Killzone 2: War Sucks and War Games Suck Too

Killzone 2 exists in a strange place where the Michael Bay inspired bombast of Modern Warfare shares space with the gore-soaked dialectics of The Iliad. For all of its surface problems (and there are many), it is a game about shooting dudes that frequently attempts to impart something far different than the mindless jingoism of its brethren. Killzone 2 has a generic science-fiction plot — the “good guys” of the Interplanatary Strategic Alliance (ISA) are fighting a war against the “bad” Helghast army — but it is also a story about the futility of assigning values to combat fuelled by nationalism and historical injustice.

War is hell, it says, and not just for our team.

During the game’s opening, when Sev, the player-controlled character, lingers to hear an exchange between Evelyn, the scientist, and Rico, the soldier, he takes in a conversation that reveals more about the game’s intensions than the following five to six hours of play will. Evelyn tells Rico that the actions of his soldiers will determine history, that it’s essential to capture the Helghast’s leader humanely so that peace terms can be discussed. Rico, the real villain of the piece, tells the scientist that he doesn’t care about history. He is a cog in a war machine with no regard for the greater impact of his actions and is manically focused entirely on the murder of his enemies.

This scene, despite the ham-fisted writing+ (and the fact that the player can conceivably just walk by the characters and miss the entire conversation), establishes more depth than the rest of the game seems to warrant. The overall story is simple enough, describing how the colonization of new planets by future human organizations lead to the formation of the ISA, who eventually dicked over the Helghast by cutting them out of their space United Nations (UP?) and forcing them to live on a crumby, inhospitable planet. The Helghast, understandably upset, start a war because they want the planets they colonized back from the jerks who took them++.

The Helghast aren’t great guys and gals by any means, but they aren’t clear-cut villains.

As much as they’re painted in with cultural colours that signify the past century’s greatest monsters (the rousing speeches of a charismatic leader to endless rows of black-clad soldiers, red-eyed helmets glowing like crimson arm bands), the Helghast are meant to evoke the cloudiness of considering any population or enemy in purely binary terms. These are people who are fighting for the freedom of their population, for the chance to improve their lives. The imperialism of the player character’s side, the ISA, has ruined your enemies and backed them into a corner where their ability to survive depends on fighting to take the territory that is rightfully (as rightfully as possessing any land ever really is) theirs.

In theory the game is asking you to remember that there’s rarely anything as simple as good or bad in war. In many, many cases of organized combat there are simply people trying to kill other people. Killzone 2 takes a far less conventional approach to warfare than so many other games that, even if the backstory is so minimal, it deserves some recognition for even having the idea of portraying its Russo-Nazis with any level of nuance.

Unfortunately, aside from probably a little less than 20 minutes of actual exposition, Killzone 2 is primarily made up of combat scenarios where the player is encouraged to think on nothing else but how to best advance through enemy lines or clear out a room full of hostiles. The fact of the matter is that you’re not ever really meant to dwell on the greater meaning associated with the trail of corpses your player leaves behind. The game encourages you to forget all about the complexities underlying every battle and just run, take cover and shoot shoot shoot your gun. Thrown into a fight for survival, never given more than the brief loading screens and their helpful story recaps to try to remember what the combat is all about, Killzone 2 consistently undermines its early efforts to be about something. While it’s admirable, in some ways, that it even tries to have a message beyond the usual FPS nonsense, it planting the seed of a bigger idea and abandoning it almost entirely (until it returns in half-assed fashion during the short ending cinematic) almost makes the lack of thematic consistency worse.

Like all modern shooters, Killzone 2 ends its brisk single-player campaign by dumping players back at the main menu where the only way to get more out of the game is to jump into multiplayer. Of course, just like the rest of the genre, there’s no attempt at furthering the fiction through this mode (why not, by the way? Just because there are other people around it doesn’t mean you can’t try to continue your story in multiplayer) and, instead, the lasting Killzone experience is one characterized by frantically jogging around maps shooting — and trying not to get shot by — other players.

So, what we have in the end is a title that opens up a conversation about why war is less cut and dry than most videogames would have the player believe that decides to drop this thread throughout the vast majority of the actual playing experience. Killzone 2 is, for this reason, kind of gross. It gives us the seed of an idea, asks us to think about the battle against the Helghast as if we’re like that scientist referenced above, then promptly places us into the same mindset as the psychopathically violent Rico and tells us that’s enough.

It isn’t!

Like it or not, many people are going to have their opinions on a great many subjects shaped by what they take away from videogames. They’re a massive medium, an enormous part of the entertainment industry and partial arbitrators of many formed or unformed moral and political opinions sifting through their audience’s minds. When I first started playing Killzone 2 I thought that it may have been a surprise, a game that took the usual conventions of the first-person shooter and attached a brain to an otherwise typical story. Instead it’s a “me too” kind of enterprise, content to show its audience some of humanity’s worst without giving more than a cursory nod to ways that we could think about armed combat outside of its value as virtual entertainment.

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+ Killzone 2 has to have the worst dialogue I’ve encountered through a game in the last year or two. The battle growls are punctuated by “fuck” in the most overbearing, mindless and unnatural way and the frequent “mom jokes” complete a picture of the script’s creators as recent hires from a junior high creative writing class.

+I had to consult Wikipedia to piece together some of this. I probably mangled the details in the process of simplifying the Killzone games’ surprisingly detailed backstory, but think I got the gist of things right.

***

Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.

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2 thoughts on “Killzone 2: War Sucks and War Games Suck Too”

  1. I am suprised you made it through the review, it must have been more interesting then the game. EB Games bundled Killzonewith something else I bought, I was pretty excited until I played it, thats 30 minutes I will never get back.

    1. I was determined to get my $10 worth on the used copy I bought. I didn’t mention it in the article, but Killzone 2, regardless of how much it stinks on a narrative level, is also just flat-out boring.

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