Killzone 3 is at its best when it's most unrecognizable.
Killzones of the past have been, at best, games trying to buck the trends that make first-person shooters so familiar and bland; at worst the two previous iterations were amalgams of those myriad tropes.
In Killzone 3 we find a game trying so vigorously to not be grey, to not be shallow, to not be the same, that it sometimes over reaches and it never really comes together.
The game opens minutes after the ending of Killzone 2, with special forces operative Sev left to deal with the aftermath of his partner's rage and a single world-altering gunshot. Somehow, inexplicably, the death of Helghan's dictator has led to the defeat, not victory of the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance good guys.
So the game is a rolling retreat beset by political intrigue, order, countermanded orders and general chaos.
Why You Should Care
Either Killzone 3 is a big fuck you to everything that the current state of first-person shooters holds dear or a massive over-reaction to the legions of nit-picking fans that liked but didn't love Killzone 2. This is the product of a developer answering a call, I'm just not sure which one.
What We Liked
Eclectic Levels: Killzone 3 opens in the same grey landscapes of neoclassicism and art deco that decorated the first two games. A world of not so subtle references to the Nazi party, but only if Hitler ruled on the moon. Fortunately, that changes quickly. What starts as surprising splashes of color in the first couple of levels explodes into writhing over-saturated jungles of vicious vegetation. Before you can adjust to the abrupt 180 in level design delivered in jungles of Helghan, the game drops you into crumbling cities, then to snow-blown ice caps, then seascapes and finally into space. The constantly shifting backdrops come at you so quickly, so forcefully, that you never have time to adjust, let alone grow bored.
Those Deadly Plants: Among the game's many, surprising settings, Helghan's jungles are easily my favorite not just of Killzone 3, but any shooter I've played to date. Never have I seen a level designed so clearly to fly in the face of everything gamers complain about in shooters. Plants so colorful and oversaturated that they seem to bleed into each other, form nearly everything in these levels. They are the floor, the walls, there's even a volatile spiky variation that is the level's exploding barrel. It is a level crawling with lethal spiders, glowing caverns and swaying reeds. It's also, unfortunately, a relatively short visit.
Exoskeleton: Another all too brief level has you strapping into a exoskeleton equipped with a machine gun and rocket launcher, taking out dug-in opposition in a crumbling city center. The controls, the fire-power, the enemies you face work together to create a level of the game that feels unlike anything I've played in a Killzone title.
Malcolm McDowell: While the story is at best confusing and the voice acting often lost in the action, Malcolm McDowell's over-the-top performance delivers some memorable moments. McDowell as Jorhan Stahl, CEO of an arms company, is a wickedly evil man that you'll love to hate.
Multiplayer: Killzone 3's multiplayer includes three modes and eight maps, giving players plenty of ways to play competitively in the game. My favorite of the modes is easily the new-to-the-franchise Operations. Operations delivers a short campaign-like experience complete with in-game cut-scenes featuring the players' characters. It's a nice touch that goes a long way.
Move Controls: Perhaps the biggest changes coming to Killzone in this latest title are the way in which you can play it. The traditional controller method has been completely overhauled, making the game much more responsive than the Killzone 2 delivered at launch. The developers later tweaked Killzone 2's controls to match what you'll find the first time you turn Killzone 3 on. You can also play the entire game with Move controls. Having playing through the game entirely with Move, and then later with the Dualshock controller, I'm surprised to find that I actually preferred the Move method. The only complaint I have is that when played with Move, the game was a bit too easy. (Read my full impressions of Killzone 3 on Move here. )
What We Didn't Like
A Sampler Platter: Killzone 3 has a lot going for it, but none of it lasts long enough to leave an impression. The jungles of Helghan are sublime, they're also a relatively short glimpse in the game. The moments when you pilot an exoskeleton, gun on a ship, a tank, a spaceship, rip loose a turret, are all engaging, but they're also unbelievably short. Delivered together, in the same game, the result is a disjointed experience that has lots of highs, but no flow.
Two Stories, Both Bad: I've played through this game nearly twice and I'm still confused about some major points. The game takes a creative approach to story delivery, intertwining the tales of Sev and his band of retreating soldiers with the sordid politics of Helghan reeling from the death of their Hitler-like leader. It's a clever concept poorly executed. I'm all for experimental story-telling, but only when it can make sense.
Shallow Cooperative Play: While I'm a big fan of Killzone 3's online multiplayer, I was deeply disappointed in the game's cooperative play. Offline the game doesn't support drop-in, drop-out cooperative play, something that should be a must for any split-screen play. Worse still, the game doesn't support any online form of cooperative play. The end result is a cooperative experience so hamstrung, that I found myself avoiding it.
Some Minor Bugs: One of the reasons I wrote two reviews of Killzone 3 was because I was convinced that the developers wouldn't ship a game with some of the bugs I discovered early on in the pre-release copy I had. So I wanted until the game hit stores and bought another copy. Unfortunately, they're still there. They're not game breaking, but having levels occasionally pause as they load in mid-scene, having audio echo or repeat, having a door fly in a half second after I hit it, isn't the sort of thing I'd expect to find in a title of this quality.
The Bottom Line
I absolutely loved Killzone 2, not just because it was a fantastic shooter, but because it ignored the temptation of gimmick and instead waded into the thick of things and proved that you don't have to be unique to deliver an engaging experience.
Unfortunately, with Killzone 3 it feels that the developers finally gave in to those who judge a first-person shooter not by what it is, but what it isn't. This game feels more like a response to criticism than the by-product of people building on an evolving and improving series.
At times Killzone 3 is wonderful, surprising, daring, but it never feels cohesive.
Killzone 3 was developed by Guerrilla Games and published by Sony Computer Entertainment for the Playstation 3, released on Feb. 22. Retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was purchased by us for reviewing purposes. Played through the entire game on veteran with Move controls. Played through numerous levels on elite with a Dualshock 3 controller. Played multiple multiplayer matches online.