Killzone 2 sits alone aboard a thundering hype train as it hurtles through clawing mists of uncertainty and doubt towards to an end station never before reached by a PlayStation 3 release. Meanwhile, hordes of wide-eyed gamers gather expectantly around the train's assigned platform, clamouring for a clear view ahead of its much-vaunted arrival. A sense of promise flows from the crowd, filling the air and intertwining with whispers of longing and hopeful reassurances. But it is a promise as-yet unfulfilled, a promise many have watched fade and die on a platform where the train never arrives. Killzone 2 sits alone aboard a thundering hype train.
Melodramatic preambles aside - and we're setting our stall out unusually early here - Killzone 2 is, without doubt, a cast-iron system seller. Of course, while its ability to replicate the hardware interest conjured up by a certain Xbox flagship title in 2001 remains to be seen, if the saturated first-person shooter genre hasn't completely dulled the senses of gamers everywhere then Killzone 2 stands an extremely good chance of attaining that elusive 'killer app' status.
In this fanboy-driven world of perpetual one-upmanship and penis-shaped hardware envy, it's rare to see a high-profile gaming release emerge unscathed from the intense focus and rumour that surrounds its development, yet Killzone 2 does exactly that. This is largely because development studio Guerrilla Games, rather than crumbling beneath mounting pressure and expectations spawned from a thoroughly mediocre PlayStation 2 original, has clearly processed the criticism, learnt from the competition, and lovingly crafted a quite breathtaking sequel.
Specifically, Killzone 2 offers polished in-game action that delivers improved weaponry, more precise aiming, an intuitive cover-and-fire system, semi-helpful A.I. allies, and a near-relentless flow of fabulously orange-eyed Helghast to trade lead with. This provides a sense of steady progression accented by consistently challenging difficulty along a solid but somewhat predictable narrative thread that unashamedly takes its planetary invasion cues from other epic sci-fi shooters of recent years.
While the sequel's campaign storyline of 'taking the fight to Helghan' is unlikely to win any originality awards, and the player's Sergeant Tomas 'Sev' Sevchenko and his core band of battle-scarred ISA squad mates are one-dimensional cliched stereotypes, any lack of depth is quickly banished from thought as opposing sides meet for the very first time.
To say Killzone 2 is an intense shooter is to do Guerrilla Games a great disservice. From the moment Sev joins the invasion and trains his sights on Helghan shock troops pinning down marines on a ravaged dockland beachhead, players will know that 'intense' falls some way short by way of description. And, rather than being a flash-in-the-pan adrenaline rush that gradually tails off as the player forges forward, Killzone 2's intensity scale is the videogame equivalent of Nigel Tufnel's mighty amp collection in classic rockumentary Spinal Tap insofar as the action "goes up to 11." And, folks, it stays there for the duration.
From the energetically cinematic start to the frenetic last mission and poignantly downbeat ending, giving gamers more bang for their buck is a mantra the development team has clearly held dear during the many years it has taken for Killzone 2 to work its way through the production pipeline. Whether watching flaming Helghast troops fall amid the burning detritus of a collapsing building, defending a position against multiple waves of onrushing attackers, blasting RPG troops from within a mechanised walker, pounding snipers with emplaced weapon batteries, or 'cooking' a thrown grenade to rain down shrapnel behind enemy cover, players are liberally beaten about the face and neck by Killzone 2 at all times. It simply refuses to relent. And, more importantly, you won't want it to.
In terms of initial presentation, the scrumptious rendered opening sequence that sets the stage for mankind's imminent assault on the Helghan home world creates a formidable standard. While dredging up memories of those controversial video clips naughtily passed off as gameplay by Sony during E3 of 2005, the prolonged years of developmental honing see that eye-popping opening salvo successfully carried over into the game proper. Seriously, and though running the risk of over-egging the critique pudding, Killzone 2 really has to be seen firsthand; the ensuing rant of superlatives simply will not do it justice.
Whereas a recent flagship shooter on the Xbox 360 carved itself an award-winning niche thanks to a bleak depiction of 'destroyed beauty' amid a palette largely starved of colour, Killzone 2's obvious nod of appreciation to that sense of desperate warfare takes the yardstick one step further. By adding a range of warm hues and subtle tones to the hugely detailed interior and exterior environments, Guerrilla Games has created a staggeringly deep and realistic canvas that boasts a system-leading aesthetic prone to swinging between instantly familiar and oddly otherworldly. After all, while they may be pseudo-Nazi aliens, Helghast foot soldiers appear much like humans when set apart from the unsettling orange glow that emanates from beneath their facemasks.
The jaw-dropping visuals are wonderfully offset by richly layered sound effects and atmospheric accents that create such a tangible texture of in-game audio that suspension of disbelief is all-but guaranteed throughout. Whether it's the pleasing resonance of gunfire and jarring explosions, or the throaty death rattles of agonised Helghan and the disturbing howl of airborne ATAC drones, the sheer wall of sound perfectly compliments Killzone 2's graphical prowess without the two ever struggling for superiority. And, as if that weren't enough, a massive orchestral score matches the incessant all-action gameplay at every turn thanks to a procession of rousing battle themes that will effortlessly justify the excessive spending of anyone who recently invested in an upper tier surround-sound system.
When it comes to gameplay, the very lynchpin of videogame performance, there may be some tempted to point accusatory fingers at Killzone 2 for its reliance on the established first-person shooter blueprint. And those people would perhaps be justified in their criticism. Strip away the eye-popping visuals and barnstorming sound and you're left with a fairly straightforward shooter that shoehorns in a few SIXAXIS motion gimmicks by setting demolition charges and turning pressure valves to open doors. The structured action-based progression remains linear throughout, peppered only by grandiose set-piece moments and the occasional scripted boss-style confrontation.
Yet, that being said, when engaged in drawn-out gunfights with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Helghast troops, that linear focus is seldom granted the time to negatively affect the player's immersion. Killzone 2's near-faultless cover system enables the player to either camp at distance and pick off enemy troops or use available walls, burnt-out vehicles and piles of rubble to push forward and stem the flow of Helghast. And here's where Killzone 2's gameplay cancels out any niggling sense of being short-changed by the developer.
Specifically, if the player opts to simply pop the heads of a few wayward foes while relying on ISA allies to add weight of numbers, battles will rage on and on and on. Not moving forward across the battlefield allows Helghast reinforcements to take up positions in cover beside their fallen. And that cycle will continue until the player realises accompanying ISA marines won't move forward without Sev's instigation, at which point the safety of fresh cover must be earned and the Helghast troops pushed backwards. Not that progression is ever easily attained. Enemy soldiers are fast on their feet, accurate at all distances, and boast enough A.I. that the prospect of being caught by flanking manoeuvres, flushed by skilful grenade lobs, or being pushed back by the sheer pressure of opposition are always tactical concerns for the player whilst striving to maintain momentum.
What's more, the action is so unfailingly breakneck and hinges on quick decision making and cutting a cover-to-cover zigzag through each mission, that gameplay linearity and a focus on 'just' shooting is never an issue. It was never an issue for the likes of Halo, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Gears of War, all of which papered over similarly obvious cracks with mind-blowing atmosphere, stunning graphics, and gameplay so forceful that the player was too busy wallowing to either notice or care.
Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to Killzone 2 is to classify it as 'a no blinker' when assessing its strength as an overall experience. More pointedly, players will find themselves pulling focus away from the television and blinking wildly during load screens, only then realising how dry their eyes have become and how few times they've blinked in the last hour. The constant action, seamless visuals and ear-shattering sound simply don't allow for a basic human functionality such as blinking. Complete and undivided attention is required at all times. Just as a sore ass can be gauged as the mark of a crappy movie, dry eyes can be viewed as the mark of a truly great game. In that sense, single-session players might be wise to add drops to the soft drinks, chips, and empty urine jugs they'll have within easy reach while consuming Killzone 2.
It's hard to even want to find fault with any videogame creation that plays as well as Killzone 2. But, in the interests of conducting a thorough critical appraisal, the constantly foul-mouthed military banter could perhaps have been left back on Earth. While it injects another layer of realism, it really isn't needed in terms of bolstering authenticity - not least because the visuals, sound and gameplay do more than enough in that respect.
Also, slight mid-mission load pauses may wrinkle the noses of more battle-hardened shooter fans, while the occasional bout of close-quarter clipping will furrow brows as a weapon moves in and out of cover as Sev is slapping home a fresh magazine, and chapter load times can be a tad lengthy. The only other bugbear is the odd lack of co-op multiplayer, although reports suggest Guerrilla Games is planning a post-release patch download to address this particular shortfall.
Perhaps the biggest 'annoyance' with Killzone 2 emerges from the handy medical tool at the player's disposal for conveniently reviving fallen comrades. Appearing not unlike a set of hair tongs that shoot some kind of miraculous medicinal lightning charge, Sev can use the device to quickly heal any core squad member wounded in the heat of battle. However, while a fine addition in principle, necessity is once again called into question as successfully reaching a checkpoint sees fallen squad mates jump back to their feet automatically. Also, attempting to use the device generally leaves the player exposed to incoming fire, and Sev is the only character equipped to dispense its instant aid - meaning when Sev falls, he's dead. The complaints stop here.
Granted, Killzone 2 might be found lacking by some when it comes to depth, but straightforward cover-fire-move-cover-fire-move gameplay is perfectly acceptable when it's executed to this standard. Sev may be restricted to carrying interchangeable primary and secondary weapons, none of which are open to customisation or upgrades, but that restriction successfully enhances in-game realism, while access to customisation would only serve to unfairly tip the gameplay in the player's favour. Killzone 2 does not exude a brave ambition that seeks to lead the first-person shooter genre in a revolutionary new direction; it's obvious from the outset that Guerrilla Games never intended for its sequel to reinvent the FPS wheel.
However, considering the worth of a lengthy campaign offering genuine challenge, thrilling local multiplayer with A.I. bots, and a layered online multiplayer component that's likely to be PSN's main point of attraction for the foreseeable future, it's clear Killzone 2 has taken the ever-so popular wheel, slapped a gorgeous chrome rim on it, drastically reduced its tyre profile, and applied a sense of balance never before felt on a wheel. Why then would anyone want to reinvent the wheel when the damn wheel never looked so good or rolled so well?
Oh, and in case you're wondering, that sound you hear off in the distance is the welcome screech of deceleration as brakes lock, metal grinds against metal, and the hype train finally draws to a wheezing halt beside a station platform packed with ebullient but visibly relieved PlayStation 3 owners.