As far as understatements go, saying that Killzone 2 was a nice-looking game is pretty high on the list. The game arrived in early 2009 like some benevolent time traveler, a first-person shooter sent from the future bearing the message "Fear not, friends. This is what PlayStation 3 graphics will look like in a few years' time." Killzone 3, its aptly named sequel, doesn't carry that same immediate impact. It looks and sounds nothing short of gorgeous, but its various improvements seem more focused on fleshing out the gameplay experience with greater variety, bigger set pieces, and deeper combat. We recently got to experience this development game plan firsthand, and it didn't take long to see that, with a game that already looked so good, building up the action seems like the right way to go.
Killzone 3 picks up right after the second game. A nuclear detonation has rendered the Helghan homeworld a scarred wasteland, but there's still a war to be fought even as the enemy Helghast's chain of power remains uncertain in the wake of the last game's conclusion. You'll once again assume control of an ISA soldier named Sev and work in tandem with his squadmate Rico, but this time the members of this squad will be trekking across a more wide-ranging selection of Helghan locales. Whereas you spent the vast majority of Killzone 2 shooting Helghast soldiers in urban streets and alleyways, the next game will take you on a tour through Arctic seas, irradiated jungles, and eventually outer space.
We got to play through portions of the game's fourth chapter, set in and above one of the frigid Arctic poles of the Helghan homeworld. Things kicked off with an on-rails vehicle sequence, as we sat atop an ISA gunship circling around Helghan oil rigs, though after making a lot of things explode with a mounted Gatling gun, we were eventually shot down. After crash-landing, we got a chance to see some of the new Helghast troops up close and personal. Perhaps the most attention-grabbing one is the jumpack trooper, who looks like some sort of jetpack-equipped Helghast valkyrie trying to kill you from on high. The scariest part of these guys is that shooting at them eventually causes their jumpacks to malfunction and send them careening like wild in random directions, though they'll do their best to guide the wreckage directly into you like a last-minute kamikaze.
After dealing with some of these flying foes, we managed to equip Sev with a jumpack for himself. The controls are simple: L1 to lift off, X to quickly dash forward, and R1 to shoot the mounted machine gun. Riding these can be a little intimidating at first with the thrusters spitting out fire almost directly in front of your face, but the visual effect is an impressive one nonetheless. You can lift off for only a few seconds at a time, so it's more for extended jumping (hence the name) than full-on flying. We used the pack to leap dozens of feet at a time across icebergs sticking out of the swelling, violent Arctic sea in a quest to make it from one oil rig to another. When we made it to land, we were able to use the pack to quickly find high ground against the Helghast grunts or hover over them safe from melee attacks.
The latter technique actually worked out quite well, because Killzone 2 features a new "brutal melee" system, to use Guerrilla's terminology, that both you and your opponents can take advantage of. Basically, this means that melee attacks are more varied and vicious than just smashing an enemy's face with the butt of your rifle. Depending on where your enemies are in the environment and what sorts of objects are nearby, hitting the L1 button can result in a number of different outcomes. Run straight up to a Helghast trooper, and you'll jam your knife in his eye. Approach one standing near a bench, and you'll kick him around and knife him in the neck as he struggles to get back up. We saw a number of these savage attacks, and they were all equally visceral (if not a little bit nauseating to look at with a weak stomach).
Development on Killzone 3 kicked off right after its predecessor shipped last January, and one of the big new features that has been worked on ever since then is getting the game running in full stereoscopic 3D. We had the opportunity to play in said number of dimensions, and even at this early stage with plenty of rough spots, it was a visual treat. Killzone 2 already did depth-of-field really well with the way it blurred out close objects like the stock of your rifle or the green-dot scope that pops up when you look down your gun's sights. But in 3D, objects meant to be at the front of your immediate field of view really pop out, like your hand when you've got a knife equipped or the rockets zipping by your head during those moments when you've got to deal with explosives-wielding Helghast. The one downer was that seeing the game in 3D produced a lot more aliasing and jagged edges than when we played in traditional 2D, as well as some ghosting of interface elements like the crosshair and screen text. Hopefully Guerrilla will be able to iron out those bugs, because the 3D effect is overall pretty impressive.
Finally, it's worth noting that even after moving on from the last game's gloomy urban streets, Guerrilla seems to have managed a fairly intense atmosphere even in the daytime Arctic. Between the flurries of snow falling every which way in shifting winds, a thrashing sea nearby, and the usual whizz of bullets and violent groans from fallen soldiers, there's a lot competing for your attention. It all made us eager to see how some of the other environments look and sound. We should get a better idea as we get closer to Killzone 3's 2011 release date.