When I was first thinking about how to approach my review of Killzone 2’s campaign, I thought I could write up a sizable spreadsheet detailing all the cliches and tropes stolen from other games and films. Thankfully, I realized the errors of such an idea. The problem with the game wasn’t that it was using cliches and silly names. Plenty of other shooters do the same and are forgiven. No, the problem was that Killzone 2 was breaking one of my primary sins of game design – it made me feel like I was wasting my time. I began thinking not of the action at hand, but what else I could be doing during my time after work. I soldiered on simply for the purpose of review, which in turn led to my putting a magnifying glass on every little piece of creative laziness, even if it technically got the job done. I hate when a game puts me in this mindset, but sadly I could not help it.
The first half of Killzone 2 throws the typical mix of soldier cliches into a four man squad sent down into a boring and lifeless cityscape, where they are tasked with handling the toughest of assignments. You have experienced this scenario before, but worse yet, you have literally done this sequence of events before. Every firefight boils down to having you break the enemy’s lines and, in most cases, advancing enough to stop their soldiers from respawning infinitely. This is an approach that few games outside of the Call of Duty series can pull off, and even that series struggles with it at times. It is never interesting, and always boils down to you going to your mental toolbox to pull out some tactic that years of shooter experience has taught you to be effective, regardless of whether it would be plausible in an actual fight.
As you clear one level after another, you may get the sense that the supposedly tremendous graphical engine feels underused as it is forced to render simple, blocky starship corridors and city buildings. From top to bottom, Killzone 2 feels like it was made using a checklist labeled “stuff that million selling games have done”, with the idea that if it also uses them, it too will sell millions. But Guerrilla Games fails to realize that a concept might work in Gears of War because someone at Epic honestly thought that it might be “fucking awesome”, and wanted to show us why they thought so. Just dropping tropes into a game without much thought has a much different, and less desirable effect.
When the second half of the game rolls around, the experience makes a major shift. The city streets are replaced with wide open spaces that start to resemble something I would consider graphically impressive. These environments also introduce a much needed element of strategy. Enemies will always spawn from the same locations, but you don’t have to fight them the same way. You could immediately take cover and slowly slog your way through their lines, just like in any other shooter. Or you could fall back and take them on from long range. You can find some high ground close to their location and open fire before they know where you are. Even simple flanking maneuvers are a viable choice. These are the kinds of options we often desire in an FPS, but more often than not a game will immediately gun you down as soon as you try to move, rather than ever letting you entertain an idea of choice.
The going continues to be good when Killzone 2 drops you, alone, deep into enemy territory (your mate is there too, but split up from you). At this point I couldn’t tell what the game was going to throw at me, which lead to a sense of fear and dread. My questions were answered with a series of fair firefights where grenades and melee actually worked. The transition from the first half to the second trades death and frustration for fewer deaths and genuine anticipation. Hell, even the characters began to display a level of personality and emotion that made them resemble real people instead of stock stereotypes.
Killzone 2’s shift towards quality is both dramatic and unexpected, though also frustrating when you look at the cause. It is nothing more than Guerrilla Games deciding to do their own thing. They gather their engine, their universe, and their game mechanics and take them in a bold direction, rather than tracing another line. It doesn’t just feel different, it plays better than the rest. I would be very much interested in learning about the development of the game, because there is good evidence that the two halves of the campaign were developed at different times or with different mindsets.
At least, I would like to think this is the case, but the final level gives me great doubt. It starts off with a daunting Helghast defense that rather brilliantly allows you to run past most of the action by taking certain paths through the level, until you get to the last line of defense. After this, you must face off in a showdown with an end boss, who is aided by multiple waves of elite troops which fire upon you and your squadmate with greater numbers and with control over a much larger area of the battlefield. If you can get past the final wave’s cache of rocket wielding foes (which will kill you before you can even tell what direction their RPGs are coming from), you must take on the boss alone, running around aimlessly and hoping that he does not stab you in the back while using his cloaking field.
These frustrating end of game showdowns are nothing new, but they are annoying and unnecessary, and exist for little more reason than because developers believe that since Granddaddy Doom had a boss fight, than they too must create one as well. At this point I turned the game off while I was only halfway frustrated, mailing the disc back to Gamefly rather than allow the ending to tarnish my regards for the second half. I do not regret this decision in the slightest, though it only makes my overall frustration more palatable.
Ultimately, Killzone 2 is an example of fear and uncertainty. Sony sees Microsoft succeeding with a team of high selling action games, and believes that they can serve their consumer base by offering exclusives that become carbon copies. The fact that there are any bright spots in the experience is more of a gift than anything. If you want a look at why the PS3 is in its current position, this is it. If you want to see what next-gen shooters should be striving for, you can find it for at least a few hours. But the knowledge gained and entertainment experienced are not strong enough to counteract the teasing feeling that comes from knowing that we could and should have had so much more.