You have to feel a little sorry for developers Guerrilla, when the original Killzone appeared on the PS2 back in late 2004 it did so amid fanciful cries of 'Halo killer!' from Sony's marketing department which, to be fair to Sony, did the intended job and created a massive level of expectation and excitement amongst the gaming press and online fanboys. The only flaw in the plan was that Killzone was never, in reality, going to be a 'Halo killer' and by building up expectations to such levels Sony had set the game up for a fall. As the inevitable poor reviews picked apart in detail just how much better Halo really was you could almost see the developers peering out from under the marketing blitz looking slightly dazed and whispering, to anyone who would listen, how they'd never said they were trying to 'kill' Halo in the first place. Ignoring Sony's ill advised pre-release claims and judging the game on its own merits revealed a solid if slightly uninspiring FPS shooter that was probably a little better than it was ever really given credit for.
Now, two years later, with Killzone 2 looking to blaze it's own trail on the PS3 at some point in the future, Guerrilla are back with Killzone Liberation on the PSP and this time out they seem to have got it right. If the world worked how it really should then this game would be the PSP system seller Sony have been searching for since launch.
Picking up just after the end of the original game Liberation sees you again taking on the role of ISA soldier Templar in the battle against the evil Helghast who, as you've probably guessed, have regrouped under new general Metrac and are on the advance again. What follows are sixteen missions broken up across four campaigns as you try and almost single handedly repel the Helghast advances. The action itself takes a break from the FPS style of old and this time plays out in a top down view that suits the PSP down to the ground. Little touches like the fact that large scenery becomes slightly transparent when you move behind it and the camera has a neat way of panning slightly off centre in the direction of oncoming enemies show a welcome attention to players needs. Care has also been taken over the graphics which are superbly detailed and show off just what the PSP is capable of in the right hands. There were times, mid action, as I was crouched down avoiding a hail of bullets, when I'd suddenly notice how things like the river rushing by was brilliantly animated and the sound of it was almost drowning out the gunshots just as it would in real life that, as a gamer made me smile with the sense of a game well made.
Controlling Templar via the analogue nub is straightforward enough and the remainder of the controls feel remarkably intuitive once you've been taught them by the in game tutorial. The one area of slight concern is the semi intelligent aiming, which attempts to keep a rough track of whatever enemy you point Templar towards. While this works fine when there aren't many enemies around the relative unsubtlety of the analogue nub can make picking out a particular bad guy from a group more a question of trial and error than ability, which can be frustrating when you really want to be taking out the guy wielding the massive rocket launcher rather than his friends holding far less worrying rifles. Interacting with the environment is context sensitive and works fine, with everything from disarming a laser barrier and planting explosives to healing you friends handled via the X button at the appropriate times.
On certain missions you're helpfully joined by buddy Rico who will fight alongside you, for once this is far more of a help than a hindrance partly because the AI is so good and partly because of Liberation's really rather clever way of issuing orders. A quick press on the d-pad slows down, but doesn't completely stop the action, and overlays a selection of waypoints or action points onto the screen. Ordering Rico to move to a particular place, or perform a certain action is a simple matter of selecting it on screen at which point the game kicks back in and Rico makes his way to where you asked, the temptation to use Rico for those bits you don't want to attempt yourself is there but all adds to the feeling of genuine co-operation between the two of you, something that should be applauded. Missions range from hostage rescue and escort to infiltration or retreat and sees you make use of both tanks and hovercraft as you fight your way through the levels. Up against you at each turn are Helghast soldiers and while they do all look a little similar (handy for Guerrilla that the Helghast have a one uniform fits all policy) the variety of weapons and the intelligent AI means they never feel like simple drones. Mixing things up a little are Helghast dogs and nasty little spider mines that run after you if you get too close.
Despite such opposition Liberation never feels impossible, there is always a sense that just one more try will see you get past the bit you're stuck on which is always a sign that the developers have found that magic gameplay crock of gold. It would have been easy for Guerrilla to have turned this game into a pretty looking but shallow shooter, however despite the natural gung-ho tendencies you will have at first, it isn't long before it becomes apparent that there is far more subtlety and strategy needed to get through the levels and it's at this point where the game becomes great. Advancing through the levels slowly, engaging in tense long running gun battles with enemies, using the natural cover provided by the level design as you cautiously skirt round each other looking for an opening, looking for a clean shot that will give you an advantage is where the true beauty of the game becomes apparent.
While playing through the main game you will unlock a series of timed challenges which range from things like disarming as many mines as you can in a set time to protecting a base from wave after wave of attacks. Completing these gives you character points which can be used to buy upgrades in the main game, such as the ability to hold more grenades at a time. Only three of these abilities can then be selected before each mission giving a further element of strategy and a hint of character customisation that while welcome never feels much more than an afterthought. Completing the package is Liberation's multiplayer abilities, a variety of Ad-Hoc modes including Deathmatch, Capture The Flag and Assault can be played out over an impressive number of maps which while all well and good, the thing that is really needed for such an impressive game is a multiplayer Infrastructure mode option which Guerrilla promise is due early in the new year as part of a free download which should also include a brand spanking new single player campaign. That the option isn't available at launch is a little disappointing but there is so much fun to be had playing and replaying the main game that it should be released almost before you notice its missing. The very fact that Guerrilla are promising to build a real player community behind Killzone Liberation with new features, maps and modes being made available regularly is a good sign and one that more PSP developers should take note of.
One of the most pleasing things about Killzone Liberation that it seems to have been polished to the point you can almost see your face in it, it's impeccably balanced, looks amazing and is full of little gameplay touches and ideas that only come when a game has been developed by people who truly care about it. The PSP (in fact any gaming system) needs more original well produced titles like this and it would be almost criminal for this to get ignored because of the legacy of the Killzone brand. As it stands now, this is one of the best PSP games out there and with the imminent promise of true online multiplayer it will only get better.