Killzone 2 at E3, revisited

Clouds dash by as a flying vehicle zooms ahead. Armored soldiers are yelling frantically, as the chaotic sounds of a war zone fill the jam-packed auditorium. Sound familiar? It's meant to be. The opening seconds of the new Killzone presentation bring to life the infamous E3 trailer from 2005 -- only this time, it's in real-time.

Certainly, the question on everyone's mind is: does it look as good as the notorious it's-not-CG-we-swear trailer from 2005? In many ways, the visual fidelity of the updated presentation matches the highly polished look of the debut trailer. Beautiful volumetric smoke filled the screen, and the characters were alive with animation. Motion blur was used to great effect, adding a subtle hint of realism (unlike the over-the-top blur of Crysis.) However, unlike the deceptive E3 presentation of yore, this one had an aura of believability. A critical eye could note a few rough jagged edges, and textures that are a far cry away from Hollywood renders. In particular, the floor textures were no short of terrible. The facial animation system could certainly use a bit more work as well. Were we a little disappointed to notice such identifiable indicators of visual flaws so quickly? Certainly. However, in spite of all the shortcomings within the game, there's no denying that Killzone 2 provides a visual feast that effectively demonstrates the technical prowess of the PlayStation 3.


The presentation continues with a Helghast that gets burned alive, much to the delight of this blogger. Although the fire didn't look particularly "next-gen," the way it interacted with the flailing body was intensely lifelike. Action connoisseurs would certainly be impressed by the first few non-interactive moments of the presentation, with innumerable explosions that would make Michael Bay jealous.

As the airship landed, we were delighted to see the presentation transition to gameplay seamlessly. The onscreen player moves down a passage, with rows of barricades, and dozens of soldiers being torn apart by Helghast fire. Even if the finer details of the game's visuals couldn't live up to the expectations created by the original E3 trailer, the actual gameplay maintained much of the same intensity. The senses become easily overwhelmed by an apocalyptic feast of aural and visual information: comrades fall, in battle, under a hailstorm of bullets and explosions. The director of the game noted Guerilla's team to create a "hostile theatre of war." They've undeniably succeeded in that.

The player, with SIXAXIS controller in hand, moved down the crowded corridor, using the default rifle's impressive zoom scope. The attention to detail in the weapons designs is much appreciated: the hand that holds the gun is well-modeled, down to the nails in the finger. The guns themselves look good, and utilize a subtle motion blur that makes it look even more authentic. Shooting through the sapphire-coloured lenses looked enticing, to say the least. As the game progresses into an indoor environment, the game stutters for a few seconds, freezing as it tries loading new data. We're told that this will be fixed in future builds of the game, but it served as a refreshing reminder that everything that we were seeing was, in fact, real.

People will most likely argue over the graphical quality of Killzone forever. It's true that it's not as good as the E3 trailer, but it's still impressive nonetheless. What made the original trailer so compelling and realistic wasn't necessarily its high polygon count, and stellar texture work. Rather, it was the incredibly lifelike animation. The new Killzone demo we saw delivered some stellar animations and ragdoll effects. Looking at the reload animations is a simple testament to the high quality of animation work in the game. One memorable moment had to be when an enemy was shot in the back, fell down, and began trying to crawl away. However, certain animations seem incomplete, as if they're missing keyframes.

Bodies are wildly thrown about due to the endless shower of explosives seen in this level, and we're glad to say that the ragdoll animations seem realistic, with an observable weightiness to the bodies. The various physics effects seemed impressive as well. At one moment in the demo, the player shot a bucket from high, and it fell and bounced as one would expect. In a particularly dramatic moment, the player ducked behind some wooden planks, which were slowly being destroyed by gunfire. It appeared as though the wood's destruction was physics based, and not from a canned animation.

A detailed animation and physics systems is a must for a game like Killzone 2. Even from the single level that we've seen, it's clear that the game lives up to its title ... almost too well. At any given moment, something must be dying in front of you, and not necessarily because of the player's actions. This is a war, and both the Helghast and the human resistance suffer severe casualties all the time. The incredible amount of carnage crafts an appropriately claustrophobic feeling, which serves as a reminder that you are, indeed, in a zone of killing.

The gameplay has us intrigued, but not completely sold. Killzone 2 will undeniably be an intense experience, but not necessarily one filled with original ideas. There were a number of moments where we saw echoes of Gears of War: at one moment, the player takes cover, and starts blind-firing at enemies that were also hiding behind cover. When running, the camera gets closer, and the camera shakes furiously, as if holding A in Gears. When a comrade falls down, it appears that players can revive them by running next to them and offering a medkit. This option suggests that Killzone will feature extensive team play, but it wasn't fully demonstrated in the demo that we observed.

A boss fight, of sorts, reminded us a little of Bioshock. "The Heavy Soldier," Killzone's equivalent of the "Big Daddy" tore apart soldiers with ease. The massive armored goliath easily pushed aside anything in its way, but it has one weakness: an explosive located on its back. After a satisfying explosion, more carnage and mayhem ensued. Of particular note was the way blood was animated: it appears to be location-specific, coming from specific points shot. In the mayhem, we thought we saw a tiny chunk of bone in one of the blood pools.

We really appreciated the HUD, or lack thereof. The ammo HUD appears on the bottom right hand corner of the screen when collecting ammo, or reloading. At all other times, it disappears, providing a clean look at the action. More interestingly is the Fight Night-inspired representation of health. When the player runs low on health, instead of using a more traditional HUD indicator, the screen starts to blur, go into black and white, and the sound becomes muffled. The worse the player becomes, the more red starts to appear, trying to recreate the experience of having blood in the eyes. As in most FPS games post-Halo, avoiding damage will restore the player's health.

One thing that'll certainly set apart Killzone 2 from other FPS games is its focus on weather. The Helghast are harnessing the power of electricity in the sky. Demonic strikes of lightning can be seen in the clouds at all times, and apparently is being used to power the weapons of the Helghast. The demo ends with the player attacking a lightning pillar, which appears to be one of the sources of the Helghast's power. By attacking its weak point, the massive pillar will explode, revealing a menacing new enemy. Too bad the presentation ended there, saying "Mission Accomplished."

The evening ended with a few brief comments on the tech specs of the PS3 exclusive. The game will feature (warning: technical terms follow) deferred rendering with ambient occlusion and multiple shadow casting lights. The effects used include "depth based color grading, motion blur, and full screen anti aliasing" with "proprietary lighting techniques to create a vivid and living world."

Aurally, the game will offer 7.1 surround sound, audio occlusion with wave tracing. We're assuming the game is running in 1080p, as we sat in the first row of a massive screen ... and it still looked stunning. The developers noted that they were "grateful for Blu-ray" as a single level has already taken 2GB of space. "The PlayStation 3 allows us to do so much ... [it] would not be possible on any other platform."

Overall, we're impressed by Killzone 2, even though it falls short of the incredible expectations that Sony has placed on it. Gamers that see Killzone 2 in action will be easily impressed -- but we'd like to know if Guerrilla can develop a game that expands upon the incredibly cinematic, overwhelming battles seen tonight. PS3 fans all over the world are waiting.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.