"This is a story of David versus Goliath, but this time Goliath has brought thousands of troops and a thermo-nuclear arsenal."
They're not messing about at Guerrilla, and MD Herman Hulst's confidence is infectious. Perhaps mindful of the hiccups which accompanied the build-up to the release of Killzone 2, the announcement presentation for the third game proper in the series is all about accountability, transparency and big, meaty, soundbites like the one above.
It's a predictably slick affair for a Sony-owned studio, but the affable Dutch executives doing the glad-handing are wary of repeating any PR mistakes. There are no bullshots here, no empty teaser trailers. This is hands-on gameplay and almost full-disclosure - and there are certainly some interesting announcements.
However, for all of the talk of radical changes and big new features, the opening sequence from the level we're shown looks remarkably familiar. Sev and Rico, the odd-couple survivors from Killzone 2's Alpha Squad, buzz into view aboard one of the ISA's health and safety shunning Intruders, the flying platforms which serve as their dropship analogues.
A column of these craft wings its way through an icy tempest, a rag-tag force of leftovers from the final events of the last game. The surroundings are bleak, with the trademark Killzone greys punctuated with the odd dash of bright colour. Snow billows about as the two soldiers check their battle rifles and spin-up the Intruder's mounted mini-guns. There are particle effects and graphical nuances in effect everywhere, from the spume of the crashing waves to the countless empty shells pouring from the miniguns. This game is big on spectacle.
Chatter sparks up on the comms - up ahead is a series of abandoned Helghast drilling rigs, aboard one of which the effortlessly charming Captain Narville is being held hostage. Well defended by Higs and protected by anti-aircraft batteries, these rigs are veritable fortresses - meaning that the head-on assault which you're presumably about to attempt is less than likely to go smoothly.
The rigs come into view. They're huge, and the sense of epic scale is magnified further by the weaving flight of the intruder some hundred metres distant. The cut-scene segues into first-person. Sev is at the controls of the Intruder's gun, raining down fire onto the rig below. Helghan soldiers scatter and take desperate cover as the insane rate of fire from the miniguns turns the exposed surfaces of the rig into a maelstrom of hot lead and swirling snow.
Suspiciously bright blue sections of pipe become apparent at structurally important areas of the rig, perfectly showcasing Killzone's use of a minimal palette to focus attention. A few brief bursts of fire shatter these fragile supports and the rig begins to detonate and crumble, folding into the icy seas below. The Intruder sweeps away, rocking under enemy fire - a Helghan dropship swerves into its path, raking the convoy of Intruders before being nailed by Sev and Rico's swingeing firepower.
This is all gameplay, not cut-scene, although scripted sequences weave seamlessly in and out. It's empowering stuff, this death from above malarkey, and a tangible essence of vengeance permeates the scene.
But trouble is never too far round the corner on Helghan, and a cresting iceberg reveals a further line of fortified defences rooted in the wildly tossing polar seas. Sat pretty atop one of these is an all-business anti-aircraft platform, spewing fractious canisters of flak into the oncoming ISA.
Intruders pirouette gracelessly from the sky, Sev and Rico's vehicle following suit amidst the panic. The sky spins, Intruders tumble, and the screen fades to white.
It's a telling end to the brief period of empowerment, and one which is presumably intended to illustrate one of the keywords of today's presentation: variety.
As you'll see in the interview with Guerrilla's lead producer published tomorrow, feedback from the series' vocal community has been a very important part of the development of Killzone 3. Guerrilla has taken on board a lot of the difficult and sometimes cutting responses from its audience, and made sure that the same criticisms cannot be levelled again.
Variation in gameplay is key. For example, my fears about the uniformity of the environments are quickly allayed. We're told that this is a game where you'll be "exploring terrific, truly alien jungles", running the gamut of challenges which Helghan has to offer instead of just reliving the destroyed urban environments which we've seen so far. The finale, we're informed, will take place in orbit above Helghan - in zero-G space.
Back with Rico and Sev on the ground, another new toy comes into play. Gathering themselves from the wreckage of their landing craft, Alpha squad tool up with the dismounted miniguns and the advantage swings back to the ISA as comrades weigh in on the ground.
The massive firepower makes short work of the initial resistance, raking down enemy troops in a section where cover seems to have been almost abandoned in favour of brutal tanking. Whilst Helghan troopers cower behind shards of ice and wasted industrial equipment, Sev lauds it over them with his overwhelming assault. It's a nice reversal of fortune, but it doesn't last long - soon the minigun is exhausted and the familiar scoped assault rifle comes back into play.
Working your way through these sections is more familiar territory, much more like the street-to-street fighting from the last episode. On more even terms, the red-eyed foes soon exact a bit of revenge on my rusty gunplay, catching me in a pincer movement. The red mist comes down, accompanied by a smidgeon of professional shame. I'm just about to try and give up my pad to the next journo without making eye contact when the developer manning the demo pod pulls me up. Trusty Rico is at my side, reviving me. Suddenly I'm back in the fray. A second chance, and a welcome gameplay addition.
Losing the minigun and its enemy chewing capacity also brings another new mechanic into play - the much-improved melee system.
Encounters have lost much of their predictability. More open design gives the AI more options, as well as freeing the player from the necessity of hide and peek. This means that's it's now a much more viable option to get up close and personal with the Higs, unleashing the multi-stage and context sensitive CQC kills with rifle butts and the trusty knife. Hit a trooper standing next to a low wall and he'll stumble over it, presenting the perfect opportunity for a finishing back stab. Engage him out of cover and you're likely to be treated to a gruesome eye-stabbing move, accompanied by a wrenching twist of the knife and a sound like a goose hitting a jet turbine.
We're shown a variety of these new moves in a third-person montage, to illustrate both their scope and the subtleties of the new and improved hit-zone system. Rifle butts land crunching blows in the back of knee-caps, knocking troopers from their feet; frontal kicks smash gas masks, stunning opponents to allow the deadly knife to work its stabby magic. We hear the word brutal used so often that it begins to lose meaning.
Back on the frontline, Sev finds another new boomstick.
It's a W.A.S.P., which MD Herman Hulst describes as a "portable weapon of mass destruction". This missile launcher spits multiple, homing projectiles, swarming from the barrel before zoning in on hapless targets with devastating results. The secondary fire is even more spectacular. Switching briefly to a green-screen zoom of the battlefield, we paint a target in the distance, one of the Helghan APCs. Release the trigger and there's a split-second's pause. Nothing's left the barrel. A misfire perhaps? The answer comes soon enough - a Javelin-like strike from above, fired by a aerial drone linked to the launcher, which obliterates the target area, using a whole clip in the process.
Killzone's weaponry still retains the sense of weight, impact and effect established in the second chapter, with the hardware feeling suitably futuristic without losing its solid military credentials. It's not quite gun-porn, but chattering away with the armaments we're given is a satisfying experience. From what I can tell, most of the arsenal from KZ2 makes a reappearance, although we're told that the behind-the-scenes numbers have undergone substantial tweaking.
For stage three of the hands-on we're introduced to perhaps the most exciting piece of new hardware - the jetpack. Initially only coming attached to a Helghan shock trooper, this insectoid assault platform is a four-winged, one-man affair, complete with a unlimited supply of ammunition for the attached large-calibre machine gun. Fighting them from the ground puts you in a precarious situation, putting you on the backfoot as you balance the necessity of looking upwards with the dangers of the sheer ice-cliffs around you.
Taking them down with brute force is a matter of pumping the requisite number of rounds into them, but a canny sharpshooter can drop a couple of slugs into their fuel packs, bringing everyone nearby together in a cosy Saving Private Ryan-style barbecue. Do this whilst they're airborne and you'll get the added satisfaction of seeing them pinwheel across the sky before impacting with a meaty explosion.
Continuing the new 'monkey see, monkey do' philosophy, it's not long before Sev and Rico come across an abandoned jetpack on the rig, Sev shouldering it manfully as Rico expresses his gruff concern. And just like that, we're off - soaring between massive chunks of floating ice towards the next objective. It's not a true jetpack, in that it assists and lengthens jumps rather than actually letting you fly, but it's another slice of stake-upping.
From the ground the pack will propel you upwards to around 15 feet, with the glide period afterwards giving you the freedom to traverse sizeable gaps. There's a booster, too - squirting you forward in short bursts if you're falling just short of an edge. Controls are light and agile, with the disconcerting verticality soon becoming second nature.
It gives us an excellent chance to appreciate the scale of the new level, which has a footprint around ten times larger than the average Killzone 2 equivalent. It's not all there to explore, this particular example is largely comprised of open sea and fractured ice, but the expanses offer a welcome respite from the rat-tunnel claustrophobia of Pyrrhus.
Killzone isn't moving into open world territory, however. As Hulst is keen to point out, "To make sure it's spectacular we've also loaded it up with lots of epic cinematic moments and explosive set-pieces. So aside from the sheer scale, the first three minutes of this level contain more set pieces than the entire first level of KZ2."
It's a sentiment borne out in our first dogfight. Coming across three Helghan Jetpack troopers, a nearby ice-arch provides valuable cover, offering protection from the withering fire of the three guns above. Soon, however, the improved AI kicks in and the troopers bracket me. Hopping in and out of view on either side of the arch, they have me spinning wildly in the centre of a circle of gunfire - the cover which had been my saviour rapidly becoming a trap.
Fade to red, and time for another go.
This time I embrace my new-found aerial abilities, jetting upwards to take on the Helghan on their own terms. By doing this I'm able to keep a trooper in my sights at all times, using the boost to dart out of their firing lines. The controls prove to be simple to master, and two of the shock troops spiral into the frosty abyss below. Number three puts up a bit more resistance but before long he joins his companions in an icy grave, leaving me free to jet-jump my way up the crumbling iron facade of the rig.
It's nearing the end of our session, but one trick remains hidden up the collective sleeves of our hosts. It's only available at one demo pod, front and centre of the room, where we're seated in front of a very expensive looking, prototype 3D TV.
It's perhaps not a huge surprise. PS3D has been common knowledge for some time now, and it makes perfect sense that one of the platform's flagship series be earmarked for the technology's release. What is a surprise is how well it all actually works.
I manage to plumb the centre seat, which apparently gives the best impressions of the 3D magic at work, but the appreciative noises emanating from the journos either side of me are reassuring. We play through the same section again, although the pad remains firmly in the hands of the studio representative.
Straight away there's an immediate impact. The weighty, long-barrelled minigun has a real presence in-screen, highlighting the fact that the majority of Killzone's 3D trickery is done via the impression of depth rather than projection. Shuffling behind cover emphasises the effect superbly, each vanishing line and focal reference point making the illusion ever more real.
The game's particle effects really come into their own under the influence of the active shutter glasses too. Snow seems to swirl very distinctly in front of the screen, its fluttering hypnotism starkly punctuated by the bullets which zip and zing towards you. We're told there's a lot of work to be done on the perfection of the 3D yet, and in certain effects that's obvious, but generally the whole effect is a mesmerising one, drawing you into the screen and surrounding you with it, generally just in time to recoil from a projectile or ten. It also adds a competitive advantage, allowing players to judge the jetpack jumps with much greater accuracy. How that will skew the playing field between 3D enabled multiplayer users and their dimension-poorer counterparts remains to be seen.
In one of the more static moments, our demonstrator places a D-charge on the AA battery, the focus and lack of movement allowing a more advanced 3D technique to be used. It's startling how much depth is added to the scene. This is a fairly strenuous technique in terms of brain capacity, though, and we're informed that it's something which won't be happening too often. "If we were to do this during a combat scenario, your eyes would tire, your brain would malfunction. This is a game we want people to be able to play for hours at a time."
Judging by what's been shown so far, I can't see that being a problem.
Killzone 3 is due for release exclusively on PlayStation 3 in 2011.