The establishment of a good first person shooter on any console has been somewhat up in the air since Microsoft’s deliverance of Halo three years ago. Whether due to a sheer lack of scale, inconsistent action or tepid plotlines, most FPS titles haven’t come close to challenging Bungie for its crown. (Not for a lack of trying; there just simply hasn’t been a worthy successor.) In fact, it’s taken Sony a number of years to develop and deliver their “Halo-Killer,” which has arrived a week earlier than Halo’s sequel. But can the game actually land the knock out punch to Master Chief? Grab a gun and some body armor, because it’s time to enter Killzone.
Taking a futuristic setting, Killzone is the story of a splintered human race. Mankind has scattered itself amongst the stars, no longer claiming Earth as its homeworld. Initially unified as they took to the stars, their goals became divided between the more peaceful, scientific and exploratory ISA and the more violent, militaristic and conquest driven Helghast. After a number of ideological conflicts, the ISA banish their rougher brethren from their territory, forcing them to the other side of the galaxy. Due to the harsher environs they're forced to settle in, the Helghast start to physically change, accounting for their striking appearance. Harboring resentment towards their former allies, the Helghast plot and scheme their revenge until, unified by a demagogue (in an intro eerily reminiscent of a rabid Adolf Hitler), their fury is unleashed upon an unsuspecting world named Vekta.
Players start off as an ISA captain named Templar, who quickly goes from fighting for his life against the invaders to fighting for the safety of the entire planet. However, Templar won't have to go all Rambo against the Helghast invaders. Shortly after the game starts, players acquire three other squadmates, each with their own characteristics. Luger is a stealth specialist, trained in infiltration and assassination of targets with knives or silenced machine guns. Rico is a hulking grunt whose heavy machine gun spits a ton of lead at enemies.
There’s also Hakha, a half-Helghast/half-human double agent whose security clearance and visual exterior allow him to infiltrate enemy lines, bypassing traps, guards and other dangers. At the start of each mission, players will be able to pick which soldier they want to use, relegating the unselected as your support squad. However, you won’t be able to control them like a Tom Clancy title or other kinds of squad-based shooters; instead, the game’s AI controls the other character’s for you, allowing you to concentrate on taking out the hordes of enemies that spill towards you.
As the title implies, you’ll wind up taking out your opponents as they start charging your positions, creating large swaths of devastation in their ranks. You won’t be stuck within the same locations either. Pulling from the past hundred years of warfare, the designers of Killzone plucked some of the defining elements of modern combat. For instance, you’ll square off against enemies while running from trench to trench (the popular World War I strategy), going from building to building clearing bunkered soldiers (World War II tactics) or fighting through jungles (pulled directly from Vietnam). With the differences in each location, players won’t be able to complacently use the same plan to defeat the Helghast. You’ll need to continually press every advantage you have to successfully survive each mission.
The most noticeable facet of Killzone is that it’s easily the best looking title that’s ever been seen on a PS2. Here, we’re talking about huge character models, most of which move through a series of large, detailed environs, many of which have scripted explosions or changes during gameplay. This also extends to the modeling of the weapons and their subsequent animation. Cutscenes are particularly good, and the intro is rendered so creepily that it will send shivers up your spine with the parallels to Nazi Germany. That extends down to the “jackbooted” Helghast troops lined up in platoon and divisional file, the same ones you’ll see throwing themselves towards you in battle. If you were looking at a showpiece of what Sony’s machine can do, this game had a chance at being it.
At a quick glance, Killzone looks comparable to the kind of first person shooters found on current PCs. Unfortunately, it seems like you’d need one of them to make the gameplay run smoothly. Killzone is plagued with more slowdown, animation hiccups and texture pop-in than potentially any other title in the PS2 library. For instance, the draw distance is incredibly short, so you’ll see backgrounds suddenly leap into view. You’ll also notice low resolution textures for objects and people from afar before the high res version is suddenly overlaid on them, which is extremely blatant and extraordinarily distracting. Granted, part of it is due to the fact that the system is literally squeezing every polygon it can process to make the game look as great as it does. However, there’s so many dropped frames and background aliasing issues that it’s practically impossible for the system to play the game as it was meant to be played.
Sound is slightly better than the graphics, but not by much. Again, I point out the intro because the delivery given by Brian Cox as the embodiment of the Helghast fury, Scolar Visari, is vitriolic, homicidal and enraged. Combined with one of the solid graphical pieces of the game, this is impressive. The music, performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, is pretty decent, when it can be heard. There are moments when the sound effects for the weapons, which are good in themselves, wind up drowning out just about every sound, including dialogue or background music. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, considering that much of the voice acting for the minor characters is pretty bad.
Combined with some of the other issues the game exhibits, Killzone’s single and multiplayer is plagued with problems that harm the title further. First of all, online play is decent: you’ve seen and played better games with online features, but you’ve probably played much worse. There’s both single and team deathmatch, and a number of other modes. Domination has you attempt to take control of switches scattered around a map, while Supply Drop has you trying to track down objects and returning them to your base. There’s also two variations on a similar theme: Assault has one team trying to destroy an object while the other team defends against them, whereas Defend and Destroy has teams attempting to destroy a base while defending their own. At best, it was a decent game with the aforementioned graphical issues. At worst, the lag on the connection combined with its visual problems made Killzone intolerable.
Aside from the multiplayer, the single player has a number of questionable features. First of all, the AI for both ISA and Helghast troops is incredibly stupid. Frequently you’ll find them standing around, not firing their guns, seeking cover or aiding their side at all. This is incredibly unrealistic and not terribly conducive to the story itself. I also noticed a ton of times where my troops would cross my line of fire, complicating a shot I was attempting to make or forcing me to abandon cover to shoot an enemy. This left me wide open to being hit by snipers or other troops. This leads me to another problem, which is that once you’ve acquired Rico, you really won’t ever want (or realistically need) to play another character. Not only can he take much more damage than Templar or the other weaker soldiers, but his firearm is so unbelievably powerful that he more than makes up for any odds you’ll face. Were there an actual branching storyline that facilitated the need to switch characters or tasks that you could only accomplish by going through stages with different people, the extra characters would be useful. In reality, they become an afterthought (an impervious to enemy fire afterthought, but relatively ignorable nonetheless).
This disregard for some details feels somewhat connected to the lack of full story development as well. During play, every level feels more like you’re the invader than the defender of the planet. Most of the Helghast are entrenched or arrive to support positions, often throwing themselves on your flank or in certain areas that force you to press an advantage rather than fully defend something. Where the hell are the innocents caught up in the invasion? The masses that are being held hostage by soldiers? Areas that are freshly turned into warzones? Instead of these situations, much of the game feels like the Helghast have been on this planet for years, and you’ve only been winning pieces of the world back step by step. Pretty disjointed, huh? Well, this feeling extends to some of the action as well. Sure, I understand that the reload process was supposed to be somewhat longer than usual, just as sprinting was supposed to seem more realistic (and chaotic to your point of view as you scrambled across an area). However, the accuracy on your firearms is way too loose, forcing you to have much more of a spray and pray approach at times to taking out opponents. This extends to just about every single weapon in the game, which can complicate your progress significantly.
Halo killer it’s not. But what Killzone is a decent, albeit flawed visual piece for the PS2 that shows off the prowess of the console and repudiates the idea that the system is on its last legs. If you’re in the market for a shooter, and you can forgive a number of flaws, then Killzone might have enough action to satisfy you.