Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A rough gem: Killzone 2 review

Straight to the point: I feel somewhat cheated having played Killzone 2 on hard my first time through. I haven’t had much of a challenge from games in a while, so I thought I’d up the ante from the get-go with this one.

Bad move. Really bad move.

While 90 percent of KZ2 is playable and quite challenging on hard, there are a handful of encounters that will leave you ripping your hair out with frustration. These sections are few and far between, but boy do they make up for missed time.

Still, I persevered, and even though it took me five hours just to get through the last gauntlet of the game, I feel the experience was well worth it. So much so, in fact, I plan on restarting immediately on medium to see if an easier go will make me love the game even more.

Continuing with the griping and relating to the sudden insane difficulty spike is the matter of enemy and teammate AI. The Helghast are brilliant. They move realistically, usually sticking to cover, but will charge you down if you give them the chance. They flank and move solo or in squads depending on how the mood hits them.

While the bad guys hold their own quite nicely, it’s my brothers in arms that had me verbally abusing my TV. Through the majority of the game, they do their job. They take out the bad guys, move wisely and keep their heads down most of the time. During those difficulty spikes, though, it’s as if every one of them received a swift kick to the back of the skull before charging into combat.

You need their guns to keep the odds even, which means you’ll be abandoning cover far too often to revive pals who suddenly substituted their killer instinct for a new worldview where the best way to stop a bullet is with your own face. Instead of popping out for shots, they seem to stay behind cover almost exclusively until someone runs up and puts them out of their misery.

Your teammate in the last section of the game is particularly dense and you’ll find yourself cursing his existence the umpteenth time he lets four Higs sneak up behind you without firing one shot across the balcony he’s supposed to be guarding.

Other than the obnoxious difficulty (on hard, remember. I’m hoping some of these points are moot on a different setting) and the inconsistent AI, Killzone 2 is an absolute blast to play.
You’ve heard how good the game looks, so I won’t waste your time other than to say, yes, it’s gorgeous.

The weapons are mostly standard, but damn do they feel good to shoot.

There have been reports of control issues, but with the sensitivity kicked up a notch, I had absolutely no problem. Everything felt smooth.

As for the story, I was actually surprised by what was on offer. The opening is epic and really gets the adrenaline going as you are dropped (literally) into an intense war zone. The following two-thirds of the game are nearly baron of story. There’s a bit of background detail and character development through chatter, but for the most part you are simply a grunt. You and Alpha are moving from location to location, completing various tasks as you try to help a convoy find its way to the heart of the enemy’s defenses.

The final third of the game, though, sees a big boost in story as cut-scenes become more prominent, the dialogue kicks it up a notch and the game really begins to feel like it’s building toward something. I don’t feel Killzone lacked story so much as took a different pacing approach, building to a climax that’s big and exciting.

Every step of the way, though, you will know you have been in a fight. The action in KZ2 is intense and seldom -and I mean seldom- ever lets up. You’ll be shooting, ducking, meleeing and chucking grenades for a solid runtime of about 10-15 hours and nearly every minute of that time will be enjoyable.

Explosions go off all around you and literally right in front of you, kicking up dust, debris and bodies as bullets scream through the air en route to a teammate’s chest. Helghan is windy, ashy, and swarming with electrical storms. You have the pleasure of spending some quality time in various locals; all unique, all realistic, all great.

To sum up some of the rest, the sound is dynamite, the set pieces are big, though not very memorable, and overall, Killzone 2’s single player campaign is great.

The same goes for online play. With a deep clan system, an engaging class system and rewards for achieving various objectives, there’s plenty of reason to keep coming back for hours on end.
The more you unlock, the deeper strategy becomes and, with a few like-minded individuals willing to work as a team, games can evolve into a tactical battle of epic proportions…on an epic scale…epically.

Instead of a bunch of guys just running around and shooting, a tactician can establish a beneficial spawn point, an engineer can set up a turret to guard a target, a sniper can keep an invisible eye in the sky, medics can keep injured allies on their feet, etc. etc. etc. With the ability to break into smaller squads within your team to respawn on the leader and mix-and-match primary and secondary perks, there’s really no limit to the number of ways you can play the game.

Other nice touches include a great running system that recharges quickly, balanced gameplay between classes, terrific maps, an addictive little noise that lets you know you’ve made the killing shot, and a seamless transition into various modes (when one mode is over, a voice informs you of a new objective and said objective pops up on your radar rather than going to the lobby and waiting for the next game type to load up).

While Killzone 2 doesn’t redefine the genre, it lands soundly on all the bases with lots of grit, carnage and flair. Single player is fun and, while online borrows heavily from games of the past, I expect many of the new tweaks to be utilized by designers of the future.

There’s bang for your buck with Killzone 2, and it’s a very loud bang indeed.

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