“Messy” is the first word that comes to mind when asked to describe Killing Floor 2, and not just because every in-game surface will be coated in an array of bodily fluids by the end of each match. Its minimal structure and single-minded objective make it a bloody explosion of gameplay that requires submersion in its features as opposed to progression through them. That’s not to say it isn’t fun – it’s a hell of a lot of fun – but it could have been a smarter, more self-conscious kind of fun.
The premise sees up to six players banding together to survive waves of Zeds – antagonists who should really be given an award for Least Creative Way to Avoid Saying “Zombies.” Players have ten classes at their disposal (called “perks” for some reason), most of which are fairly standard, including a medic, an explosives expert, and a melee specialist. Kills and perk-specific actions earn experience and money, which can be used to buy armour, ammo, and more powerful weapons between waves. All of these things are vital to survival, because successive waves ramp up the enemy numbers and introduce much more dangerous Zed variants, culminating in one of two boss fights at the end of the match.
If this all sounds very straightforward, that’s no accident. Killing Floor 2 doesn’t have much in its head beyond the desire to see zombies liquefied. Despite their individual uniqueness, each perk is much less specialized than it appears. Every one of them has access to conventional firearms, grenades, healing capabilities, and a door-welding tool; some just make better use of them than others. The result is a co-operative game that doesn’t actually require much co-operation. Even definitively team-based features like the ability of some classes to carry ammo packs for other players are completely passive, ensuring that 90% of the time, you don’t have to pay attention to anything other than what you’re shooting at.
A question I found myself frequently asking while playing was “why did they bother with that?” The entire perk system was a frequent target, especially after trying out the Survivalist perk, which has access to any weapon in the game, showing just how unnecessary it all was. Similarly, even though each map has been carefully constructed to include a variety of terrain and strategic locations, players will inevitably gravitate to the largest open area available. This is because the Zed hordes can get so humungous that survival often depends on how much space you have to back away into. In fact, the only times I was killed by something other than a boss were when I got trapped in a corner by one of the larger Zeds that require multiple players worth of guns to bring down.
Of course, if the goal was to make a cathartic game of zombie slaughter with everything else being secondary, then that goal was reached with flying colours. There is an absurd amount of detail to the enemies’ animations and gore effects – skin is realistically charred by incendiary weapons, and zombie skulls can be blasted into individual fragments – and the developers know full well what a guilty pleasure it is. There’s a slow-mo feature (called “Zed Time,” because of course it is) activated by performing especially impressive actions like headshots and group kills. While it doesn’t contribute to gameplay much, it acquits itself as punctuation for the frantic action, alongside the satisfyingly gooey sound effects.
The game can be quite thoughtfully designed, considering its role as mindless entertainment. Every enemy type has unique audio cues to alert the player to their presence among a crowd or off-screen, and there’s even a “minimize character chatter” checkbox in the options. A middle ground between announcing every action they perform and complete mutism would’ve been appreciated, but it’s a nice inclusion nonetheless. Additionally, the soundtrack is composed primarily of above-average metal that suits the playable violence well – anything more nuanced would be drowned out by the constant character chatter, enemy vocalizations, and weapons fire. Finally, the higher difficulty levels (which the game helpfully suggests based on your perk level) alter not just the Zeds’ numbers but also their behaviour and abilities, which is a fantastic practice that more developers need to incorporate.
All that said, the game also takes the occasional baffling misstep. Some levels contain thrashing, inaccessible Zeds as background details, which interfere with those important audio cues, on top of tricking players into wasting ammo on an enemy that technically isn’t there. The melee-focused Berserker perk is also noticeably less enjoyable than the others, simply because first-person melee combat never works unless the combat mechanics are specifically designed for it.
The perk is also equipped with a timing-based block maneuver that’s horribly out of place amid the frenzied combat. I initially thought the rifle – and pistol – based Sharpshooter and Gunslinger perks were similarly unrealistic, as they tend to emphasize precise headshots. However, with a little time, I settled into an agreeable balance between deliberately trying for headshots and just trying to carve a path to stay alive.
This highlights Killing Floor 2’s unusual engagement curve. Most multiplayer shooters’ entertainment value forms a steady downward slope as their content runs dry and repetition sets in, not helped by the fact that many of them are so similar that’s there no initial burst of novelty to them.
Killing Floor 2, on the other hand, starts out at the middle of the graph and gets better with time…and then eventually forms a steady downward slope as its content runs dry and repetition sets in, because it’s still a multiplayer shooter. This is because it can take a few hours of playing to learn how to distinguish different enemy types among the piles of flesh and how to effectively use the aforementioned weapons. And before this happens, the game feels even more undisciplined and one-dimensional than it already is.
Veterans of the first title will no doubt be able to bypass this adjustment period and start enjoying themselves immediately, but to be honest, I’m not sure what this game has to offer existing fans. It’s certainly more polished and better-designed (as it had better be, given that it’s a full 2016 release instead of a 2009 remake of a 2005 mod), which is most exemplified in the removal of the original’s asinine level-up requirements. Other than that though, there’s little here that didn’t exist before. The bosses are the only new enemies, there are a handful of mostly standard new weapons, and the new perks – the Gunslinger, the Survivalist, and the SMG-toting SWAT – are nothing special.
What fresh features the game has seem to have been born of someone at Tripwire declaring, “well, if we’re gonna keep getting compared to Left 4 Dead, we may as well deserve it.” The most obvious is the AI “Game Conductor,” which adds some dynamic difficulty based on player performance, but there’s also the VS Survival mode, in which one team jumps between different Zeds and tries to take down the human characters.
It’s not, as you may expect, a simple test of who can kill who first. Instead, matches are split into two rounds, with each team taking on each role once before their performances are compared at the end. It’s a subtly brilliant way of avoiding the balance issues of a straight deathmatch (thankfully too, as the Zeds have a clear advantage), although it’s still imperfect.
There are no difficulty settings available in this mode, so the game’s standard method of accounting for players’ variable perk levels doesn’t apply. It’s possible the teams are given some kind of handicap depending on their opponents, but if so, it happens behind the scenes and doesn’t seem to affect much. Additionally, while the human players get to spend the between-wave downtime preparing for the next wave, the Zed team has no similar diversion, meaning one team is having demonstrably less fun than the other – a death knell for any asymmetric multiplayer experience. Thus, while controlling the Zeds temporarily invigorates the gameplay, the mode is unlikely to have the longevity of the main event.
Needless to say, Killing Floor 2 is everything that a lot of us have spent years trying to convince parents and politicians that all video games are not: a gleeful orgy of pointless violence. Of course, gleeful orgies of pointless violence have a definite place in any gamer’s catalogue, so if you never tried the first Killing Floor and always wondered why it’s been so ubiquitous on Steam for several years, you could do a lot worse than this sequel. Whether established fans should make the switch depends mostly on whether you think a largely technical upgrade is worth another $30.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
While pretty light on new features (particularly ones that could have contributed to its co-operative nature), Killing Floor 2 is still an unrelenting deluge of mindless, entertaining violence.