Joystiq hands-on: Killzone 2 single-player campaign

The cynic inside of me didn't want to believe the hype. How could I forget that the original Killzone on PS2 was backed by an overwhelming hype machine, powered by vocal drones declaring it a "Halo-killer?" When it was released in 2004, critics were impressed by the technical presentation but found very little substance in the gameplay. Four years later, with an early version of the single player game, I wondered if Killzone 2 would repeat history.

Let me be as clear as I can. Killzone 2 is a fantastic game, easily deserving the hype its earned so far. Considering the expectations surrounding Killzone 2, that means quite a lot. From what I've played so far, Killzone 2 delivers on all fronts. The gameplay is incredibly visceral and nuanced; the graphics are unparalleled.

Obviously, a lot must be said about the visuals in Killzone 2. The debut CG trailer was supposed to be representative of what the PS3 could possibly do. While perhaps not as flawless as the original trailer, Killzone 2 is without a doubt one of the most beautiful games ever created. The attention to detail is quite impeccable: textures are crisp; character models move with complex, lifelike animation.

Gallery: Killzone 2

In spite of its clear sci-fi setting, the world of Helghan is grounded in realism. Weapons have a real sense of weight to them. Each bullet feels impactful, and important. Watch as the casings leave your gun. These aren't canned animations -- they are real objects controlled by the in-game physics engine. Enemies appear to feel every bullet, staggering when hit, rolling and dodging as they struggle to survive. The reload animations are slow and meticulously detailed. The flash of your gun's muzzle is appropriately blinding, adding to the feel of combat. Gun nuts will notice the subtle differences between weapons, as some work much better at short range, others at long. These aren't the weapons you'll find in Resistance or Halo -- and that's what makes Killzone so refreshing.

While the assault rifles feel great, a special note must be made about the flamethrower and the sniper rifle: The former is the most beautiful rendition of the weapon I've seen in a game so far. You can actually see it shoot sticky liquid fuel, a detail lost to most other shooters. The sniper rifle uses subtle, but clever SIXAXIS tilt controls. Keep your hand steady as you aim, or else your sight will become incredibly unsteady.

Other than being a first-person shooter, comparisons between Halo and Killzone 2 seem thoroughly invalid. A more apt point of comparison would be Call of Duty. With the exception of the occasional flying robot and massively armored supersoldier, Killzone 2 evokes the harrowing feel of modern warfare. However, the gunplay of Killzone is slower and more meticulous than the arcade-inspired controls of the CoD series. You won't auto-aim at enemies when using your sights, for example and you won't be singlehandedly mowing down hundreds of enemies. Your aim and movement is noticeably slower than most other FPSs.

An important component of Killzone's core gameplay mechanic is its cover system. It may take a few minutes to get used to, but it won't be long until you're leaning around corners and shooting over cover. Just like in Gears, you're vulnerable when out of cover. Of course, being in first-person, you won't be able to magically blindfire like Marcus and the gang. Peeking out to take a shot will leave you exposed -- and you will die in just a few hits, even in the default difficulty.

The enemies of Killzone 2 are just as varied and realistic as the weapons. It's hard to predict what will occur in a gunfight. The Helghast will take cover, throw grenades, and attempt to flank you. But don't be surprised if a more powerful enemy kills a few of his allies just to get a clean shot at you. Some enemies will rush at you with a knife -- an unfortunate proposition if you're not quick to react. There were more than a few times I was caught completely off guard, and enemies appeared behind me. (And no, they didn't randomly spawn there.)

The odds are overwhelmingly against you, and the viciously intelligent AI doesn't make it any easier. This is a challenging game -- perhaps one of the hardest in recent memory. A generous checkpoint system alleviates most frustrations, but this is still a nail-bitingly difficult game. Some of the game's uglier aspects are apparent later on. For example, your partner can be quite the knucklehead, brashly rushing into enemy territory. (Note: Don't rely on the AI to cover your back.) Killzone 2 is begging for a co-op mode. I want to use these weapons and get some crossfire tactics going.

February is still a long time away, and I'm confident that Guerrilla can fix some of the nagging issues I have. The shotgun, for example, could be a bit more powerful. Some of the objectives run a tad bit on the long side, with too many waves of enemies. But these are small issues in an otherwise thoroughly polished game. It's an incredible vote of confidence on Sony's part to send such a complete build of a product so many months before its release.

It's taken quite a number of words to detail the simple fact that Killzone 2 is a terrific shooter. Undoubtedly, there are still questions many of you may have about the game, and I welcome you to ask them in our comments section. I'll try my best to answer them (perhaps in a separate Q&A post?). PS3 fans have a lot to look forward to when February rolls around. Who knows? Perhaps next year we won't look for the next "Halo-killer," but rather the next Killzone-killer.

Direct feed image source: NeoGAF

This article was originally published on Joystiq.