Monday, August 15, 2011

Killzone 2 review

Finished a couple of games in the last few days. I'll start by talking about Killzone 2. I only played the single player so I can only talk about that. I will make frequent references to Half-Life 2, because in many ways that game to me was both the last of the old first person shooters, and the first of the new (a topic for another time?).

First of all, let me discuss the original Killzone. It has been many years since I played it, so all I have left are vague impressions. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, because those impressions are obviously of the things that stood out to me.

Lets start with the weapons: I remember there being two variations on most weapons; the ISA version and the Helgast version. For example, you start with an ISA assault rifle but will probably end up grabbing a Helgast assault rifle before long. I don't remember them being significantly different, I think the ISA version had a grenade launcher but the Helgast rifle had a larger magazine. That meant there were a lot of weapons that played very similar, but it did flesh out the world. There was a reasonable variety, especially with the character-specific weapons. Personally I thought the weapons looked like actual weapons would in the real world while being significantly different than anything I was familiar with, so overall I give it good marks here.

The game had a rather strange health system, where your health bar was split into segments. If you were injured then you stayed out of the field of fire for a moment, you would regenerate the current segment of your health bar. That meant that if you took enough damage to deplete one segment and drop down to the next, you would not recover that lost segment without a health pack. A compromise between the old health systems and the modern Wolverine healing factor, it encouraged careful shooting from cover (take a couple of hits and duck down to recover before you lose a bar) but still for the most part acted like an old fashioned health bar. While a little strange, I think it worked.

I'm afraid that I don't remember very much about the level design in the old game, I remember fighting in ruins, across mountain paths, in fortified buildings, on a dock at one point, in a forest or at least a wooded area, and on a spaceship at the end. There wasn't much variety in the enemies, there were guys with guns, guys with grenade launchers, and that's it as far as I can remember. I suppose that's not unusual, I didn't think it was a big deal at the time, but compared to even very old games like Half-Life it's quite poor.

My favorite thing about the original was the characters. Over the course of the game you played as a group of four different characters - each mission you played as one, sometimes you could chose which (your choice could affect the path you took through that level, but not the plot). Each character played differently. I vaguely remember one guy having some very heavy weaponry, and a girl who had an interesting gun and who could access areas others couldn't (she could climb or crawl or something).

But it wasn't just the variety in gameplay between the characters that I enjoyed, it was the interaction, their differing personalities and histories, the banter and arguments. At the time this was not common in first person shooters (or at least I rarely saw it done well), it fleshed out the story and really gave me a feeling of purpose and direction when playing.

So what about Killzone 2? Let me start by saying that at no point in the entire game did I actually enjoy myself (well, OK, perhaps I derived some degree of pleasure from the sheer overpowered-ness of the lighting gun for the brief period that I had it). As far as I could tell the only improvements from the original were in the technology used in the engine. There's no doubt that it has a very powerful graphical engine, it's a real shame then that it was only used to render grey walls, grey floors, grey roofs, grey skies, grey smoke, and grey people wearing grey clothes and carrying grey weapons.

In fact it's my understanding that a lot of effort went in to making the game so grey - I recall reading about how they applied post-processing filters on the completed, rendered scene to further reduce the colours. Well congratulations, you succeeded most admirably in making the game completely boring.

The game uses the exact same enemies, same weapons, and even the same environments. Well, a few of the same environments; there's only three different types of scenery in the whole game (dark grey ruined buildings, light grey spaceship interiors, brownish grey rocks). I get that it was a continuation of the original, but come on.

So what was actually new? Let's see... there's a pretty good cover mechanic, I suppose that's an improvement, although personally I wasn't too fond of it - but that might have been caused by the controls, or might be a matter of taste. There's some absolutely rubbish bits where you have to physically rotate the controller to turn valves and the like; frustrating the first couple of times as you get used to it, after which it becomes merely tedious and pointless. It's worth mentioning that this game was (or at least was supposed to be) an early PS3 exclusive - it's the first PS3 FPS I had heard of, I believe it was the first PS3 exclusive FPS at any rate. As such it was expected to serve as a showcase of the system's abilities, and Sony was still trying to push their completely rubbish look-we-have-motion-controls-too sixaxis controller. Personally I have never seen a good use of the motion controls on the damned thing. Which reminds me, physically tilting the controller during the loading scenes slightly tilts the view. Ooooooh. In practice it just means that the loading scene jitters annoyingly when you take the opportunity to adjust your seating position or something.

And... that's about it. I can't actually seem to think of much else that's new. There's a couple of flying drones and a heavily armored trooper you fight two or three times, for what little that adds to the game. You do pilot an exo-suit. Once. For about 10 minutes. I suppose the different perspective and level of power in the exo-suit weapons adds a little variety, but really the game is still 99 percent shooting the same guys over and over and over. Even the last boss battle mainly involves gunning down waves and waves of the same enemies you've been fighting for the whole game.

So how does it play? Not very well in my opinion. When I first bought the game the controls were absolutely atrocious. I tried adjusting the sensitivity every which way, I even tried playing it with a PS3 mouse, it was just awful. It's just shocking that the game could actually be released with such obscene controls. How could an entire development company AND publisher allow it to be published like that? There was a patch that fixed the controls (I didn't know about it at first because my PS3 wasn't connected to the net - there was nothing I needed online), that fixed the controls so they were decent. Personally, however, they still felt a little off to me - I still had trouble lining up my shots, it still felt a little like aiming started slowly then picked up speed. I'm going to allow that it might just be that it was my first FPS in several months, though I'm not convinced. Perhaps the apparent absence of any sort of aiming assist is part of the problem?

Controls aren't the only gameplay issue. Killzone 2 replaces the damage system of the original game with the recharging health system that's so in vogue today. And, like every other game that uses it, it replaces the traditional health bar with an on-screen visual indicator, namely you see blood-splatters on the sides of the screen as the view goes red then darkens. Personally I have come to hate this system (at least when it's used so heavy-handedly); anything that interferes with your view annoys me, and the fact that you lose the ability to differentiate the grey enemies from the grey background they are hiding behind exactly when you need to see them so you avoid dying is quite frustrating. And to make matters worse, for some reason when you're manning a fixed gun or turret, your health indicator changes so it's not obvious if you're getting shot or what - a few times a died because I didn't even realise I was getting shot, at first I thought I was being electrocuted or poisoned or something because the screen was going dark but there were no blood splatters (and I think the joypad wasn't rumbling either).

The game also uses directional damage indicators. The first game I can remember that told you which direction you were taking damage from was Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2 came out in 2004, that's before the first Killzone. Since then virtually every shooter, first and even third person, has used some variation on the damage indicator. And with good reason; it just makes the game better. Now, in Killzone 2 the damage indicator is a subtle blood-splatter on the side of your screen. And as I just mentioned, the indication that your health is low is blood splatters on all sides of your screen. Can you see the problem with this? As soon as you get hit by more than one single bullet (which is pretty much always the case since your enemies use automatic weapons), your damage direction indicator is hidden by your health indicator.

One aspect of the game that I really hated was the fact that nearly everything, from mission objectives to plot elements, would at times be "explained" by dialogue spoken WHILE PEOPLE WERE SHOOTING AT ME. I'm sorry, but when people are shooting at me, I'm not listening to radio chatter, I'm scrambling for cover as I try to pinpoint the enemies' locations (which can very difficult when they're behind cover that's the same colour as them and my screen is red and I can't see the damage indicators) while checking my ammo and slapping in a reload. As a result, not only did I often not know (or care) what I was supposed to be doing, I really started to hate my "friends".

Now lets talk weapons. First of all you can carry a long gun and a hand gun. Good, that makes sense; I never liked being told that I could carry either a pistol or a rocket launcher - surely the pistol is tucked into a holster or my belt while the rocket launcher is slung across my back? Your default handgun is a very nice looking revolver with infinite ammo. Now I like revolvers, and I won't complain about infinite ammo, but I do have an issue. The revolver felt under-powered. It had a very slow rate of fire, took a significant amount of time to regain accuracy when shooting off the hip (that is, the reticule that shows the bullet spread expands to encompass half the screen after each shot and takes a moment to tighten in again), and was rather weak. It took at least three shots to kill a normal enemy, and since you would normally be firing it as fast as possible at close range (where you don't use the sights) you'll most likely miss at least one shot even if you're aiming right at him, so it will usually take four or five shots to put down an enemy at close range. While this isn't a problem against a single enemy because the impact staggers them enough that they can't fire back, it means you don't have enough ammo to kill another enemy without reloading - a big problem when your faced with multiple enemies. Compare this to the Half-Life 2 revolver, which kills most enemies with a single shot and can be fired in quick succession (although firing too fast is still inaccurate, to my recollection it regained accuracy faster than in Killzone).

There's at least two assault rifles and a submachine gun which all feel the same. There's a shotgun which is quite easily the worst shotgun I have ever used in a FPS - it's both weak, slow, and unsatisfying. There's a couple of machine guns which are actually significantly different: one works very well when firing normally (and is very accurate when the sights are used), the other is God-awful when fired normally but works very well from cover (for some reason it's unbelievably inaccurate normally, but very accurate when fired from cover). There is a sniper rifle, but it's quite useless. When zoomed in scope fills well under a quarter of the screen and is filled with glare, combined with the slow rate of fire, poor controls, lack of aiming assist, and the fact that your view jumps around like crazy whenever you get hit makes it very, very difficult to hit anyone with it. The only enemies I managed to kill with the sniper rifle were guys with rocket launchers (they take a while to line up their shots, and even after they shoot you have time to finish aiming, kill them, then dodge the rocket) and perhaps a few enemies who where looking the wrong way - and that was with great difficulty and I could probably have done almost as well with the standard revolver. There's also a flame thrower that I didn't like very much, a Helgast pistol that I never actually used, a standard rocket launcher that's only available when you need to take out tanks, and then there's the lightning gun.

The lightning gun is so over-powered it completely changes the whole game. It deals a lot of damage and it seems to seek out the enemies on it's own; you simply needed to wave it in their general direction and they keeled over dead en-masse. Plus, it had infinite ammo! When you had that weapon the whole game suddenly dropped a half-dozen notches in difficulty as you casually sprinted forwards and mowed whole armies down. It was only available in one level, but in that level several weapon racks carried it, which begged the question: why the hell didn't more Helgast use it? They would have won the bloody war ages ago.

All in all I wasn't impressed with the weapons, they were lacking in variety compared to other sci-fi shooters and lacking in impact compared to modern-day shooters. In fact, most sci-fi shooter weapons have more impact and many modern-day shooters have more variety.

I mentioned before that the original Killzone's characters and story were my favorite part of the game. Perhaps ironically that was what I hated most about this game. Let's start with the plot. What is the plot? The Helgast are spouting nationalist rhetoric - not in itself and evil act - and the ISA (or "we", if you wish) invade them. Wait, why are we invading? I'm not fond of invading other people's homelands. Can we give diplomacy another try? Right from the start I have an issue; I don't know why we're invading, and I'm not convinced it's justified. In most games you're on the defensive, at least at first, so you have a good reason to fight, the reminders of their evil is all around you in the form of abandoned homes and ruined buildings. In killzone, the homes are abandoned and the buildings ruined because of you. In the later stages of the game, Helgast soldiers even yell things like 'Repel the invaders' and 'Protect our home!', or things to that effect. I don't want to be there, killing them, and if I don't want to be there what's my motivation for playing the game? Perhaps it would make more sense if I remembered exactly what happened at the end of the first, or if I had played the PSP Killzone? Either way they should have set it up better in the beginning. Actually, it reminds me of Gears of War - you start the game, it's a war, shoot things, pick up the plot as you go along - what there is of it. The difference is in that game we were clearly defending against an alien threat, you didn't really need to know much else to be invested in the game.

Like the original, Killzone 2 follows a band of 4 soldiers. Sort of. This time you always play as the same character; Sev. Not only is the variety in gameplay lost, Sev himself has no personality. He barely ever talks. The other characters are not constant; sometimes you'll be carrying out a mission with one, sometimes with another, occasionally four of you will hang out for a bit. The group doesn't feel cohesive, they don't feel like friends or even a unit. In fact they all sound the same and even look the same. The only thing differentiating them to me was how much they swear, ranging from often to non-stop. Compared to the original four, I didn't give a damn about any of these guys, not even Sev.

Speaking of the original four, I'm not sure why they decided to ditch them. Two of the original characters are still in the game, though I didn't recognise them - I only started to suspect it was them near the end, when a character who we had barely seen died and one of my 'mates' seemed to be feeling a little too much grief. After checking Wikipedia I figured out that they were two of the original cast. And the one who dies is Jan Templar, arguable the main character of the original four (based on the fact that you start as him). And his death is lame, he doesn't even put up a fight.

In fact the only guy who doesn't die, other than Sev, is the one character I liked least. His dialog was nothing but endless swearing. I guess some people still believe that the key to a good video game plot is to make the cast annoying jerks who swear as if their lives depended on it. Story not good enough yet? Add more f-bombs.

I also think it's worth mentioning that the "token female" (yes, every game has one) in the original Killzone was a smart, tough, intelligent soldier who was very capable in battle and in making decisions, but also had her unique personality and flaws (a balance that I so rarely see anywhere, especially in games). In Killzone 2, the "token female" (yes, quite literally the only female in the whole game) has a total of 3 scenes and maybe 5 lines of dialog. During this brief appearance she displays no more personality than a stone, but does manage to get kidnapped, rescued, then killed. I was not impressed.

So let's talk about Sev. Most of the time he says absolutely nothing, people (by which I mean everyone) yells orders at him and he says nothing in return, you're just expected to do what you've been told. This may sound much like a blank "everyman" character like Gordon Freeman, albeit more annoying (MUCH more annoying at times), except that they don't stick to it. You see, initially he says little, and most of the story points are from the first person perspective, but near the end of the game (by which point you've gotten used to the idea of him being a blank avatar), we start to see his face and he starts to talk more. So he doesn't have the personality of most game characters (such as those of the first game), but at the same time he's not a fully immersive avatar who we always occupy. It just doesn't work.

The bad guys are also boring. It seems there's two of them, one who's notable only in that he doesn't wear a helmet and talks a lot, but he's not actually very menacing. The other is somewhat more menacing, but looks almost exactly like every other helgast in the game.

And while we're on it, the end is stupid as well. I believe I've talked about the fact that games these days seem strangely reluctant to have a happy ending. In this case it seems to be the desire for a narrative hook for the next game in the series. The thing is, it's not really a cliffhanger. Rather, it seems to be saying that you haven't actually achieved anything - congrats, all those hours of work you put in were for nothing. It doesn't even promise more; the game just ends on a low note.

Poor writing is something that doesn't normally surprise me in video games, but Killzone was one of the games that awoke me to the fact that a game can have a really good plot and storytelling and interesting characters. So for the sequel to be so terribly written is not only extremely disappointing, it's quite perplexing. What's even more confusing is how the developers could have made so many amateurish mistakes: character and environment design so boring that it defies belief, controls so awful you'd think they'd never played a console shooter before, an invisible damage indicator, inconsistent health feedback, no aiming assist, weapons that aren't fun to shoot... have these guys ever made a game before?

And all this despite the fact that the game is so technically accomplished - the game uses rendering techniques that I believe were never done before on the PS3. In fact, it's rather bizarre - the game looks amazing when you see it running. It's only when you play it that you realise that it's not actually any fun. Perhaps the graphics are the problem? Long before the game came out a video claiming to be in-game footage was shown to the public. It was later revealed that it was not in-game, and there was a great deal of anger and disappointment. Perhaps they spent so much time and effort trying to match the quality of that initial video that they neglected other elements? As in, all other elements?

I don't know. I've heard people say they liked Killzone 2. I find that surprising. Perhaps the elements that I listed that bother me don't bother them? But what exactly did they like about it? Perhaps I'm getting too hung up on a few gameplay elements that are to taste? I don't know. I suppose it's all subjective in the end, ten years ago I probably would have thought this game was amazing, thought that might have been just because of the graphics.

Overall I give it a 4 out of 10 - a pretty skin hides a game that's mediocre in every aspect.

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