Killzone 2 Updated Hands-On

We take our most extensive look at Killzone 2's campaign by going a full six chapters deep.

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Because so much of the gaming public's attention is focused on scrutinizing every Killzone 2 screenshot to see whether the graphics will stack up to that infamous E3 2005 trailer, it's all too easy to forget that it's a real, honest-to-goodness game with a real, honest-to-goodness release date not far off. Sony recently reminded us of this by giving us the opportunity to play through the first six chapters of the campaign. What may not surprise you is that, yes, Killzone 2 is an absolute stunner in motion. But if you haven't been following the progress of the game, you'll be pleased to know that it's also an intense and exciting experience with the potential to work alongside Resistance 2 to provide a serious one-two punch of PlayStation 3-exclusive shooters.

Welcome to the world of Killzone 2. It's a pretty one.
Welcome to the world of Killzone 2. It's a pretty one.

Whereas the first Killzone allowed you to play as a number of Interplanetary Strategic Alliance (ISA) members over the course of the game, Killzone 2 drops you into the shoes of a gruff soldier named Sev and keeps you there for its duration. Throughout the campaign, you'll follow Sev and his similarly rough-and-tumble Alpha Squad buddies as they push deeper into the Helghast home planet in an opposite scenario of the invasion that occurred in the first game. Sev isn't the most vocal guy in the world, but you'll hear plenty of quips from teammates like jokester Dante Garza and the perpetually vulgar Rico Velasquez. Most of the story unfolds in the heat of battle via dialogue delivered from these squadmates, though occasional cutscenes give you fleeting glimpses of what's going on deep within the Helghast quarters.

One thing becomes immediately apparent when you begin Killzone 2's campaign: This is not an easy game. The first chapter, Corinth River--an area Sony has shown several times before--drops you right into a heated firefight with no shortage of heavily armed Helghast soldiers trying to take you out from scattered perches. It feels like every balcony, bridge, and window has a pair of glowing red Helghast eyes staring down at you. Starting you off like this seems like Killzone 2's way of saying that running and gunning won't cut it; you're going to learn to be patient and deliberate with your targets, and you're going to learn right away.

Popping out of cover is a necessary trick you'll become quite familiar with.
Popping out of cover is a necessary trick you'll become quite familiar with.

To do this, you'll need to become good friends with the game's cover system. It's a sticky cover mechanic where you pull L2 to snap right onto nearby walls or low barriers. From there, you have the standard move set that includes leaning into a doorway or popping up over a barricade, with the ability to look down your gun's iron sights to help you get a bit more precise. What makes this system unique and challenging is that you remain in the first-person perspective at all times, so your vision is partially obscured as you stay out of harm's way. In a third-person shooter you can see almost every target thanks to a wide camera, but here you'll need to poke your head up fast and get to shooting even faster--making that initial moment when you leave cover that much more thrilling.

The cover system is less critical in close quarters when you don't have Helghast soldiers trying to kill you from every which way. The second chapter in the campaign, Blood Meridian, trades in Corinth River's expansive industrial shipping yards and warehouses in favor of tight urban alleyways. In this locale you can become a bit more mobile, charging through the narrow corridors with more close-quarters weaponry, such as shotguns, submachine guns, and your trusty infinite-ammo pistol. But before you get too comfortable, Killzone switches things up in the next chapter, Visari Square, by pitting you against a seemingly endless flood of Helghast in a series of prolonged standoffs. One of these is a small, desperate scuffle with you and two squadmates in a small alley trying to fend off incoming Helghast for 10 or so minutes. However, that's quickly followed by a huge battle in a wide-open city square where you and dozens of newly reunited squadmates need to hold down the fort as Helghast foot soldiers, tanks, and walking piles of metal and Kevlar known as "heavies" come at you in wave after wave.

The fire effects, blood-splattered screen, and red enemy eyes really pop from the bleak gray backgrounds.
The fire effects, blood-splattered screen, and red enemy eyes really pop from the bleak gray backgrounds.

These two moments are a nice little microcosm of the way Killzone 2 keeps you guessing by sharply switching up the scale and intimacy of battles. Later chapters perform a similar trick by quickly altering the setting. The first few hours of the game will be spent running through demolished cities, but later you'll find yourself in different locales like an elaborate Visari palace and a windswept mining town that wouldn't feel entirely out of place in a Star Wars movie.

Fights tend to last a while due to clever AI on the part of the Helghast soldiers. They seem to have attended the same school of cover techniques you have, because they'll be spending just as much time behind crates and walls. What makes things interesting is that their behavior seems to change as the odds of their survival are whittled down. You'll see them get brave in a group and pop up quite often, but when they're in a bad spot they'll stay put and frantically blind fire while defiling your good name.

Sometimes you just have to stop and admire the lighting, even if it means staring at a dead body.
Sometimes you just have to stop and admire the lighting, even if it means staring at a dead body.

Of course, you do have teammates alongside to lend you a helping hand at nearly every point in the game. It can be anywhere between one and several dozen at once, but the ebb and flow of battle is something you determine on your own since you're generally taking the lead and letting the others follow you. You won't need to worry about any sort of squad commands, but a bit of teamwork is required when a buddy goes down. In situations like this, you'll need to pull out your trusty medic gun and zap him back to health with a quick spark of life. It's an oddly simple mechanic, but a critical one because your buddies are expert shots who help a lot in battle. Along with constant banter, this helps to provide a feeling of belonging to a greater group despite the fact that you're taking the fight into your own hands most of the time.

Finally, with this being Killzone 2, we would be remiss if we didn't mention the graphics--or more specifically, how awesome they are. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say Killzone 2 is the best-looking console game we've seen. The use of lighting is probably the most impressive of the game's technical feats: with so much of the game taking place in demolished urban centers with gray steel, concrete, and asphalt, those moments when you're flushed with color are extremely striking. This might include an orange street lamp, the blue glow of a faulty electrical tower, or the green haze in a sewer tunnel, but the way it all reflects off nearby objects like your gun and character models looks terrific. Add in sharp textures, great smoke and explosion effects, terrific depth of field, and an ominous sky that looks like the world might cave in at any moment and you've got a combination of technical and artistic brilliance that's hard to understate. Best of all: the framerate does a good job of keeping up, with the only noticeable hitches arriving during an autosave between checkpoints.

Later missions will take you from the city to remote locations like this mining facility.
Later missions will take you from the city to remote locations like this mining facility.

If you were to nitpick the presentation, most people's attention would probably fall on the audio. While the sound effects and music are both great, the voice acting could give Gears of War's Delta Squad a run for its money in terms of smoldering, manly rage. In fact, it can often be difficult to separate one gruff voice from another when your vision isn't fixed on a squadmate's face. It's not exactly an abrasive fault, but it does stick out when you consider how stellar the rest of the presentation is.

Small gripes aside, we had a thoroughly enjoyable experience with Killzone 2's single-player campaign. The combat is intense, the visual aesthetics are amazing, and the level of difficulty provides a rewarding challenge. It seems that PlayStation 3 owners will have a lot to look forward to when the game is finally released. You can expect that to happen on February 27.

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