March 8, 2011

Review – Killzone 3

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Brad Johnson @ 7:59 am

Killzone 3
Killzone 3 is a true example of franchise mentality; the entire affair is constructed with that distinct “Triple A Franchise” shine, the whole nine yards players have seen on titles like Gears of War and Halo. This is a product with significant resources at its disposal, all the way down to a high profile voice cast.

Though the core game is deserving, the concept is simply not the equal of this treatment. From the opening cinematic to the grim, atmospheric music in the menus, the player is primed for a dark, compelling tale of war, but as the campaign begins it becomes immediately apparent that this will simply not materialize.

The unfortunate reality is that the Killzone universe is simply not interesting, or at least unexplored in an interesting way. No amount of pomp or franchise expense can elevate what is distinctly lacking conceptually.

Killzone 3
Perhaps the weakest link (in a series of weak links) are the protagonists, the ISA. It may be unfair to say that the ISA are generic, as this is a trait nearly ubiquitous among heroic shooter factions, but one at least expects some personality from videogame heroes. The lowliest unnamed marine in Halo packs more personality than the high profile characters in Killzone 3, who manage to posture meaninglessly for the entirety of the game without ever saying anything interesting.

It’s appropriate that the game begins with the protagonists disguised as Helgahn soldiers, infiltrating an enemy stronghold, since I found that, throughout the game, I wanted nothing so much as the opportunity to play as a Helgahn. It’s in the Helgahst army that the concept of Killzone finds its only saving graces; the height of concept, art, and writing are all achieved within the distinct confine of Helgahn subjects. They are permeated with personality, and sometimes even grim emotion, a stark contrast to the dry, cardboard ISA. They sound cooler, they look cooler, and despicable though they may be, they present the only compelling scraps of meat in an unbelievably bare universe.

Indeed, I expect many players will walk away more interested in the fate of the Helgahn villains than the trite conflicts of the stale ISA soldiers.

Sadly, however, the glimmer at the heart of Helgahst alone can’t salvage the story, which fails not only on a narrative level, but also in the way it informs the gameplay experience. A poor narrative can often be excused if it serves as a vehicle to compelling situations—Modern Warfare 2 was a storytelling disaster, but the plot put players in situations that felt important, even if they didn’t make a lick of sense. They were bursting with scale and weight and put players in genuinely exciting situations. This is something Killzone fails to accomplish.

Make no mistake: Killzone features suitably exciting and well designed scenarios, but a lack of pacing and structure in the narrative causes them to lack a punch they otherwise could have packed. Indeed, with no real investment in these battles, it’s a testament to the solid gameplay design that they remain as exciting as they do.

Killzone 3
That is where Killzone lives. There’s an art to shooters, and that is what Killzone inhabits, what it owns. It’s what saves Killzone from the trade-in pile, and what almost single-handedly elevates the experience beyond mediocrity. The shooter aficionado understands the importance of things like the weight of a weapon, the sound of a weapon, the way it moves when the player does, the way the enemies react when its fired—and Guerrilla, I dare say, could write a dissertation on the matter. Every facet of the core gameplay mechanic is crafted with these careful details in mind. When the player moves, he feels like a human being—he sways with his steps and his body heaves when it jumps. Weapons feel weighty and satisfying to fire without sacrificing precision. Enemies respond organically to the gunfire.

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make Killzone a blast to play. Firing from the hip at a crowd of enemies, peaking over cover to take out an attacker, these actions are animated and crafted in a way that feels natural, that feels decidedly less programmed than the standard shooting experience, making them infinitely more satisfying.

A new addition to the arsenal of brutal interactions is the ability to perform up close melee kills. These are just fancy enough to be more interesting than a standard melee strike, while not so lengthy that their pre-programmed nature becomes boring. The kills are animated with the same solid detail that makes every action in the game satisfying to perform, and the fact that getting close enough for one of these is incredibly dangerous also makes accomplishing such a kill feel rewarding.

Additionally, the player can now hit the cover/crouch button while sprinting to slide into cover. It seems like a throwaway maneuver designed for cheap thrills, but executing the slide can mean the difference between life and death in some situations—and really, it’s just fun to do. It’s one of the many little details that serves to make players feel as if they are a real person inhabiting a real physical space, and it works sharply.

Killzone 3
Cover itself functions much in the same way as the previous installment, which is to say you should watch your back when using it. If you’ve ever played a game of paintball, you understand that, in real life, cover is rarely so comfortably safe as it is in many cover shooters, and this is something Killzone seems to recognize. Scenarios are designed to encourage careful thought and movement, as enemies will reposition themselves to line up shots on players behind cover.

This is part of a larger plan to pummel the player, endlessly and without pause. The Helgahst are tough, sometimes ridiculously so, and they’re skilled; they take a hell of a lot more bullets to kill than the player, and they’re more accurate to boot. Equally, the enemy is intelligent: snipers hide carefully, while support troops fire rockets from on high (your cover be damned). Many enemy groups are supported by flyers, drones, and the incredibly deadly flame units. There’s a great variety to enemy types, and it really feels as if the Helgahst represent an intelligent army that plans and positions itself to optimally obliterate the player.

Fortunately, nearly every advantage the Helgahst utilize, the player can take from them. Killzone 3 employs a clever weapon system that allows one pistol, one assault weapon (such as a rifle or shotgun) and one special weapon (which can range from a dismounted mini-gun to a sniper rifle or rocket launcher) to be equipped at any given time. It’s a unique spin on the more common two weapon system many shooters employ, and it forces the player to include some variety in their loadout.

More interestingly, Killzone 3 is perhaps the only shooter game on the market that really wants you to use your tools, and use the hell out of them. If you tear a mini-gun from its mount, it’s yours—hang on to it, because contrary to what you may have learned from every other game, it can, in fact, be resupplied. Don’t worry about saving it for when you really need it, because when you really need it is always and ammo crates are everywhere. Cut loose.

Killzone 3
Additionally, the game includes a number of vehicle sequences, both on the rails and off. One mission sees the player inside a surprisingly vulnerable mech suit, while another involves piloting a ridiculous snowmobile on steroids and trying not to fly off a mountainside. These moments happen just often enough to refresh the gameplay experience nicely, but it should be noted that they don’t do anything differently from a hundred other similar games. The mech sequence is particularly underwhelming; it seems very few games can make piloting mechs as awesome as it should be.

Players are likely to be more satisfied by the lone stealth mission, a welcome departure from Killzone’s usual “Open fire and run like hell” pacing. Mistakes are perhaps punished a little too lightly, leaving players the option to blast their way through certain sections if they so choose, but the mission remains an enjoyable break from the standard break-neck action.

Also leveraged in the interest of variety are a selection of new environments, and they look fantastic. From ruined Helgahn cities, eerie jungles, and sterile space stations, there’s always something new and interesting to look at, constituting a significant improvement over the often similar environments of the previous entry.

Another of the shortcomings of Killzone 3’s predecessor is rectified by incorporating two player co-op. However, there is no online option—curious, when one considers how integral the online component is to the product—and the co-operative mode is thus confined to local split-screen. Guerrilla Games has opted for a split-screen model akin to what Capcom employs in games such as Resident Evil 5. Frankly, I loathe this, but it remains a blast to play with a second man—Killzone thrives on chaos and frantic action, making co-operative mode perhaps the optimal way to experience the campaign, despite the less than ideal split-screen solution.

There are a few glitches and imperfections that tarnish the experience, however. On two occasions during my co-op playthrough, scripted events failed to trigger, thus preventing us from progressing and forcing a restart from the previous checkpoint.

Killzone 3
Finally, there is, of course, the multiplayer component. Make no mistake: the standard length campaign is strong despite the abysmal narrative, and is certainly not something to be dismissed, but the multiplayer is where Killzone 3 really shines. The definitive Warzone mode from Killzone 2 continues to be the star of the show, featuring long battles and multiple dynamic objectives. Frankly, this objective-cycling mode is one of the best multiplayer innovations in recent years, and its shocking that it hasn’t seen adaptation across the board since Killzone 2, the way Gears of War 2’s horde mode sparked an industry fad.

Things have been spiced up this time around, with a clever class system that seems to take inspiration from that of the Battlefield games, where customization is gated off within several distinct classes that can be outfitted to serve specific roles. The addition of cloaking and a multitude of other class-specific abilities lend a great deal of variety to gameplay, and some new tactical elements are great for objective-minded players—such as the ability to capture additional spawn points that may yield special resources, like artillery strikes.

Furthermore, sharp, large map design caters to numerous play styles, so that players are not forced to adapt a run and gun strategy as in some other high profile releases.

Killzone 3 is ultimately strongest in the gameplay execution, and often weakest at the idea stage. The game usually serves to impress by excelling at shooter conventions rather than surprise with legitimately new ideas, though game design is strong enough to overcome the shortcomings. Equally, an exceptional multiplayer component elevates the entire product and is likely to do away with whatever bad taste the miserable story leaves behind.

Guerrilla Games

Sony Computer Entertainment

PlayStation 3

Singleplayer, Online Multiplayer, Split-screen Co-op

Release Date
February 22, 2011

*A copy of this title was purchased by Gamesugar for review

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