Version tested: PlayStation 3
As the saturation point looms, the first-person shooter pie has been sliced increasingly thin in recent years. The difference between some games is only a few crumbs wide and players have become connoisseurs almost by default, able to discern the subtle shift in flavours between games that, to the untrained eye, are practically identical. We've become fussy gourmands, favouring a Call of Duty or a Medal of Honor based on tiny changes to the recipe.
All of which makes the games that serve up a distinctive taste even more polarising. Killzone 2 was one such dish. I loved its streamlined and ruthless construction, which dipped you into one long, aching push into the Helghan capital to confront and capture Emperor Visari. Where other games hopped between locations and storylines like a hyperactive child, Killzone 2 was all about life as a foot soldier in a crappy situation. The scenery rarely changed, the weapon set remained largely the same and the enemies varied little.
Despite its sci-fi trappings, it felt like a real military campaign where your goal was never more lofty than simply reaching the next objective, traversing a fortified bridge or circumnavigating enemy artillery. Movement was heavy for the genre, as if you were weighed down by the alien atmosphere. It felt muscular and foreboding, a conflict where traditional gung-ho videogame heroics were a quick way to get killed.
This single-minded and semi-realistic approach (shared with the similarly divisive F.E.A.R.) certainly wasn't for everyone. Sadly – for me, anyway – series developer Guerilla has gone out of its way to woo those who didn't click with the previous game's design aesthetic in Killzone 3. The single-player campaign trips over itself in its eagerness to offer something different with each new level, often losing its unique flavour and almost becoming just another slice of FPS pie in the process.
The story grabs your attention with a cheap but effective "gotcha" opening, then hops back in time six months for around half the game before jumping forward again to bring you back up to date for a Star Wars-style finale. Along the way you'll pilot a mech suit, fly a jet pack, drive a thundering tank made from chainsaws and man numerous turrets, including the obligatory vehicle chase shooting gallery where you blast away at pursuing APCs while your ride follows its scripted, theme-park course.
You'll fight Flood-style alien spiders and lethal Helghan ninja-types who look like they've wandered in from Vanquish. You'll take down not one, but two enormous boss machines by clambering around in their guts or shooting their usefully exposed weak spots. You'll even end up essentially playing After Burner in space.
In terms of environments, you hop from ruined city streets to icy glaciers, from neon subterranean jungles to vast beige junkyards, from pristine laboratories to low-gravity spaceship corridors. There's even an extremely ill-advised stealth section where you can become completely invisible by crouching in a patch of waist-high grass no bigger than a pizza box.
For anyone who found the relentless march of Killzone 2 to be one-note drudgery, this sudden burst of attention-deficit gameplay ideas may well prove enticing. Certainly, there's not much to complain about where the mechanics are concerned. Guerilla is squeezing the PS3 for all its worth and, a couple of frame rate wobbles and NPC quirks aside, everything looks as gorgeous as a war-ravaged toxic planet can realistically be.
Control feels slightly lighter than in the previous game, but it still mercifully resists the lure of run-and-gun bombast. Each enemy encounter requires patience and tactics to get past. The duck-and-slide cover system remains in place, perhaps a little too sticky now for the faster-paced gameplay, but still handy.
More useful is an extra weapon slot, accessed on the d-pad, which now lets you carry a heavy weapon along with your rifle of choice and a pistol. This opens up room for chain guns, rocket launchers and the ever-popular exploding bolt gun to play a more active part.
Also added is the ability for your NPC partner to revive you. In Killzone 2, you could bring them back from a downed state, but they never returned the favour. Now they do. Well, sometimes – as welcome as this is, it's implemented in a haphazard way. With some tough checkpoints and a level of ferocity that means you can easily be killed in less than a second, even on normal difficulty, the uncertainty over your chances of reincarnation leads to frustration in some of the later sections. There's nothing to compare to the headbanging futility of the final battle from Killzone 2, but certain sections may still leave furious teethmarks in your Dual Shock.
It's just a shame that the single-player story doesn't trust the intense mano-e-mano confrontations to carry the game. There's a sense of blockbuster creep, where simply having well-matched soldiers face off with each other in an engaging open environment is apparently insufficient to thrill jaded shooter fans. If Killzone 2 echoed the everyman grit of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Killzone 3 frequently feels more like Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor.
The two-man hero team of Sevchenko and Rico help to hold the sprawling tale together, aided by some impressive mo-cap and better-than-average voice performances. However, they're rather overshadowed by the double whammy of theatrical ham supplied by Ray Winstone and Malcolm McDowell as power-hungry Helghan officers vying to take over from the deceased Visari.
Winstone's Stalin-esque Orlock, Admiral of the Helghan space fleet, barks, glowers and snarls like an East End cabbie with a wasp in his underpants. By contrast, McDowell channels Nazi plotters like Goering for his role as Stahl, the head of Helghan weapons development with a sideline in smug psychological wargames and oily betrayal. Both actors know precisely how far over the top they need to go, and the cut-scenes where they clash (most of them) are a real treat.
So it's a shame that, rather than following its own muse, it's now possible to spot where Killzone has drawn obvious inspiration from the likes of Call of Duty, Halo and Gears of War. By slurping up concepts from these rival shooter franchises, Killzone 3 easily ticks all the boxes that modern shooter fans expect without ever really putting its own stamp on the over-familiar elements.
Co-op is another feature that players expect, and after missing the boat with Killzone 2, it makes a long overdue debut here. The results are mixed, quite frankly. Available in offline split-screen mode only, it already falls short of the co-operative experiences being offered elsewhere, and doesn't always show off its own assets in the best way. Co-op also struggles to work with the numerous on-rails sections, but finds its footing in the more traditional FPS stages. Guerilla knows how to craft expansive battlefields without losing sight of linear progression, so there are always multiple ways for playmates to flank and flush out the enemy.
As is often the case with shooters these days, it's online multiplayer where it all falls into place. Freed from the constraints of story, Killzone 3's more nimble controls fit snugly with genre standards and the different ways of playing strike a pleasing balance between what you expect and what you'd hope to see.
Warzone mode is much as you remember, shuffling up different game types in an ongoing buffet of team-based slaughter. The new maps make excellent use of the already varied pathways included for single-player, but widened and tweaked with additional tunnels, vantage points and rat runs. The location-hopping also proves more beneficial here than in the rather disjointed story, giving the eight available maps a nice spread of palettes and weather effects. Party Play is also supported, thank goodness.
Changes have also been made to the career progression. Unlock points are handed out with each new level attained, and can then be used to open up new abilities in any of the different combat classes. Even novice players should be able to hit Level 10 without too much trouble, which grants enough points to max out at least one class. This freedom to chop and change from one class to another without locking yourself into one track makes it easier to try playing the game in different ways, and encourages more experimentation.
Guerilla Warfare is a new addition to the online menu, though it's really just a short, sharp dose of Team Deathmatch. Strange to think such a basic feature is only just making an appearance in Killzone, but it's worth having for the frag-happy killer in a hurry. Operations Mode is more interesting, teasing out a short-form multiplayer story with one team of eight playing as an ISA commando team, with the others cast as Helghast forces out to stop them. Played out over short objective-based sessions, with unique cut-scenes linking them together, it's a fun diversion that ultimately makes the omission of online co-op more disappointing.
The game also supports 3D and Move play, both of which work extremely well. The 3D is particularly impressive, offering subtle gradations of depth and intelligently layering HUD info over the top. It doesn't really add anything to the gameplay, but it ramps up the wow factor and will certainly justify any expensive TV purchases you might be planning to make.
Move gameplay is more of an acquired taste, proving to be surprisingly precise and intuitive during normal movement and gunplay with varying levels of automatic target lock. It only shows its limitations when the single-player starts getting all vehicular, and judged as a showcase of how motion control can work in a hardcore FPS environment, it sets a high standard. The proposed assault rifle peripheral looks pretty sweet as well.
Fans of Killzone 2 will love the improved multiplayer, but may find that the single-player side of things has lost a lot of its identity. It's always polished and breathlessly paced, but it no longer offers a distinct change of pace from the rest of the shooter herd. Killzone 3 is a powerful, impressive game that sets an imposing standard for Sony's 3D, Move-enabled future output; it's just a shame that in doing so, it's lost just a little of what made the series stand out in the first place.
8 / 10
Struggling with the game? Check out our huge Killzone 3 video walkthrough.