Killzone 3 review: Third time's the harm

The Killzone franchise has always been caught in a struggle against early expectations. The first game fell short of its "Halo killer" billing, and the next console outing had to match a lofty, pre-rendered visual "target" -- while it came close, it couldn't silence sharp-eyed critics. With Killzone 3, developer Guerrilla has no new benchmark to beat except for the one it already set for itself: be better than Killzone 2.

Critics, myself included, praised that last game, even though a few turn-offs still slipped through. Killzone 3 systematically addresses every complaint voiced: the graphics have become more colorful, the story has been greatly expanded, and the controls have been tweaked to feel less sluggish. But reactionary development doesn't always work. Fixated on correcting what wasn't necessarily broken, Guerrilla has forgotten to focus on what really matters in the solo game: making it fun.%Gallery-93599% Set immediately after the events of Killzone 2, most of the game's major changes will go unnoticed until later in the campaign -- except for a major overhaul of the game's handling. As if someone hit fast-forward on the game engine, your character and your gun are both nimbler than ever. The noticeable weight of each weapon has been removed, letting you run around carrying an assault rifle and a sniper rifle, should you please. You can even rip out turrets, Master Chief-style, and still hit L3 to dash across the environment. This is meant to speed up the pace -- and it succeeds -- but as a fan of the last iteration, I couldn't help but feel like a crucial part of the game's spirit had been killed.

Rectifying the control lag certainly makes the game more accessible to the mainstream standard set by Call of Duty. A consequence of removing that weight, however, is that it makes similar classes of weapons feel nearly indistinguishable from one another. A submachine gun feels like an assault rifle feels like a machine gun, whether you're playing on a DualShock or a Move controller. The only difference between the weapons you'll really consider is the size of its magazine, an unfortunate misstep for those who appreciated the tactical aspect of the last game's combat.

Killzone is no longer a military shooter that simply happens to take place in space. Guerrilla fully embraces the sci-fi aspect of the franchise and, in doing so, finally gives the game a "gimmick" its predecessor sorely lacked: lots of robots and crazy alien stuff. Killzone 3 is a playground of new toys and new enemies that sounds absolutely delightful on paper. In one level, you'll fight intimidating Predator-esque enemies in the Helghan wilderness, while dodging a fire-breathing dragon-robot-thing. In another, you'll liquify electric-shooting soldiers while jumping around in a low-gravity space station. Oh, and let's not forget the jetpacks.

But every brilliant moment is countered by another of frustration, anger, or boredom. For the most part, the gameplay devolves into a mindless shooting gallery, where the greatest threat isn't enemy intelligence, but a hilarious amount of grenade spam. It's not uncommon to come to a barrier and have three grenades land at your feet ... every thirty seconds. And even when you're not under explosive assault, the game lobs equally temperamental objectives your way that tend to be unclear and poorly communicated. Considering how much of the game is driven by set pieces, it's amazing how often you'll feel lost.

The game's excessive reliance on rail-shooting segments quickly outstays its welcome. Sure, the vehicle you're in may change -- whether you're in a gunship, a tank, an ice plow, etc. -- but the tactics are mercilessly mindless. Just keep holding R1 until everything explodes. Don't think. Just watch the explosions! They're so pretty!

It's easy to see why Guerrilla added so many of these rails segments. Not only do they give off the impression of variety, they show off how stunning the graphics are in Killzone 3. You'll be hard-pressed to disagree -- the stylized HDR lighting, the overabundance of color, and the sheer variety of locations really make the game a treat for the eyes. The most compelling reason to soldier through the campaign may be just to see where the game takes you next. Somehow, the levels seem to look better and better, and you'll never want the engine to render brown ever again.

Unfortunately, the spectacle of the graphics can't rectify the travesty that is the game's narrative. Killzone 2 didn't have a story, some complained. I'd much rather have nothing than the heavy-handed, absurdly edited tale of Killzone 3. There's a feature length film's worth of cutscene tucked away onto the Blu-ray disc, and were it placed into theaters you would walk out in anger and ask for your $12 back. The performances are strong, but the script is miserable. The lack of characterization makes it difficult to care about the plot, and the cutscenes' inability to convey something as simple as cause and effect makes it impossible to even try.

Stripping the game of its story actually makes for a better product, as evidenced by the stellar multiplayer mode. Whereas shooting becomes a chore in the campaign, I never tired of the multiplayer experience. The class system in Killzone 2 makes a return here, streamlined to make it much more accessible to newcomers. There's no "grunt" class anymore. Instead, you'll be able to play as any class with powers, making the game immediately more gratifying. Leveling up gives you access to "points" that you can use to strengthen each class: create stronger turrets for the engineer, earn a cloaking device, etc. If you focus on a specific class, you'll make progress rather quickly.

Like its predecessor, Killzone 3 doesn't offer much in terms of modes, but the three included on the disc greatly expand the single option previously offered. Warzone makes a return, offering the same objective roulette that fans have come to expect. Each team competes to win as many constantly-changing objectives as possible: assassinating a specific team member, defending a certain territory, or just raking in kills. Killzone 3 fixes one of the biggest missed opportunities of the last title: vehicular combat comes into play -- and in a big way, too. Depending on the stage, you'll be able to commandeer a mech or a jetpack. It should be obvious that the dynamics of battle drastically change when these come into play.

But the most effective new ingredient in the multiplayer is the Operations mode. Similar to Uncharted 2's co-op, Operations adapts pivotal battles in the single-player campaign and turns them into objective-based clashes between the Helghast and ISA. The objectives are widely spread across the map, meaning teams will have to really coordinate well to attack or defend. The victor is rewarded a rather satisfying outro, with the winning team humiliating the losing side, with screen names highlighted on both sides.

Multiplayer does what the campaign simply cannot, which is to make you care. Despite that, I have to wonder if Killzone 3's multiplayer offers enough content to remain competitive with the other players in the space. There are only three modes to play through, one being a straightforward team deathmatch. The three maps available in Operations are a lot of fun, but I couldn't help but want more. And why aren't there more maps with jetpacks? Why aren't there more modes that use the mechs? What about a low-gravity mode, as seen in the campaign? (The answer is likely "DLC.")

The feature set of Killzone 3 is impressive: 3D support, PlayStation Move compatibility, split-screen offline co-op campaign, and offline multiplayer with bots, but no amount of 3D waggle can change the fact that the Killzone 3 campaign is a miserable experience. Killzone 3 certainly offers more bells and whistles than its predecessor -- it's just a shame they've been affixed to an inferior game.

This review is based on review code of Killzone 3 provided by Sony. The game will be available on PS3 on February 22. An open multiplayer beta is available starting today.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.