Do you ever get the feeling that the Call Of Duty series has become like a black hole? An unstoppable universal entity slowly sucking everything around it towards its core, until everything exists in one place, at one time, in accordance with one singular formula. It does feel that way sometimes, doesn’t it? And playing through Killzone 3 is exactly one of those times.
Killzone 2 was far from an original game, but it still distinguished itself from the pack with a meticulous dedication to the fine art of shooting things until they fall to the ground and stop moving. Its famous ‘Ballet Of Death’ trailer was more than just a crude juxtaposition of two polarised entertainment forms, it accurately reflected one of Killzone 2’s core principles – that every single kill should be savoured. Like the first taste of a fine wine, the scent of a freshly plucked rose or the delicate orchestration of an operatic duet about picking flowers. Well, maybe not quite like that, but it is fair to say that every single time you forced a Helghast to the floor in a hail of gunfire in Killzone 2, it felt like a victory in itself and, phenomenal graphics aside, this was Guerrilla’s greatest accomplishment in that game.
So you’d think that this central defining characteristic would be one thing to confidently expect from Killzone 3, wouldn’t you? But surprisingly, and very disappointingly, there’s barely a trace of it anywhere. Instead, we have a Killzone that barely ever wavers from the now rather too familiar Call Of Duty template. To be clear, that’s a reference to what Call Of Duty has become, not what it started out as. In fact, you could say that going from Killzone 2 to Killzone 3 is somewhat akin to going from Call Of Duty 2 to Call Of Duty 3, or from Modern Warfare to Modern Warfare 2. The consistent identity and vision has been dropped in favour of outrageous set-piece moments linked together with tedious shooting gallery sections, and consequently the tense atmosphere and aggressive intensity of Killzone 2 are scarcely, if ever, carried over to its sequel.
The whole thing feels like a lightweight, dumbed-down shadow of Killzone 2, compromised by safe-bet decision-making and an approach that favours follow-the-leader over breaking out in any fresh creative directions at all. It is, without question, a backwards step.
But that’s not to say it’s bad. After all, Call Of Duty’s not bad, just increasingly diminishing in its returns. Guerrilla’s vision, facile though it might be, has largely been executed with a characteristically high level of proficiency and polish, so for the most part Killzone 3 is a smooth and superficially impressive ride. And actually, the Call Of Duty cloning has even brought some improvements with it. Killzone 2’s combat was consistently engaging, no doubt, but it lacked variety and changes of pace. Killzone 3 addresses this issue eagerly with environments that break well free of Killzone 2’s orange, black, claustrophic mould and numerous on-rails and vehicle sections. It’s so eager though that, while the increased variety is certainly a welcome improvement overall, it feels like it might be part of Killzone 3’s problem sometimes too. It’s almost as if the straightforward FPS sections have been forced to take a backseat and their quality has suffered badly as a result. If that is the case, then it’s a serious oversight, as they really needed to be the glue holding everything else together.
On the plus-side though, Killzone 3 does have a few truly memorable set-piece moments that, while simplistic to play, are pretty exciting to be a part of. One particularly epic battle towards the end of the game stands out. It’s the sort of thing that many other games have done – including Killzone’s Sony stable-mate Resistance and Microsoft rival Halo – but with Guerrilla’s incredible graphics engine running the show, it surpasses anything seen anywhere else in terms of both scale and detail. On this one occasion the spectacle is such that your awareness that whole section is tightly scripted will do little to diminish your sense of satisfaction. Unfortunately though, it’s a lone exception to the rule that Killzone 3 is stifled by overly prescriptive design.
To give you a fundamental and perfectly illustrative example of this, you’ll remember how – as touched upon earlier in this review – Killzone 2 was famed for the way its graphics, physics, animation and AI combined to generate hundreds of unique and spectacular Helghast deaths. It was, as far as anyone could tell, entirely procedural. None of those Helghast was being forced to die in especially satisfying ways, the game was just built in such a way that it happened naturally. It’s a cause of some dismay then to counter-snipe a sniper in Killzone 3, see his body at first fall backwards as the laws of physics dictate then, as if propelled by some invisible spring behind him, bounce forwards and fling himself over the ledge of the third floor window in which he was nested. The Helghast who took three blatantly deliberate steps towards the edge of a platform just so as he could fall off it as he died was subject to similarly transparent ‘stunt direction’. And as for the Helghast who purposefully take up static positions right next to explosive environmental hazards… if you loved Killzone 2 for its smart, tactical, co-operative, aggressive AI then you may well despise the dunderheaded cannon fodder that’s taken its place.
It’s predictable to the point of utter tedium sometimes, especially early in the game when the set-pieces haven’t got going, and this is as true of the story as it is of the gameplay. Where Killzone 2’s often underappreciated narrative made a gradual transition in tone from gung ho bravado to melancholy ambiguity as events took more and more turns for the worse, Killzone 3’s is corny, clichéd, macho nonsense from start to finish. The underlying tensions between Sev and Rico that gave Killzone 2’s story much of its texture are almost immediately forgotten here and instead we get ‘heroes’ based on a formula that dates back at least as far as the mid-Seventies and Starsky & Hutch, possible even further. The Captain tells them to do the sensible thing, to which they respond by shouting ‘Bullshit!’ a lot before hatching their own hare-brained, suicidal plan which, through sheer luck, actually works thus proving that ‘gung-ho crap’ is what wins wars and keeps the universe safe from the evil machinations of tyrannical space-Nazis. The story does try to flip things around in a more meaningful direction right at the end, but really it’s too little, too late. And anyway, this attempt is almost immediately undone by a dreadfully clichéd sequel-teasing scene shown after the credits. The ending of Killzone 2 had seemed to be teeing up its sequel for an exploration of who the real villains and victims are in the Extrasolar Wars, but instead it feels more like a kid’s cartoon with swearing and gore.
So, it’s early days yet, but from a single-player point of view at least, Killzone 3 is the biggest disappointment of the year so far. It does have a few exhilarating moments, and it can probably still just about claim to have the best graphics ever, but it fundamentally plays more like a formulaic Call Of Duty clone than a successor to the current generations most intense, visceral FPS. The silver lining is that, if the beta was anything to go by, then Killzone 3’s multiplayer should be excellent and the single-player campaign’s shallowness and brevity – just four-and-a-half hours of game time for us – is an indication that, again following Call Of Duty’s lead, online play was the main area of development focus this time.