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.