2011 is looking set to be a big year for gaming. I know that's said every year, but the big double one is looking set to surpass its forebears. So its no surprise that in the coming months there are going to be a raft of triple-A titles shipping to our stores - and they will all be there, vying to scratch our collective gaming itch.
The Killzone series is one of these itches, and it’s one that many a PS3 owner has scratched raw. It’s a well loved first-person shooter franchise – with two reasonably well received installments and a PSP spinoff already under its belt – so it was with a great deal of expectation that I sat down to preview what Guerrilla Games has in store for us the third time around.
But first, a little back-story. The original Killzone – way back in 2004 – introduced us to the story of the planet Vekta and the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance. It was under attack from the dystopian Helghast Empire, a mutant race of humans with expansionist ambitions and a penchant for violence [don’t we all - ed]. Pretty soon the ISA and the Helghast were going at it hammer and tongs (as is standard in all evil-facist-empire vs glorious-righteous-defender storylines). After a bucket load of brutality the two sides fought themselves ragged, and at the end of it all Vekta remained a battle zone.
Killzone 2 followed hot on the heels of the first, and transported the fight to the Helghast homeland. The target this time was the Helgast’s top dog: Emperor Visari. After some more shootouts, guns battles (and a lot of swearing) the ISA scored a hit on the big fella, and Visari took a tumble. But cutting off the head of the hydra wasn’t going to neatly tie up this space saga. In all the excitement those maniacal Helghans had nuked their own city, and in the resulting confusion the ISA failed to notice a Helghan armada barrelling down on their own ships.
Killzone 2 ends [spoiler alert - ed] with the pessimistic recognition that this simple space war was quickly becoming quite the clusterf*ck. But that’s good news for Killzone 3, because you’re heading straight for it. And that’s just the kind of setting that makes us first person shooter fiends get out of bed in the morning.
The hands on preview that I had a chance to play through placed me smack bang in the middle of some gratuitous action. Playing as Sev, ISA’s answer to Rambo, I got a chance to grab my guns, shoot some Helghast, and try and take down a massive spider. A spider, made out of metal, wielding rocket launchers and laser cannons akimbo. Why it was there and what it was doing I didnt know, but Sev needed to get off the planet to warn the human fleet, and this damned architectural arachnid was doing a pretty good job of stopping him. It needed to be gone, and fast.
The first thing that struck me was that Killzone 3 is looking pretty damn gorgeous. Previous installments have been criticised for being a little drab but Killzone 3 has really pulled out the stops when it comes to presenting an imagined world for you to tussle around in. There are rich reds, speckled grays and the dystopian surface of Helghan has been improved on and re-imagined. The art direction that Killzone has become known for is still firmly at the centre of Killzone 3’s aesthetic but it’s now supported by some far richer visuals. I was previewing beta code so there were a few minor tweaks that were needed – but on the whole Killzone 3’s graphical intensity is looking set to provide eager fans with a truly visceral experience.
Killzone 3 also allows for a change of scenery. The title will feature levels that finally open the Killzone experience out to more than just industrial waste-parks and ruined city streets. Later levels feature snow and there is even a jungle (not a concrete one, a real one, complete with green foliage) which must be a first for the series. Add to this the addition of 3D support and you’ve got yourself a real sight for [or to create - ed] sore eyes.
But it was Killzone 3’s combat that most caught my attention. The controls seemed easier to manage than in previous versions, and there have been new and impressive additions to the combat mechanic. The first is the addition of combat combos with various weapons. It’s a little tricky to pull off, and the times I did were by sheer luck, but even then it was still satisfying. But nothing was as satisfying as the new melee kills. They are brutal. It can’t be put more bluntly than that. Having the ability to throw down your weapon, grab a Helghast soldiers head and literally gouge out thier eyes is sure to get the Chief Censor’s big red label down faster than a truckie on P. But thankfully, while its gory it’s not gratuitous, and the intensity of fire fights (supported by what appears to be some pretty clever AI) means that trying to poke and prod your way through the game will only get you an express ticket to death-town.
In an innovative new twist for the series the environment itself has a role to play in the combat. While the world is not fully destructible in its entirety, there are certain areas that are. It was obviously from the get go that this will be a game changer. When battling away with my WASP rocket launcher against the death-dealing steel spider, I kept dying in cover. At least I thought I was in cover – a quick peek around quickly proved that the wall I thought was protecting me from death-by-lazer, was, unfortunately, no longer there. It will be interesting to see to what extent destructible environments have on the combat of the finished product – because it could significantly improve the combat complexity (and that always makes it more fun).
Vicious kills and violent shooting (with a great range of weaponry) was a pretty entertaining preview experience. And on those fronts, Killzone 3 is shaping up to provide fans with exactly what they want. But here’s hoping Killzone 3 isn’t released too soon. Because some serious work needs to be put into the dialogue and the voice acting. It’s hard in a preview not to descend into review mode – but the audio experience on show was patently disappointing. Killzone has never put itself out there as a literary masterpiece, but some of the cut scenes displayed verged on the embarrassing. For a title that has opened with both barrels in other areas it was frustrating to see the early beginnings of cookie cutter characterisation wrapped in the lazy blanket of cliché. Not every war story needs the terrible trifecta of the aggressive hot head, the steely (but ethically grounded) commander, and the zany rabble rouser. For a title that seems to revel in balls to the wall action, a little subtley could have screamed volumes.
But, take all that with a grain of salt. This was after all a preview, a snippet-like snapshot of the gameplay to come. It’s conceivable that earlier missions and a good dose of playing will endear even the most cold hearted gamer to the cast on display. But on the the other side of the ledger, my first impressions could be right – Killzone 3 may have the body of Hercules, but the voice of a crow.
Killzone 3 is looking to be just the ticket for the first person shooter fan looking for something new to sink their trigger fingers into. It’s shaping up to give us some great action set pieces in some pretty gorgeous environments. It most definitely has discreet parts that show tremendous promise. I suppose we are just going to have to wait until February to find out if the complete package can pull it all together and reach the standards the franchise has set itself.