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I like pulling weeds. It’s repetitive labor, but it feels good every time I yank a prickly stem and up pops a bundle of roots with a puff of dirt. It feels good to make visible progress from one side of the garden to the other. I like popping Zed heads in Killing Floor 2 for sort of the same reason. It's a splash of blood and guts rather than a puff of dirt, but it’s more therapeutic than it sounds.
KF2’s gardens are a biotics lab (run by someone who might as well be called Dr. Mad von Scientist), a snowy facility, and a section of post-civilization Paris. Its weeds are the monstrously malformed Zeds. They’re nasty weeds. The bulk are skinny, pasty and zombie-like, but then there are specials like hulking chainsaw dudes, fat vomiting fellas, and shrieking Sirens.
The game design is about as stereotypically 'video gamey’ as you get, in a good way: up to six players work together to hack, burn, shoot, and explode increasingly nasty hordes of the monsters, pausing briefly between waves to refill ammo and armor, get new weapons, and set up for the next attack. I compare it to weed pulling because wave-assault games are really about cleaning up. There’s a counter in the upper left which displays how many Zeds are left in the current wave, and ripping a whole wave from the Earth is delightful. It’s every weed pulled, every checkbox checked, every typo corrected, every errant nose hair plucked. It’s triumph over disorder and victory over to-do lists.
Shot in the dark
Weeding doesn’t usually involve Kalashnikov rifles and pump-action shotguns, though. Tripwire is known for its expertly crafted digital firearms—I’m a big fan of its Red Orchestra series much for that reason—and it has done a superb job here. It’s more than just the smooth, believable animations. It’s the whole act of using a firearm. Killing a group of basic Zeds, such as the shambling Cysts (whose heads pop like their name implies), is a multi-part story about you and your weapon.
A group of the pasty buggers gurgles through a doorway. Am I holding the right gun? Ammo conservation matters—refills aren’t cheap and you can run out during a wave—so using my primary for every enemy isn’t a good idea. Is it set to the right mode? Some guns, like the AR-15 Varmint Rifle, can be set to single or burst fire. I prefer single. And is it loaded? Magazines run down fast, and reloading can take a long time depending on the gun.
Next, there are aiming decisions to be made. Say I’m using the medic’s default HMTECH-101 pistol. I’ll need a few shots to take down your basic nasties, and depending on my range, I might want to go for a headshot and a bodyshot, or just bodyshots, or maybe I just pop their heads off and let them stumble around for a bit. With another gun, I'm thinking about spread and recoil. Accuracy is extremely important: every miss is time and ammo wasted. At the same time, I need to be thinking about how many Zeds are left in the group I’m targeting, if any might be behind me, and what my team is up to—I don’t want to start shooting at a group someone is currently charging with a katana.
Finally, there’s the payoff: an explosion of gore, another weed plucked. Tripwire’s gore system, which makes melee weapons especially gruesome to use, is just ridiculous. Limbs fly off and heads are sacks of fluid and giblets. KF2 is very much about accuracy, and it rewards your for it. When slow-mo kicks in (which happens when someone does something cool) and I headshot, from the hip, a gaggle of charging beasts while listening to metal… that’s just freaking video games.
I don’t find the melee weapons nearly as fun as guns—success is largely about timing with regular and heavy swings—but I use them sometimes just for the front-row seat to the Zed-splosions. The Eviscerator is the exception: it’s a hybrid melee/ranged weapon made of a spinning saw blade which can be held with outstretched arms to saw through necks, or shot out like in my favorite Half-Life 2 section. It's not quite as good as flinging saw blades in HL2, but I'll take it.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Sometimes, the only good decision is to run. Normal difficulty isn’t too tough, but on Hard and above, you’ve got to know when to cheese it, and when not to reload or heal, both of which slow you down. Everything can seem to be going well, and five seconds later you’re backed into a wall, surrounded, and then dead. If your team survives the wave, you’ll come back for the next one, but you’ll lose any guns you purchased. Not dying is very important.
In any situation, teamwork is the best way to stay alive. Unfortunately, not many people use the built-in (and very good) voice chat on the random public servers I’ve been joining. It’s frustrating when teammates scatter, or don’t respond to questions, and in the Biotics Lab especially it can be tough to describe landmarks on the map. It’s my fault too, because if no one else is talking I’m generally reluctant to step up and lead, but I’m trying to get past that shyness.
Now and then I’ll join an already coordinated group and it’s a lot of fun, and as ever, nothing beats playing with friends who aren’t going to be shy about yelling at you. Winners stick together, show each other weapon, armor, and ammo pickups, choose an area to defend, and weld doors shut during harder waves to control Zed flow. Even in silent servers, though, there can be unspoken cooperation. I once took on four or five waves with only one other player, and we skipped around all over the map together, me healing him when he needed it, him stepping in with this shotgun when I was overwhelmed. When he saw me rummaging through the shop between waves for longer than usual, he threw all his money into my pockets. It was kind of heartwarming.
We didn’t quite make it to the end, the two of us. Damn Scrakes. I find the fodder the most fun to kill—popping head after head—but big enemies like Scrakes, which soak up a ton of bullets and then collapse in a slightly unsatisfying way, are important to the flow. They send teams running, distract from lesser Zeds, and generally wreck anyone caught backpeddling for too long. They’re where lone-wolfing it is definitely not acceptable.
Even though I appreciate their purpose, I don’t enjoy dealing with Scrakes (and their Fleshpound brothers) above Normal difficulty. I like managing a crowd, dropping the Zed counter at a steady beat. Scrakes are sponges, and sponges just don’t have the same appeal. I can’t shoot their limbs off, and it’s generally hard to tell how injured they are. When one’s after you, it becomes a chase rather than a game of positioning, circling round and round feeding them lead until they bite it.
Then there’s the boss, who’s that times a thousand. He’s sort of like extra credit, and his design isn’t especially exciting: he runs around yelling silly things with a German accent (because video game boss), lobbing grenades, shooting, and sometimes charging and grabbing. He could be a cooler, less traditional boss, but I don’t really expect that from Killing Floor 2. I expect him, first and foremost, to be hard, and he’s damn hard above Normal. The dude can take a pummeling before going down, and requires slow, methodical handling.
Killing the boss, like dealing with Scrakes, isn’t as fun for me as the waves, which offset the stress with clear numerical progress. But when he’s finally soaked through with bullets, the sense of accomplishment is substantial. I wish there were more fanfare.
It’ll all get easier, with fewer ‘we all ran out of ammo trying to kill an army of Scrakes’ losses, when my team and I have more perks. I’m divided on the progression system. It’s nice to have something to look forward to, but I find Normal too easy and yet feel encouraged to grind out XP there before taking on higher difficulties. Come to the game late, after the full release when everyone else has leveled up and all the perks are available, and you might feel like the runt of your team on Hard, but unsatisfied with Normal difficulty.
Of course, it’s in Early Access and there’s still tweaking to do. The final release will include more perks, more weapons, and more maps. It needs all that, especially the maps, but Killing Floor 2 is already excellently designed. The guns, regardless of any fastidious tweaking they may need, are superbly fun to shoot. They animate with character and force, while Zeds react to the force, stumbling, ragdolling, and exploding with gibs. While there are currently only three maps, they’re all big and varied enough to offer lots of tactical footholds for coordinated teams. The playable characters each have distinct personalities and great voices (which you can get rid of if they get in the way of chat). The server browser works almost flawlessly (at worst, it doesn’t refresh fast enough to show accurate player counts), and I’ve never had to worry about finding other players. I also appreciate that KF2 launches quickly, lets me skip its splash screens, and has been almost entirely stable (it hung on the loading screen once, but that’s forgivable).
None of what KF2 currently offers feels underdeveloped—even the loading screen is excellent—and there’s remarkable complexity in each corner of the game. That’s evident in the way Zeds don’t just get more health, but new behaviors at higher difficulties, and how trying to load a fully-loaded gun cues a unique animation. I also love the culture of fun among the players, who enjoy shooting fountains of cash between each other while waiting for waves to start. When it grows into a full release, Killing Floor 2 will live a long and happy life, especially—to safely speculate a bit—thanks to all of its future modders.
It's Killing Floor but better. Killing Floor 2 needs some tweaks, and will benefit a lot from more maps, but it's already a superb mutant bloodbath.