E3 Hands-On: Killzone 2: “No Longer a Joke”

It wasn’t long ago that Killzone 2 was a video game punch line, the sort of thing you talked about when referencing a game that could never live up to the hype. The first title in the series failed to be the “Halo killer” many believed it could become, and an ambitious “visual target” trailer shown at E3 a couple years back nearly doomed the project from the start, when it couldn’t replicate the same details in-game. All of that is about to change though, as Guerrilla Games has Killzone 2 primed and ready to fight, and the joke will soon be on all those who dismissed this title too soon.

Tucked quietly away in a corner of Sony’s E3 booth was a playable demo for Killzone, one that we knew we simply had to get our hands on. After waiting in line and watching those ahead of us get picked off time and time again, it was our turn to step into the shoes of new protagonist Sev and take the fight to those goggle-eyed freaks. After just ten minutes with the game, I knew this was a must-buy, and Sony is priming a killer app to launch right in that post-holiday lull where they can vacuum up the cash.

The first thing that strikes you about Killzone is it looks almost as good as the tech demo that has caused the game so much grief. The game was running in pre-alpha code, but the characters and landscapes were still some of the most detailed I’ve seen yet on the PS3 (or any next-gen system for that matter), easily on par with the visuals of Metal Gear Solid 4.

A couple things that really bring to light just how graphically impressive this game has become are destructible cover and enemy reactions to getting shot. Much like every other shooter out there, Killzone has adopted a cover system to allow you to survive a bit longer in firefights and work the strategy element some more. Obviously, anything you can do, the baddies can do as well, and you can bet Helghast troopers will be laying low behind walls, sandbags, or any other fortification they can find. However, you don’t have to be satisfied with a simple game of stop-and-pop, as directing fire into cover will break it down and force them to find new hiding places. Perhaps the best example of this in the demo was a section where a whole bunch of Helghast were taking cover in a bombed-out building, using their height advantage and superior numbers to make life hard. We quickly jumped onto a machine gun emplacement and started raining fire on the house. As we sprayed, pieces of the floor and chunks of the wall came ripping out, and our AI buddies were able to take care of business once we flushed the bad guys out into the open. Watching the dust and debris fly with every shot really gave you the impression that you were pounding bullets into an actual building, and the whole experience was just incredibly real.

Another stunning interaction that takes place is watching enemies react when they are shot. We’ve all become accustomed to baddies grabbing at their legs dropping their firearms when taking damage, but Killzone really takes it to a new level. The reactions are so visceral, so real that you almost wonder what sort of twisted research the guys on the development team did to figure out how someone would react to a gunshot wound. For example, at one point in the demo I was able to sneak up behind an enemy and plug him in the back with a pistol round. I didn’t want to kill him yet, just see what he would do, and the faceless soldier didn’t disappoint. The moment the bullet hit, the soldier tensed up as if he had a sudden lower back spasm, and he began reaching for the wound. After a few moments of realistically coping with the pain (I can only imagine the grimace if I had been able to see his face), he slowly turned, still affected by the shot, and opened fire. As I finished him off, every shot I landed further convinced me of the painstaking detail the team has put into this aspect of the game, one of those little things few people will likely even notice, and yet it’s simply incredible.

The only issues I can possibly see going forward with Killzone is that the controls seemed awfully twitchy, and the lack of a map or objective marker can make finding your objectives difficult. As for the aiming, I can assume for now that the sensitivity was turned way up, or that at least some sort of adjustment will be made available for the final version. As for the lack of any real indication of what you’re supposed to be doing next, that may be a bit of a sticky wicket. Hopefully, some sort of objective marker or waypoint system will be implemented in the final build. Otherwise, Killzone 2 may suffer a fate similar to Haze where you spend a lot of time wandering around with no clear objective in mind or general concept of when you’re about to arrive.

As our demo ended (taken down in the midst of a tank battle) and we handed over controls to the next lucky soul, it crystallized that Killzone 2 is shaping up to be a very special game. While we’ll have to wait until February 2009 to get our hands on the final version, what we’ve seen so far is nothing short of incredibly. While there may not be any need for a “Halo killer” anymore, this shooter is shaping up to be worthy of mention in the same breath as Bungie’s Xbox opus.

It’s come a long way from being the butt of everyone’s jokes, hasn’t it?

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