Killzone 2 has been a very long-time coming, and while the PS2 version wasn't the Halo-killer developer Guerrilla and Sony Computer Entertainment perhaps wanted it to be; it did make a good start in offering a genuinely viable alternative to Bungie's well-established labour of love. Number one was a good opening gambit, then, but with Killzone 2 looming in February, it is time for the PS3 to start clawing back the Xbox 360's lead when it comes to FPS genre dominance.
It is fair to say I enjoyed the original, so it was with curiosity I threw myself into a new five level hands on preview build of number two, having already taken a long, hard look at the ambitious multiplayer mode back at Leipzig in the summer. The multiplayer portion may be crucial to establishing Killzone's first-person 'street cred', but without a sterling singleplayer mode this community-bating, longevity-adding side to the title will be lost in the critical malaise. So, how is that all-important singleplayer looking at this juncture? In a word: brutal.
Our taster opens as we glide - or more accurately, careen - towards Helghan, the ISA undertaking a brave and lethal mission to deliver the fight to the very centre of the Helghast's war machine, their inhospitable home planet. Parallels with D-Day abound as we surge towards this futuristic Normandy, tracer lighting up the sky as rockets explode around us; the yells of our fellow combatants barely audible over what can only be described as a veritable shit-storm. We're assuming the role of Sev, a veteran of the ISA-Helghast conflict, who is leading an elite squadron right into the heart of enemy territory in a daring bid to swing the conflict dramatically in their favour: by capturing the dictatorial Helghast leader, Emperor Visari.
As our team of fearless warriors gradually works further into Pyrrhus, the capital city, the conflict gradually grows more intense, and even though we're only on medium difficulty it seems players will quickly need to master the new cover system in order to avoid frequent deaths. The Helghast come at you think and fast, offering patriotic war-cries as they charge; or bellowing deep, menacing orders to each other which you'll see carried out with near-terrifying intelligence. These guys are no mere cannon-fodder; they'll fan out, dodging your team's onslaughts, negating grenade attacks and generally behaving like the well-trained, Nazi-esque force that must in part provide Guerrilla's source material.
If the AI is looking improved - nay refined - then the visuals offer just as much of a leap forward over the original game, something of a given, given the generational leap. The Helghast stronghold may be grey and decidedly utilitarian, but this is no excuse for lack of detail, ambience or variety. As such the scenery you'll be battling through in Killzone 2 appears to be every bit the sci-fi landscape it needs to be; the developers offering a world of mechanised ruthlessness, all towering structures and intersecting metal walk-ways, rich and convincing in their austerity.
I found myself battling my way through various kinds of Helghast structure, across multiple levels, engaging enemy forces in what genuinely feels like a war-effort, smoke billowing on the horizon while the sounds of conflict echo both near and in the distance. Even when you're own part in the war-effort is quiet (infrequent as it may be), you'll never feel like you're the only thing going on in the world - the audio and the visuals combining to create a highly immersive, multi-textured future-war experience. This is enhanced by the near constant peril of your squad-mates, who you'll need to continually rescue in order to make your own progress easier.
It is fair to say, then, that Killzone 2 is already looking like one of the most visually arresting first-person shooters conceived, the title clearly pushing the PS3 somewhat further than most. This is ably demonstrated in the new-found complexity of the animation, which sees Guerrilla never-shirking an opportunity to show off. I nearly yelped with joy when Sev first slid down a ladder, and the way your comrades will help you climb to high levels with a quick 'boost up' is again impressive. Relentless conflict is the soup de jour, and whether you're using a gun placement to take out foes across an adjacent, crumbling courtyard or leaping between cover, taking desperate pot-shots at a tank which is clearly getting the better of you, Guerrilla seem keen to keep the gameplay mix as diverse and surprising as possible.
In the five levels offered it was unclear how typical the gameplay on offer was, however it also looks as if the developers have introduced a lot more interactivity into the settings, prolonged assaults with larger weaponry seeing the city's communist structures (adorned with appropriate propaganda) literally collapsing before your eyes. Unlike other FPS titles which proclaim high levels of interactivity, buildings in Killzone don't collapse in two or three polygonal chunks of texture-light concrete; they crack, and crumble with eye-widening momentum. Floors collapse on top of each other, taking Helghan troopers tumbling down in the dust and rubble in a manner so convincing this could be a Hollywood war flick.
This being a first-party title, we're unsurprised the Sixaxis controller also gets its fifteen minutes of fame, and you'll use it to cleverly open a valve using a wheel you'll literally turn, and more frequently during the intuitive steadying while employing the sniper rifle. The other weapons are something of a mixed bag, some proving reliable if unexcitingly realistic, while others - the flame thrower for example - are more fun but potentially less dependable. You're able to carry two guns at a time, so your load-out is a potentially tactical decision, it's worth noting.
Objectives are generally fairly simple and clear; this isn't an RPG after all, but at times you will find yourself somewhat unnerved by the scale of the environment, the ruined city appearing more complex even while routes through the mayhem are usually forehead-smackingly obvious. There's also a little re-tracing of steps to be undertaken, the Helghast themselves popping up in tanks and APCs constantly, making previously safe territory once again lethal. Get your hands on a tank at the right moment, however, and you'll witness another impressive display of fire-power both from and against your craft.
You may have noticed with some concern that I've only scraped the surface of the narrative side of things. Sev isn't exactly Kafka, indeed at times in the preview build your hero feels curiously 'absent' - but perhaps this is more testament to the intensity of the combat than anything fundamentally flawed on the characterisation front. You do converse with your team at times, but the dialogue is generally the usual grunting machismo and with transitions and movies omitted from this build it is unclear what Guerrilla have planned if they are to rival Halo's sheer force of personality; making the predictable plot and missions palatable and interesting. There's also a question mark over the cover system from what I can gather.
Minor concerns aside, Killzone 2 is looking very good indeed, Guerrilla clearly having invested great resources perfecting a formula they have tremendous faith in. The visuals could be among the best on the PS3, especially thanks to some of the special effects (lighting, motion blur, et al), which add to the gameplay hugely. The AI is also looking good, while the sound is among the most intense I've experienced in a title of this genre - complete with dramatic, soaring orchestral backing music. Whether Killzone 2 can beat-off intense competition to reach the dizzying heights of its rivals remains very much to be seen, but this early taster more than whetted my appetite for further excursions to the alive and terrifying Helghan.