Poor Sony. It’s hard to sympathize with them these days. Poised for another easy first-place finish in the console race, they released a device with a $600 premium just in time for a global recession. Of course, that price point was part of the plan all along. From its first baby steps onto the market, the PlayStation 3 was poised to be the connoisseur’s gaming system – its sleek curves and glossy black finish recalling less a child’s toy than a concert grand piano. But while they may have created the first piece of videogame hardware you could comfortable sit next to the humidor in a book-lined study, its platform-exclusive software doesn’t seem nearly that exclusive.

Which is why the arrival of Killzone 2 last Friday is nearly as important as the hair-trigger fanboys would lead you to believe. It’s the rare PS3 exclusive that truly makes a case for the system as something more than an overpriced Xbox 360, and it does it on Microsoft’s own turf: first-person shooters. That’s not to say that Killzone 2 is the best title the genre has produced, but it’s certainly the most sophisticated – in graphics, gameplay and overall presentation. It’s also the first game about space marines traveling to a distant planet to duke it out with their mutated humanoid brethren that you could rightfully call “subtle” – at least by videogame standards.

Simply deeming Killzone 2 one of the most graphically advanced games ever is a cop out, as if you could crank the sliders and twist the knobs of another engine just a bit further and achieve the same effect. Instead, the creatives at Guerilla Games approached the game’s world design with a cinematographer’s eye for light and perspective. Some details are almost imperceptibly small – an understated blur here, a hint of lens flare there – but the end result is staggering. You feel somehow more “present” in this world than in any digital playground to come before it.

Thankfully, that sense of uncanny realism isn’t squandered on a mediocre setting. Though Killzone 2‘s Helghan is unsurprisingly desolate, the Helghast’s severe architecture and sinister stormtrooper attire imbues the world with character. In a field where so many games are about shooting Nazis, it’s refreshing to find a one that implies fascism without lazily resorting to swastikas or shrieks of German dialect. And while the plot is riddled with the same forgettable characters and bloated drama as most first-person shooters, it doesn’t intrude on the game’s eerie atmosphere.

But Killzone 2 isn’t about reenacting the Second World War in space. It’s about shooting folks. With guns. And in that respect, it’s one of the most pure shooters since Call of Duty 4. It takes that game’s reliance on careful down-sight aiming and adds a Gears-style cover mechanic that makes firefights even more tactical (though it’s only present in the game’s single-player campaign). Clearing a corridor is as much about moving to the right vantage point as it is training your targeting reticle on your opponents’ glowing, red eyes.

Unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the controls are working against you, especially if you’re sensitive to input lag. There’s a slight delay between pressing a button and watching it register on screen – so slight, in fact, that I had to pop in another PS3 first-person shooter to make sure it wasn’t my own faulty setup. I’ve since learned that it was an intentional decision on the developers’ part, but whether it’s out of a desire for verisimilitude or somehow in service of the gameplay is irrelevant. If you’re used to the twitch responsiveness of Left 4 Dead or Call of Duty 4, you’re going to find aiming in Killzone 2 more than a little sluggish.

The controls aren’t the only place where the game seems to purposefully spurn playability. Hop into the game’s multiplayer “Warzone” and you’re bombarded with (initially meaningless) decisions. There’s a Team Fortress 2-style class system, but it only becomes available once you’ve unlocked new class choices through a persistent point system. You can mix and match “badges” with unique special abilities (again, once you’ve earned them through point grinding). You can even select your preferred spawn point each time you die, but with games this varied and fast paced, it’s often hard to tell where you should be headed. It’s clearly a system with a ton of depth, but you feel like you’re about to drown the moment you try to wade in for a dip.

Ultimately, there are two ways to look at Killzone 2: as a beautiful but intentionally obscure artifact, to be admired from a distance by most but only truly enjoyed by a select few, or as stylish but insubstantial romp, hostile to everyone but the most devoted fan. Neither viewpoint is entirely right. As a lifelong gamer, there were moments in Killzone 2 that exceeded both my patience and my comprehension. But there’s something strangely comforting about its inaccessibility. Guerilla Games had a vision for Killzone 2 – and they’ll be damned if they let the players get in the way of it.

Bottom Line: Killzone 2 isn’t the most approachable shooter out there, but it’s probably the most uncompromising – which is somehow fitting from the company that brought you the $600 console.

Recommendation: Buy it. Even if you struggle with the controls, there are moments that are absolutely worth the initial frustration.

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