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TVG finds out whether bigger really does equal better in Guerrilla's latest Killzone instalment...
Following the rather swanky, if very predictable, in medias res intro to Killzone 3 (that's when a story starts in the middle, by the way), the first burst of gameplay is pleasingly familiar, at least to the Killzone fan. Bombs drop, guns fire, people shout and you cower behind a tiny piece of cover wondering if the reason why the Helghan's have such a foul temper is that their planet is a hovel. This is Guerrilla's take on the FPS formula - there's no charging past the frontline to trigger a checkpoint in Killzone. Reprising the role of Sergeant Thomas 'Sev' Sevchenko in the ISA/Helghast conflict you have to earn your ground, inch by inch, bullet by bullet. It's why the single-player campaign in Killzone 2 served as a nice counterpoint to the hi-octane FPS competition. It was gritty, difficult, and at times frustrating. That was Killzone's thing. And I quite liked it.
And so, when the first details of the sequel emerged, I met them with cynicism (and a fair degree of disdain). Jetpacks, you say? Vehicles? Mechs? No sir. But it's clear that there was some perception from developer Guerrilla that something had to change with Killzone 3. Regardless of what inspired the change - the sales figures, or sideway glances at the competition - the question is whether the game has evolved beyond its core gameplay. The answer, Killzone 2 fans will be glad to hear, is 'no'. But, it's a pretty close-run thing.
At some point during the development phase, Guerrilla clearly decided to throw some more ingredients into the Killzone pot - as such there are now jetpacks, vehicles, mechs, space battles, stealth and - wait for it - turret sections. The results, it turns out, are mixed. The vehicle sections are far less tedious than they had the potential to be, offering the player varying degrees of control, and are often accompanied by some pretty spectacular cut-scenes. It's also hard not to get a little Star Wars-giddy in the space-based sections later in the game. The stealth and jet-pack gameplay fare less well, however with the former being unintentionally laughable (as you sneak through shin-high grass, apparently invisible to the enemy) and the latter offering little more than an extended jump time.
'Bigger is better' seems to be the philosophy at work in Killzone 3 and so the tight, intense shooting gameplay that earned Killzone 2 its plaudits arguably takes a back seat to big set-pieces, big cut-scenes and, yes, big bosses. Big bosses with huge glowing weak spots in surprisingly accessible areas, as is the custom. While some die-hard Killzone 2 fans may scoff at the prospect, they should know that it does come with an upside. With the big set-piece comes a more impressive calibre of backdrop. Not hugely attractive backdrops, admittedly, but more impressive nonetheless.
Yes, it seems Guerrilla has made some new additions to the kaleidoscope of grey/brown that was the rather uninspiring Killzone colour-palette. Now you'll see a bit of white in a wintry Helghan coastal base, some reds and yellows in a jungle section but the easiest on the eye is probably the space-based action later in the game. It's still pretty grey. Just a bit shinier. With new environments come some new enemies too, which again, prove to be a mixed bag. They range from the completely rubbish Helghan spider (ooh, crawling things) to the actually-quite-cool Capture Troop who charges towards you with the intention of skewering you with a big spike and dragging you away for fun times later. Pleasingly, there are also some pretty tasty new weapons to play with too, some of which pack an artillery-sized punch like the excellent WASP launcher. The Helghan weapons tend to be better (which feeds nicely into their back story) and come courtesy of the Higs' weasely weapons developer, Stahl who plays a major role in the single-player storyline. A storyline which, thankfully, marks an improvement on its predecessor.
After Guerrilla crafted a detailed and fairly complex back story for its Killzone 2 universe, it then decided to stick it on the official website instead of in the game. As a result, Killzone 2's narrative was clichéd, simplistic, devoid of any likeable characters and offered little in the way of context to the action. So how does Killzone 3 fare? Well, it's clichéd, simplistic and devoid of any likeable characters. But, it's better. Much better, in fact, than the last game and, even though it's massively clunky and clings tightly to tired storytelling conventions, it's quite entertaining. And it's largely thanks to some decent voice acting and a solid central theme which, in this case, is dissension in the ranks.
It seems both sides of the conflict, the ISA and the Helghast, are struggling to maintain a united front. On the Helghan side, the death of Visari at the end of the second game has left a power vacuum in Helghan society. And so Malcolm McDowell's Machiavellian Stahl competes with Ray Winstone's gruff traditionalist Orlock for control of their military endeavours. Running parallel on the ISA side is a conflict between everyone's least-favourite, belligerent, shoot-first-do-something-equally-stupid-later knucklehead Rico and his superior Captain Narville. They don't like each other because, as we know, Rico and Sev are loose cannons who don't play by the rules. But, boy do they get results. Do you think they'll all earn a grudging respect for each other by the end of the game? So yes, the story may not be built on original ideas but it keeps the action chugging along nicely. However, although it's a definite improvement, it doesn't go far enough and that's mostly because it focuses too much time on the ISA when, if we're being honest, it's those lovable Mockney Helghans we're interested in. Killzone 2 hinted at an underlying moral ambiguity that wasn't expanded upon and it's pretty much the same story in Killzone 3. Higs are bad, 'mkay?
But, if Guerrilla is guilty of neglecting some areas of the game (the glitchy, inconsistent cover system, for one), the developer deserves credit for polishing others to near-perfection. Its multiplayer for instance, retains its slick, varied appeal and also adds a new flexible unlock/progression system and some decent new game modes. The objective-based Operations mode is the standout, with two teams competing in a self-contained multiplayer storyline complete with cut-scenes.
Guerrilla's decision to implement Move controls should also be applauded. While the motion control system is initially daunting and, if you play your shooters on a pad, utterly unnatural, it just requires some perseverance. Guerrilla has been kind enough to add a decent level of customisation to the control settings and, once you fiddle about with the dead zones and sensitivity, you'll eventually find something that feels about right. For this reviewer, it won't change the way shooters are played, but it's a nice option to have and it's good to see mainstream AAA titles experimenting with Move.