Does Killzone 2 reflect the PS3's full potential?
27th Feb 2009 | 14:14
We think the powerful Cell processor could deliver more
What does Killzone 2 mean for the Sony PS3?
It's always fascinating to look back at the early shots of flagship games for new consoles – to dream of what might have been, to rue what wasn't, or even to make grunts of sheer surprise that it did actually work out as planned.
As a case in point, today sees the release of Killzone 2 – the current great white hope for the Playstation 3, and sequel to the first-person shooter that was once mooted as the Playstation 2's Halo-killer.
Killzone 2's been one of the vanguards of the Playstation 3 marketing push since 2005, when an E3 video, presumed by many to be in-engine footage, but in fact was an optimistic 'target render', wowed the crowds into thinking Sony's upcoming console would be some kind of technological revolution.
Fast forward four years and it's a very different story. The Playstation 3 has, though it's recovered a little from its initial sales doldrums, become something of an underdog platform.
The Xbox 360 is now the console of choice for the habitual gamer, while the Wii has the family/casual vote all sewn up. The net result for the PS3 is, in internet discussion circles, a peculiarly hyper-defensive fanbase who seemingly blame the rest of the world for their champion's fall from grace.
Last year's Metal Gear Solid 4 was supposed to be PS3's shining light, but despite its followers' tendencies to viciously tear any dissenter to pieces, it hardly drew the console's popularity level with the 360. Much, then, relies on Killzone 2.
Killzone 2 biggest PS3 game yet?
As a hyper-violent, militaristic first-person shooter set in a bleak near-future, it ticks all the current best-seller boxes. And while it has little to no interest in pushing the medium forward beyond its surface-level whizzbang, it's hard to imagine a title more precisely tailored to the archetypal gaming audience of 2009.
There's a good chance it'll be the PS3's biggest yet. It's already become the most pre-ordered PS3 title ever – what remains to be seen is if it can sell any more PS3s. Speculation has it there's another PS3 price-cut in the offing – so KZ2 could be the first move in a two-step plan to win back gamers' goodwill.
It's certainly a great-looking game, but cast your mind and eyes back to those first videos in 2005 and it's hard not to think that, had KZ2 really looked like that, the PS3 would surely be more in ascendancy today.
KZ2 may not quite live up to either those first videos or to the rather more truthful, but still tinkered-with shots that followed in 2007, but it's certainly the PS3's most spectacular-looking game by far.
While its characters can't quite shake that uncanny marionette feel common to a great many games new and old, it's the little details that make it – incidental clutter and dust, distant scenery and thumping great explosions.
The sort of stuff that tricks you into thinking there's a world around you, and you're not really just trudging down pre-determined paths while waving a cursor around. Photo-real it isn't, but – aside from an unfortunate over-reliance on the colour grey – it's about as good as console graphics get today.
Will future PS3 games have better graphics?
So can the PS3 ever do better than this, in terms of graphics? The jury's still hung as to whether the much-ballyhooed Cell processor at the console's heart is all smoke and mirrors, or if it's still far from displaying its true potential.
Given that Killzone 2 uses four and half of the console's six cores (and for a PS3 game to use even that much is quite an event), it's entirely possible the best is yet to come. The PS3 has proved a notoriously difficult beast for developers to code for, but as time goes by they'll hopefully become more familiar with its strange ways. So the likes of Killzone 2 will hopefully one day be more the rule than the exception.
By contrast, the 360's less ambitious processor is relatively easy and familiar to established developers. As a result, it's likely we've seen close to the outer limit of its potential already.
Sony has repeatedly said that they believe the PS3 will ultimately win the console war. Right now, that looks like the ravings of madmen – but if publishers can stick with the PS3 for long enough, we might yet see Cell live up to its initial promises, and that could change everything.
PS3 has ageing graphics hardware
That said, the PS3's graphical clout largely relies on the Nvidia RSX Reality Synthesize GPU, which is based on the desktop GeForce 7800 chip – one that PCs are already three generations of 3D card on from. If developers ever do manage to make the best of Cell, they might find the old Nvidia chip turns out to be something of a bottleneck. Still, there's likely a lot of room for optimisation yet.
Think back to the Playstation 2's twilight years, and how games such as Shadow of the Colossus were achieving visual wonders no-one could have dreamed of in that venerable console's early days.
Over time, developers learn tricks and shortcuts that allow them to use console hardware far more efficiently, as opposed to the relatively brute force rendering more common in its younger days. For instance, the use of deferred shading (also employed in Little Big Planet) is helping to increase the rendering efficiency and lighting quality of newer PS3 games; we can expect similar leg-ups as the console ages.
Already, God of War 3 is on the horizon as the PS3's next oh-gosh-wow game, and from the scant amount on show so far, it may well trump KZ2 in terms of both looks and mass appeal.
Outside of the whose-graphics-are-best willy-waving, neither Killzone 2 or Gears of War 2 make any great strides forward for their genre, so the question is whether a well-put together shooter with spectacular graphics is still enough to reverse a console's fortunes.
Looking backwards to the original Xbox, it was Halo that made a superficially ridiculous concept (Microsoft of all people making a console?) a success. Halo was far from a flawless game, and some of the missteps of its two sequels remain bewildering, but it shook up the console shooter genre, making it simultaneously leaner and greater in scale.
The PS3 is still in need of a solid-good reason for someone who's still sitting on the console fence to buy it, and Quite A Pretty Shooter That's A Lot Like Other Shooters probably isn't it.
Even from a back of the box features list point of view, it isn't 1080p and it doesn't do anything to sell Blu-ray as a gaming format with anything over DVD.
What this game will be, without a doubt, is a dream come true for existing PS3 owners – what finer a reward for their patience and devotion than a lavish graphical showcase like this? Killzone 2 may not be the PS3's GTA III or a Halo, but it's very much giving the people what they want.
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