Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Killzone 3 - Sign me up to the Helghast please!

Platform: PS3
Certificate: 18
Genre: FPS
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony
Release Date: 23rd February 2011

Killzone 3 is the inevitable sequel to 2009’s Killzone 2, a game that had potential to be brilliant but was prey to numerous misgivings in regards to aesthetics and control. Luckily, with the third installment, Guerilla Games have improved on the formula to create a far more accessible and wholesome FPS. You may even learn to love Rico Velasquez.

The original Killzone first entered the scene back in 2004 as Sony’s answer to Halo. The game introduced us to the evil Helghast, a race of people seemingly brought up on the worst aspects of human history represented by legions of red eyed gas masked goons that were the depiction of German stormtroopers who spoke in the tones of an entire cast of demonically possessed British PE teachers. In control of a soldier of the opposing ISA forces (or the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance if you want to be technical) you had to defend your home planet from the invading forces of the Helghast somewhere in humanity’s far flung space faring future. Despite being a competent first person shooter, supposedly based upon actual World War I and II battles, Killzone was critically panned over numerous technical issues in regards to graphics and enemy AI. It didn’t stop Sony from grooming Killzone into a fully fledged franchise train. The original game was followed by third person shooter Killzone: Liberation for the PSP in 2006 and then the much hyped Killzone 2 on the PS3 in 2009.

Killzone 2 was an ambitious if highly flawed masterpiece that perhaps personified the Playstation 3 as a system. Graphically it was perhaps the best looking game on the market, boasting the raw power of Sony’s George Formby lean mean grilling machine. The firefights were visceral and draining, easily surpassing COD as the shooter most likely to instate symptoms of shellshock in the player. Developers Guerilla Games opted for an alternative approach to control, injecting a sense of heaviness and limitation when it came to movement. When it came to shooting, the thunderous recoil from the various weapons required shots to be fired with greater accuracy and in controlled short bursts. Throw in a cover system, the likes usually seen in third person shooters and a couple of questionable six axis diversions, Killzone 2 divided players. Though some liked the gritty sense of realism, others found it very inaccessible, clearly not ready for the kind of combat Guerilla Games had in mind. 

Poetry in motion?
 Such was the savage nature of the combat, the storyline and characters felt largely overshadowed.. Placed in control of ISA soldier Tomas ‘Sev’ Sevchenko, the player was part of the first wave in a counterattack against the planet Helghan. For the briefest moment in the beginning it felt as if you were going on a boy’s own adventure, as you and your squad were dropped off upon the planet’s surface. It wasn’t until the moment you got below cloud cover that you realized just what Killzone 2 had in store for you, a grueling uphill war of attrition through an oppressive industrial setting that would test the meddle of any FPS player. The game never really relished in any set pieces, save for a brief tank section, it focused wholly on the infantry firefights, between you and the Helghast, gaining ground and defending. Admittedly it did it very well.

Then there was a certain Master Sergeant by the name of Rico Velasquez. Velasquez was constantly latched to you throughout the entire game as your wingman. The story dictated that your character and Rico are best buddies, but it is not an understatement to say that Rico was the most obnoxious, most infuriating, most vulgar, most wretchedly unsufferable video game character of recent years. As is the usual style with your co-op NPCs in these kind of games, Rico never proved to be of any practical use, never taking out enemies when it mattered, never aiding you when you inevitably dropped to the floor. Rico’s game was barking orders at you, dropping f-bombs needlessly into every sentence, usually before falling to the floor where he would impatiently wait for you to revive him. Never had I felt so much hatred towards another character before, how I longed for Dom or Cole Train or even Baird from Gears of War, or even the mild mannered Arbiter from Halo 3.

The worst part was towards the end of the game, in one of the more challenging though derivative sections in which you faced off against waves of Helghast. I got so angered by Rico, as he kept getting incapacitated, letting enemies flank me, all the while demanding to be picked the ‘fuck’ up. I was literally emptying magazines into him, in the vain hope that he would just die. He wouldn’t die of course, he would just lie there shouting at you to help him the f*ck up. And the longer you waited, the more impatient he’d get. Even if you distanced yourself from him, he would continue shouting at you through the radio. And then there was the coup de grat of his dickotry, shooting the Helghast premier Visari after being specifically ordered to take him alive. I mean surely after all the bodies dropped throughout the game, we could have afforded to take just one of them alive. Suffice it to say, Rico made the Killzone 2 campaign all the more unbearable.  

Rico Velasquez... A piece of work.
Fortunately, Rico is just one of the many components that have been refined by Guerilla Games to make Killzone 3 a far more satisfying experience. The controls have been tweaked and feel substantially more responsive, yet none of the feeling of the combat has been sacrificed. The story and pacing of the game allows for more variation in levels further showcasing the Playstation’s graphical prowess. The single campaign itself is more rounded, effortlessly moving from intense ground based firefights to sniping missions and a nicely implemented stealth section. These combat sections are punctuated with a number of on rail vehicle sections and stand out moments that are executed with such great aplomb it is easy to be blinded from how derivative they actually are.

The game begins with a great opening cut scene, which establishes the Helghast via a speech given by Visari as the Helghan capital burns in slow motion in the glow of nuclear fire. It hints at the deeper world that underpins the game’s fiction but which is unfortunately never truly realized amongst all the frenzied action of the battleground. Killzone 3 picks up where the last game left off, albeit after a flash forward sequence, which effectively serves as a cliffhanging prologue sequence. The game opens interestingly enough with you in the boots of a Helghast soldier as you negotiate through a mountain top snow base. It is a slow burning introduction, with no first wave assault theatrics just a trip through science labs and the obligatory shooting range, it offers just a little hint into what it is like being a foot soldier for the axis of evil. It is all a ruse of course, just as you are about to execute some ISA dogs, you take off your mask and reveal yourself to be none other than Sev, the mohawked grunt of whom you played in the last game. The scene fades to black and goes back in time six months to the end of Killzone 2, where Sev is moping under the shadow of an oncoming Helghast fleet, the Helghast emperor killed by your trigger happy friend, the planet’s capital city nuked and the prospect of more war with the glowy eyed menace.

Having killed Visari, the Helghast leadership is in a state of disarray. The Helghast premiership are a laughable bunch of cancerous, silver haired reprobates who look as if they come from the child offender’s list all sporting the kind of hairdos made famous by earth’s worst dictators. There is a vague sub plot revealing the power struggle between, Visari’s second in command Admiral Orlock (voiced by Ray Winstone) and industrialist Chairman Stahl (voiced by Malcolm McDowell). Stahl is pioneering a new weapon of mass destruction, and with it holds tremendous power over the Helghast leadership. Winstone is the obvious person to voice a high ranking military leader and does what is expected, but McDowell gleefully hams it up as the crazy eyed Stahl, who doesn’t really seem to have any motivation between his evilness. Suffice it to say, the whole brewing civil war sub plot is perhaps a bit needless in the grand scheme of things but at least it keeps things interesting.

Killzone. Now with Jet Packs.
As I have said, the story in Killzone 3 is a vast improvement over the last game, and benefits the game in many different ways. Whereas the last game had you effectively invade the homeworld of the Helghast, for reasons largely unknown to the large majority who had not played the first Killzone, the third installment reverses the dynamic. Whilst in the last game, the Helghast were the guerillas, in Killzone 3 it is the ISA, outnumbered and stranded on foreign soil, launching frantic hair brained raids against the ghastly enemy. It is amazing how this changes the tone of the game for the better and it helps you route for the ISA just that little bit more.

Then there is the subject of Rico Velasquez… You know I didn’t think I would ever see myself routing for this character after Killzone 2 but Guerilla have managed to tone him down. He is still the kind of character who shoots first and asks questions later but gone are all the f-bombs and his extreme delivery. You will get incapacitated in Killzone 3, but this time, Rico will actually revive you, sometimes even going into harm’s way to help you. When he cannot revive you he will actually apologize. Thusly, when he gets dropped, he will politely call for help from you and once again its amazing how this changes the nature of the game. It does feel like he is almost treading on egg shells, desperate not to offend you. I guess after killing Visari after being ordered not to, it makes sense for his character that he is rethinking his ways and motivation. The reduction of Rico’s marine bravado makes Killzone 3 all the more bearable. A little bit of kindness goes a long way. Lesson learned Guerilla Games. Well done. That said, the character of Narville is laughably incompetent, dedicated to following orders to the nth degree at one moment and then concerned with lives of his men, you are given a new excuse to shout at your TV, but at least this time you’ll be siding with your actual characters.

Didn't I already kill you in Resistance 2?
The campaign also has greater level variation, and these levels are beautiful whilst still maintaining that oppressive feel. The first level has you negotiate the ruins of the Helghan capital as you crawl forward under the shadow of a gigantic mushroom cloud. A later level is a stealth based skirmish through the Helghan jungle which can only be described as Dagobath meets Mordor. Then there is a segment set in the snow, as you battle through oil rigs with a jetpack. In these levels I literally lost myself in the movement of the ocean waves. Suffice it to say, it is truly impressive stuff that almost makes me snarf at the old xbox as well as fleshing out the Helghan world from the usual fascist factories and warehouses. More could have been done of course, the planet is supposed to be a dangerous wasteland from which has given birth to this malevolent race of humans and whilst the scenery is darkly dramatic there is hardly any indigenous life save for a handful of Helghan spiders and stabbing plants. It all feels a bit impotent, like the depiction of the African wilderness in Far Cry 2, where the only animal life you may come across is the unlucky zebra or antelope that you run over in your car.   
On the downside, for all those who did like the Killzone 2 campaign, Killzone 3 will immediately feel more conventional, perhaps disappointingly toeing the well trodden line of the industry standard. Whilst Killzone 2 depicted a grounded sense of sci-fi warfare, Killzone 3 goes a bit drunk towards the end, when the Helghast prepare to attack Earth with the macguffin planet smashing weapon. Suffice it to say, if you have played Bulletstorm recently you may get a sense of deja vu by the end of Killzone 3. I'm sorry. Spoilers... 

Though Killzone 3 is full of spectacular moments I couldn’t help but feel that I had seen everything in Halo: Reach. There are jet packs, space battles, those low key stealth levels where you could go in all guns blazing but it is far more satisfying to remain in the shadows whilst pulling of headshots and the new melee finishers. Just as Reach introduced melee flourishes so does Killzone 3. The interesting aspect is that by hitting the melee button you will react with the environment. If there is a low lying wall for example, you will push the enemies head into the surface. Usually, however, the game is more content with you stabbing Helghast through the eye or eyes with your fingers. Blame those damn goggles. I think the only think Killzone 3 has that it can call its own are mech suits... Oh and high speed chaninsaw tanks. There is definitely enough discussion here to keep the ongoing fanboy war between the two consoles going for a few more years. 

Wishes he hadn't worn the evil red eyed goggles today.
Whilst Killzone 3’s campaign is far more linear than the Halo games, Guerilla Games have revamped the weapon load outs. It is now possible to carry a primary weapon and a heavy weapon as well as a pistol, and it allows for a great deal of flexibility and player choice when approaching the game. In the last Killzone, players had to pick the one main weapon to venture forth with, which was excrutiatingly limited, since the assault rifle was always your safest bet despite the errant joy of shotgunning the Helghast into mush. Killzone 3 allows you to keep your assault rifle, as well as a sniper rifle or rocket launcher, you could even have a shotgun pistol. Aside from the usual arsenal there is a weapon that will bring fond memories of the BFG from the heyday of Id Software.

The campaign is quite short as well, it can be completed in less than six hours easily. I completed it in a single sitting, which is both good and bad depending where you come from. It was so good that I couldn’t put the controller down, it is bad, because the campaign offers little in the way of replayability, save for a run on the hardest setting and maybe just to revel in how good the game looks.    

Despite all that I have said about the single player, it was undoubtedly multiplayer that was the forte of Killzone 2 and Killzone 3 is of an even higher standard. First of all, the campaign can be played with a second player co-operatively. Bizarrely it cannot be played over the internet, only via a second controller, but to be honest judging by the inaccessibility of the Playstation’s social dimensions it is probably for the best. Aside from the campaign, friends can team up to fight bots recalling the old days of Perfect Dark on the N64. As for multiplayer, there are three main game modes. The new guerilla warfare mode is dedicated purely to team deathmatches. The best aspect of Killzone’s MP remains Warzone. A suite of the usual game modes played back to back on one of the maps. It constantly changes the dynamic of the match and requires greater team cohesion, which is like crack to me when it comes to multiplayer. Halo: Reach adopted this kind of game mode with Invasion. On top of Warzone is an Operations mode, essentially the same as the popular mode but containing cut scenes at the end starring the match’s best players. It is a nice idea, if perhaps a little needless since Warzone gets you into the action quicker.

Sev experiencing one of them 'manly' moments.
In conclusion, Killzone 3 is the shooter that the Playstation 3 can proudly call its own. I for one am amazed at how much I enjoyed the campaign in comparison to Killzone 2, but Guerilla Games have implemented changes right across the board. They have listened to the criticism and acted upon it to create a truly great first person shooter, that looks brilliant and plays like a dream. The plot may be generic in convention in regards to how these kind of games escalate and escalate, and all the space marine clich├ęs may grate on some (there is a character called Kowalski) but in my opinion it is far more enjoyable than the Hellish war of attrition that was Killzone 2. Special mention has to go to the game's sweeping orchestral score, which stands up against most movie scores. A robust multiplayer menu is going to keep fans playing for years and easily provides the best competitive gaming in the genre, if all those millions decided to stop playing Call of Duty. Whether or not we will see Killzone 4 is up for debate. I have a feeling Guerilla may go off and make something else, but if another trip to Helghan is on the cards, sign me up. But one little request. Please can I play as the Helghast?  


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