It shows how far console shooters have come that some critics have already labelled Killzone 3 a disappointment. Judging by some of the miserable carping going on, it appears that it’s no longer enough to be a visually stunning, technically accomplished, hugely engrossing action game, packed to the rafters with dizzying spectacle and violent sound and fury. Well, phooey. True, Killzone 3 isn’t all that innovative and the plot isn’t much to write home about, but it’s a superb first-person shooter. Everything that Halo: Reach was to the Xbox 360, Killzone 3 is to the PS3.
We can see where some of the problems lie. Ask most people what they didn’t like about Killzone 2 and they’ll say (1) the lack of variety in the campaign and its scenery and (2) its intentionally slow and heavy movement. Fans (including the writer) will argue that they liked the guys on a mission feel and the way the single player campaign built momentum. They’ll even argue that the movement is part of Killzone 2’s unique, gritty feel. All the same, there’s no question that both put a lot of players off.
Killzone 3 has them sorted. The campaign now takes place across a range of environments, kicking off with urban settings familiar from Killzone 2, but rapidly moving on to weird, alien jungles, industrial bases on an arctic coast and vast, sprawling scrapyards where you can almost smell the rust. The game has lost none of its brutal style, but there’s more colour, more extravagant lighting and even more impressive detail than before. The variety extends to the gameplay. Where Killzone 2 was all about hardcore duck and cover firefights, Killzone 3 finds space for stealth, jet-packs and a lot more vehicular action, whether on speeding armoured “ice saws” or fast-moving robot walkers. The phrase “one note” no longer applies.
Movement, meanwhile, is now faster, more instantly responsive and more fluid, without that sense of fatigue that characterised the old Killzone 2 experience. The odd thing is, however, that when you take all these changes together, Killzone 3 no longer feels quite like Killzone. In fact, with its settings, its action sequences and its greater reliance on cinematics and massive action set-pieces, it actually feels a lot like Call of Duty.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Has something been lost along the way? Sure. To its fans, the strength of Killzone 2 was the visceral intensity of its combat, and the way that built and built to unprecedented levels as the game went on. Killzone 3 never quite hits the same levels. Yet the core combat is massively enjoyable and the sci-fi weapons and adversaries - particularly as the game goes on - put some distance between it and modern-day military FPS games, and Killzone 3 has some of the most aggressive, intelligent AI around. While there’s still some of the old “pop up, shoot, pop down” action going on, you’ll regularly find yourself surprised and outmanoeuvred by the AI at higher difficulty levels - and this is not a game you want to just coast through in easy mode.
The variety certainly helps. Exploding jungle plants, tough odds, Predator-like Helghast shock troops and some very groovy jetpacks break the established gameplay patterns and encourage you to explore new tactics. The arctic levels put the efforts seen in Call of Duty: Black Ops to shame, with turbulent black oceans and swirling snow, and the emphasis on cover and 360-degree awareness isn’t something you’d associate with Black Ops. There are some misfires - the stealth sections in particular don’t quite work, and the new ability of your comrades to revive you seems to function better in some levels than in others - but when it all comes together, Killzone 3 is as good as any other FPS you’d like to mention.
And while nobody is going to describe the plot as riveting, the story and the characterisation still has the kick-ass charm of an epic war movie. You know the clichés are coming; the heroes are tough but honourable, the villains mean and hiss-able, and the performances from Malcolm McDowell and Ray Winstone as the Helghast leaders hold your attention. While you’re playing, it all just works.
The game’s multiplayer options are stronger still, despite the lack of a proper online co-op mode (it’s split-screen or nothing). The Warzone mode is best, functioning as a kind of variety pack, shuffling game types and objectives in a single map to keep the players constantly on their toes. Objective mode pits ISA vs Helghast teams in a longer, more structured campaign, and is great if you want something deeper, while Guerilla Warfare works as a quickfire, team-deathmatch option. All in all, Killzone 3 is comfortably the best PS3 exclusive online shooter, and a strong competitor to Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. You can’t really ask for more than that.
And while Killzone 3 accommodates Sony’s twin obsessions of the moment - motion control and 3D - it does so with impressive results. Unfortunately, this review was conducted on a regular 2D telly, but from what we’ve seen at trade shows and events, Killzone 3 does a lot to show how 3D should be used in an FPS, adding a new sense of depth and immersion to the gameplay, partly helped by Guerilla’s expert deployment of depth of field blur (we’ll be looking at 3D separately in the near future). We did, however, play with Move for at least 50 per cent of our play-time, and - while the motion controls take getting used to - they’re highly effective once you have things sussed. With the Move controller used to aim on the screen and rotate the view when it hits the borders, it’s easier to pick off distant targets and take headshots, so what you lose in movement speed, you make up for with precision.
Just to make things crystal clear, this is easily the most visually impressive shooter on any current console - at least until Crysis 2 appears. We all know that the graphics engine doesn’t maketh the game, but every moment of Killzone 3 is so packed with background detail, battlefield clutter, rippling water, bullet trails, sparks, flames and floating, bursting particles that it’s almost impossible to take it all in. Add a bombastic orchestral score and even more bombastic sound effects, and you have a cinematic experience to match Black Ops or Modern Warfare 2. It’s not a fresh take on the FPS genre or really anything new, but to miss it would be to do yourself a big disservice.
Killzone 3 risks a baby/bathwater disaster by adopting a more conventional, Call of Duty tone, but phenomenal graphics, variety and well-paced, action-packed levels save the day. Throw in the best PS3 exclusive multiplayer option and you have a shooter the Sony hardcore can be proud of, and one of the most thrilling to be found on any system.