It's pretty difficult for a first-person shooter to impress me these days, I admit. But "Killzone 3" manages to do it.
With a solid campaign and an enjoyable, competitive multiplayer game -- one you can even play alone if you really want -- this PlayStation 3 exclusive is one of the best shooters of recent history. And, yes, I think it's much better than "Call of Duty: Black Ops."
"Killzone 3's" story mode returns us to the ISA's war against the power-crazed Helghast military, right where we left off at the conclusion of "Killzone 2."
Rash action on the part of one our squadmates has snatched defeat from the hands of victory, and now our hero, Sev, and the rest of the ISA must do their best to get off Helghan before the bulk of that empire's military might can arrive.
Guess what? Escape isn't all that easy, because while the chief villains from the previous game are gone, their position has been filled by a monstrous rogue played by Malcolm McDowell. And if you've learned anything from movies such as "A Clockwork Orange" and "Tank Girl," it should have been that it's not wise to mess with Malcolm McDowell -- especially when he and his compatriots are the equivalent of maniacally cackling space Nazis.
I mean, everything about the Helghast design says, "Hey, we're evil." Bulky body armor, full-face gas masks with glowing red eyes; these guys are born to intimidate.
And in battle, they're extremely canny. Some of it is what you expect: They use cover effectively and work as a team; for instance, some guys will lay down suppressing fire so the others can advance on your position.
But some of it isn't: Most of the Helghast troopers seem to be programmed to have a sense of self-preservation, and will fall back in a disciplined manner seeking a better place to make a stand against your advance. I've even seen one completely turn tail and run when I caught him in the open. Of course, I shot him in the back.
It helps greatly that they're very convincingly animated. They'll literally slide into cover to dodge your fire, stagger clumsily as your bullets chew into their armor, crawl on their knees when completely overwhelmed, reach out forlornly before collapsing into death. I almost feel bad killing them sometimes.
More surprising, though, is that your allies -- the other members of the ISA -- are actually helpful. They'll press forward with you, rush enemies, work the flanks, etc.; you know, the stuff you want them to do, but that never happens in most games. These guys don't rush ahead without you or stay behind when you advance. They keep in the thick of things. And if by chance you fall in battle, they'll revive you if they can get to you -- just like you do for them. In other words, you won't always have to start over from the last checkpoint. Why can't other games do things like this?
Most of the weapons you'll use in battle are the usual stuff -- machine guns, pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, missile launchers and grenades -- and they've got a particular heft to them, but not so much as in "Killzone 2." As a result, emptying a clip into the red-eyed monsters remains quite satisfying, yet it's no longer a chore swinging your gun around.
And the melee attacks are especially delicious. You don't kill Helghast with quick swipes of a knife. No, you grab them by the head and cut their throats, or bend them over and stab them in the heart, or shove your thumbs into their eyes. It's brutal; it's vicious; it's intensely satisfying. Yes, this is a mature-rated game; however, the gore is actually pretty minimal.
And as far as the grenades go, I love that they come with an easily visible indicator that helps you time "cooking" them off before you throw, so you can minimize the Helghasts' opportunity to escape the blast.
"Killzone 3" has the same snap-to-cover system "Killzone 2" had. With the push of a button, you can wedge yourself against objects in the environment, in effect shielding yourself from enemy fire, then pop out at will to take a shot.
Other games have this system too. However, in too many of them, the placement of the cover is unnatural and is always a clear signal of an impending fight. You wander through an underground tunnel and wonder who in the heck brought traffic barricades down there. Oh, and you immediately sprint over to them and take up a combat position, because their mere existence means enemies have begun to pour out from the tunnel ahead of you.
You never experience predictable setups like that in "Killzone 3." Your cover is the ruins of a war-ravaged city, the cubicles in an office complex and other such places, and it's omnipresent. As a result, you won't know you're walking into an ambush until the trap is sprung. It's a much more natural, organic experience.
The on-foot combat is also regularly broken up with vehicle segments; sometimes you're driving, sometimes you're just along for the ride, but with a big gun (or turret) in your hand. This sort of thing keeps the game-play from becoming monotonous, although I do wish I got to fly around in a jetpack a bit more often throughout the adventure -- even though I am completely incompetent at shooting things while I'm hovering in mid-air.
If you played "Killzone 2," you might wonder if the developers fixed one of the major problems that game had. The answer is yes, the "endless enemy" zones are gone. You'll never encounter an area in "Killzone 3" where Helghast keep spawning unless you reach a particular landmark. (Thank god.)
This time around, they've really got all the details right. Hey, they even alter the characters slightly throughout the course of the game, so the hair of soldiers trapped far from the comforts of home grows with the passage of time.
You may have noticed that I didn't label the story campaign as "Killzone 3's" single-player game. And that's because you can actually play the whole campaign with a friend in split-screen co-op. The second player is relegated to a relatively anonymous role, never appearing in cutscenes, but gets to take part in all the real action. Unfortunately, the co-op mode is completely offline, so you'd better have a big TV for the split-screen play -- or you'll both get splitting headaches.
(Update: OK, I just realized that I really didn't comment about the quality of story in "Killzone 3," and that's a grievous omission, because the story really isn't all that great. Pretty wretched actually. It did very little to keep me interested, as it centers mostly on a clash of personalities within the player's squad, where every one of them comes off as an idiot. Still, it's not so bad that it detracts from the real point of playing: satisfying action.)
THE MULTIPLAYER GAME
It should come as no surprise that a first-person shooter comes with a competitive online mode, where you can go head to head with other players in intense virtual battles.
The multiplayer mode in "Killzone 3" comes in three basic flavors:
-- Guerrilla Warfare is the equivalent of team deathmatch, for up to 16 players total. A team of ISA soldiers battles a group of Helghast troopers for the most kills.
-- Warzone is a curious 24-player mode where the objective keeps changing. Throughout the course of the match you'll be tasked with: capturing territory; assassinating a specific enemy; protecting yourself or a teammate from assassination; destroying enemy equipment or protecting your own; capturing a propaganda speaker (more hilarious than a flag); and just plain killing, killing, killing.
-- Operations is a story-based scenario for up to 16 players, complete with cutscenes, where one of the teams tries to advance through a series of objectives while the other tries to trip them up until the clock runs out.
Players have several troop classes to choose from, each of which has unique abilities that should affect the players' approach to the game. (You pick a role when you first enter the match, but you can change it whenever you're respawning after getting ganked.)
Engineers can place robotic turrets (and repair them) and convert ammo dumps to their team's use. Tacticians can enhance their team's radar, send out flying attack drones and claim "neutral" spawn points faster than other classes. Field medics get a flying robotic companion, can project a healing field and can revive teammates who are down but not out. Infiltrators are able to disguise themselves so that they appear "friendly" to the other team, and they can run faster than other players. And marksmen can cloak themselves completely from sight and scramble the radars of nearby foes.
I'm not going to bother describing the weapons particular to each class (for instance, sniper rifles for marksmen), because each class has other weapon types that can be unlocked as the player levels up. So that marksman can tote a close-range submachine gun if he's earned it.
Plus, there's other equipment out there in the field sometimes, such as giant armored exoskeleton suits, equipped with gatling guns and rocket launchers; jetpacks with a mounted minigun; mortar packs; and fixed turrets. Some maps also include weather effects and natural hazards.
No matter what mode, class and map you're playing on, the game will be pretty fast and furious.
However, I've got one major problem with "Killzone 3's" multiplayer setup, and it's something Sony really needs to fix. The game needs some form of team balancing -- and rebalancing -- and it needs it now. Several times now I've found myself in a match where the sides were completely uneven, say eight players versus two, and the game does nothing to rebalance that.
Now, I'm not arguing that it should split up parties of friends to rebalance the two sides, but it should allow players to voluntarily switch teams if the imbalance is above a certain threshold.
As it stands now, players on teams that are vastly outnumbered tend to drop out, ending the game for everyone. And that's just not fun.
Of course, "Killzone 3" has a multiplayer option that's been present in the series since the original "Killzone." And that's the Botzone, where you can play any of the multiplayer modes and maps against AI-controlled opponents.
Depending on the difficulty level you set for these artificial opponents, you can either get in some good practice and learn the lay of the land in the various maps, or enjoy a truly knock-down, drag-out fight.
"Killzone 3" supports the use of the PlayStation 3's new Move motion-control system, and I tested it out extensively.
I admit I had my doubts about how well the Move would track my aim, and I didn't think it would be comfortable to keep holding a wand up and pointing at the screen for an extended period of time. However, comfort didn't prove to be a problem at all over the long haul.
As for the aiming, well, the default settings for the Move controllers are trash, but with a bit of tweaking, aiming becomes pinpoint perfect, almost akin to using a mouse to control an FPS on a PC.
For the record, my preferred settings for the Move on Killzone 3 are: a 10 percent horizontal dead zone, a 90 percent vertical dead zone, minimal sensitivity and 30 percent turn speed. The point of this setup is that it allows me to easily look and turn from side-to-side without having an accidental gesture sending the camera skyward, and my aim holds fairly steady. Many other players would boost the turn speed, but I get disoriented if I set it too fast.
You can also set the controls to have various kinds of aiming assists, though those are disabled if you're playing at higher difficulty levels or in a multiplayer match.
Conclusion: The Move works quite nicely for a first-person shooter, as long as you don't stick with the default settings.
WHAT I COULDN'T REVIEW
"Killzone 3" has one built-in, purely optional feature that I'm incapable of reviewing at this time: support for 3-D TVs. As I don't own one, I can't comment about how well playing the game works in three visual dimensions.
But the feature is there if you've got the right equipment.
Platforms: PlayStation 3.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: If you've got a PS3, this is the first-person shooter you want to own. It could use a few more multiplayer modes and it desperately needs a team-rebalancing feature, but overall, it's a thoroughly enjoyable game.
Images courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment America