Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Case for Killzone



Killzone. Within the rabid fan base of videogamers, first person shooters in particular, Killzone can be a rather polarizing franchise. It was never able to shirk a certain "me too" image as Sony's PS2 answer to Microsoft's HALO. A First Person Shooter, for consoles, with smooth controls, a solid performing online multiplayer backbone, and a community to use it? HALO proved it could be done (and done with an epic story in a well developed universe) and was the one game and technical feature that any Xbox owner could hold over a Playstation user's head.

Sony enlisted Guerilla Games to develop their own sci-fi adventure to compete, to fill that feature gap. It released in 2004 to a warm reception but mixed reviews. In retrospect, the industry press has pointed to lofty expectations, hype, and an aging hardware platform serving to reenforce the presence of technical hiccups and lead others to view the game as just "trying too hard" to be cool and be like HALO.

We've seen 3 more games expand on the franchise, appearing on the Playstation Portable, and PS3. The Killzone games appearing on PS3 have seen critical success, however the attitude among many gamers are still that it's a "manufactured blockbuster"; Sony's HALO "clone" or (more appropriately now) Sony's take on Call of Duty.

The thing is that yes, Guerilla was contracted and hired to make a first person blockbuster with a a multiplayer component (as was Bungie in making HALO). But guess what. They delivered more than a cookie cutter action game and have continued to do so in spite of Sony's ever presence in trying to put a Mario Mustache on the Helghast, stamp Uncharted on it, and shove it through a HALO shaped hole. And unfortunately the prevailing attitude of many gamers alongside their resistance to change has put a governor on the commercial success they've seen.



When the first Killzone came out, I was not nearly "into" games as much as now. The explosion of videogame "journalism" (yes, I'll include this opinion piece among the illegitimate cyber-trash flame-bait that falls between those quotation marks) wasn't what it is now. I have to say I was pretty oblivious to the hype. I didn't think of it as having anything to do with HALO, I didn't know SONY was looking for a win, and I didn't even know how to hook my PS2 up to the internet for online play. As a matter of fact, I wasn't that keen on getting online because my impression was that only experts would be online and I still didn't grasp the anonymity of online play (for better or for worse since voice chat became the norm) easily allows you to fail before getting good at it.

The fact is for me, I liked it a lot. I was blown away by the graphics, art direction, and sound design without even knowing they were influencing me. It was the best first person immersion I'd had since Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear. And because I wan't "in the know" I wasn't looking for frame rate issues or muddy textures. I thought it was like taking a big budget serious Sci-Fi flick like Aliens or Event Horizon and sticking me right in it. The disclaimer here though...I never beat it. Or purchased it. I rented it, potentially would buy it, but I was just getting out on my own having moved from Michigan to Boston, was busy with that whole scene, then started dating my future wife and games took a back seat for the first year. The PS2 collected dust, the PS3 was on the horizon, and this new fangled Nintendo Revolution (read: Wii) looked pretty interesting. Killzone became a memory. A game that had potential. I understand now, that many would share that sentiment.

When the PS3 was being promoted, SONY again turned to Guerilla. Now they had a machine with the hardware they needed to really meet their objectives (I'm not going to get into the "target footage" controversy). Killzone 2 was indeed being hyped. Maybe overhyped. But this time SONY had a well thought out PSN backbone to multiplayer and broadband was commonplace.
SONY, though, also had some new issues to deal with. The Xbox had beat them to market and though many people bought it "...as a stop gap. It's out, and the PS3 doesn't come out for like a year, I'll get the PS3 then". When they learned that a new PS3 was going to cost $5-600, that "Stop Gap" became "my official game system". They were being beat. After dominating the last generation, they were being beat. Classic SONY; First real eReaders, lost to everyone else. Walkman ruled the 90's, blindsided by the iPod. PS2 ruled the last gen, Microsoft ruled the next gen (in the US at least...world wide it's held it's own though still not the winner.) Now Fan-boyism was taking a very strong hold. Long time Xbox fans were now validated. New Xbox fans were just old SONY fans who'd been insulted, slapped in the face with a huge price tag.

Additionally, the main competition for Killzone had changed. The king's crown for console FPS was no longer worn by HALO, but Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Modern Warfare was a ridiculous success and was THE First Person Shooter that needs to be in anyones video game library. In retrospect it also catapulted the Call of Duty franchise into a yearly released cash cow the industry hadn't seen since Madden NFL Football.

I loved Modern Warfare. I learned how to play online multiplayer with Modern Warfare. I spent hours and hours ranking up. How my opinion on CoD has changed since should perhaps have it's own ranting post in the future, but going back to when Killzone 2 was released, CoD 4: Modern Warfare was the game to beat.

Finally, Killzone came out. A few weeks prior a demo had come out and the blogosphere exploded with polarizing flame wars. Killzone 2 was still being impacted by the failings of Killzone 1. Detractors weren't going to have anyone convince them that the game was as good as promised and were leaving no virtual stone unturned to prove failure before the game even launched. There were so many cries of foul about how short the main character is, how his shadow on the wall didn't match his arm positions, that you could speed run through the level with a knife, how the water drops on the beach looked fake, how through a pattern of runs and jumps you could "break" the level and walk outside of the scene being rendered. What's interesting here, is that the criticism that ultimately would bubble to the top, gaining "consensus" among the anti-Killzone, wasn't really being talked about at this point. And when it was, it was being mostly talked about as an a cool aspect of the game. The weighty feel of the controls.



Before we get into that, I need to say that I flipped for the demo. Any concerns I had by hearing about Killzone's freshman failures or the target render trailer from a couple years earlier, were gone. And man, the graphics didn't let me down one bit. It's funny that whenever a game comes out (especially from Sony, it seems) where it's touting innovative or never-having-been-achieved graphics, there's an outcry over how great graphics don't mean a great game and people start to knock the game down. Well I'd have to agree. Great graphics on their own, a great game do not make. However, great graphics do add to the game. I can't accept that a game one already considers "great" would be damaged by improved visuals or environmental effects. It's like getting a bigger TV or surround sound or (here's a can of worms) 3D. Do I need a 60" screen to play a video game that can be played on a 27" screen? No. But the 60" screen is preferable to me. Do I need surround sound headphones? No, the stereo speakers built into the tv will work. But the headphones add to the immersion. If Killzone 2 didn't have the lighting and particle effects it had would that have made it better? Take a look at Battlefield 3 today. The game doesn't need the light blooms, tons of particles, and motion blur. But I'd take it with all those things any day of the week.

Killzone 2 was a graphical behemoth. But that was only item in Guerilla's bag of tricks. The hefty controls was another. It was an intentional choice. A way to simulate your really being placed on Planet Helghan. Just like blacking out the corners of the screen to represent natural field of vision. Just like getting the motion capture just right on helping hoist a comrade up over a ledge. Just like their (brilliant) blend of ragdoll physics and preset animations for some of the most satisfying kills I've come across.


Killzone 2 Physics



The weighty feel of the controls put me on the battlefield whereas some other shooters started to feel like paintball on rollerblades in comparison.

When the game finally arrived in February of 2009, Guerilla was likely popping the champagne corks due to solid sales which were sure to grow based on the critics high praise for the game. It's currently running a 91 on Metacritic.

As far as single player campaign, I can hardly say that they made any major missteps. Sure I could nit-pick on things like the obvious set-up-for-a-sequel ending...which KZ3 was even more guilty of and in a more jarring way at that. I could point out that the attempt at brothers-in-arms banter, straight with yo-mamma jokes and shoe-horned f-bombs didn't ring natural.

Then we move onto multiplayer. I'll say this upfront, the multiplayer was great. However, here's where things diverge. The one major misstep in multiplayer was the same great choice for single player. The weighty controls.

Killzone's multiplayer forced me onto teams and showed me where multiplayer FPS achieves greatness. Objectives. On COD I mainly played deathmatch. Everyone for themselves. I may have dabbled into team deathmatch but I don't think so. I was initially disappointed that Killzone 2 was focused primarily on Warzone. As it turns out...I love Warzone. Warzone randomly changes the game to one of 6 rounds, each round being a traditional FPS multiplayer match type. Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Conquest(BF)/Domination(CoD), Objective (either attack a location or defend a location), and Assassination. So you're pretty much best out 7.

This is a great way to play. Each map has many different ways to play in a single game. And if you are used to the goal line mentality of an attack or defend game type, add on the drama of it being for the last round, the "game seven" of your 40 minute game of Warzone.

You did just read that right. Killzone wasn't good for the 'ol pick up and get one or two ten minute rounds in before dinner or before bed. You're dedicating a half hour at the minimum and an hour more likely.

But even with the new game mode of Warzone, many in the gaming community couldn't get past the weight controls and how they would impact you're skills in multiplayer. In CoD, you expect to get a 5+ kill streak at least once in a match. You're probably hoping for even more so you can use your high streak bonus. In KZ2 I was lucky if I got 3 kills in a row. I probably ended up with near a 1:1 k/d ratio because that's pretty much what each spawn was like.

This was in no small part due to how the controls applied to multiplayer (in addition to me being a pretty average player, not a great one). But I didn't care because Killzone, like Battlefield, is about the team's goals, not the individual's kill count.

So why would the controls being weighty work in the single player and not in multiplayer? Because as odd as it sounds, the AI and fighting scenarios in the campaign, play out more realistically than when you have actual human beings controlling the enemy in multiplayer.

During the campaign, you're constantly on the offense, pushing further and further into into Helghast held positions. You rarely had to worry about watching your back, and the Helghast soldiers, would dig into their cover. This being the case, you'd generally focus your firing in 45-60 degree angles from your position, both horizontally and vertically. This felt very realistic and the weightiness of the weapons as you'd sight in from one enemy to the next added to that realism.

During a Warzone match however, player controlled enemies would use classic run-and-gun multiplayer tactics. Jumping around, running backwards while firing, tea bagging, the whole thing. In this case the weight of the gun as you make a 180 degree about-face, didn't translate. In addition, a significant number of players were recommending their peers via online posts to change the controller configuration to mirror CoD where the Iron Sight button is on the left shoulder and doesn't have a firm toggle. This only added to the slow aiming as Killzone was designed to have much of your firing straight from the hip.

All said and done though, those who persevered through the initial differences in gameplay between Killzone and CoD grew into an active community that continued to light up the Killzone servers through to the next game; 2011's Killzone 3.

Two years after Killzone 2 brought the franchise to the Playstation 3, Killzone 3 was released in February 2011. It brought with it new environments, dramatic improvements to what was already a benchmark graphics and physics engine, and 3D compatibility.



Guerilla Games listened to the player and critic feedback surrounding Killzone 2, tightening controls and placing (perhaps too much) emphasis on the story. Following the success of Uncharted 2, Sony wanted to slather a thick coating of cinematic polish to it's other franchises, and the pacing in Killzone 3 does feel much more like that of a movie. I would have to say that the marquee levels involving a full force onslaught of a snow swept enemy fortress and an invasion of a Helghast space elevator facility stand out and offer the most replay value of the campaign. That said to influence the pacing of the story, you're often broken into much smaller groups or solo efforts which fall a little flatter.

The controls were tightened up considerably and while I was initially hoping that Guerilla would stick to their guns (pun intended) the compromise they came up with was successful. It felt much closer to the Battlefield franchise controls than the now completely dated CoD controls. The graphics continue to astound. I still jump into the occasional multiplayer game every now and then and always find myself taken back with both the graphics.



With the new, tighter controls, and the Warzone multiplayer game type, Killzone 3 was a great early entry into 2011 and more accessible than ever. The Metacritic score, fell quite a bit, and I'm not sure why except that some critics seemed a little jilted in that Guerilla was so obvious in their attempt to woo new players and be a safe crowd-pleaser.

With E3 kicking off next week, there are rumors that the inevitable Killzone 4 will be announced. One blog recently made a comment stating that nobody cares about the Killzone franchise.

Well if that's true, then many people are missing out. It's multiplayer, while borrowing a lot from the Battlefield franchise, is unique enough to be it's own unto itself through gameplay, graphics, and environment. I can't imagine that many new players will enlist for a 4th entry, they may feel alienated just on not knowing the backstory. But for us fans, I'm eager for Killzone 4 to come out, because history would place a likely release of Feb-Mar 2013; a great time when Christmas games are getting finished up with and before the long drought of summer releases.

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