Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Impressions of Killing Floor 2: Early Access

The original Killing Floor is one of my most-played games of all time, second only to the Korean MMORPG Lineage 2, so I was naturally eager to get my hands on Killing Floor 2 as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that meant playing the early access edition on Steam, a business model I've avoided like the plague because I don't like the idea of paying to beta test a product. My love for Killing Floor is so great, however, that I took the plunge on early access, anyway, because I wanted to be a part of the game's evolution from the beginning.

For those of you who've been living under a rock, Killing Floor is a cooperative first-person shooter in which you and up to five teammates attempt to survive against increasingly difficult waves of onslaught from genetically-altered humanoid experiments, commonly referred to as "zeds." Consistently one of Steam's most actively-played online shooters over its six year lifespan, its appeal stemmed from its variety of mechanically distinct enemies, its fun and exotic maps, and its sheer amount of powerful, satisfying weapons. It's a classically entertaining formula that allows for timeless enjoyment blasting enemies to bits, and its leveling system gives you a rewarding sense of progression as you get stronger and move up to higher difficulties, which come with their own new mechanics to learn and master.

Killing Floor 2 has been in early access for two weeks now, and I've been playing it steadily ever since launch day. It's inappropriate to do a formal review of the game at this point, since it's still missing a lot of intended content, and a lot is going to change between now and its official release -- therefore, consider this an "early impressions" piece that takes an early look at how it compares to the original Killing Floor and, more importantly, whether it's worth $30 in its current state. If you're unfamiliar with Killing Floor, consider reading my original review of the original game (although it's really out-dated at this point) before continuing. 

The question that I have to address right away is "did Killing Floor actually need a sequel?" Considering that the original game was still in Steam's list of top 25 actively-played games nearly six years after its release, and that developer Tripwire Interactive were still supporting it as recently as December, when they hosted their free annual "Twisted Christmas" event with Christmas-themed zeds and a brand new map, the old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" would certainly seem to apply in this case. With game series like Left 4 Dead and Payday leaving a track record of seemingly unnecessary sequels splitting the player base and essentially forcing customers to buy an entire second game to keep up with the community, I was a little apprehensive at the announcement of a Killing Floor 2

Sequels for online games can be a touchy subject for some. Make it too much like the original, and people will complain that it's not different enough; make it too different than the original, and people will complain that it's not the same anymore. Finding the right balance is tough. Thankfully, TWI have vowed not to alter the core gameplay formula of Killing Floor ("if it ain't broke, don't fix it") -- instead, they're using Killing Floor 2 as an opportunity to crank everything up to 11 while throwing in a bunch of new content and features. At least, that's the promise. At this stage of early access, there's not a lot that's truly new to the game, since it was released in a type of "bare bones" package lacking most of the planned features and content. 

That's not to say that Killing Floor 2, in its current state, is a mere skeleton of a game. Sure, there are only three official maps to play on, and there are only four perks to choose from (consider these different classes like in a role-playing game), but all the necessary components are in place to have a damned good time if you enjoy the core gameplay experience. Even with the limited content, I've racked up 44 hours (and counting) in the span of two weeks, because it's so fun and enjoyable even as it is. Playing the same maps over and over again gets a little repetitive, certainly, but that repetition is offset by gaining experience in your chosen perk and receiving statistical boosts and game-altering passive abilities, which enable you to move up to higher difficulties where the gameplay changes dramatically, keeping the game consistently fresh and interesting.

In an effort to rectify one of the core problems of the original game, moving up in difficulty doesn't simply inflate enemy health values and make their attacks do more damage. In KF1, enemy health improved proportionally with the damage bonuses you received from your weapons, as you leveled up and moved up in difficulty, which made it sometimes feel like you weren't actually getting any stronger, while turning each of the enemies into legitimate "bullet sponges" any time you used an off-perk weapon (any weapon in which your class doesn't specialize). In KF2, enemy health values don't improve as you move up in difficulty, with the exception of boss-type enemies like the scrake, fleshpound, and the level's final boss. Instead, enemies gain new abilities to make them tougher. 

Basic enemies like clots, for example, will sprint at you if you shoot them and fail to kill them. Husks -- which normally shoot ranged fireballs -- gain a close-ranged AOE flamethrower if you let them get too close. Gorefasts hit you with combos instead of just single attacks. Some enemies will randomly roll towards you or jump in the air to disrupt your aim. The effect is that your weapons feel just as effective in the hardest difficulty as they do in "normal mode," but you have to be on point all the time, with better reaction speed, better accuracy, better positioning, and better planning. Consequently, success on higher difficulties favors personal skill much more than perk level. This idea of enemies gaining whole new movesets, instead of just gaining bonuses on their statistical sliders, is so genius to me, because I never even realized it was a problem in KF1 until TWI presented the solution in KF2

Leveling up still helps a lot, though, and thankfully the leveling system is way better this time around. Leveling up in KF1 often felt like a tedious grind, mainly in terms of the time requirement, which was compounded by certain agonizing leveling objectives that slowed it down even further. Killing Floor 2 offers players a much more steady reward cycle by sub-dividing levels; each level-up grants less significant statistical rewards, but they occur more frequently, and there are a lot more of them, so that you feel like you're constantly making small steps to each new threshold when you can unlock a new skill. Every five levels, you're given a choice between two separate bonuses, which you can freely swap between waves. Would you rather have a larger health pool, or have your health regenerate over time? Would you rather deal 20% more damage in single-fire mode, or reload your weapons 20% faster? It's a simple change, but having the choice makes leveling far more satisfying and adds more strategic depth to the game.

The leveling system also works more intuitively than before, using a more visible experience points system that grants XP for killing (or assisting in killing) enemies directly. Stronger enemies are worth more experience, and killing more enemies will net you more total experience. It's much easier to see how much progress you're making towards each level-up, and it doesn't force you to go out of your way hunting specific objectives like killing X number of stalkers, or welding a certain amount of doors. Unfortunately, the system still tends to promote selfish, aggressive play; if you want to level faster, you need to be killing as much as possible, which means rushing to beat your teammates to kills, or else "tagging" each enemy by placing a single bullet in it so you get credit for the assist, without actually helping to bring each enemy down. This is a minor problem, but it would be nice if experience were shared more cooperatively among the group. 

Those are the only major changes to the core gameplay formula, but there have been a lot of smaller tweaks to specific mechanics for the seeming intent of making the game harder. Enemies have gained a ton of new, more devastating attacks, and have more errant movement patterns that make it harder to line up headshots. Welded doors that get destroyed no longer respawn between waves, and they have a limited durability before they break regardless of weld level. Enemies crawl out of holes in the floor, walls, and ceiling, right in the middle of rooms, which makes the gameplay strategy of camping one location far more dangerous. When fleeing from danger, spawned enemies will constantly teleport around every corner, effectively trapping you and making the gameplay strategy of kiting enemies around the map far more dangerous.

After mastering KF1's numerously subtle and nuanced techniques over the course of nearly 800 hours of playtime, these kinds of changes are certainly welcome to mix things up and offer new challenges for seasoned veterans, but some of the changes are completely dumb and inexcusable. Welding in KF1 had situational functionality on certain maps by allowing you to control the flow of zeds better. I'm all for making it so destroyed doors don't respawn, but putting an invisible health pool on doors that break regardless of weld level makes welding almost completely useless in KF2. Teleporting zeds, meanwhile, adds way too much random, unpredictable bullshit to a game that's supposedly about enabling a high ceiling of individual skill, in addition to making no thematic sense whatsoever. 

One time I was playing Biotics Lab on suicidal, and reached a point when I was the last man standing, which requires you to stay on the move because you can't hold down a single position by yourself. I crossed through a small decontamination chamber with weldable doors on either end, and thought it would be wise to weld the doors a little to slow the zeds down, thus buying myself some time to reload my weapons and heal myself up. There were only so many zeds left in the wave, so they should have been stuck trying to break down the doors, but as I continued to buy myself some distance, they teleported past the welded doors and ambushed me around a corner. There's no way to defend against that, and having them bypass my welded doors makes welding seem even more useless. 

In another situation, I was soloing Burning Paris on suicidal, and killed everything down to the last zed, which happened to be a husk. By leaving one zed alive, I was planning to delay the trader phase long enough to scrounge the map for ammo crates, so that I could save money and afford my top-tier weapon the next round. I'd made it through several waves already and felt good about possibly being able to beat the level. I ran from the streets into a building, leaving the husk behind me, went up some stairs, opened a door, and found the husk right in front of me. He torched me instantly with his flamethrower and killed me before I could even switch weapons. There's no logical reason that husk should have been able to get ahead of me like that, and it's completely infuriating to have a successful run fail in an instant because of random, unpredictable nonsense like that. I completely understand wanting players to feel vulnerable at all times, with zeds closing in from every corner, but teleporting them from across the level is not the sensible solution. 

This next issue may simply be the result of only having four of the proposed ten classes available at the start of early access, but I miss the implied, unspoken teamwork that existed in KF1 with players taking specific roles in the team. If you were a sharpshooter, your number one priority was to stun and take out scrakes, and you had to trust your teammates to take care of the weaker "trash zeds" and keep you clear while you focused on pulling off the combo. If you were a commando, it was your job not to shoot the scrake, and instead focus on clearing the trash and trust the sharpshooter to take the scrake out. If you were a medic, it was your job to tank the fleshpound when he showed up. If you were the demolitions expert, it was your job to place pipe bombs appropriately and trust your teammates to lure scrakes and fleshpounds onto them without raging them. 

When a scrake or fleshpound shows up in KF2, the teamwork is less about relying on your teammates to perform their respective duties by complementing each other's individual weaknesses with each other's individual strengths, and more about coordinating fire at the same time. In a way, having to coordinate fire on single high-priority targets takes a lot more teamwork, but I liked the feeling in KF1 of knowing that I'm the sharpshooter, and that scrakes (and sometimes fleshpounds) are my responsibility, and that we're all screwed if I mess up. In KF2, the four classes feel like they all serve the same role -- kill trash as efficiently as the next class, and focus fire on the big targets when they show up. The only one who's a little distinguished is the medic, whose priority should be healing his teammates, even though he's fully capable of taking on a "kill trash, focus fire" role as well. Hopefully this will be less of a problem when more perks are released. 

Graphics comparison: The spawn point for Biotics Lab 2015.

Compared to the first game, KF2 (in its current state) has a more fast-paced "run and gun" feel, for several reasons. Enemies move so much faster than they used to, particularly as you go up in difficulty, so you have to be quicker about everything you do, and they're constantly in your face, sprouting up from the ground right in front of you and appearing around every corner. You therefore have to move around a lot more, because it's so much harder to hold the front line of any camping spot. They even added a dedicated sprint function (used to be you had to switch to your useless knife to get the melee speed boost) which makes literal running and gunning a lot easier. All of this succeeds in cranking up the game's intensity, but whether or not that's a good thing is up for debate.

Killing Floor 2 is certainly a lot more exciting, but I feel as though it lost a lot of tension in the process. You don't really get the time in the middle of a wave to feel your impending doom, because death and party wipes occur so much faster -- instead of gradually building towards a climax, KF2 seems to spike instantly while retaining peak intensity for the majority of each wave. The loud server-wide "roar announcements" every time a scrake or fleshpound spawns also kill a lot of anticipation because you know exactly what to expect. By making everything more intense and cramming "in your face action" down your throat with rampant, frantic chaos all about, all the time, it can be a little draining. You still get the 60-second trader time between waves to catch your breath, which is sufficient downtime to keep the game from getting too overwhelming, but I sometimes find the actual waves more stressful than fun.  

The prime reason to make a sequel may very well have been to update the aging technology upon which the original Killing Floor was based, and it's here that the changes in Killing Floor 2 are most noticeable. The 2009 retail release of KF1 used Unreal Engine 2, which was a little dated even then, and became even more so in the nearly six years since, now that the Unreal Engine has moved onto its fourth version. Killing Floor 2 is built on what TWI are calling UE3.75 -- the base UE3 with a lot of features taken from UE4. The result: everything in KF2 looks a lot better, and everything feels a lot smoother. Things like vastly superior animations (both for zeds and weapons), destructible environments, persistent blood splatter, and decaying limbs, in addition to straight technical upgrades on models, textures, and lighting make it difficult to go back and play KF1 again. 

Graphics comparison: The spawn point for Biotics Lab 2009. 

There are a lot of awesome improvements in Killing Floor 2, and I think it definitely has potential to far outshine its predecessor, but in its current state, I don't think it's worth $30 unless you're a die-hard fan of the original Killing Floor and can't wait to see all of the new changes. With only three maps, four classes, and 18 weapons (20 if you count the default pistol/knife) in the initial early access release, there's just not enough variety for sustained play -- again, unless you're a die-hard fan who finds the raw gameplay satisfying on its own. And if you're one of those die-hard fans, then you probably already know all about KF2 and are probably already playing it. Tripwire will also be wiping perk progression and achievements throughout early access and before official release, so if you're worried about losing hard-earned progress, then you should definitely stay away.  

If you've never played Killing Floor before and are interested in trying KF2, then I think you should probably wait until the official release, and perhaps consider playing KF1 while you wait. It's hard to justify $30 for what little content comes with KF2 at the moment, considering you can buy KF1 for $20 and receive way, way, way more content. Alternatively, you could drop $40 for the deluxe edition of KF2, which comes with a full copy of KF1. The original game is certainly less active now than it used to be, with a lot of the playerbase having moved over to the sequel, but I booted the game up at 6:20pm EST and found 120 active servers across all difficulty modes, so there are still plenty of people to play with online. 


  1. Review the Witcher 3, please. PLEASE. It's getting tidal waves of positive advertisements--traditional and game review-- and so I would love to see an actual critical opinion.

    1. I would love to play (and review) Witcher 3, but my computer doesn't meet the minimum requirements to run it. So, without investing a few hundred dollars in upgrades, I won't be playing it any time soon.

    2. I came to say exactly this. Sorry for the offtopic.

  2. I pre-ordered the game to support the developers, but I wouldn't bother playing it until the inevitable "Enhanced Edition" comes out with all the patches and DLC and what not.