Review: Killzone 3

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Killzone 2 set such a high bar for first-person shooters to match that Killzone 3 was always going to find itself in a tough spot trying to exceed expectations – and because of that Killzone 3 is missing that “I’ve never seen a game look this good before” punch in the face.

But Killzone 2 wasn’t perfect, so Guerrilla Games did leave room for improvement. The story, for one, didn’t come together as well as it could have. And while the game reached a level of realism with its aiming and shooting mechanics, the weighty controls were an obstacle for some gamers used to the fast twitch shooting common in many of today’s more popular mainstream FPSs.

Killzone 3 is an improvement over its predecessor in both of these areas, and is superior in many other ways as well, outclassing the best and brightest the genre has to offer with its strong mix of thrilling gameplay and striking audiovisual design.

This time, the story isn’t too shabby either – aside from the disappointingly abrupt ending. Killzone 3 picks up directly after the conclusion of the second game, with both the ISA and Helghast thrust into turmoil after the rogue assassination of Visari. Internal conflicts within both factions bring added intrigue to the ongoing external conflict between the warring races. On the ISA side, Captain Narville is pissed at Rico for executing Visari and his general disregard for following orders, and Rico and Sev are constantly at odds with Narville’s strict command and repeated failure to do what is necessary to win the war. And on the Helghast side, Visari’s death has led to a power struggle within the Helghan government between Admiral Orlock, voiced by Ray Winstone (Mr. French from The Departed!) and Jorhan Stahl, voiced by Malcolm McDowell.

It’s a good story with an interesting ‘World War II meets Star Wars’ vibe going on (the Helghast definitely strike me as a cross between Nazis and Stormtroopers), and the acting performances by the two aforementioned villains are fantastic. But I do have two complaints.

First, the lip-syncing is all over the place. Sometimes it’s perfect, and the character performances come through strong. At numerous random times throughout, however, there is a noticeable delay between the facial animations and the vocal playback, and at other times the voice track cuts out mid-sentence or doesn’t even load in at all, leading to awkward moments where you see lips moving but don’t hear any dialogue.

The other quibble I have is that Guerrilla still hasn’t managed to create an iconic hero or a specific identifying trait to really hammer home the series’ narrative message, and I think that is something that is keeping Killzone from becoming the mainstream mega-hit it deserves to be over inferior rival FPS franchises. The franchises that become remembered most are those with star lead characters. When you think of Halo, you immediately think of Master Chief. When you think of Legend of Zelda, you immediately think of Link. When you think of Uncharted, you immediately think of Nathan Drake. But there is no such attachment with Killzone.

In Killzone 3, Sev does assert himself more as the gung-ho action hero, but he still never develops a distinct personality you’ll care about. The two villains are the standouts here, and the helmeted, glowy-eyed face of the Helghast remains the series’ identifying symbol. I’m OK with the bad guys being the stars – after all, the movie The Dark Knight was carried by Heath Ledger’s villainous performance as The Joker, while Batman seemed like more of a side character most of the film – but in order for Killzone to take that next step up the food chain, it needs an established hero.

The story is told over nine chapters totaling the now-customary 6-8 hour FPS campaign length. Personally, I think that is the perfect length for games like this, but I know a lot of players view that as being “too short,” so if you’re in that camp Killzone 3 may feel a little small. Actually, the biggest disappointment for me is the lack of collectibles. Guerilla stripped out the hidden intel cases and Helghast symbols from the previous game to focus the gameplay. I understand the intention, but I missed having the extra motivation to play the game through over and over.

But that hasn’t stopped me from completing the campaign twice already – once on the default difficulty with a DualShock 3, and the second an ‘Elite’ difficulty run testing out the PlayStation Move controls and the Sharp Shooter attachment. And I was glued to the controller both times through.

Overall, the campaign is efficiently paced and spontaneous throughout, never falling into a predictable routine of set pieces or corridor shootouts. One moment you’ll be defending a small ISA base camp from Helghast assault; the next you’ll be blasting through the obliterated Helghan wasteland inside a giant mech; the next you’ll be sneaking through a jungle overgrown with man-eating plants; the next you’ll be hopping between bobbing icebergs using a jet pack; and the next you’ll be engaged in an epic battle with a massive Helghast war machine called the MAWLR, with a few other on-rails vehicular sequences and other surprises sprinkled in for good measure. Levels are scripted, but not so much that, like in Black Ops, you feel like the developers are holding your hand the entire time and if you let go even for a second you die. The scripting is used to create atmosphere and ambiance, not limit your control over the game.

This mission variety is further aided by the game’s greater diversity of environments. Killzone 2 was a stunning graphical achievement, but the game’s dark color schemes, dreary Helghan cityscapes and smoky atmosphere didn’t offer much visual stimulation after a while. Not so in Killzone 3. This time, Guerilla kicked the game’s engine into overdrive to produce graphical detail and atmospheric depth currently without equal. The awe-inspiring levels span a wide range of settings, from the jungles of Helghan bursting with neon-colored alien plant life to an artic landscape that, between the gusting wind, crashing waves and blinding snow, sends chills shooting right up your spine. Your boots even leave prints as you trudge through the snow.

But what continues to push the Killzone experience beyond other FPSs is its shooting model. Everything about Killzone 3’s shooting model is absolutely spot-on. The placement of the guns on screen is perfect, and as you aim the cursor around the screen the guns bob and sway with a realistic heft and momentum that make it feel like you are physically holding them. The violent punch and crack of gunfire also rattles your hands and echoes in your ears with each shot fired, tangibly enhancing the gameplay in a subtle yet empowering way. Even the way bullets tear through Helghast and send them falling over balconies and crumpling to the ground in unscripted ways is incredibly satisfying.

The controls are also much tighter than they were in Killzone 2. The guns still have weight, but they track to their target with far greater speed and accuracy, whether you play with a DualShock 3 or the PlayStation Move (I’ll discuss the Move controls further in a separate story I’m working on). The peek-and-lean attachable cover system returns, and a few new tweaks, such as being able to slide into cover position from a full sprint, the brutal melee kill animations, detachable turrets, and additional weapons like the WASP multi-missile launcher, effectively round out the gameplay without going too crazy.

Campaign aside, which can be played in co-op (offline split-screen only though, I’m afraid), competitive multiplayer makes a solid return in Killzone 3, tweaked around just a bit from the previous outing. There aren’t any major surprises – you have a typical choice of classes (Engineer, Marksman, Tactician, Field Medic and Infiltrator) at your disposal, and you earn experience points to rise in rank and earn unlock points to purchase new weapons and class-specific abilities. And modes include Team Deathmatch, Warzone, which is essentially an all-in-one compilation of Killzone 2’s modes that unfold in a randomized pattern during a single match, and Operations, an attack/defend objective-based mode in which top performers star in the cutscenes that play out as objectives are completed.

But while there aren’t any major advancements, the power and precision of the core gameplay model, as well as the newfound map diversity, lends itself beautifully to competitive play. Online performance has been incredibly stable thus far as well – although the load times between matches can be slow – and the matchmaking gets you into the action with little to no downtime.

Between the campaign and the online multiplayer, Killzone 3 doesn’t make a quantum leap forward in FPS game design, but rather refines and reinforces the sturdy foundation laid out by Killzone 2. But even though Killzone 3 lacks the astonishing first impression of its predecessor, the simple fact remains that there isn’t another modern first-person shooter that comes close to matching the graphical wonder and unbridled intensity presented in this game. Killzone 3 truly is in a league of its own.

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Pros:
+ Weapons control smoothly and look, sound and feel powerful
+ Unmatched audiovisual design; a true technical marvel
+ Unpredictable, well-paced campaign design
+ New environments add depth and variety to the game world
+ Cinematic narrative keeps you engaged
+ Solid online multiplayer; best on the PS3 if you ask me
+ Optional Move motion controls work well

Cons:
– No collectibles to go back for
– Still lacks a strong protagonist to become emotionally attached to
– Abrupt ending left me wanting more
– Poor lip-syncing
– Co-op campaign is offline split-screen only

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Release Date: 2/22/2011
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-24 (split-screen offline co-op and up to 24 players online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!