Like its predecessor, Killzone 3 is immediately striking for its gorgeous landscapes and glowing lighting, which provide a hostile, not-quite-familiar backdrop to the heart-pounding first-person firefights that often occur on the planet of Helghan. But to dismiss this sequel as a mere visual showcase would be a disservice to the core action, which maintains the excellence that distinguished Killzone 2. There's a heft as you move, jump, and shoot that you rarely feel in shooters, but it works for Killzone 3, giving every shot that finds its mark a satisfying sense of impact and keeping you mindful of where you step before you wade into a sea of gunfire. Set-piece battles energize this foundation, mixing up the pace by putting you in a jetpack or inside a lumbering armored suit. It's unfortunate that not every aspect of the game maintains the same high standard of quality. The storytelling is so awful as to be embarrassing, yet there's so much more story than before, and its frequent interruptions injure the flow of the single-player campaign. And the tacked-on local cooperative mode is a missed opportunity, and problematic in its own right. Yet for these few steps back, there are steps forward too, making Killzone 3 an exciting follow-up to one of 2009's best shooters--and one of the most beautiful-looking games to grace consoles yet.
In Killzone 2, it was easy to ignore the story. There wasn't much context for what made the red-eyed Helghast so hated and feared, beyond the fact that they waved fearsome flags that not-so-subtly evoked images of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, the story focused on the well-meaning but interchangeable grunts on the front lines of the Helghan invasion to generic effect. In Killzone 3, the Helghan leaders, with their evil-scientist scowls and bushy mustaches, all too often take center stage. You see their atrocities firsthand, but these caricatures and their teeth-gnashing war room antics are beyond laughable. The game spends far too much time elaborating on their political machinations, complete with pounding fists and wrinkled brows. You can skip the overlong cutscenes, but they intrude often enough that the flow of battle suffers. Granted, like the rest of Killzone 3, these scenes are gorgeous to behold. Blustery images of heroes Sev and Rico making narrow escapes are as slick as any sequence you'd see in an action film. But it's hard to be invested in the fate of characters you don't care about, fighting an enemy characterized not by their cause, but by the color of their eyes.
Where the story stumbles, the action more than rises to the occasion. The M82 returns from Killzone 2 and remains a pleasure to shoot. Smooth animations make it enjoyable to go from standard shooting to peering through the sight of this assault rifle. Ruddy blood erupts from your enemies; weapons sound powerful; and animations effectively convey the jolts of bullets hitting armor. The boltgun, the flamethrower, and other Killzone 2 favorites return, though the new weapons pack plenty of punch as well. With one of them, you can charge up a glowing green orb of energy that plows through scores of enemies, leaving corpses in its wake. It functions much like Killzone 2's lightning gun, in the sense that on the few occasions you get to wield this powerful beast, you feel like an unstoppable supersoldier. Another potent weapon lets you switch between two modes, raining artillery fire onto Helghast and vehicles. It's put to memorable use in a boss fight of sorts in which you take on an impossibly enormous walker firing upon your collapsing base with machine guns and missiles.
Like so many shooters, this one often funnels you down narrow corridors carved through the trash and rubble of its war-torn vistas. This predictable foundation is prevalent in the first hour, but gives way to memorable set-piece battles that define the Killzone 3 experience. In the best of these, you don a jetpack and thrust into the air with the same satisfying sense of substantial weight that has always permeated the series' movement and gunplay. The first time you lift off is great fun, giving you a chance to load up Helghast troops with lead from above. It's just as rewarding to fire at foes in jetpacks as they hover above, looking like winged demons summoned from hell. Shooting one down causes him to careen about before crashing into the terrain--or possibly, into you. This entertaining change of pace is accompanied by a change of scenery; rather than battling in the dusty Helghan desert, you feel the chill as you make your way through drifts of snow and soar above icy ocean waves.
"New scenery, new mechanics" is a major theme in Killzone 3. Not only do you make your way through a hostile sci-fi jungle, but you do so stealthily, stabbing your foes in the back in particularly dramatic fashion. In a wintry war zone, you pilot a speeder while launching missiles at the aircraft that zoom above and in front of you. An enjoyable battle in yet another frontier closes the game, though this brief final chapter is too easy to feel like an actual climax. Nevertheless, it's a better conclusion than Killzone 2's, and it's preceded by a series of progressively more challenging firefights that raise tension levels. For even more variety, you can also jump into the action with a Move controller and navigation controller in hand. This method of control is much as you'd expect: you move using the thumbstick on the navigation controller, and you adjust the camera, aim, and shoot with the motion controller. Everything moves smoothly and precisely, and the auto-targeting adjusts in smart ways when you aim down the sights of your gun or turret.
Even the more standard levels that stick mostly to running and gunning do a good job of giving context to your actions and keeping intensity levels high. For instance, you fight your way through a junkyard that funnels you through its corridors in conventional fashion, but then pits you against hovering security drones that deliver death surprisingly quickly, all while a couple of Helghast snipers take aim. Killzone 3's enemy AI is fantastic. Your adversaries flee quickly from the grenades you toss, are quite accurate when they throw their own, and sprint to more effective cover spots when your gunfire causes the sheet of metal they were hiding behind to fall away. You are often accompanied by a mostly competent AI teammate. He might cry out that he can't get to you to revive you when you go down, even though he's crouching right next to you. But apart from these rare blips, the artificial intelligence is wonderful. On the occasions when you are part of a larger battle and accompanied by numerous soldiers, your foes are just as focused on your comrades as they are on you. As a result, you feel like a proud cog in an authentic war machine, rather than a simple bullet magnet.
Once again, outstanding visuals impress and amaze. Gritty urban environments make a return and are as stunning as you would expect from the series, exquisitely communicating at a glance how the horrors of war have ravaged the landscape. Pockmarked bridges are covered in bulky rubble and mangled girders twist up and to the side, while thick billows of smoke fill the horizon, betraying violence and cruelty just out of sight. The rays of the sun peek through the clouds, causing long shadows to stretch across blood-soaked pavement. Details like barbed wire, tangled vines, and piles of sandbags fill the screen, and the glow of the sun softens the look of industrial complexes coated with snow. This is an amazing partnership of art and technology, in which luminescent lighting, rusted metal pipes, and fluttering tarps are among the many astounding subtleties. If you own a 3D television, you can also explore the landscapes in their stereoscopic glory, though it might take a bit of time to grow accustomed to the effect. Once you do, you may admire just how great it looks, showcasing how much distance separates you from the antiaircraft platform you must reach. While lighting and textures don't impress as much with 3D activated as they do without, terrific effects like the way falling snow wafts in front of your eyes make this a curiosity worth experiencing.
Brief stutters only occasionally intrude as the game loads data, and stand out more because the game generally performs smoothly, rather than because such hitches are particularly egregious. At least, that is true during the single-player campaign. Now, you can also invite a buddy to join you on your otherworldly adventure, though cooperative play is limited to split-screen for two. (The lack of online co-op is a shame, considering Killzone 3's silky online performance in competitive play.) Adding a buddy isn't a game-changer, but it's a good feeling to mow down Helghast with a friend at your side, particularly when you need to be revived--an area where the game's normally supreme AI might falter. The co-op campaign has its own progression, however, so if you want to explore this option, you won't be able to visit a previously played scenario, but must start from the very beginning. Considering the cooperative inroads paved by other modern sci-fi shooters, such as Resistance 2 and even the lesser Lost Planet 2, it's a shame that Killzone 3's co-op comes off as somewhat halfhearted.
You couldn't call the game's outstanding competitive play halfhearted, however, though it doesn't offer much that is wholly new over Killzone 2. The heart of competitive play is still Warzone, in which multiple game types (team deathmatch, VIP, and others) are combined into a single match. The frequent shifts in focus mix up the pace within a single match, having you protecting your team's VIP one moment and then sending you off to capture key locations the next. As in Killzone 2, the maps excellently accommodate each of these modes, keeping the action constantly intense with smart level design that makes you appreciate the little things. Walls and windows always seem to be placed exactly right, for example. You might feel momentarily safe in an enclosed space, but a well-placed window could make you a sitting duck. A row of crumbling walls on the Pyrrhus Crater map, on the other hand, might protect you from enemy combatants taking aim at you from the tilted walkways in the edifice above you.
In any case, the action is energized by good use of central choke points to keep the bullets flying. On the Akmir Snowdrift map, a central zone plays host to memorable shoot-outs due to the way it offers several channels of approach. The map also populates the area with heavy machinery and other objects, allowing you to weave in and out, perhaps so you might approach a foe from behind and slit his throat in a bloody finishing move. Such focal points of action play a large role in the new assault-and-defend mode, called Operations. Teams converge on specific points, which might be at the top of a staircase or toward the end of a long corridor. If you prefer to spread out the action, you can stick to Guerrilla Warfare mode, which is simple team deathmatch, but it benefits from the same high points as the rest of the game: weighty weapons, incredible looks, big armored exoskeletons to pilot, and (happily) jetpacks to don.
Even with the addition of Operations, Killzone 3's online play isn't far removed from its forebear. As you play, you earn skill points and spend them on class-specific and universal unlocks. However, the class and unlock system has seen some changes, forcing you to choose a class from the moment you jump into a match, and forgoing the leveling system that let you host and join servers limited to certain levels. This means you get the opportunity to play with some of the game's most interesting toys (sentry turrets, spawn grenades) early in your online career; the downside is that the sense of progression is less engaging than Killzone 2's. Regardless of how you feel about these changes, the classes are universally enjoyable. As an engineer, it's rewarding to get kills and assists when dropping a turret or two in a key location. As an infiltrator, there's nothing like speeding toward your target in disguise and then sinking a knife into him. Medics, marksmen, and tacticians all offer their own delights, so even if you think you'd rather play as one class, it's worth exploring all the options.
In some ways, Killzone 3 is a step forward. Set-piece battles will be drilled into your brain for some time after you experience them. There's more variety in both the environments and the action, and the game is better off for this diversity. On the other hand, the excruciating story's tendency to intrude just when the action intensifies has an adverse effect on the pacing. The competitive multiplayer isn't hampered by such infantile excess, focusing instead on what the shooter does best: delivering solid action in a visually dazzling context. Killzone 3 isn't the game it could have been, but when it comes to capturing the madness of larger-than-life planetside battles, few games do it better.