Once upon a time, the Killzone series was imagined as Sony's killer app — the sole reason for action gamers to own a PlayStation 3. Despite fantastic gameplay, a respectable fan base and the best graphics on home consoles, the series never quite lived up to its hype.
In its place, the Uncharted series emerged from the shadows and took the system-seller crown by force. Both series routinely deliver impressive, engaging games, but Uncharted has something Killzone doesn't: an interesting story.
Killzone 3, which hit store shelves recently, continues the series' tradition of glossing over an uninspired plot and cookie-cutter characters with realistic graphics and sound, and engaging gameplay.
You play as Master Sgt. Tomas "Sev" Sevchanko, surviving hero of Killzone 2 and a scruffy Jake Gyllenhaal look-alike. Trapped on the alien planet Helghan, Sev and his squad mates must survive against never-ending waves of Helghast troops — think space Nazis — while trying to stop a devastating attack on Earth.
Cut-scenes focus mostly on Sev; his buddy and fellow soldier Rico; and their commanding officer, Narville. The three bicker like schoolgirls for much of the game about the importance of friendship versus duty. In the last hour of the six-hour campaign, the three finally work together to bring the game to an abrupt and confusing end.
While watching the story unfold, I couldn't help but wonder how much better the campaign would have been if the writers had focused less on personal drama and more on the bigger picture: the genuinely interesting conflict between the Helghast and the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance (the good guys).
What are the ideologies of the two armies? Why are they fighting? Are the Helghast really as evil as their glowing red eyes and fascist insignia suggest?
Luckily, I have been playing video games longer than video games have had plots, so I could find plenty to enjoy about Killzone 3.
The game is one of the growing number of PlayStation 3 titles that can be played in 3-D. The graphics reach a level of beauty rarely seen outside of high-end gaming PCs. Character models are rendered in unprecedented detail. In close-up shots, you can see pores and individual facial hairs.
The environments are impressive, too. Crumbling buildings and realistic smoke from the war-torn planet rise high into the sky as far as the eye can see. Bright red and orange foliage in the game's jungle levels stands out against Helghan's otherwise gray and rocky backdrop.
The game's audio outshines that of its competitors. From the orchestral soundtrack to the metallic bass of gunfire, Killzone 3 quickly lets you know if your sound system is subpar. (My ancient stereo speakers crackled with each shriek of pain and each explosion, but my surround-sound headphones picked up the slack nicely.)
The gameplay is tight, and the controls are responsive. The game uses a cover system that lets you stick to a wall or column, popping out to fire a few rounds before ducking back to safety. Cover systems aren't widely used in first-person shooters, but Killzone 3's effective use of the mechanics proves that it can be done well.
The game's online component pits the Helghast and the ISA against each other in 24-player battles. You can choose from several classes, including a marksman who can turn invisible, a medic who can heal fallen comrades, and an infiltrator who can disguise himself as a member of the enemy team.
You level up after each game, unlocking new weapons and skills with each new rank. Beginners should prepare to start out vastly underpowered, with only one available weapon and skill per class. But once you unlock enough perks to level the playing field, the multiplayer shines; for many players, it far outshines the single-player campaign.
Killzone 3 is a blast to play and gorgeous to watch. If that much design effort could be put into crafting an interesting story, the series could finally find its place as a juggernaut in today's crowded first-person shooter market.