There is something deeply satisfying about relying on a steady hand, not agile thumbs, to win a gun battle in a graphically stunning world.
Killzone 3 is shaping up to be a powerful achievement for the Playstation 3 in its own right, but what it proves for the future of motion games is much more meaningful: The marriage of high visual fidelity and deep gameplay with precise motion controls can work and it can work very well.
First-person shooters never really sat well with me on the Wii. There is something lacking. The controls never feel as solid as I would like. But what really bothers me is that the Wii isn't able to deliver the high-end graphics I have come to expect of my shooters on the PC and console.
When the first shooters hit the Playstation 3's motion-sensing Move, I was excited and then quickly disappointed. What I wanted was SOCOM or Killzone with motion. What I got was a light gun game.
With the arrival of Killzone 3 we all finally get a chance to play a solid first-person shooter as either a traditional console gamer, grasping a controller in two hands, or as a motion gamer, pointing at the television and gently squeezing off shots at distant enemies.
For my first play through of Killzone 3 I chose the latter.
We've decided not to run our full game review of Killzone 3 today, despite the embargo lifting, because the review code we received is not the final retail box copy. Often that isn't an issue, but in this case we noticed quite a few odd, seemingly fixable, problems. The sound in cut scenes was distant and lacking in bass. Lines stuttered or repeated. The game paused ever so slightly when streaming in new levels. These are often the sorts of things fixed when a game hits that final box copy. But we don't want to assume that nor do we want to take issue with problems that could be fixed before you buy a copy.
Instead we'll be running our full review of Killzone 3, off a retail copy, slightly before the game hits. This will be our look at playing Killzone 3 on Elite with the Move controller.
It starts with a quaver, a slight shake in the reticule floating, bobbing around the center of the screen. It's a little disquieting, like a voice in the back of your head telling you that this isn't the way you play a shooter.
You play a shooter with a keyboard and a mouse. Using all of those DPI to pinpoint and pick off enemies. You play a shooter like an accountant, sitting at a computer desk, at a monitor, at a keyboard and mouse.
Or maybe you play a shooter like a console gamer, leaned back in your couch, feet up perhaps. You play with the two thumbs pressed against two sticks. Something that first felt like juggling knives while balancing on a bowling ball. But you got used to it and you loved it.
You don't play a shooter like this: Leaned forward, shoulders tense, squinting a little as you aim down the length of an imaginary rifle. Reloading with a twist of your hand. Sighting down the virtual gun with a pull of a trigger on the Playstation 3's Navigation controller.
I turn slowly, too slowly, by pointing to the edge of the television. On screen my hard-ass character must look like he's just had a stroke, slowly pivoting in place, looking up, looking down. Nearby characters wait, silently.
I tinker with the controls, adjust the speed, the box that controls how precisely the Move controller will track my movements. Things start to adjust, in my brain, on the screen.
By the time I make it to the gun range I feel like I can move where I want to move. By the time I leave, I almost feel as if I can hit what I aim at.
The game opens in a world almost free of colors, whites and greys, maybe some browns only. It's tragic. I sluggishly move through the battles, feeling as washed out as the game looks.
But then there's a glimmer of hope: An exoskeleton. Strapped in, the controls feel somehow right. My characters' hands jut out in front of him as he controls the suit. My hands jut out in front of me as I control the character. Suddenly things sync. It's as if someone's thrown a switch. The Move controls aren't just keeping out of the way, they're augmenting my experience. I feel like I'm really controlling this thing. And it feels good.
Short-lived, the mech suit level makes way for more surprises. A world of color. A strange world. An alien world that actually feels alien. Lost in the bizarre botany of Helghan I forget to remember that floating reticule. Instead I play. Killzone 3 offers up a bounty of new techniques and surprises like exploding plants and spiders that can kill. It's a sumptuous section I don't want to leave.
Killzone 3 doesn't feel like a Move game anymore, it feels like a shooter, a solid shooter. I duck and cover. I steady my hand. I find myself holding my breath slightly to cut down on the slight waver of my gun as I snipe Helghast with headshots from across the battlefield.
When I pick up a machine gun I discover that the rumble of my controller, the real rumble, causes my aim to slightly bounce around, jitter up and down the screen. I squeeze down and try to steady the stream of bullets chewing through enemies and terrain.
Not everything is wondrous in Killzone 3. It has its weak points. There is the story which is somehow one of my most and least favorites of any recent shooters. It's the characters, specifically those emaciated, sickly pale Helghast leaders that make this game's story sing. But the ISA good guys are walking cliches, stomping around yelling at each other about orders and how stupid command is.
Fortunately Malcolm MacDowell steals the show, delivering such a memorable character in Helghast's Jorhan Stahl that all else is easily forgiven.
The twin plots are sometimes so disjointed that I forget what I'm fighting for, or who I'm supposed to be rooting for. The gameplay too, suffers a bit from this issue. It drops you in a bleak world of mundane battlefield fights, and then pushes you through an alien Vietnam. It has you taking down city-sized walking tanks, and then piloting mech suits or riding gunner in a space battle.
This is a game with something for everyone, but perhaps not enough of any one thing for anyone. But it's still a stunning sequel to a game that had already blown away its predecessor.
The game's wonderfully different approach to jetpacks, for instance, are only sampled once, very briefly from the pilot's seat. It's a great moment that breaks up the monotony of ground battles, but it's so limited it feels lacking.
That doesn't mean Killzone 3 itself feels lacking, just that it sometimes comes across as a bit of a smorgasbord of gaming; letting you sample just about everything you can think of for a shooter, but not letting you go back for seconds.
This is why the game works so well as a Move game. It gives you so many different experiences, each with seemingly perfect motion controls. The motion controls for flying a jetpack feel as natural, as expansive as do the controls for moving around in a mech suit. It doesn't just work, it improves the experience.
Later, when I discover what has to be one of my favorite first-person shooter weapons of all time, the natural motion of both liquefying an enemy and turning them into a vaporous cloud feels more powerful when done at the end of my Move controller.
But the real test for any shooter is how it behaves online. Can Move versus thumbsticks survive online multiplayer against other people?
The answer is "Yes" and in some ways playing with the Move online almost felt like cheating. In other ways, it felt like I was being cheated.
Played from a position with no risk of flanking, the Move controller offers a level of precision almost akin to the mouse and keyboard. You can quickly, efficiently move your aim around the screen and pick off enemies with headshots. You can hose down entire groups of bad guys with a stream of fire that is surprisingly accurate.
But caught off guard with a need to quickly turn, you're out of luck. I'm still tinkering with the settings, but it feels like the ability to look around beyond the view the screen affords you, doesn't work quite as well as with a controller.
Another big issue: Melee attacks. While landing one of the game's many brutal up-close attacks with knife, boot or gun is immensely more satisfying when delivered with a jab of your controller, if you miss your view kind of goes crazy for a few seconds. I suppose that's similar to what would happen in the real world, but it's not expected the first few times it happens.
Killzone 3 played as a motion game is proof that motion games don't have to sacrifice. They can deliver the meaty, deep gameplay Playstation 3 owners have come to expect from their big-game releases, and do so with a new control scheme that isn't just adequate, it sometimes feels like an improvement.
Check back later this month for our full review of Killzone 3, this time played with a Dualshock 3 controller.