Killzone 2 (PS3)
There are certain things that I can expect to do in first-person shooters these days. I can expect to set a C4 charge. I can expect to drive some variation of tank/Warthog-like jeep/armored mech-thing.
I can expect to turn a circular valve. I can expect to ride in an elevator with my "squad." I can expect to find a stray sniper rifle at the exact moment that I need a sniper rifle. And I can expect to find a rocket launcher -- coupled with a bottomless cache of rockets -- conveniently placed near a level-ending boss.
Like an accountant doing your taxes, Killzone 2, developed by Guerilla Games, dutifully meets these criteria. Valves were turned. Charges were planted. Mech-things were driven. And despite the fact that all these things are done with great enthusiasm, high production values and lots of terrific-looking explosions, yawns were still yawned.
The game tells the story of Sergeant Tomas Sevchenko, aka "Sev." Sev is an Average Joe. He's not the best-looking guy. He has a very average-sized neck for a videogame hero. (Compare/contrast Sev's neck with Marcus Fenix's neck.) Sev is pale and gaunt. He is also extremely short. In cut scenes he appears to be as tall as everyone else, but once gameplay kicks in, he miraculously shrinks to the size of Owen Meany. Every non-playable character in the game is noticeably taller than Sev. He seems to come up to everyone's chest.
I don't mind being an Average Joe in a game. I prefer it to the clich? one-man-army type usually found in shooters. But, man, it annoyed me to always be so much shorter than everyone else. It was psychologically debilitating for me. I felt less like a battle-hardened soldier who's been in "The Shit" and more like an eighth grader looking for directions to the nearest Pinkberry.
Sev's task, of course, is to C4-plant, valve-turn, and elevator-ride his way through the Helghast army -- worst bad-guys name ever, by the way -- and eventually locate their ranting, maniacal leader, Emperor Scolar Visari (voiced by the always terrific Brian Cox) and put a stop to his reign of terror.
The Helghast must have dog-eared copies of "Mein Kampf" tucked into their knapsacks. They dress like Nazis. They walk like Nazis. They spout Nazi-esque rhetoric. To drive the point home even further, Sev's squadmates, aka "the good guys," are of mixed ethnicities. There's Corporal Dante Garza and Sergeant Rico Velasquez. Indeed, the squad is a veritable rainbow of colors -- every race, color and creed is represented, except for Asians (sorry, Asians) -- while the Helghast predominantly consist of bald-headed white guys.
I know they're bald because I can shoot off their helmets. I love this moment so much, I can't even tell you. A well-placed bullet and ting, there goes the helmet. Maybe I'm imagining this, but enemies always seem to be chagrinned by the loss of their helmets. They hide for a moment. They reach up and touch their exposed heads. They seem to curse under their breaths. My only wish was that Guerrilla had carried this exchange one step further, and had the enemies actually chase after their missing helmets, and attempt to return them to their bare pates.
In addition to being bald, the Helghast also have those trademark glowing red eyes that make them appear as if their normal eyes were removed and replaced with a pair of $20 Radio Shack laser pointers. The game's environs are predominantly dark; it's a depressing visual muddle of grays and browns. This makes spotting Helghast soldiers, even at great distances, incredibly easy. The eyes do give the game a semi-spooky air, but anything that makes it easier for your enemy to find you, and shoot you, is obviously not very practical. Why not carry things a step further and wear uniforms with "SHOOT ME" emblems sewn on the back and targets painted on the front?
The Korean judge awarded him an undeserved score of 8.9, causing much controversy during the 2040 Helghast Olympiad.
Another thing that's not very practical: the flying elevator-raft things on which Sev and his squadmates are always trekking around. (Note: You never get to drive one; they appear only during cut scenes.) Again, it's a cool stylistic choice to see the men's high-definition faces as they buzz above battlefields on their elevator-rafts. But wouldn't it make more sense to enclose it? To just put a top on the damn thing?
It's not really OK in the year 2009 to make an FPS that includes C4-planting and sniper rifle-finding, and valve-turning. But Killzone 2 is not the only game that's guilty of employing these tired, overused tropes. (See my F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin review later this month.)
But what's far from OK -- and those idiotic glow-eyes and elevator-rafts illustrate this -- is the fact that Killzone 2 presents an unbelievable, utterly unconvincing world. Killzone 2's greatest sin isn't its lack of imagination and use of clich?s; it's that coolness and spectacle are important while common sense and credibility are not.
My mother taught me to always try to find something nice to say about everyone. So here's my nice thing about Killzone 2:
There is an inspired moment, and possibly the game's only truly original moment, very late in the game. My squad and I were outside of Visari's compound, fighting our way through a maze of Helghast-infested bunkers. [Minor spoilers ahead; you've been warned.] I'd whittle down the Helghast forces, lobbing grenades and reloading weapons, in my attempt to push into the compound. But just when I thought I'd finally made progress, just when I thought the area was mine, more Helghast would appear, and they'd push back.
I'd gain a bunker. Then lose the bunker. I'd gain two bunkers. And lose three bunkers. This seesawing, back-and-forth battle manages to be both epic and intimate at once. I died a lot, but I didn't give up. Instead, I tried new strategies. (Maybe if hide in here, and use this weapon -- BLAM. Nope. Dead.)
This battle is memorable for me because after a half dozen try-and-dies, it actually began to feel futile. I fought on -- gaining bunkers, losing bunkers -- with a sick feeling in my stomach. It was hopelessness that I was feeling, hopelessness and self-doubt.
Running short on ammo, I scoured the area for stray weapons and found none. I had to parse out my final bullets. Explosions were going off all around me. Artillery fire was whizzing overhead. More Helghast poured into the bunkers.
Grueling? Hellish? You have no idea.
I popped out of cover and shot the helmet off an enemy. As usual, this made me laugh. I reloaded, popped out, shot another. Then another. I located fresh ammo. The momentum, finally, was shifting. With each kill, with each claimed bunker, my hopelessness and self-doubt began to fade.
Once it was over, after the last Helghast had been banished, I realized that I'd experienced something that I couldn't recall ever having experienced before in a first-person shooter. What I found was Guerrilla's ability to make me feel overwhelmed and overmatched, to let me feel that this battle just might be unwinnable. I doubted myself in a very real way. Not only was I fighting the Helghast; I was also fighting my own emotions.
Here it was: that something original, that something bold that I'd been waiting 10 hours for. Here was a moment that engaged both my brain and my heart. If Guerilla builds Killzone 3 around these types of novel moments, if they give us moments that challenge our notions of what a first-person shooter actually is, moments that push gamers and the genre in new directions, then maybe we'll finally have a Killzone worth playing.
This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the publisher. This review evaluates the single-player component of the game. Check back later in the month for our thoughts on the multiplayer gameplay.
Want more? Get the first hour of the game in Kyle Orland's Games for Lunch: Killzone 2.