Friday, July 24, 2009

Duck and Cover: Killzone 2

At last, I have a PS3. Here is the first of many future reviews.

After I finished the first level of Killzone 2, I began thinking about ways to begin my pan of this tedious, repetitive, and generally boring game. I would denounce Killzone 2's grey and brown aesthetics, its uninspiring weapons, unoriginal enemies, and "duck, cover, and repeat" gameplay. I would mock its 91 Metacritic score, denounce its huge sales, and denigrate the industry hype machine that made this into a Big Game.

Alas, the planned pan will not come to pass; Killzone 2 actually gets very good after its mediocre first level. Killzone 2 starts with an invasion of the ominously-named planet Helghan by the brave soldiers of the ISA. I don't know that the game ever explains "ISA" stands for; perhaps I needed to play the previous Killzone. If you hadn't guessed, plot is not Killzone's strong point. In any case, the first level of Killzone is basically a rehash of Normandy Beach an extra-dark sky and extra-intimidating alien Nazis with scary redeyed helmets. Killzone's graphics are technically remarkable, but they don't portray anything you especially care to see. While Killzone is very Halo-esque in many ways, the developers at Guerilla Games don't follow Halo's example and let us shoot our enemies in appealing settings. Grim, gritty, and grey have their places, but they quickly grow tedious. The game's aesthetics don't improve much after the first level, yet the gameplay begins to click, the weapons and scenarios become more interesting, and Killzone stops being "WWII... In Space!"

Still, I wish Guerilla Games had been a trifle more creative in their plot and setting. Though most of the game takes place in Helghan's capital city, we only encounter one civilian in the entire game, a miner and engineer who drives a train. More comically, Killzone 2 has a grand total of one female character. And did the space fascists really have to speak with British accents like some cut-rate Star Wars villains? Still, the game's plot is pretty good, provided you don't expect it to be more than a testosterone-filled war story. I think someone at Guerilla may have greater ambitions than writing for games; the game subtly references a novel by Gene Wolfe and hits you over the head with a Cormac McCarthy allusion. Neither "cameo" is particularly apposite, yet it's still nice to see them.

After the train wreck of a first level, Killzone 2 has some pretty great sequences, involving tanks, mechs, trains, explosions, and other fun things. It's a shame, then, that the developers completely forgot to playtest the last portion of the final level. The final boss is so ridiculous as to cast a pall over the rest of the game. Colonel Radec has a cloaking device, something that no one else in the game has. This alone would be OK, though it would still seem a bit cheap to introduce this new technology so late in the game. Colonel Radec can also teleport, though nothing prior to this fight has suggested that teleportation technology exists in the Killzone universe. Radec is also extremely fast, and kills you with one knife slash. These three aspects of the final boss fight are bad on their own, but Guerilla Games also decided it would be fun to make Radec nigh-immortal. Even the heaviest-armored enemies in the game should notice when they take damage; Radec can shrug off direct rocket hits, flamethrowers (he burns and complains but doesn't die), and multiple point-blank shotgun blasts to the face. After the tenth shotgun and third grenade, one begins to wonder if you've missed some secret way to kill the bastard. You haven't. The developers just hate you.

I wouldn't mind the Radec fight so much if it had occurred earlier in the game, but it appears when players have already learned - or so they think - what to expect from Killzone. In a game like Metal Gear Solid 4, one expects the bosses to take dozens of bullets to kill; the bosses are, after all, generally armored and nanomachine-enhanced. Besides, the player character can take a lot of abuse himself; he won't succumb to a single knife thrust. Though the durability of the characters in Metal Gear is ludicrous, the game is internally consistent. The small and quick Radec, on the other hand, is harder to kill than any armored tank, flying robot, or "Heavy" armored berserker in the game. It's as if Guerilla wants you to forget all the thrilling scenarios and satsfying gunfights they have lately given you.

Perhaps in my complaints about Killzone's failures, I've failed to sufficiently praise the game for what it does well. There are several wonderful set pieces, and the game is generally well-paced. Furthermore, there are a few wonderful innovations. Anyone who has ever spent time with a shooter has had the maddening experience of getting lost amongst already-conquered corridors strewn with dead foes; few things are more maddening than spending five minutes just looking for a the doorway you need to find to advance. Killzone 2's levels are designed to minimize this sort of confusion, but you can also press the Up button on the d-pad to display an arrow that will show you the way you need to go. Unlike some games (ahem, Mirror's Edge), Killzone 2 is very good with checkpoints; if you die (and you will), you generally won't have to repeat long sections of the game you've already beaten. Convenient features like this are small, but they make the bad portions of the game all the more mystifying; someone on the development team had some really good ideas.

I haven't yet played Killzone 2's multiplayer, which is apparently remarkable. I plan to devote some time to it this weekend; I understand Radec does not appear. This is a relief. And I must applaud the developers for including what is basically a single-player multiplayer feature where you can fight computer-controlled "bots" in the multiplayer arenas. While this was once a common feature in first-person shooters (See: Perfect Dark on the N64), many developers have skimped on this, assuming that everyone will play their game online. None of the Halo games, for example, feature bots, though the game's gigantic levels seem to call for them. Killzone 2 multiplayer is intended to be played online, but Guerilla Games knows that not everyone has a broadband connection and that not everyone likes playing with real people, as the real people playing an FPS online tend to be obnoxious teenagers.

I liked Killzone 2, I really did. But I couldn't help but wonder what the developers were doing in a few places - Most of the game is fantastic, but a game with a four-year development cycle should never be as cheap or as tedious as Killzone sometimes allows itself to be. Killzone 2 is an extremely good single-player game, but it should have been great.

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