With still a year to go, the PS2 already seems to have stretched its resources as far as they can go. I think back to the concept art and demo reels Sony released to hype the PS2 and its "emotion engine," and just how limitless the possibilities seemed. Now, here we are five years later, and all of those technological limits have been reached. All of the PS2's big holiday games suffered from this in one way or another. San Andreas bought its huge contiguous world with ugly graphics, obscenely close draw-in, and obvious texture swapping. On the flip side is Snake Eater; the game's incredible graphics were made possible by frequent loading, tiny areas, and Hideo Kojima's insistence on keeping the camera where it was way back in 1987. Into this climate comes Killzone, another game that might have been better off waiting for the next generation of consoles.
Killzone is, despite any problems it might have, one of the finest First Person Shooters (FPS) I've ever played on the PS2. It's ambitious, extensive, looks fantastic (the majority of the time), and has enough story to motivate players to keep wading through the game. It's science-fiction themed, but only slightly so. There aren't any monstrous aliens or Dyson spheres, or anything too outlandish. The plot concerns a group of humans who left Earth to colonize their own planet (let's call it Germany, for simplicity's sake), then lost some kind of large border skirmish against Earth (or World War I, as it's known around my house), then rebuilt their shattered economy, and went looking for some payback under the leadership of the nefariously charismatic Scholar Visari (code for Hitler). The player controls a squad of mismatched troopers, tasked with halting the Helghast (rhymes with "Nazi") invasion.
The game looks incredible. Detail after detail is practically perfect. All of the textures are stunning, especially the environments. Whether it's a futuristic space station, a fetid swamp, or decrepit slums, the game looks amazingly natural and realistic. The game also makes great use of smoky filters and particle effects to create a believable "fog of war" effect. In the middle of some of the game's larger gun battle setpieces I could barely see a few feet in front of my virtual face.
I was also impressed by the look of the enemy stormtroopers. There are only five or six slight variations on the basic stormtrooper model, so it's important that the individual models look as good as possible. Luckily, they do. The character designers have modeled every little detail on the enemy uniforms, and the care they put in really pays off in authenticity. Oddly, the most compelling design feature of the stormtroopers is the simplest to accomplish: their glowing eyes. Sure, glowing eyes are nothing new, but something about the color and luminosity of the villains' goggles is startlingly eerie, which gives the stormtroopers just that extra bit of character that separates them from the cardboard shooting targets that populate lesser FPS games.
There's nothing particularly new about the gameplay. It's a basic run-and-gun through overwhelming hordes of opponents. Even new gamers will find it familiar. This doesn't ever get tiring, though, because the developers have done such a great job of creating a stellar lineup of weapons. The game contains some of the best firing and reloading animations ever to appear in a video game. Watching the character's hands manipulating the guns was so thrilling that I found myself firing off rounds during rare quiet moments just so I could reload and watch the animation again.
The only thing close to being an innovation in the gameplay is the squad format the game uses. At the beginning of each level, the player is offered the choice of deciding which of the game's four characters they're going to play as, with the computer controlling the other three. The different characters have a surprisingly large impact on the way the game is played. The characters move at different speeds, and have access to different weapons and alternate pathways through the level. This feature really helps the game's replayability, as replaying levels using a different character has a legitimately different feel.
The AI teammates, unfortunately, are something of a mixed bag. While their relatively good aim and functional un-killability are useful in a the game's many gunfights, the complete lack of team commands turn the squad into generic support helpers. This forces the player to nearly always take point and be the first to get into a gunfight while their teammates struggle to keep up using often iffy pathfinding. This is fine when playing as the Rico, the heavy weapons specialist, but makes considerably less sense when the Shadow Marshall (read: Ninja) Luger is the one expected to wade into the fray, guns blazing.
Unfortunately, it's never clear what kind of level the game is going to offer before it starts, so choosing which character to play as ends up being something of a guessing game. This is made a little more annoying by the fact that there's no way to switch characters during a level. After playing the first part of a level as the agile spy, the second section of the level was so combat-intensive that I had to switch to Rico to beat it. Annoyingly, this required me to quit the game and start the entire level over to change characters.
The game's story, as I mentioned earlier, is well written and voice-acted, and is more than adequate to keep players interested. Oddly, the most compelling part of the game's story is the opening movie, which features a speech by Scolar Visari at a Nuremberg-style rally of Helghast troops. He tells the inspiring tale of the Helghast's triumph over adversity and their plan to take back territory that was stolen from them. The reason this sequence works as well as it does is because the actor doing the voiceover, Brian Cox (last heard in Rockstar's Manhunt) really brings his A-game. He's so compelling that I couldn't help but wonder if the Helghast didn't have a valid point in their invasion. Their troops don't seem any more vicious or bloodthirsty than the supposedly heroic Earth forces, and I found myself wishing that the game had offered more of a reason for me to be shooting my opponents, rather than just assuming they needed to die because they were wearing black. A little bit of Earth's side of the story would have gone a long way.
The other biggest problem from a narrative standpoint is that the game doesn't do an especially good job of establishing the villains as any kind of a real threat. They only manage to land on the planet because the orbital defense network (read: Maginault Line) has been temporarily deactivated, and the game makes it abundantly clear that once reinforcements arrive from Earth, the Helghast will be wiped from the face of the planet. So all the player has to do is stay alive until the cavalry arrives, and perform a few small tasks to help out the cause. While I'm sure this is a little more realistic than the average "army of one" scenario, it doesn't exactly paint the Helghast as the world's most terrifying opponents. (Warning: the rest of the paragraph is a spoiler, but an obvious one.) The game's frustrating, set-up-for-sequel non-ending finishes off on the supposedly ominous note that more Helghast are on their way. This is meant to be frightening, but after a moment of thought I realized that the Helghast's entire plan revolved around surprise, luck, and traitors. Now they don't have any of those things, so what kind of a threat could they possibly be? Half the time, I kind of felt like I was beating up on the underdog.
It's too bad that the technological limitations hold Killzone back as much as they do. Most of the glitches can be overlooked: sometimes characters seem to stick in the ground; sometimes characters get hung up on the geography; sometimes the weapons don't make any sound at all. There are larger issues, though, and they're all caused by problems with the core engine. There were an infuriating number of occasions where environmental and character graphics just don't load, and I would find myself watching weapons bouncing through blank space until the game got around to loading the man that was holding it and the ground he was walking on. But the biggest problem, by far, is the fact that the game just doesn't look as good as it's meant to. The effect of the fantastic character models is muted by the often blurry resolution, and the great character animation can't help but be compromised by the periodic dips in frame-rate.
Killzone does a whole lot of things right—the graphics, the characters, the weapons, the level design—but it always feels like the designers were being restricted by the platform they were working on. So much care was obviously put into the design and production of Killzone that I have to imagine the designers must have been disappointed to find that their beautiful graphics and animation were going to spend as much time stuttering and jumping as they do. I can only hope that when Guerilla gets around to making the sequel they obviously have planned for the PS3, they can make it the beautiful, polished experience they obviously wanted this one to be.