Quite why the Resistance series has wallowed in the ground between triple-A and also-ran is a mystery. Developer Insomniac has created some brilliant PlayStation 3 exclusives with the Ratchet and Clank series, yet its FPS franchise has never managed to hit the high notes reached by genre leaders. 2008's second game failed to build on a strong PS3 launch title, with its unique co-op mode being its saving grace. Almost three years on the series is back, and Insomniac has finally managed to create a shooter that lives up to the studio's pedigree.

Spoiler time! Resistance 2 ends with main man and all-round hero Nathan Hale being shot dead after he can no longer fight against the Chimeran virus that's infected him. You wouldn't want to be the guy who ended the life of mankind's potential saviour, but you're going to have to step into his shoes in Resistance 3. The star this time around is Joe Capelli, Echo Team squad member from Resistance 2, and a man who will do anything for the safety of his wife and child.

Thus the story of Resistance 3 is laid out. The wormhole created by the Chimera in New York must be closed if mankind has any chance of surviving, so Capelli sets off with a comrade to try and end the alien invasion once and for all. It's the kind of heroic story you only find in fiction, but Joe is a significantly more likeable character than Hale ever was, with his family ties back home occasionally pulling at heartstrings through some emotive cutscenes and dialogue.

Where Insomniac has really upped its game is in level design, objective variety and set-pieces. Much of the previous game was a slog, with only a couple of stand-out moments. Resistance 3 is peppered with brilliant and visually dazzling sequences that join together exciting minute-to-minute gunplay. The game also makes use of the classic, but somewhat dated, health pack system, which means no regenerating health by simply hiding in cover for a few moments. This makes for a completely different experience than what we're used to in the FPS genre these days, with the search for glowing health vials often being frenzied and nerve-racking as the Chimera hunt you down.

Large open areas reminiscent of those seen in the Halo series are mixed with tighter environments, while lazy on-rails sequences don't feature at all, with levels on a boat and train serving as interesting diversions instead. Capelli's journey to New York really is quite the adventure, even managing to include a neat little Mad Max Thunderdome-style conflict along the way.

The Chimera never felt like particularly memorable enemies before, failing to get into my head like the now classic Covenant foes from Halo did. Yet, in this third entry in the series the enemy has been given a new lease of life that transforms them into a true menace and nightmare. Encounters are almost always against large numbers, and their AI is good enough to put up a strong fight.

Things get really interesting when the larger guys turn up, while the flying nasties must be tackled in an entirely different way. Throw in enemies who are buffed by overhead drones, sniping nuisances, zombie-like horrors, pus-filled exploding monstrosities and the odd boss-like creature and you're left entirely satisfied. In the Resistance storyline the aliens have switched from using humans to create Chimeran hybrids to simply slaughtering them and Insomniac has managed to convey their murderous intentions very well.

These combat situations wouldn't be nearly as fun if it wasn't for the huge arsenal of multi-purpose weapons. The Resistance series has always had this excellent trick up its sleeve, but it has never been handled as well as it is here. As well as weapons having a secondary fire mode (none of which come across as gimmicky or pointless), they can all be levelled up through use, unlocking new abilities that help you out in the latter stages of the game.

Take the humble shotgun as an example. On a basic level it fires out shotgun pellets, causing considerable damage at close range, while the secondary fire lobs out concussive shells - both very helpful, but not nearly as useful as the unlocked incendiary rounds, which set fire to enemies on impact. The Augur, series stalwart that lets you fire through objects, allows you to put down a protective shield with secondary fire, with a later unlock providing you with a gun that fires out a wave of three projectiles at once.

The huge variety in terms of your arsenal of weapons means that you can genuinely tackle scenarios in very different ways. Holding back and taking out enemies with your sniper rifle could be one option, but you might want to opt to go on the assault with a shotgun and grenades. Some levels definitely favour certain approaches (an extended assault against the game's zombie-like foes almost begs you to use the shotgun), but options are always available. The game's two-player co-op (split-screen or online) offers the best of both worlds, letting gamers use two offensive styles as a pairing while also demanding cooperation at set points.

It's fair to say that Resistance 2's visuals were disappointing - to the point that some of the bland levels looked like they'd been ripped out of a PC game from years ago. Resistance 3 is a huge leap forwards, delivering some of the most atmospheric graphics I've seen in an FPS. It's not quite up to Killzone 3's levels of brilliance, but it's definitely worthy of top-tier inclusion, partly due to an excellent range of environments and some beautiful vistas.

The use of motion blur and gorgeous lighting effects give the game the quality of a CGI film at times, while the more explosive sequences stand out as some of the most impressive technical showcases on the console. Massive Chimeran monsters look great, too, often being so large they struggle to fit on the screen. Insomniac's voice work and all-round audio is excellent, although cutscenes and incidental animations (such as climbing ladders) aren't up to Naughty Dog's standard, giving an unfortunate roughness to the presentation at points.

On top of the campaign co-op there's a full 16-player multiplayer offering that caters for solo and team play. A substantial selection of game modes include Team Deathmatch, Chain Reaction, Deathmatch, Breach, and Capture the Flag. While nothing here is revolutionary in terms of how these modes work (a combination of standard competitive and objective-based game types), the maps on offer are well designed, combining areas familiar from the campaign with locations unique to multiplayer. It's too early to say if any of the maps here will go on to be classed as classics of the genre, but they provide a solid combination of tight indoor environments and open areas, and initial play doesn't suggest any maps are being ignored.

Abilities such as holographic decoys, lightning shields and cloaking devices, as well as being able to plant ammo and health re-gen stations, combined with the introduction of recharging health, make online play feel significantly different to the campaign. There's a pleasing levelling and weapon upgrade system in place too, as well as 55 medals to earn. As a consequence of the levelling system your initial forays into the world of competitive play feel somewhat restricted, with the game limiting your arsenal to a single weapon and grenade, but from level 5 onwards you're allowed to create custom classes.

While a minor point, multiplayer doesn't look quite as impressive as the campaign and if you jump straight into it after finishing the single-player you might find it quite jarring. Still, it's far from ugly and soon isn't an issue at all. I did find that the game had an annoying habit of stuttering as I was being killed, but this did depend on the quality of the online connection.

I wasn't especially excited about Resistance 3. On its announcement I figured we'd get yet another competent but ultimately forgettable FPS, but Insomniac has produced one of the biggest surprises of the year. Played alone or with a friend the campaign here is of the highest order, providing an experience that feels different to the competition while managing to finally build on what the series has always had going for it. There's also a substantial, deep and fun multiplayer offering included that will keep many Resistance fans playing for months to come. For me, Resistance 3 is comfortably PlayStation 3's best exclusive FPS.