Killzone 3 (part 1)

Killzone 3 is my first proper gaming experience on a PS3.  I know nothing of the first two games, and have decided to stay ignorant.  So my views on the game will be completely uniformed.  I’m about four of five hours into the game, having just completed the first (only?) stealth level.

So to the plot, and already I’m having problems.  My shiny new PS3 has taken up residence in my living room, and there are distractions aplenty.  I can easily game while conversations and phone calls go on around me, but I struggle to keep up with what’s happening in the cut scenes. There’s a war between the ISA (the goodies) and the Helghast (the baddies).  Although the game looks as if you’re playing man vs alien, both sides are human.  Helghast look and sound like English Nazis.  One even looks like Hitler.  They may have had a leader called Scolari who was killed in the previous game.  There’s squabbling in Helghast HQ.  Some old and important military people meet.  Stahl, a private arms developer is among them.  He’s hilariously over the top, like Mark Hammil’s Joker, which doesn’t fit in with the other characters.  Stahl is sneakily trying to take control of the Helghast army.

Onto the good guys.  Killzone 3 focuses on two ISA soldiers, presumably the heroes of the last game.  I think I’ve been controlling both at various points throughout the game.  One looks like Noel Clarke, and so will be known as Clarke from now on.  Clarke has really pissed off his Commanding Officer (CO).  By killing Scolari in Killzone 2?  Maybe.  Clarke doesn’t believe in his CO’s tactics, but the CO won’t listen.

The first cut scene of the game takes place six months into the future.  Stahl was in charge.  Clarke and somebody else sneak into Helghast HQ to rescue whoever Stahl was about to execute (probably the CO).  Clarke fires at Stahl and the scene ends.  I refuse to believe that Stahl dies there and then, if he dies at all in this game.

When I decided put my thoughts on Killzone into words, the first notable thing that came to mind was the Helghast’s sheer brutality.  The first, and possibly only, laugh caused by the game is during the opening tutorial.  Disguised as a Helghast soldier, your character trains at their shooting range.  Targets pop up, some Helghast, and your targets: the ISA.  But the funny thing is that the ISA are all in submissive poses.  With their arms raised behind their head, they’re either captured or surrendering.  You’re being trained to execute prisoners.  It’s a small moment, but it’s darkly funny and sets the image of Helghast as cold and brutal.

Later in the game there’s another harsh moment.  You join a different squad to help them escape.  The level opens in a trench as a few soldiers push forward.  Along the top of the trench, ‘special’ Helghast appear.  They look different from the average Helghast grunt.  Their bodies are much slimmer, their masks have little centred-boxes like some Star Wars character I can’t quite bring to mind.  The mothers are packing flamethrowers.  They seem to take great delight in burning your comrades.  Making this all the more brutal is the dying screams of your fellow soldiers.  Killzone 3 allows you to heal your comrades.  I thought this would apply to the victims of a flamethrower (it is a game after all).  But there’s no option to heal them.  In fact, getting too close actually reduces your health as you start to burn from their flaming corpses.  So your peoples get burned, you listen to their screams as they burn to death, and you can’t even go near them.  I’m desensitised to putting bullets in brains in games (if I ever was sensitised), so it’s good to know that I still find some depictions of death shocking.  More war games should be like this.

Further on there’s another cut scene in which you watch two Helghast soldiers try out a new gun on an ISA member.  The weapon fires some strange, green energy.  On the first shot the victim screams in agony.  The Helghast soldier tries it again, increasing the intensity.  The victim’s screams more forcefully, until his entire body tears apart.  The Helghast love this shit.

One thing about the Killzone universe that my brain can’t help but pick at is the dissonance between the average Helghast soldier and their superiors.  The soldier is indistinct, a cold, faceless killing machine.  He’ll utter a few, curt words, and that’s all the personality you’ll get from them. They somehow manage to give a fearful impression while ultimately lacking in combat prowess (you’ll kill hundreds of them on your own). The only hint of character about them is the English accent akin to Idris Elba (which sadly makes it harder to kill them.  Sorry, Stringer).  Contrast them with the higher-ups of the cut scenes.  These men, presumably soldiers in their younger days, seem weak and broken.  There’s a huge contrast between the two, and it detracts from the realism of the universe.

To me at least (with no knowledge of the first two games), Killzone 3’s design aesthetic seems very influenced by Gears of War.  The graphical focus on making sure that every pane of glass is cracked, every piece of metal is tarnished.  With the exception of the clean-looking Helghast building of the opening, every surface looks aged and worn, though not as ruined as in Gears.  It gives the universe a feel, a richness and believability.  Graphically, it is tremendous, maybe the best-looking game I’ve ever seen.

There seems to be a number of overt influences on Killzone 3.  The stealth level seems ripped from Modern Warfare.  You and a team-mate creep through the grass as he points out enemies, instructing you on who to pick off while he drops the other.  Having never played the previous games, this may be an extension of their levels.  I doubt it though, they may as well have given your comrade a Scottish accent for the full Call of Duty hat-tip.

There’s big power-walker things (possibly called XOs), reminiscent of those from Aliens.  They look great, but aren’t quite as much fun to play, as their slowness makes the level feel pedestrian.  After trudging through the streets in one for half an hour, I was surprised to see them sprint in a cut scene.  Was there a ‘run’ mechanic I wasn’t told about?

The level I last finished on took place on an alien world.  And as I write that I’m confused by the location.  I assumed the game took place on a far-future Earth.  Maybe the Helghast aren’t as human as I thought.  Oh well.  Anyway, this level is brilliantly-designed, its nature harsh and unrelenting.  Plants will stab you if you stray too close.  Spiders will bite if you hang around too long.  Others plants explode if you shoot them, spraying a deadly red mist (being nature’s equivalent of a red barrel).  This gives the mission a great atmosphere, as you’re tense from the beginning without even a glimpse of Helghast.

This level has more of a that good ol’ Helghast brutality.  A Predator-type stalker chases an ISA soldier down, pins him, and drives a spike into his chest.  Whether these are specially-trained Helghast or not, I’m not sure.  The effect is great through, giving you another damn thing to worry about.  Standard Helghast will mostly stay in cover, trying to pin you down, blind firing if need be.  The flamethrowing types are more aggressive and will occasionally rush you.  But these stalker types are fearless; their game is speed, and they’re on a straight-line drive until one of you is dead.  They remind me of the shotgun-wielding masked troops from Black.  Spotting one of them heading towards you was a heart-racing moment, and all other enemies were ignored until this one was downed.  When I collected a Helghast flamethrower and used it on the stalker, I wasn’t far enough punching the air in delight, enjoying my bloodthirsty revenge as it collapsed and died.  Sadly, they are a bit too easy to kill, detracting from the adrenaline rush.

In fact, to this point at least, the game does seem a mite too easy.  I’m a bad gamer, so I play games on the default setting.  And with the exception of a few cognitive failures on the XO level (there’s guns where?) I’ve rarely perished.  I’m still getting used to the looseness of the PS3 thumbsticks (compared to the 360) so my aiming hasn’t even been great.

There are a few minor points that detract from the Killzone 3 experience, little things that reduce the feeling of immersion.  I’ve encountered a few freezes during gameplay.  This is presumably the console struggling to render the remarkable number of graphics in the game and is therefore understandable.  Yet it does bring the gamer back to the couch, a brief moment of realisation that you’re not really a soldier in a futuristic war.  And who wants that?

The Helghast AI is particularly good, except when they cover behind a low object.  Their heads are so often visible, making for easy headshots.  These kills feel a little cheap, thought I can’t resist taking them.  The Helghast do get their own chance for equality though.  I also can’t seem to cover behind low objects.  The game’s cover mechanic works well, but my head often rises above my cover.  Somehow or other Helghast rarely take advantage of this.  It’s as if both Helghast and ISA soldiers are so committed to good posture that they refuse to allow any more than a 90 degree bend at the hips.  That this and minor freezing are the only flaws that come to mind proves just how good a game and how enjoyable an experience Killzone 3 is.

Killzone 3 brought me back to a genre of gaming that I thought I was mostly finished with: the corridor shooter.  The lack of tactical options had worn me out.  Or so I thought.  But when the corridor is as well-designed as this one it becomes a mostly invisible boundary.  The only choice, to push forward, becomes your choice.  You’re battling through lines of soldiers, stopping and popping and onto the next one because you want to, not because there’s no other way to progress.

The rah-rah military bravado of most military shooters had also put me off the genre.  The narratives of most are ridiculously loaded with machismo.  These games put most 80s action movies to shame with their levels of synthetic testosterone.  Killzone 3 has a high bravado factor, but it still pales in comparison to, say, Gears of War.  The cheesy, manly dialogue is kept to a minimum, making it seem like a less ‘roided-up version of many other shooters, a pleasant change..

With Killzone 3 I considered playing the multiplayer before finishing the campaign.  This is something I’ve considered lately.  The option to play the multiplayer is (understandably) available to the gamer without playing a single second of the campaign.  But many multiplayer maps are based on levels from the campaign.  It seems spoiler-y to see and play on these maps before you see them in their ‘natural’ context.  Yet, the best way to evaluate a game is often to experience all the game modes, then begin to hone your skills on your favourite.

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