Looking Back at the Killzone Franchise

Why I'm excited for Killzone: Shadow Fall.

At the PlayStation Meeting in February 2013, Sony announced the long-awaited PlayStation 4, showing off a handful of new games and features, and promising a solid line-up of first-party and third-party games. One of the games announced, Killzone: Shadow Fall, stunned the audience with its sleek visuals and impressive gameplay. And its E3 demo continued to impress. Confirmed to be a launch title for the new system, Killzone: Shadow Fall will be a surefire way to kick off a console launch in the right direction.

After seeing it again at E3, I pre-ordered myself a copy of the game, knowing that this would be the first game I was going to dive into once I purchased my PlayStation 4. Shortly after, I realized that I had never played a Killzone game besides the first. I was initially weary, knowing that my experience with the original Killzone was not very good. The game had its moments, but inevitably, I felt it was uninspired, generic, and boring. Still, I was determined to give the next two titles a fair shot, especially because Shadow Fall looks extremely promising. If my initial assessment of the first game weighed down what I would have believed about the rest of the franchise, I would have been making a horrible mistake by discrediting the series as a whole. I dedicated a weekend to blasting through both Killzone 2 and Killzone 3, and my excitement for Killzone: Shadow Fall has grown substantially.

In the unlikely event that you have never heard of Killzone, the major games in the series are first-person shooters that focus on intense action and an engaging atmosphere. A PSP game called Killzone: Liberation was also made, but is a separate game entirely played top-down instead of first-person. I had played this game around its time of release and although good, it belongs to a different genre and does not have any bearing on the technical and mechanical relevance to the rest of the series. Hence, why I am not considering it when talking about the FPS entries in the franchise. From this point on, discussion will only pertain to Killzone 1, 2, and 3.

Taking a short glance at Killzone, it’s easy to believe why one would assume it to be a generic, gritty, and tasteless shooter with no depth. While this initial gauging of the game can be correct on some levels, it is nowhere near the whole truth. The first two games are gritty, sporting the same generic brown visual filter that corrodes most of the action genre nowadays. The story was nothing extremely unique either. However, what Killzone lacked in its inability to break concrete, expected tropes and stereotypes of the genre, reestablishes itself as one of the best games in the category due to its excellent mechanics and enthralling atmosphere and environments. Killzone 2 was leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, single-handedly redefining itself as not just a game, but also as an experience.

Upon beginning Killzone 2 just a few weeks ago, I was overwhelmed by the visuals. Released in 2009, Killzone 2 is still graphically superior than many of the more recent titles on my shelf. While graphics definitely don’t define this game, it was very nice to see just how well the game can stand its ground in an industry that is constantly advancing and making improvements (at least on a visual level). Not only does it hold its own, but I can only think of a couple of titles that are superior to Killzone 2 on an aesthetic level. I was already impressed from the jump and my praises weren’t about to stop there.

After I actually started playing the game, I was floored by the tight, gratifying, and enthralling mechanics of combat. One might not think there’s much that goes into configuring the pieces that come together while shooting weapons in a first- or even third-person shooter, but there can be many varying elements. Everything from the recoil, to the sound the weapon makes when reloaded, will have to work together in harmony to provide a satisfying experience. Killzone 2 demands all of its game elements come together in an effort to first entice the player with its mechanics, and it succeeds on multiple fronts. Weapons sound fantastic when fired and reloaded. Aiming down the sights not only helps immensely with your accuracy, but also adds to the immersive atmosphere and experience. This has become a staple of the genre, but it’s important to point out because I’ve never felt so immersed aiming down the barrel of my gun in any other shooter. I was also extremely impressed by my enemies, who seem to actually react to getting attacked depending on which part of their body was shot at. Continuously firing upon a shoulder might cause an enemy to actually sway in that direction and fall backward, leading with that area of his body as he dies. The same applies to attacking a Helghast soldier’s legs, or his abdomen. The animations seem to be quite dynamic, and it’s truly one of the most satisfying things to watch.

Intuitive six-axis controls help as well. While some games have tried to incorporate six-axis functionality, these tend to come across as gimmicky, bogging down the game experience and only frustrating the player by not only breaking the immersion of the game but also forcing poorly designed mechanics onto them. It’s easy to forget six-axis exists, since most game developers recently have made the choice to exclude it entirely from their games. On the contrary, if you’ve played The Last of Us, you know that the having to hit your controller against your hand to recharge your flashlight is welcoming, nice, and not intrusive on the experience at all. It can actually be quite enjoyable. The same can be said of Killzone. Both the second and third games use six-axis functionality to turn valves and set demolition charges when needed. The game will ask the player to hold L1 and R1 to grab onto the valve (or the handle of a demolition charge) and then the player must turn the controller to move the character’s hands. In the instance of the valve, the player will have to let go of L1 and R1, and turn the controller the opposite direction to re-position their hands, grabbing on again and continuing to rotate. This element of the game did not show up very often, but when it did, I rather enjoyed it. It was the first time in a long time that I found myself welcoming six-axis functionality, because they were non-intrusive and added to the overall experience.

The experience is what Killzone is all about. The games do a terrific job of making the player feel as if they are actually a part of that game world, living in the protagonist’s boots, fighting the war against the Helghast. There is always a lot happening on-screen, and the atmosphere is enriched by the constant fighting taking place—even in the distance where you can see it but won’t proceed in that direction. The fact is it’s still there and it stretches the dire brutality of this game world even further. The game is exciting, enticing, and constantly active.

The story of the franchise might not be a new premise (two large forces fighting a huge war across two planets) but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see a fresh take on the concept, along with any new twists and turns from what one would expect out of a simple and constantly-used stipulation. Unfortunately, this is where Killzone 2 falls a little flat. The plot of the second game is generic and the characters are one-dimensional, stereotypical, and downright unlikable. It might be safe to argue that the stories in these blockbuster action games aren’t as important, and people might not be worried about story when considering the purchase of one of these titles, but that doesn’t excuse Killzone 2. While the game perfected mechanics and immersive atmosphere, it didn’t even come close with its storytelling.

Fortunately, Guerilla Games learned from their mistakes and criticism of the game, and went for a better story in the sequel. Killzone 3 retains all of the things that made the second game a thrilling experience, and sought out to defeat tropes and stereotypes that an audience would come to expect from a game of its genre. The addition of some triple-A voice talent also added to the depth and believability of some of the characters (primarily, the antagonists). Characters that I completely hated in the second game (I’m looking at you, Rico) redeemed themselves and became some of my favorite characters in the third. They also did away with the dark, industrial, gritty brown aesthetics and went with a much brighter tone for the game. While Killzone 3 was received with just a little less praise, averaging mildly lower review scores than its predecessor, it’s my belief that it is the better game of the two. They fixed what needed to be fixed, and retained all of the wonderful qualities of the title that came before it. That is why Killzone 3 has become one of my favorite titles this generation, and why the wait for Killzone: Shadow Fall just became a lot more intense.

The Killzone franchise has proven itself to be one of the best first-person shooter franchises since its PlayStation 3 debut back in 2009. After playing through Killzone 2 and 3, it is more than safe to assume I am placing my trust in the right place with Killzone: Shadow Fall. For the previously uninterested consumers who enjoys shooters, I suggest giving the series a shot. With the Killzone Trilogy providing easy access to all three games, and Killzone: Shadow Fall just on the horizon, there hasn’t been a better time than now.

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