alien-nazi thing going on, but there really aren’t many variations in the design. You get your standard shock trooper dressed in black with a standard assault rifle and orange eyes who is the most common protagonist in the game, and then you get a slightly differently dressed Helghan with a bigger machine gun. You also get another slightly different to the last Helghan guy with another slightly different weapon (some kind of shotgun I think) but the point is the baddies all look so similar that it does get a bit annoying. It’s very straightforward – the guys in the black or grey armour you shoot at, guys in the greyish green armour you don’t.
These are Helghan heavy weapons troopers. You can identify them easily because they don’t wear helmets.
In terms of their AI the Helghan appear to act in a very schizophrenic attitude on the battlefield. Sometimes you’ll watch them work excellently – trying to hold a position as one trooper ducks for cover while another reloads and a third pokes his head out to take a few pot shots – and it really does feel like war. On other occasions, especially when they’re advancing, they dither like decrepit morons, crouching randomly where they think is necessary and not firing on you when you’re standing right next to them, as if the AI routine they’re running doesn’t reassess the immediate threat quick enough. This is why some areas (the park from level 3 in particular) are much easier if you charge long distances to get to the best vantagepoint. They tend to startle quite easy, these Helghast, so you might as well capitalise.
Inconsistant AI not withstanding, there’s one other major issue with Killzone that might just be the nail in the coffin. It’s something that really annoyed me when I first began to notice it and it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth throughout the whole game. The fact is, the entire game is so set-piece scripted it defies belief, and I’m not just talking Medal of Honour style, I’m talking Time Crisis! This is something you can’t establish from looking at screenshots obviously, but as soon as you start playing it becomes blindingly apparent. My complaint with scripted FPS’s is simple – I hate it when a game has events lined up for you that are only triggered when you get to a certain location or cross a certain line. Let me give you an example: you’re trying to get from point ‘A’ to ‘B’ but when you get to ‘B’ Helghan come piling through that door from section ‘C’. That’s okay, but the issue is that no matter how long it takes you to get to ‘B’, or what you do along the way, as soon as you arrive the Helghan always come piling though that door from section ‘C’, and usually exactly the same number with exactly the same tactics. Better FPS’s have routines in place which allow the troops at ‘C’ to have, say, strong enough AI to move out before the player gets to ‘B’ if they’re taking too long, or even have no troops there if the enemy command decides to move them off to a different location altogether. Or perhaps it’d be nice if, when you get to point ‘B’, another squad of good guys have turned up and have started the skirmish with the Helghast at point ‘C’ without you – whatever – it’d just be nice to have the possibility that something different could happen, as opposed to sticking to a very rigid script. The devices used to keep you just where the game wants you further infuriate this. For example, on one of the earlier levels you can’t go any further until you’ve sniped a bunch of soldiers in the building down the road, and then taken out a group that appear at the window next to you. When you’ve done your duty and wasted those Helghan scum (in strict order), one of your squad steps up and moves a light piece of barricade aside so you can move forward. That really annoyed me – if we could have picked up that bit of crap and moved it at any point, why didn’t we? How come I can’t move it and press on when I want to? Why is there no friggin’ jump ability, so I can’t even climb over it, or anything bigger than a sandbag for that matter? To make matters worse, there is a jump manoeuvre of sorts available but it’s context sensitive, meaning you can essentially only jump over the objects the game specifically wants you to, to further the plot. Rubbish – little immersion killers like those ruin games, and it has certainly affected Killzone.
Machine gun in the face! Nasty…
The story running through the veins of Killzone is an engaging one but is very heavily character based, making the experience feel more like a Hollywood buddy action flick than an epic sci-fi production. Over the first few levels you are slowly introduced to each team member via a string of – yes – heavily scripted encounters, and from then on most cut scenes consist of you watching them argue amongst themselves. You start off playing as Jan Templar, a Joe Average marine type fella, but you soon meet Lugar the sexy female stealth assassin, Rico the token black heavy weapons dude and Hakha the half-human, half-Helghan Special-Ops guy. All very A-team? You betcha – especially Rico and Hakha’s constant bickering, which gets tiring very quickly. It seems only fair, then, that as a character joins the team they become playable immediately, giving you a little variation in game play and, at a stretch, a bit of replay value. That is if you can be arsed playing through the same scripted encounters again albeit from another character’s point of view, which I admit I couldn’t.
Hey hang on – what happened to this epic plotline of this insurgent splinter society waging war against its founding fathers? Well, if you have patience with the storyline, it does get back there in the end, although it does seem to go all round the houses along the way and one less slagging match between Rico and Hakha, or one less attempt by Templar to rekindle his romance with Lugar, would have gone down a treat.
But in the end, Killzone is just another one of those ‘almost brilliant’ games that sadly falls flat because of a string of little irritating things that ruin the experience. The backdrops are all beautiful, but they always have the same Helghast troops walking around in the foreground. The orchestral accompaniment is awesome (provided by the Prague Philharmonic orchestra, no less) but the weapon sound effects are very samey. The cut scene voice acting is great (even if the script isn’t), but the in-game speech is poorly out of synch with character’s lip movements and extremely repetitive – even the most patient of us will be gritting our teeth when that Helghan trooper shouts “Kill them!” or “Reloading!” for the fifteenth time in the same firefight.
Graffitiing is actively encouraged amongst the Helghan ranks.
But bizarrely, one of this game’s saving graces is the online mode. As far as PS2 games go, it’s been well thought out and presented well too. It’s like the single player campaign admittedly, but without the rigid set-piece scripting. You get the standard online modes – deathmatch, domination, assault and capture the flag (disguised as ‘supply drop’) – and the game seems to run smooth enough with 16 players, or at least it did the day I played it. A friend of mine who lives down the road is one of the UK’s PS2 beta testers, so I paid him a visit and we played for a couple of hours with no problems at all. Yes, it’s not Halo 2, but it’ll certainly keep you busy.
And that’s about that. Killzone is an above average FPS on the PS2 which doesn’t quite live up to expectations. It’s still a good game, some I’m sure would argue very good, but it trips itself up regularly. You PS2 owning FPS junkies are no doubt going to love this beast, and the rest of you will have some fun with this game too, just don’t be disappointed when you realize that Killzone’s not the ground-breaking experience I think we were all expecting.