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Beta Impressions: Killzone 3
by Linford Butler

A lone, mourning violin heralds your arrival into the world of Killzone 3, greeting you with such a beautiful but sorrowful soundscape that, were it not for the Helghan writing, one might well wonder if they’d accidentally wandered into entirely the wrong piece of software. It’s an oddly serious, sombre opening to the latest in a series renowned for its straight-up shooting and un-shying goriness. The deceptive simplicity of the opening score inspires a straight-faced, somewhat austere feel that makes at least one thing clear from the very start. Guerrilla’s baby has grown up into one of that very rare breed: a serious first-person shooter.

Where Killzone 2 was a loud, egocentric teenager, flexing its not-quite-fully-developed virtual muscles with testosterone-fuelled bloodiness and shouting you down with a range of obscenities that even criminals on North London estates would struggle to recognise, its successor is a solemn, straight-faced adult, stoic and businesslike, getting on with whichever tasks are necessary with unfaltering professionalism. Whilst understated, the effort that has been put into giving Killzone 3 – or at least its online functionality – such a refined and developed feel is ultimately its saving grace; it turns a good game into something that could potentially reserve Killzone’s place in the history books of gaming.

Killzone 3 is simply a more mature game all-round. Amongst first-person shooters, for the grimness of war to be effectively put into game form is both a rarity and a pleasant surprise (a complete antithesis considering the gravity of the subject matter). Throughout my time on the beta, however, I’ve found Killzone 3 to continually surprise me with its adult, mature approach to the overdone war-game format that serves only to increase the feeling of immersion one enjoys when playing it. Small details like the bodies which litter the map during a game, the brutal mêlée animations, the increased sense of teamwork and tactic and the lovely interjecting cut-scenes in Operations mode make Killzone 3’s online mode feel more grown-up and – despite the fact that the horrors of war still aren’t quite accurately or fully portrayed – make Killzone 3 feel generally more involving that its predecessor or, indeed, other first-person shooters.

The quality is evident throughout the beta, but there are drastic differences between the three game modes. Whilst Guerrilla Warfare and Warzone mode are fantastic for a twenty-or-so minute blast, providing some fast-paced shootouts and the typical Killzone online action that series connoisseurs have hitherto enjoyed, it is the new Operations mode that is the star of the Killzone 3 show. Operations (and Warzone, but to a lesser extent) both boast a real sense of tactic and teamwork that is largely missing from modern first-person shooters, and it is this tactic that is key to taking objectives and winning matches. Whereas Guerrilla Warfare feels like a free-for-all, with every player gunning for themselves and for the top-spot on the leaderboard, Operations and Warzone have a sense of team cohesion that increases the game’s engagement of the player, and requires a level of skill and intellect in order to effectively win over your objectives (be that defending as the Helghast or attacking as the ISA). This sense of combined effort and unity is ultimately what makes these modes more rewarding than Guerrilla Warfare; in Operations, covering frontline infantry as a marksman from far behind the lines, to go on and successfully gain ground or an objective is hugely satisfying, whereas whilst Guerrilla Warfare is a speedy blast of fun there is never the same sense of satisfaction. In this lies the issue with Guerrilla Warfare and the winning factor for Operations and Warzone: Guerrilla Warfare provides no reward and therefore no incentive to continue playing, whereas Operations and Warzone provide rewards in the forms of won objectives, and so will ultimately end up being the more popular game modes.

The key thing with Operations is it provides new aspects that haven’t been seen before in Killzone and are still largely novel across the online gaming world, no matter what your console of choice. The intermittent mid-match mini-cutscenes are a lovely touch that give some sense of a story or situation to an online match, something that barely any other games hasten (or even bother) to add. Guerrilla ought to be praised on the idea to feature the best players from each operation are the characters featured in the cutscenes; it is a reward which not only increases your sense of involvement in the match, but also serves as a nice way to quench the thirst for bragging rights and recognition, and encourages clever, tactical play so one can be featured in these miniature scenes. The mode’s system of completing objectives to push forward, unlocking new areas of the map, will be familiar to players of EA’s recent Medal of Honor reboot, as they use a similar system; it works well as not only does it provide an impression of progression through the level, but it also means the game can end at any of the objectives depending on whether or not you play well, and so you have a real drive to play well to maximise the game length (and therefore your chances of winning the most experience points).

Broadly, however, there isn’t a mode which is unenjoyable, due to the smooth-flowing, much-improved combat and game mechanics. The trademark ‘heavy’ feel of previous Killzones has, for the most part, been dumbed down and lessened, largely through smoother movement animations and the increased speed with which one can aim, reload and take down an opponent in battle. Whilst this makes the action much speedier and smoother, due to the less labourious and unfamiliar style of movement compared to other FPS titles, it does make Killzone 3 feel different to its predecessors. And whilst I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing, it will be something that die-hard fans of Guerrilla Games’ series will have to get used to.

In some ways, the changes that have been made enable the game to be more accessible to newcomers. One of the major problems that I found with Killzone 2 was that, whilst it was by no means a badly developed game, the way that it handled and the foreign-feeling control scheme meant that those uninitiated with the original Killzone were much less likely to find the second title an enjoyable and fulfilling experience. With the Killzone 3 beta, however, this seems to have been addressed. Old weapons return in order to ensure those migrating from Killzone 2 don’t find the experience entirely detached from its foregoer, some new weapons have been thrown in to increase variety and the weightiness of the weapons has been highly varied in order to bring the feel of the game more in line with recent and upcoming games in the same genre (Killzone 3’s shooting mechanic, for instance, has a similar aura to Splash Damage’s Brink, and regular readers will know how much I enjoyed that). The controls have been made more approachable for new players, with it being much more obvious how to use various functions than in the previous game. All the small tweaks to the gameplay serve to make Killzone 3 an all-round easier-to-play game than Killzone 2, and whilst veterans might not like that, it is certain to boost sales and chart rankings when the game releases later this month.

Matches themselves are more varied. The new brutal mêlées increase the hardened ruthlessness of the games new, more adult feel, and the XP reward (alongside the savage animations, none of which are overdone) make you as the player want to use mêlée function more, which makes for a more vibrant combat experience. The range of weaponry is much increased, with the new class- and skill-based system making for more choice when deciding on your killing tools; and the roster of side arms is more fully-featured than before. Furthermore, weapon choices have to be made carefully, as the balancing of the weapons has been very well done, meaning certain weapons are more suited to some situations or uses than others, and put together these few new additions make for an overall more tactical experience. My only gripes with the combat were that occasionally, (particularly at the beginning of a match, and most noticeably when playing as the ISA) the enemy tends to respawn far too close to your original basecamp, which prevents the battle from effectively spreading across the map; and that grenade aiming and throwing was largely hit-and-miss, and the system could do with tightening up in order to make it more intuitive and effective.

On some basic points, the single map which is playable on the beta is quite extensive – much larger than the average FPS map you might have played on before – and is well designed, with some lovely little nooks-and-crannies to hide in, some semi-secret passages and action over (at one point) five storeys. The game feels more brutal and is gory (if not as much as Killzone 2, then more so), but sometimes the gore effects can feel unrealistic and superfluous, less a well-considered component of the overall experience and more a mere party popper once the birthday banners are up (if you’ll excuse the metaphor). The game automatically puts you into an open match slot using the evermore-popular matchmaking mechanic and, whilst it is (for the most part) quick and efficient it can also mean you are sometimes allocated to a game that is late on in proceedings, meaning you’re destined to end the match with little XP and an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction. Killzone 3 is graphically nice: the visuals have been improved on since Killzone 2, and whilst the visuals on a large scale are still a little underwhelming, the small detail such as the slight blur effect of the reflex sight’s crosshair when changing your angle of aim is what is most striking. Lastly, ranking up is quick if you play the game for extended periods, particularly if you’re a regular of games where XP is gained for completing objectives, and despite the fact that there are many ranks players may find that they reach the top ranks with little difficulty and with minimal effort.

For a moment, though, forget everything about the tweaked feel and the combat and the graphical prowess that I’ve already imparted because, although they certainly all make Killzone 3 the beautifully-formed package that the Killzone franchise was always going to naturally form into, for once they’re largely unnecessary in summing up what makes this beta so awe-inspiring. Killzone 3 – or at least the beta – is the turning point for the series, because it is drama, not melodrama. When you enter the beta, right from that very first bereft, quavering violin chord to the moment you leave the console, there is such a striking sense of thought to the whole thing. Where Killzone 2 was a good game, this is an excellent experience. It has the depth, the foresight and the development of the detail that Killzone 2 just didn’t have enough of. You can be walking the alpine expanses of the dam base one moment, the silence almost deafening when combined with the omnipresent danger, when suddenly gunfire explodes from nowhere with a roar like a wild animal. It is a refined, perfected, perfectly-glossed product that, if the single player mode and the final online functionality are as good as this beta has been, will be one of the titles best-recognised for its achievements this side of the next console generation.

You can download the Killzone 3 Open Beta now from the PlayStation Store, through 15th February. The Killzone 3 single player demo will be released onto the PlayStation Store on 16th February.

Killzone 3 is released in the United States on 22nd February, and in the United Kingdom on 25th February.

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- Linford Butler

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