Competition is an inherent part of life. By fair means or foul, brute strength or subtle cunning, each and every one of us must struggle to survive. In the long term, this means finding a way to succeed where others fail; by being smarter, tougher or simply "better" (for want of a less subjective term) than our rivals. And while it's not always necessary to be directly aggressive to your fellow competitors, it's invariably a good move to have some quality or characteristic that your peers do not.
First-person shooters are equally exposed to this perpetual arms race. As popular as the genre may be, an FPS title needs to differentiate itself, to stand out from the pack with some kind of unique offering. For the Killzone series, it's graphical prowess that's held up as the series' trump card, and there's no question that this third game achieves great things in this regard. The only problem is, that's just about the only area in which it excels.
To get the hyperbole out of the way nice and early, I'll say it right now: Killzone 3 is almost certainly the best-looking video game you've ever seen. It's not necessarily so in an artistic sense - its visual style is rather generic, like so many other aspects of the overall design - but in terms of technical accomplishment, it's the very definition of spectacular. Barely a moment passes without something exploding, and when the fireworks arrive they do so with the full complement of pyrotechnical trimmings. Vehicles shatter into perfectly irregular shrapnel; angry sparks and embers are swept away on a bitter wind; dense smoke blooms across ruined urban battlefields. Round about the turn of the century there was a brief trend for TV adverts promoting games - FPS titles, usually - via impossibly slick CGI sequences. The young and the gullible would gawk at such displays, overlooking the treacherous "footage is not representative of gameplay" disclaimer at the foot of the screen. Now, as you play Killzone 3, you'll realise just how far the industry has come. Not only have we reached the standards of those perfidious ad-dreams - we've stormed past them, and by some distance.
If all you want from a triple-A title is the opportunity to blow stuff up in painstaking detail, Killzone 3 is the game for you. Guerrilla Games has given the handling a slight tweak since its last effort, ensuring that leading man Sev no longer feels quite so tank-like in his movements, and while the default control setup is still a bit unwieldy (you have to click in R3 to aim down your sights), the alternate option provides a more sensible layout.
If you've been hankering to test out PlayStation Move on something meatier than the average mini-game collection, you'll also find full support here. You may find that your movements lack grace for the first 10 minutes or so, but it certainly gets better with practice. There's a clear advantage to being able to move and aim in independent directions, and on the whole playing this way feels vaguely reminiscent of using a mouse and keyboard - clearly a good sign. There's still a bit of needless motion interaction - thrusting the controller for melee attacks, for example - but on the whole, I was surprised by how effective this setup can be. Perhaps motion controllers do have a hardcore future, after all.
However you choose to play, the core FPS gameplay is handled well, with a decent arsenal of satisfying weapons and a credible sense of connection when you're filling the yellow-eyed Helghast with space-lead, or whatever it is they make bullets out of in the far-flung future. Melee kills have also been beefed up, to the extent that you'll now find yourself slitting your enemies' throats or jamming your thumbs into their eye sockets, rather than simply bonking them in the face with the butt of your assault rifle. Even here Guerrilla has managed to pack in an extra technical flourish, dynamically using the surrounding scenery when appropriate - which is to say you'll sometimes dash someone's brains out on a nearby wall, rather than getting eye-juice on your thumbs for the umpteenth time. It's all very gritty in a gratuitous way, but unfortunately this is as close Killzone 3 gets to offering up any new ideas.
That's not to say that Guerrilla hasn't made any effort. Throughout the course of the six-hour campaign the game sifts through a wide spread of varied set-pieces, plonking you down in the cockpits of several vehicles and heavy weapons turrets. There's a stealth level, a couple of sniper-y bits, and a scrap with a stupendously enormous robot thing. Most of these sequences are handled competently - I'll discuss a couple of exceptions in a moment - but they all reek of over-familiarity; there's absolutely nothing here that you haven't seen or done before. There's an almost clinical feel to the progression, as if someone sat down and drew up a cold-blooded checklist of all the stuff that should go into an archetypal FPS.
That might not sound too bad, and to an extent it's not; there's nothing wrong with giving people what they want or expect, after all. What is problematic, however, is how joyless these interludes frequently seem. Despite the constant kabooms - or perhaps because of them, and their numbing omnipresence - Killzone 3's carnage rarely seems that exciting. Guerrilla's portrayal of intergalactic conflict is consistently gorgeous in chaotic violence, but the whole experience lacks weight or substance. It certainly doesn't help that the game seems so determined to chaperone you through its linear theatres of war. In several of the vehicle sequences, for example, it feels as if the player's only contribution is to tug on their trigger time and time again, spurting off explosive salvos that have automatically locked onto some anonymous target. When you're on foot, bottomless ammo crates are to be found every few minutes, with the result that you rarely even look at your the counter on your HUD. Heavy weapons like miniguns and plasma-spewing Arc Cannons can be refilled time and again, allowing you to spray an area with ordinance until all hostile life has been extinguished. There's nothing stopping you from being more precise with your slaughter, but nor is there any immediate incentive to play this way.
All too often the game insists on spelling everything out for you. The aforementioned stealth mission takes place in a dense jungle - a very linear, but mouth-wateringly gorgeous one - and here the main conceit is that you must use your silenced pistol to shoot at spiked plants; the volatile flora then explode and take out the Helghast guards in the vicinity. In simple terms, it's Explosive Barrels: Alan Titchmarsh Edition, but it's still a relatively neat idea - or it would be, if you didn't have a helpful NPC by your side, stating the bleeding obvious. "Look what they're walking past!" he cries, excitedly, as you draw a bead on the fourth or fifth convenient cactus in as many minutes.
You'd think that the Helghast troops would be smart enough to avoid the Spiney Bang-Bang Fruit, or whatever they're called, given that this is their home planet; then again, they're a pretty dense bunch if their combat tactics are anything to go by. At one point I watched as five troopers took turns to run across an open battlefield to take cover behind a piece of rubble, one that neatly faced my sniping point. One at a time they toddled out and paused in front of a pile of their dead friends, allowing me to take yet another careful headshot. Such moments of pure stupidity are uncommon, but it's not unusual to see Helghast blindly walking into a stream of minigun fire, either.
I've been quite harsh here, but I have to admit that the juggernaut impact of the game's graphics do go surprisingly far in making amends for its other shortcomings. The lack of originality wears you down, but equally it's never long before some form of epic occurrence shakes you out of your apathy. In its best moments, when one of the better set-pieces is married to an eye-catching graphical effect, the campaign shows hints of what might have been. It's hard not to have a good time when you're taking part in a low-gravity gunfight, with grenades lazily sailing through the air, or when you're hopping about a beautiful frozen landscape in a stolen jetpack (Why oh why is there only one jetpack level? It's clearly the most enjoyable of all the vehicles!) At times like these, you genuinely feel like you're playing through a blockbuster action film, albeit one with a particularly shallow plot.
With hindsight, I suspect that this is a big part of the overall problem. The honest truth is that an FPS can get away with being a bit derivative, as long as it has a bit of charm to go with it (charm being yet another way to surpass the competition). Unfortunately, Killzone 3's good guys collectively form a gaping charisma void. Sev is a blank slate who looks almost exactly like Nathan Drake (a comparison that clearly does him no favours); Captain Narville, his immediate superior, is an idiot; while the token pretty girl is so thinly-drawn that if she turned sideways she'd probably vanish. The worst offender of all, however, is Sev's best chum Rico Velasquez - a loathsome creation who spends the entire game shouting, grunting, and refusing to do what anyone tells him. He's actually so dislikeable that you'll be annoyed whenever he turns up to save the day, which he does at every opportunity. The git.
Things are far more fun on the Helghast side of the fence, where Guerrilla has ensnared the services of Malcolm McDowell and Ray Winstone to voice the primary antagonists. Winstone is curiously unrecognisable (but still rather good) as the gruff Admiral Orlock, but it's McDowell who really shines, sinking into the villainous role of Jorhan Stahl with typical glee. Stahl is by far the most engaging character in Killzone 3, a slippery bastard who towers over the macho meatheads who make up the good guys. It's just a shame that almost all of his appearances are confined to cutscenes - but then that's also true of most of the interesting parts in the story as a whole.
For all its fancy appearance, the single-player campaign is a letdown. It's a good thing for all concerned, then, that the multiplayer side of proceedings is far more successful. The most immediate thing to note here is that the game has ditched its predecessor's levelling-up scheme. In Killzone 2 players were forced to start out as a Rifleman - a lowly grunt equipped with an assault rifle, a sidearm and very little else. As you gathered XP and slowly climbed the ranks you'd gain access to the other classes, but while support-driven options like the Medic and Engineer arrived relatively swiftly, a hefty grind was required to reach the Scout and his sniper-based tomfoolery.
In Killzone 3, you're allowed to use any of the five available classes from the word go. The humble Rifleman is nowhere to be found, leaving you instead with the choice of Medic, Engineer, Marksman, Infiltrator and Tactician. The first two classes retain their team-centric roles, respectively focusing on resurrecting and buffing allies, and littering the battlefield with AI turrets and ammo boxes. The Marksman snipes and hides himself with a cloak, while the Infiltrator plays a bit like the Spy from Team Fortress - disguising himself as one of the opposition and then stabbing them in the back. Finally, we have the Tactician. While he's lost his Killzone 2 knack for generating custom spawn points, he's able to capture key control zones of the map - allowing team-mates to call in mortar strikes and other toys.
At the start of your ascension through the ranks, each of these classes is limited to their basic loadout - leaving them to just a primary weapon, and a watered-down version of their main skill. As you earn XP from matches you'll earn unlock points that can be invested in upgrading your skills and switching your loadout. While some of these boosts have rank-based entry requirements, the upshot of this structure is that it takes far less time to improve your class of choice - provided that you're not scattering your points across all five.
You could argue that the absence of a grunt-like class means that newcomers are effectively dropped in at the deep end, since there's little in the way of guidance with regard to class-specific tactics, or even how each skill should be used. All the same, this sink-or-swim approach forces new players to adapt quickly, embracing the easier ways to earn XP - like resurrecting fallen comrades as a Medic, or repairing ammo crates as an Engineer. These also encourage a team-centric mentality, which is really how the game is "supposed" to be played.
At the moment, one of the notable problems with Killzone 3's multiplayer is that few people are actually bothering to embrace this utilitarian mindset. Or, to put it in less pretentious terms: a lot of players are just out for kills, rather than achieving the goal at hand. This is hardly the game's fault - it's a frequent problem in Black Ops and other popular FPS titles - but the issue feels particularly aggravating in the returning Warzone mode. Here two teams of 12 compete to fulfil mission objectives that change every few minutes. One moment you're protecting a designated team-mate from assassination; the next you're struggling to retrieve a blaring propaganda speaker with the help of your chums... or at least you would be, if they weren't busy kill-whoring.
It's an annoying situation, particularly given that there's now a dedicated team deathmatch mode, Guerrilla Warfare. Initially I wrote this off as being less interesting than the dynamic Warzone, but with time I've come to appreciate its comparative simplicity - particularly given that a Warzone match can easily last for half an hour at a time. Guerrilla matches are a solid pick when you're in the mood for a quick shot of action without so much tactical emphasis, although obviously the class powers still have their role to play.
For me, it's the new Operations mode that forms the highlight of Killzone 3's multiplayer. Here eight players take on the role of ISA troops undertaking a mission under duress, while another octet control the Helghast troops opposing them. Each timed match breaks down into several distinct segments, with a separate ISA objective in each. One map finds the supposed good guys attempting to seize control of the MAWLR - the massive robot who pops up towards the end of the single-player campaign. The ISA start out by trying to capture and hold a pair of control rooms; if they manage to do this in time, a crane lifts a vital MAWLR component onto a conveyor belt, only to find it threatened by a massive crusher. The disabling of the crusher forms the next objective, and if this is accomplished there's a final assignment to capture a trio of batteries.
In a neat touch, these linked objectives are sandwiched by brief cutscenes, with the best players on each side cast in major roles via superimposed labels. With only three scenarios available it doesn't take long to see all the videos, but their presence helps to make Operations an engaging experience - especially when you're all but forced to work with your seven team-mates. When both sides put the effort in it's not uncommon for matches to go right down to the wire, and the minor cinematic touches help to make you care about the situation at hand - something Killzone 3's campaign routinely failed to do, for me at least.
I'd actually go one further than that, and say that the multiplayer modes here are the main reason you should pick up the game at all. Many of the things I disliked about the narrative campaign actually make a lot more sense here. In single-player, the game hops from location to location and from set piece to set piece, but it all feels a bit clinical, as if it's simply running through a list of required elements. Online, toys like the criminally-underused jetpacks get a chance to shine. The most powerful gadgets - the jetpacks, and the stomping exoskeletons from early in the campaign - are still limited to one map each, but that's hardly a problem as you'll be revisiting them time and again.
The maps themselves also seem to benefit from their narrative amputation. Their visual diversity still stands, but here they also gain character thanks to the different strategies they demand. Arguably the most original creation is Akmir Snowdrift: a setting that forces you to battle your opponents in the middle of a heavy snowstorm, one that limits your vision to just a few feet in front of you. This map is also a good example of a key difference between the game's single and multiplayer components. Online, the blockbuster graphics still help to escalate the chaos of battle, but now it's a fight that you actually give a shit about winning - not least because you don't have to put up with Rico's detestable bawling.
Over the past few days I've seen a fair few complaints online that Killzone 3's multiplayer has been dumbed down - or "COD-ified", as some have put it - in order to broaden the game's appeal. Personally, I don't see that as being the case, beyond the aforementioned problems with people playing solely for kills. While there are invariably other comparisons to be made, I think that the Guerrilla Games has done a pretty decent job of crafting an accessible, class-based shooter. On the whole, it feels fairly well balanced too: I've heard moaning that the improvements to sniping model have made the Marksman an overpowered choice, but that seems odd given how deadly a tooled-up Infiltrator can be. You do get a lot of Marksmen online, but there's no one class that seems to be going neglected - and that probably says it all.
Aside from some of the structural revisions, the only likely area of complaint from Killzone veterans is the removal of custom game searches. You can express a preference for which map you get when searching in three available modes, but that's pretty much it, and while you can track stats via the game's official site, there's nothing approaching Bungie's levels of chin-stroking exactitude. Still, with three decent modes, a sensible unlock system and a good spread of map variety, there's no doubt that Killzone 3 offers one of the better multiplayer experiences currently available for the PS3.
And so we turn to the final, million-dollar question: does the strength of Killzone 3's multiplayer make up for its single player shortcomings? If you're the kind of gamer who spends months perfecting their FPS skills, grinding XP and learning maps like the backs of their hands, then clearly you're going to have a ball here. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who will be mainly be interested in the game's single-player experience, and most of these folks will be left disappointed. This is a big budget "event" title, a supposed rival to the likes of CoD and Halo, and as such it's supposed to deliver the goods on all fronts. Even if you believe that online gaming is the heart of the FPS genre, that doesn't excuse the developers for producing such a by-the-numbers lonewolf experience.
To repeat myself one final time, this isn't a bad game - it's just one that relies too heavily on its own sense of technical achievement. While the graphics may well be the most impressive we've ever seen, the impact of their detail eventually wears off - and once that happens you're left with a competent but overly linear shooter, with superficial set-pieces and a plot that's impossible to care about. When you compare this game to the best exclusives on Sony's console - to the likes of Uncharted 2, LittleBigPlanet and Heavy Rain - the truth is unavoidably clear: Killzone 3 lacks heart, and no amount of visual wizardry can make up for that.