Saturday, September 29, 2018

RetroDEX: My experience with "Killzone 2" & "Killzone 3"

I had no interest in Killzone on the Playstation 2; I only played it, because I had the sequels and I needed context for the series. The game was underwhelming, but ultimately kept me entertained enough. It was still forgettable and it seemed like a rough "first draft" of a series still in its infancy.

I was sure the next two games would be infinitely better. The consensus was that Killzone 2, in particular, was one of the best games on the Playstation 3 and with Sony's backing, developer Guerilla Games would have spent a lot more resources on the series past that original attempt.

I rushed through both Killzone 2 and Killzone 3 and I've had diametrically opposed experiences with the two games.
I should note that the following text revolves entirely around the single-player campaign; if you've played the games and have fond memories of the multiplayer, I can't attest to any of it. By the time I got around to these games, the servers had been pulled offline. 

Killzone 2 is a microcosm of every single thing wrong with AAA shooters in the 7th Generation of consoles. The game, released in 2009, takes the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare paradigm and puts it on steroids. It's louder than CoD, it's dumber than CoD and it doesn't play nearly as smoothly.

I bashed the first Killzone for its dreary, simplistic story, but at least that game had a sense of adventure about it, with its actual plot and diverse, distinct cast of characters. Killzone 2 is about a bunch of generic, hyper-masculine morons, screaming obscenities with every other breath, who invade an alien planet. Their only moment of conflict and drama comes from the fact that their completely under-developed friends die at some point. Sure, the Helghast are the bad guys in this series, but that's only because we're told so; as screwed up as Helghan society seems to be, the game never even bothers to really justify the invasion, which we're carrying out. We're supposed to be the good guys, but there's so little context, I really couldn't give two fucks that the "heroes" found themselves in a pinch every time the Helghast unleashed a new weapon on their asses. They are defending their world, after all.

In retrospect, Call of Duty should really be congratulated for its restraint, only cashing in in the post-9/11, Iraq War zeitgeist instead of being directly inspired from it. Killzone 2 is what direct inspiration leads to; barely justified invasions in foreign lands and the audacity to pull the victim card when the indigenous population dares fight back. Piss off.

 The story and dialogue are obnoxious, but it was everything else about Killzone 2 that made me froth in the mouth like a political commentator on Twitter in our Lord's year 2018; the visuals are pathetic. I had to crank up brightness to the maximum setting and I still couldn't tell half of what was on the screen, because bright lights are for the gays, apparently. Oh, the game was definitely on the cutting-edge when it came out, Guerilla Games certainly put all those heavy Sony coin pouches to good use; but there's no color, everything is brown or gunmetal grey and, worst of all, there are so many particle effects clogging up the screen during combat, it literally disrupts gameplay.

BLOODY SCREEN! So reeeal...

This is such an amateur mistake even for 2009, it actually blows my mind. I'm not sure at which point they thought that hiding behind cover and having your line of sight blocked by thick smoke and bright explosions, making it impossible to actually aim and shoot at anything, was a good idea. Perhaps a more patient man than I can take a few seconds to appreciate the amount of detail that went into making the game look as sharp and busy as it does, but I'm here to pew-pew aliens; I bought a game, not a ticket to a fucking art gallery.

The final blow comes from the actual gameplay. The core gunplay is good, which is to say the weapons feel nice and heavy and have good feedback, even if there's far less variety compared to the first game. The controls, on the other hand, are all over the place; this seems to be the only thing that the Internet agrees with me on (based on a quick Google search I did, at least). The player character is too slow; not so much in terms of walking or sprinting from cover-to-cover, but in terms of turning. The dude controls like a fucking tank! When aiming down ironsights, on the other hand, the right analog stick goes insane and accurate aiming becomes wishful thinking. It's really hard to explain this, if you haven't played the game, but it just doesn't feel smooth on a gamepad.

The best thing I can say about Killzone 2 is that at least some of the maps are a little more open-ended than the usual CoD and CoD-clone levels of the time. Most of the game is very linear, but once in a while it'll throw you on a map with multiple flanking routes, which encourage mobility and player choice in approaching encounters.

Outside of that, Killzone 2 is an overproduced relic of its time, a mind-numbingly repetitive, boring experience that I wanted to put down the second I booted up the PS3 and only pushed myself to the end to justify the (belated) purchase. 

Imagine my surprise when jumping to Killzone 3 felt like switching over to an entirely different series of shooter.

Okay, that's hyperbole, there isn't that huge a difference; but where I expected the same slog through brown maps, led by characters I wanted to stuff into lockers in high school (I never actually did that), I was instead greeted with a very passable experience that kept me engaged and which I wouldn't mind revisiting in the future.

 From the first minute of the game, there is color! A different environment, snowy mountains; Helghast with different uniforms, some perspective into how they view this conflict. The story starts in medias res and it's better for it. The characters carry on from the previous game and they're still not interesting, but they show a little more emotion than just "growling rage" (though there's still plenty of that as well).

The story is dumb, but the framework at least makes sense. The "heroic" (heh) ISA is stranded on the Helghan world, but the big problem is that the Helghast prepare a full-invasion of Earth and the ISA has to stop them. Even though the heroes are still technically in someone else's land, at first they are only stragglers of the previous conflict. They lost the war, there are only a few of them left and they expect extraction that may never come. It makes the heroes look like the underdogs, struggling to survive in a hostile world, after they cocked up their operation. The David vs Goliath dynamic is a tad forced, but it makes the heroes a little more sympathetic and their struggles a little more meaningful.

An insight into the inner workings of the Helghan government also helps justify their villainous role in the series, despite the fact that their high council is comprised by people who all look like Hitler and Stalin (a little too on the nose, Guerilla Games). It's still the same hyper-masculine shit, with not a single diverging perspective in-sight, but there is at least some semblance of structure that was entirely absent from the previous game.

The ending comes out of nowhere and it's a massive disappointment, as it could've provided some genuine conflict for the protagonist and his crew. In their efforts to end the invasion before it even starts, the heroes unleash a global catastrophe in the Helghan world that amounts to genocide. It would be fitting, in a story about soldiers struggling to simply survive and go home, to ponder the consequences of their actions; how it's sacrifice, often at the expense of one's humanity, and not heroism that wins wars and how some things can't be unseen or undone.

But time is money and the game's ending, so instead of taking a moment to absorb what happened, they gloss over it and end on sequel baiting.

Most of all, the game has a sense of humor about it, however dulled that may be. For the most part it's a straight story that takes itself very seriously, but when cool things happen, the characters react accordingly; that is to say, they fully embrace the high-octane, Hollywood blockbuster cheese instead of pretending this is some realistic, grim war story, like the previous game did.

The visuals are cleaner and more varied; they actually look like a technical downgrade, but not only do they not interfere with the game, they also allow for more open maps with distant skylines, without gutting performance.

As for the gameplay, it's still the same CoD-inspired stuff, but the controls feel smoother. The gunplay isn't as weighty as it was in Killzone 2, but ultimately this helps with the game's faster pacing. It's still mostly linear and you'll still need to rely on cover to survive, but there are more weapons, more varied environments and objectives, far more enemy types to deal with and, hell, they even give you a jetpack at some point. There are environmental kills and stealth sections and, overall, the game feels like a full experience.

In Mother Russia, something something clever something.

I know there is at least one more Killzone game (not counting the PSP release), but I don't currently own a Playstation 4. What I take from my experience with the series is its evolution across two console generations. The first Killzone was branded the "Halo Killer" by the media and despite not holding a candle to Bungie's title, the similarities are hard to argue.

With its jump to the 7th Generation, the series moved away from Halo and started adopting the Call of Duty tropes. Considering the first trailer for Killzone 2 dropped as early as E3 2005, I don't know how much the game changed during development. By the time it released, it wasn't even hiding its Call of Duty inspiration.

Which isn't to say this inspiration stopped with the second game; Killzone 3 is, for all intends and purposes, a Call of Duty clone as well. In some ways, it's a better, more faithful clone than its predecessor. Call of Duty games really don't play as heavy as most people think and they really aren't as serious as most of the media may have made you believe. The addition of a modest jetpack and the occasional romp in a mech suit don't really do enough to differentiate the game from Activision's series, especially since in later entries, even CoD moved away from the "boots on the ground" design to more mobility-focused gameplay.

That's probably the killing blow, from my perspective, in regards to this entire series. I was ultimately entertained by the first Killzone and enjoyed the third game well-enough, so my overall experience has been positive (two out of three games are okay, in my book). However, I really couldn't tell you what the identity of this series really is.

Of course, all games tend to borrow ideas from one-another; especially the really expensive ones have to latch on to the contemporary trends in game design, if they hope to survive. Killzone hasn't done all that bad in this regard, considering many other competent CoD-clones failed miserably to attract an audience (though the Playstation exclusivity certainly helped the series).

Unfortunately, Killzone isn't an example of a series changing with time, which simply reflects game design trends of its era. Instead, it's a mostly unrecognizable series that wouldn't have survived in multi-plat, lacking entirely an identity or, indeed, a purpose. For all the entertaining moments I found in Killzone 3, if someone took that game and slapped a title like "Call of Duty: Black Ops IV" or something to that effect, I'd completely believe this was a Call of Duty game.

In retrospect, I'm starting to appreciate the original Killzone a lot more. It's a game of its time, certainly aping some design ideas from Halo, but with enough creative spark and effort to make it somewhat more recognizable. It's not, technically, the best game in the series; but it's funny how it shines in its simplicity and age, as opposed to its two far more expensive, but insignificant, successors.

Killzone, as a series, does not hold up in 2018. The first game remains a nice little retro title from when console shooters were designed differently, but the two successors don't have anything to contribute to the FPS genre at large. They're too much like Call of Duty in ways both good and bad and though perfectly playable and even enjoyable, with multiplayer servers now officially offline, nobody who missed the two games the first time around should be bothered to seek them out. 

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