In the two short years since Guerrilla Games’ technically marvelous and visually stunning "Killzone 2," the First Person Shooter (FPS) landscape has continued to iterate, evolve and expand. Bloated budgets and sprawling set pieces that would make Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay weep have become the standard, while multiplayer longevity and addictiveness is now essential for a day one purchase and consumer loyalty. Much like its signature controls, then, Killzone 3 has quite the weight on its shoulders. Fortunately, the developers have funneled community feedback, an inspired art direction and their passion for game design into one seriously noteworthy video game.
While "Killzone 2" delivered cunning artificial intelligence (AI), exciting gameplay and eye-popping graphics, the narrative was anemic. With "Killzone 3" we’re treated to a story resembling a rousing summer blockbuster. Its subtleties won’t be discussed among intellectuals or the brainysphere, but it will get you on your feet, cheering at the predictable but nonetheless kick-ass climax and the tightly paced sequence of events preceding it.
The star of the story isn’t the ISA’s desperate struggle to escape a war they’ve already lost, nor the faltering courage of Captain Narville. Instead, it’s the interpersonal struggle and political tug-of-war amongst the Helghast, instigated by Jorhan Stahl (voiced by the riveting Malcolm McDowell). This emotionally-charged sub-plot gives the Helghast a remarkably human portrayal, presenting an unbiased look at the enemy’s own difficulties to restore order and deliver justice following the assassination of their Emperor, Scolar Visari.
If the liberal sprinkling of cutscenes isn’t your thing, the surprising – if brief - splash of color in the art direction certainly will be. The Kaznan Jungle that protagonist Sevchenko must stealthily traverse is an inspired interpretation of the Helghan jungle, which manages to be simultaneously beautiful and frightening. Caves glow in a bright, menacing red while elsewhere patches of purple and yellow organisms punctuate a distinctly alien environment. "Killzone 3" isn’t without bold, inimitable art direction, but it felt as if Guerrilla Games was too shy to implement this kind of colorful design choice more than once, which is a shame.
Even if the vastly improved narrative and delicious graphics (which are somehow austere and beautiful) don’t hook you, the refined gunplay of "Killzone 3" will absolutely own your thoughts. In "Killzone 2," Guerrilla Games set out to impart a sense of weight to character movements. It felt like a mechanic symbolizing the odds of survival and hopelessness permeating the situation, but it was slightly overdone. Here, it is nailed perfectly. That sense of weight has shifted from feeling sluggish to conveying momentum, giving your character a realistic sense of motion, but with snappy enough response time to make split-second decisions.
Interestingly, it isn’t any of the above that lends the single player campaign of "Killzone 3" its longevity and replay value. Instead, it’s the cunning enemy AI. Using cover isn’t just encouraged, it’s required to stay alive for more than 30 seconds. But unlike most shooters, your Helghan adversaries will stop at nothing to force you out of your precious cover. They’ll flank you, hurl well-aimed grenades and relentlessly chip away at the destructible barriers protecting your flesh. When you’re on the offensive they will deftly dodge your grenades and use cover to their advantage. It turns each firefight into a mildly tactical situation, rather than a brainless run-and-gun corridor shooter. Up the difficulty to Elite and you’ll be duly impressed with just how talented Guerrilla Games’ AI programmers are.
The obligatory turret sequences are present, breaking up the tense ground action. While they exist as typical on-rails mini games, they’re brief and exciting enough to be a welcome change of pace. Piloting an exoskeleton in multiplayer or taking to the skies in a jetpack are also welcome distractions, especially for those gamers using the Move.
As with any FPS-boasting competitive multiplayer, it’s the online play that will siphon away hours, weeks and months from your life. If you’re familiar with the phrase "Lag of Duty" then multiplayer of "Killzone 3" exists as a beacon of hope just outside the gates of Frag Heaven. Put simply, Guerrilla’s netcode is outstanding. During repeated sessions of "Warzone" hosting 24 players, we never saw one stutter or hiccup. Controller input resulted in instant action and felt identical to response time in the single player game. Compared to the majority of shooters on the market, the lag-free experience almost feels awkward. Almost.
While matchmaking is brisk, lengthy load times for most maps exist as the only detractor to the online play. The eight maps themselves, however, are dense with tactical positions and versatility. Don’t be disappointed at first blush by the three multiplayer modes either. While Guerrilla Warfare is your standard Team Deathmatch option, both Warzone and Operations offer nine more variants such as Search, Destroy and Assassination. Warzone switches these modes dynamically, eliminating the need for frequent bouts of waiting in the lobby. Five distinct career paths are available from the onset (Engineer, Marksman, Tactician, Infiltrator and Field Medic), offering modest opportunity for level progression and wildly differing strategies for taking out your opponents.
We would be remiss not to give the game's soundtrack ample praise. It’s reminiscent of the stirring compositions of John Williams and is positively one of the best video game scores in recent memory. Composer Joris de Man’s sweeping violin requiem during the main menu is indicative of the masterful score to come. It evokes a range of emotions from depression to hope, regret to redemption, anger to anguish. It tends to take a backseat during high-impact scenes, but pay attention to it and you’ll be wrapped up in its beauty.
It would be a breeze to pen another 1000 words admiring the effective audio depth of field, the exquisite character animation, the eye-popping particle effects or the shockingly accurate fidelity where the Move is concerned. Instead, we’d prefer you spend the time exploring the lush, haunting environments of Helghan, listening to the splendid voice acting and engaging in the endless joys of multiplayer. With its exceptional sound design, inspired art direction and perfectly tuned controls, "Killzone 3" is just one hell of a fine shooter.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5
A retail review copy was provided to College News by Sony Computer Entertainment America