Killing Floor 2 [official site] is brought to us by the colour red, with the claustrophobic corridors and ruined streets of this multiplayer FPS painted in blood, viscera and the grisly remains of a thousand dead zombie mutants. It revels in gore and over-the-top, frenetic cartoon violence, encouraging the mayhem with an ear-pounding metal and industrial soundtrack. I feel like I should be rolling my eyes, but instead I’m shouting expletives at a mad, German mecha-scientist and whooping as another zombie explodes in a shower of guts and bone.
It’s absurdly gratuitous, and so much of it is made up of stuff that was perhaps shocking or cool when I was 15. But, much like Doom, Killing Floor 2 proves that there’s no shelf life on being entertained by showers of blood, and hordes of the undead accompanied by wailing guitars. There’s a lot more the two games share, like the grotesque monster design and satisfyingly loud and powerful weapons, but Killing Floor 2 takes things in a sillier direction.
Today, as a priest, I decapitated a ginormous, chainsaw-wielding monster with my katana. Beside me, a chatty Australian hipster gleefully torched arachnid-human hybrids with a flamethrower. There’s no space marine, but there is a slightly eccentric chap who thinks he’s a crusading knight. These misfits, mercenaries and survivors are deployed across Europe in groups of six to fight mutated zombies, ‘Zeds’, presumably to save the world. But also for cash.
Characters are cosmetic only, so you don’t have to choose a different one when you change classes. Indeed, you can even do that mid-game. Killing Floor 2’s classes are confusingly called ‘Perks’, and come with different starting loadouts and unique abilities that can be unlocked every five levels. The Commando, for instance, favours rifles and pistols, and can get damage and reload bonuses for those guns. He can also reveal sneaky invisible zombies, because they are unfortunately a thing.
While a lot of their roles can overlap, most perks have a hook that makes them special. The Support class can repair welded doors, giving their team extra breathing room, and drop ammo bags, while the Firebug’s fire and damage bonuses make them perfect for clearing whole rooms of Zeds. These bonuses inform what tactics and weapons you should use, but they aren’t ironclad restrictions. Every weapon is available to every class, though they are less effective and net less XP when they’re not used with the appropriate Perk.
Unfortunately, the skills they gain are almost all just bonuses. Attack a certain percentage faster. Do more damage. Reload quicker. They hardly set one’s imagination aflame, but they do at least have an impact. No 2% increases here, thankfully. Every five levels, you’ll feel properly tougher or more deadly. And on the harder difficulties, a 20% boost to damage here or a 75% buff to your health there makes an awful lot of difference.
There is one outlier: the Survivalist. The final Perk to be added, the Survivalist doesn’t really fill any role. Instead, its skills give it bonuses to the weapons usually used by other Perks and it can get experience from using any weapon. It doesn’t seem particularly helpful to the team, and given that Killing Floor 2 is a 6-player game, there are enough players to cover all of the important jobs – you don’t need a Jack-of-all-trades to fill in gaps.
Like its predecessor, Killing Floor 2 is all about shooting wave after wave of Zeds, and is absent any other mode aside from a PvP twist that pits player-controlled Zeds against the survivors. It’s not very popular among the community, that mode, but has improved since Early Access, where there were major issues with balance. Even there everything is wave-based though. It’s a bit slight, then, and runs the risk of becoming repetitive quickly. Tripwire have attempted to alleviate monotony, however, with a wide variety of weapons, both relatively realistic and completely bananas, and 12 maps varying in size, from small, isolated farmhouses to elaborate, maze-like warrens.
A full round lasts for either four, seven or ten waves, and a lot can change between them. The number of Zeds increases, obviously, and new, stronger types are introduced, including shrieking Sirens and massive constructs of meat and metal, but players can also get an extra edge thanks to the cash they get from kills. After a wave is finished, you can go on a quick shopping spree, buying more ammo, weapons and armour. You might start with a pistol and a knife, but by the later waves you’ll be popping Zeds like popcorn with your microwave gun, or turning rooms into a Jackson Pollock painting with your rocket launcher.
Though the list of available weapons is large, they all feel sufficiently different, and are also effective on different types of enemies. Some Zeds you’ll want to keep at a distance, riddling them with bullets, others are weak to fire, and then there are the ones you'll want charge at with your katana or surprisingly handy shovel. As well as being well-suited to specific situations, the weapons are incredibly satisfying to use, partly because of the great audio feedback, but mostly because of the M.E.A.T. system.
The Massive Evisceration And Trauma system is the name Tripwire have given Killing Floor 2’s dismemberment feature. Monsters have around 20 points of dismemberment, simulating the impact of different weapons on various parts of their grotesque anatomy. With a sword, for example, you can slice off limbs or cut Zeds clean in half, while bullets can blow up skulls or make kneecaps explode. By the end of the first wave, the ground and walls will likely be coated in persistent blood. When you go into Zed Time, a team-wide burst of slow motion, you can see these kills in disgusting detail.
Along with the visual impact – and I still utter the occasional “Jeeesus” when a lumbering cadaver combusts right in front of my face – there’s a practical side to the M.E.A.T. system. Most of Killing Floor 2’s maps are dimly lit, and when the shit hits the fan, and there are bodies everywhere and vague shapes coming out of the murk, it’s very convenient to be able to tell if your attack has struck true. If you see a head explode or an arm fly off, then you know you’re doing your job.
As the scale of the waves increases, it becomes harder and harder to keep track of where the Zeds are coming from, as the flood of undead drop from above, scramble over defences and smash through doors. You’d never call the Zeds smart, but they do mimic predators rather effectively, ganging up on their prey, cornering them and surprising them. They’ll panic, too, when they’re set on fire, or when they lose their heads, literally. And while they’ll generally be more than happy to just charge toward you, throwing caution to the wind, they’ll still make some attempt to defend themselves. Some blind and poison with toxic goo, while others home in on a target and shield their heads to avoid a potential killing blow.
With all this variety, it’s a shame that Tripwire have only increased the Early Access boss count by one, leaving the launch total at a rather measly two. When you survive every wave, you have a final fight on your hands, against one of this duo. The Patriarch is a foul behemoth with a penchant for going invisible, occasionally running off to heal. This could be frustrating, but actually turns the battle into a bit of a hunt (though the roles of hunter and hunted often change). The other fella is the aforementioned German mecha-scientist, and he’s a one-man special effects army. Fog machine. Light show. Pyrotechnics. It can be hard to make sense of things, and is a bit headache-inducing, frankly.
I don’t think there’s any question that a wave-based multiplayer game has staying power. Indeed, the existence of this sequel proves that it’s possible. Yet – and this is despite the fact that I’m still very much enjoying Killing Floor 2, and I still have plenty of Perks left to properly explore – I’m already starting to slow down a little. I avoid ten wave games now, because I don’t feel like spending a solid half-hour fighting a torrent of monsters, and battles on the more popular maps, like the striking Paris map with the burning Eiffel Tower in the background, are starting to bleed together. I know where the Zeds are likely to come from. I know plenty of good spots to make a stand. And with the goals never changing, it’s starting to feel just a little too familiar.
But then I end up in a map that I’m new to, or have only explored a little, and I can be surprised again, getting completely lost in some labyrinthine catacombs, where I hack my way through a wall of corpses in the hopes of finding my compatriots again. That can’t last, though.
Is it currently fun? Undeniably. It’s gross, silly, and more than a little thrilling, and while the matchmaking system is a bit rubbish, there are always plenty of active servers to choose from manually, ensuring that you won’t have to spend much time looking for a game. But for that single mode to remain fresh, a frequent injection of new stuff is going to be necessary. Thankfully, Tripwire have already confirmed a mace and shield weapon combo that’s on its way, which should be great for tanks, and some new monsters are in the works too. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of diverting, zombie-slaying action and a bevy of excellent maps.
Killing Floor 2 is available now for Windows, via Steam.