It's tough to top the current crop of established action games with a brand new franchise, but that hasn't stopped Sony and developer Guerilla from trying with Killzone, a new story-driven first-person shooter developed for the PlayStation 2. The game features a fairly lengthy single-player campaign, an interesting story and art direction, and a fully developed online multiplayer mode. But Killzone's recipe for success falls flat once you actually delve into the game, where you'll encounter an array of minor technical issues and an unfortunate lack of overall refinement. It's a functional shooter, but with a couple of extra coats of paint, it could have been a whole lot better.
Killzone's premise is one of its strongest points, though the story itself isn't told particularly well and fails to expand upon its most interesting aspects. At some point in the future, humankind colonized space, and a militant splinter group broke away and settled on the planet Helghan. These colonists were slowly changed by their new world's atmosphere over a period of years until they effectively became an entirely new race: the Helghast. After a bitter war and subsequent period of isolation, the Helghast forces rebuilt themselves and began a new assault on humanity, starting with the nearby world of Vekta. It's up to you, of course, to fight off this invasion and stop the Helghast from realizing their plans of dominion.
After a nicely done intro that teases you with the novel idea of humankind fighting an interstellar war against a dark version of itself, the game spends little time exploring the origins of the Helghast or the nature of this conflict, instead focusing blandly on the four playable characters and their immediate struggle to repel the invasion. Like most of the game, the plot progression gets the job done coarsely, but one less argument between Rico, your heavy-weapons specialist, and Hakha, your half-Helghast special operative, would not have been missed in favor of a little more exploration of the genuinely appealing backstory.
The single-player campaign in Killzone is spread across 11 missions, each broken up into multiple parts, and it basically pits you against legions of Helghast soldiers in many different environments. You'll travel from a bombed-out city to an industrial-docks area, from the jungle to the desert, from a snowy mountain region to an orbital defense platform that's key to the Helghast invasion strategy. So yes, there's a lot of variety in the game's backdrops. Unfortunately, there's not such a great range of enemies to fight. The vast majority of your opponents are basic Helghast grunts, occasionally joined by other Helghast grunts who look slightly different and fight with shotguns or rocket launchers rather than the standard-issue assault rifle. This sameness in enemy design isn't utterly damning but doesn't really do much to enliven the action, either.
The game's combat, ostensibly its biggest selling point, can be exciting at times. Sort of. Occasionally you'll get to take on a tank with a rocket launcher, repel a beach assault from a fortified position, or perform some other unique, mission-specific action. More often it's simply running from point A to point B, firing at every Helghast in sight until you hit the right switch, blow up the right box, or reach the right area to advance the mission to the next event. The arsenal--which includes assault rifles, a sniper rifle, a shotgun, a vehicle-killing rocket launcher, grenades, and other genre mainstays--doesn't really pack much of a punch. The shotgun, with its horribly slow rate of fire, is rather ineffectual; the sniper rifle's aiming system is too loose; and the assault rifles are only sporadically accurate (and while this inaccuracy might be realistic, it isn't particularly satisfying). The guns do their killing properly but with little panache.
Thankfully, some variety is provided by the presence of four playable characters. In addition to Rico and Hakha, you have Capt. Templar, the all-around good guy, and Luger, the sultry female assassin. These two share a romantic past, and the other two hate each other, but that's about as far as the relationships are developed. Fortunately, the gameplay benefits more from the extra characters than the storyline, since you'll be able to choose your character and thereby alter the gameplay somewhat before most missions. Luger has a silenced semiautomatic weapon and thermal vision and can sneak through some passages the others can't; Hakha, with his Helghast heritage, can enter some areas without setting off enemy defenses; and Rico can sustain more damage than the others and comes equipped with a true monster of a machine gun that tears enemies to ribbons. On occasion, your choice of character will actually change some of your objectives or the path you'll take through a given mission, which introduces an obvious element of replayability, if you decide to go through the campaign again. That doesn't seem likely, but as you fight your way through the game for the first time, you'll at least notice a few interesting superficial details.
Killzone's combat isn't anything that hasn't been done better before, but it does have some nice touches that give the gameplay a hectic, visceral feel. Reloading makes your perspective realistically jerk around while you look down at your weapon, frantically trying to cram in another magazine in the face of another oncoming wave. When you sprint, you have to lower your gun, and the edges of the screen take on a blurry look that creates an effective sense of speed. Guerilla clearly intended for Killzone's battles to have a cinematic feel, and these minor touches do enhance what's otherwise a pretty average shooter.
Unfortunately, a litany of technical problems detract significantly from the experience. Killzone looks great in still pictures, and indeed, it's one of the nicer-looking PS2 games. Until it starts moving, that is. The frame rate is never what you'd call completely smooth, and in some heated battles it can get so low that precise aiming becomes a maddening chore. There's a host of minor graphical issues that don't harm the gameplay but still make the experience feel just plain sloppy. A level-of-detail problem causes friendly character models to get stuck in their low-detail versions even up close--on occasion the high-detail texture and geometry won't pop in until after the person has started talking to you. The character animation is usually serviceable but occasionally causes both friends and foes to move in a stuttery, strange-looking way. Taken individually, these flaws are minor, but the many small problems add up to noticeably affect the visual quality of the game.
It's a shame that Killzone's graphics are dragged down by technical deficiencies, because the art direction is actually quite good. The Helghast soldiers themselves look like futuristic Nazi stormtroopers, with their helmets, gas masks, and glowing red eyes. The weapons and vehicles have an appealingly utilitarian, hypermodern style, and the environments, from the shattered cityscape to the war-torn wilds, are about as bleak as you'd expect them to be in the midst of a ferocious offworld assault. It's no wonder this game caused such a stir when the first screenshots came out--it does have a striking look at first glance. But seeing it in motion, warts and all, unfortunately lessens its impact considerably.
The sound design is just as uneven as the graphics. On the one hand, the voice work for the major characters is solid. On the other, the weapon sounds range from pretty good to underwhelming. In battle, your comrades will sometimes indicate that they're sustaining damage by uttering a particular scream repeatedly, without any variation whatsoever. Similarly, the Helghast soldiers repeat the same muffled battle cries, ad nauseam, in the same muffled, spoken-through-a-respirator tones that will make you crazy over time. At least the talkative bastards provide you one extra, unintentional impetus for slaughtering them all. By and large, the sound is pretty good, except for all those annoying voices, but it's not going to give your home theater the workout you might hope for. At least the music, sparse though it is, fits the game's war-movie feel pretty well.
Killzone's single-player campaign isn't awful, it's just not very inspiring. At its worst it can feel like a chore to plow through another wave of Helghast to get to the next level. At its best, you just feel like you're going through the motions of first-person shooter gameplay you've seen plenty of times before. Thankfully, the game's multiplayer component fares better, with support for up to 16 players online and a host of varied modes to murder your friends in. Granted, the core shooting action isn't any different than in the single-player game, so if you weren't thrilled by the weapons or the feel in the campaign, you won't feel much different about the multiplayer. But the designers have at least done a good job of providing multiple game types, similar to what you've seen in some other shooters lately.
In addition to the expected deathmatch (solo and team varieties), you have domination, which has your team competing to control nodes scattered around the battlefield; assault, which has the offensive team trying to destroy an object being protected by the other team; defend and destroy, which is like assault but tasks both teams with defending an object; and supply drop, which is like capture the flag in that it has you running supplies dropped in the middle of the map back to your base for points. The game runs smoothly enough over a fast Internet connection, even with 16 players involved, and there's some decent variety in the maps, so if you like the game to begin with, you can get a lot of extra mileage out of it online. Even if you don't have online support, you can play against another local player in a split-screen mode that incorporates bots, if that's your thing.
In playing Killzone it's clear that production on the game began with the solid underpinnings of a good shooter. At some point, though, development must have veered off course, because what could have otherwise been a really good first-person shooter is reduced to a merely decent one by a host of irritating graphics, sound, and gameplay issues. There's still some fun to be found here, but ultimately Killzone is a barely adequate game that probably won't hold your attention for very long.