No one could have suspected that the sequel to 2004's Killzone would be this good. Killzone 2 is a tremendous package, offering an exciting campaign and terrific competitive online play, neither of which create new paradigms for first-person shooters, but rather set new standards in subtle but significant ways. From groundbreaking visuals to well-crafted multiplayer maps, most of Killzone 2's individual elements stand out in a crowded genre, making its meager attempts at storytelling easy to ignore. PlayStation 3 owners looking for a shooter to keep them busy for the rest of 2009 and beyond need look no further: The fierce action will keep you glued to your television screen for some time to come.
What makes Killzone 2's single-player campaign so much fun? First and foremost, the weapons are a lot of fun to shoot, even the standard assault rifles that form the core of your loadout. The M82's effective scope makes zooming in on your target a breeze, yet this rifle is effective at close range as well, establishing itself from the beginning as a formidable firearm. The LS13 shotgun is also powerful and rewarding to fire; though you may only shoot off a foe's helmet with other weapons, you'll watch entire heads explode with a single blast from this close-range powerhouse. The bolt gun is another favorite, skewering enemy soldiers onto surfaces and exploding a short moment later. Though you're traversing a sci-fi setting, your weapons are decidedly modern-day, from the sniper rifle to the vicious flamethrower, with one exception: the lightning gun. This mighty instrument showers enemies with overpowering jolts of electricity, and though it's not available for long, it makes short work of robotic and humanoid foes. Each of these weapons feels just right; fantastic spurts of blood, outstanding animations, exquisitely detailed weapon models, and explosive sound effects fuse seamlessly and give a satisfying sense of impact every time you land a shot.
Although there's a great variety of weaponry, you won't encounter that many different kinds of enemies as you fight your way across the war-torn landscapes of the planet Helghan. As in the original Killzone, your enemies consist largely of Helghast soldiers, yet though this limited selection led to monotony in the past, an assortment of factors in the sequel hold tedium at bay. The action is constantly pushing forward, leading you from one quality scripted event to the next and pitting you against bright AI opponents that have a remarkable grasp of battlefield tactics. These soldiers put up a fight and exhibit authentic behavior as you rain bullets on them. If you set your sights on a soldier peeking from behind cover and fire off a few rounds in that direction, he'll patiently wait until all signs of fire have vanished. Helghast will flank you and shoot blindly from behind cover, and should you toss a grenade in their direction, they'll quickly scatter. You'll normally be fighting alongside a computer-controlled teammate or even entire squads of fellow infantry. Enemy AI is just as concerned with your comrades as it is with you, so you'll never feel as if you have a bull's-eye plastered on your forehead, as is common with many other team-based shooters. As a result, Killzone 2's thrilling large-scale battles unfold dynamically and offer a legitimate challenge while rarely feeling unfair--a frustrating rocket-heavy final battle serving as the only exception.
Some excellent turret sequences and other segments also provide welcome variations on the shooting theme. At one point, you'll climb into a robotic shell and mow down infantry and tanks with machine gun fire and rockets. The way your transparent protective shield exhibits cracks as you take damage and the remarkable fire and smoke effects that light up the screen add to the excitement of the level. In another fun and visually stunning sequence, you'll use an antiaircraft turret to take down squadrons of enemy fighters. Even operating a standard turret is more appealing than you would expect, which is a result of great map design and well-scripted enemy entrances. If you're just using your standard arsenal, missions are diverse and engaging. You'll take aim at tanks (and in one boss fight, a hovering aircraft) using Killzone 2's potent rocket launcher, and you'll fight your way through a besieged air base in which winding corridors and intersecting passages have you battling multiple enemies on multiple levels.
Most levels take their cue from the usual first-person shooter formulas, and though it takes place in the spacefaring future, Killzone 2 feels more akin to a modern-day FPS by way of its standard weapons and mostly humanoid enemies. It's an interesting blend of two disparate sensibilities that works far better than in the original, and it's further ripened by gameplay touches that feel authentic within that framework. Movement and turning speeds have a real feeling of weight, which is appropriate considering the heavy armor burdening you. This can make the controls feel somewhat sluggish at first, given that you take a moment to gather momentum. It doesn't take long to get accustomed to this sense of overall bulkiness, though, and it's consistently delivered across multiple mechanics. For example, when you jump, the way that you bend into the leap and cushion the landing with another slight crouch feels surprisingly realistic. That weight also informs movement in and out of cover. Killzone 2's cover system is solid, and it never removes you from a first-person viewpoint. Though some objects can obscure your view if you try to take potshots from behind them, sticking to cover and leaning out from behind walls is generally effective and intuitive.
Whether you go for a pop-and-shoot approach or just gun your way through, the mission design keeps you constantly moving from one objective to the next. The quick pace is one of Killzone 2's finest facets; battles don't wear on too long, and they aren't so brief as to be anticlimactic. Like many other shooters, mission objectives often involve turning a crank or pushing a button. In Killzone 2, this may mean rotating the controller to simulate the onscreen activity. These moments feel unnecessary and ironically disrupt the sense of immersion, but as tacked-on as they are, the actions are too brief to be especially annoying. You'll also use your gamepad's motion sensitivity to stabilize the sniper rifle, though the implementation here is subtle and therefore relatively harmless.
It's a real pity that there is so little context for the exceptional action. If you're familiar with the original Killzone, you'll at least have an idea why the ISA (International Strategic Alliance) is attacking the Helghast homeworld; if not, it's clear that as Thomas Sevchenko, you are on the side of the good guys--just not clear why they are the good guys. The dialogue is rudimentary (a discussion regarding sandwiches jumps immediately to mind), the characters forgettable, and the plot serves purely as a thin framework to move you from one environment to the next. Yet the cutscenes are top-notch, and unlike their counterparts in fellow PS3 shooter Haze, there's nothing intrinsically offensive or wearisome about the fist-pumping grunts at the core of the story. The story isn't deep or involving--it's just there, neither enhancing nor diminishing Killzone 2's action.