The E3 2008 demo begins with a beach landing (what else?), and continues with a crawl up into the bowels of a hellish place. This is a gray and lonely world, an industrial city of towering steels and concrete. The views are beautiful though. This is a gorgeous game -- Guerrilla has delivered on that promise. Where Halo offers relief from the horror of its subject matter with rich, 'toonish colors, Killzone plunges your senses deep into the despair and grotesqueness of a world at war. The stark environments are enriched by a distinct art design. There's cinema here. But we're not idly watching, are we?
It was difficult to judge Killzone 2's gameplay. It was rough, but I was constantly reminded of the demo's state by a permanent, overlaid warning: "work in progress -- pre-alpha build." The framerate wasn't there, and the character movements were painfully restricted at times. I felt slow and clumsy, constantly fiddling with the control schemes and axis sensitivities. The cover mechanic, mapped to the "crouch" command, worked and didn't (e.g., it was frustrating that I couldn't pop up out of cover and use the zoomed weapon view).
Most distressing was the ill-timed flow of enemies. "This is fucked up!" yelled my AI squadmate. Indeed. We'd put down a few Helghast, there'd be a pause, and a few more would trickle into the room. I don't mind waves of enemies (I welcome them!), but these were more like kiddie pool wakes. There were a few instances when the fighting opened up into larger, more chaotic battles, and these were both exciting and terrifying. But even these segments were plagued by the poorly programmed enemy advancements.
"What I was surprised by, what kept pulling me back into the experience, was the brilliant character animation."
What I was surprised by, what kept pulling me back into the experience, was the brilliant character animation, highlighted by incredibly lifelike facial acting. Surprise. Fear. Excitement. Pain. I could see this all of this in my fellow humans' expressions. The Helghast were more difficult to read, hidden behind their terror masks, but no less human in their responses to battle. A location-specific hit detection system drew reactions from all points of their bodies as I riddled these creatures with bullets. And I didn't do so alone.
Guerrilla has created a very competent "friendly" AI. I traversed much of the level with my "Dom," who doubled as a guide (sure beats a glowing arrow -- but there's one of those too at times, just in case) and battle tested teammate. He offered scripted strategies, but also fought aggressively during freeform firefights. Similar to Gears, if "Dom" was downed, I had a certain amount of time (several minutes, I was told) to approach him and give him a shot of the all-better-now or clear the immediate area of Helghast. Other sections of the game will actually be spent working in a four-man squad.
As much as I enjoyed my companion's company, I also found myself wandering away from the path he traveled. There was a lot of space to move in. Not necessary space, but "real" space. While there was a linear path I had to travel to progress, there were many opportunities to explore and imagine the level as a virtual world, not just a string of corridors. This is great level design, and Guerrilla should be recognized for that.
There's still something missing from Killzone 2 though. Or, perhaps, it's there, not experienced; that special something that a demo can never deliver. To overcome the narrowing innovative possibilities of the first-person shooter, a developer has to succeed in delivering a narrative. I have to care about my character, my "Dom," all these men dying around me, and the mystery behind my closely related enemies. I haven't become interested in the Killzone universe yet. But I'm eagerly waiting to give it a shot.