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Killzone 3 with Move controller: a novel but not brilliant gaming experience

Sony’s newly launched Killzone 3 video game for the PlayStation 3 promised to be a big step up in first-person shooting sci-fi combat. You can play the game in stereoscopic 3D and use the PlayStation Move motion-sensing controller for more immersive realism. But while those elements make the game experience innovative, they don’t make up for shortcomings elsewhere.

That’s a pity because Killzone 3 promised to be one of Sony’s great games for 2011, with enough potential to help swing the console war ever so slightly in Sony’s favor. And if the motion-sensing technology worked perfectly, Sony could have introduced hardcore gamers to a truly next-generation experience in first-person combat and thereby carved out an important technological leadership role for its console in the process.

The game is important because it is the first real hardcore game to exploit Sony’s Move controller, which has been outsold by Microsoft’s more casual Kinect motion-sensing system for the Xbox 360. There are dozens of game publishers and developers working on Move-related games, all of them hoping that they can create a Move game with mass appeal among hardcore and casual gamers alike. If they succeed, the PlayStation Move can become a critical part of the PlayStation economy. But if they fail, then the Move could suffer the same inevitable decline that many accessories do after their initial splash in the market. If that happens, both Nintendo and Microsoft would breathe a sigh of relief, as they’re targeting gamers who have more casual tastes.

Playing with the wand-like Move and its companion left-hand navigation device is merely a good experience, not a fantastic one. And while the motion-sensing Move and the non-stop combat won’t make you sick, the story of the otherwise-epic sci-fi combat game is very hard to stomach. I suspect that the weak story is the reason Killzone 3 received a lukewarm rating of 84 out of 100 on Metacritic, a review score aggregator. By comparison, the ground-breaking Killzone 2 received an average review score of 91 out of 100 back in 2009. At the time, I considered Killzone 2 to be the best game on the PlayStation 3, before the even-better Uncharted 2: Among Thieves game came out.

That’s why I’m disappointed to give Killzone 3 a score of 84 out of 100. It seems that developer Guerrilla Games, a subsidiary of Sony, tried to push Killzone 3 out too fast, just two years after the debut of the previous game, which took more than four years to develop. It has become fashionable for game publishers to take their biggest hits and churn out game after game, but in this case it seems to have hurt the brand. This could easily have been a 90-plus-rated game.

I played the single-player campaign all the way through and was impressed with the outstanding core combat experience. Fighting in Killzone 2 is intense, with lots of enemies challenging you at the same time, both at close range and from far away. The enemy is smart enough to hide and shoot. If you stand out in the open, you’ll easily get taken out. This is a continuation of the high-quality experience that made me believe last year that Killzone 2 had lived up to its hype. The movie-like experience of combat is as good as any of the great shooting games, such as Gears of War, Halo, Resistance, Battlefield and Call of Duty.

The problem is more with the storyline that leads you from one combat scene to another. It starts out good, but then gets a little ridiculous as characters get into a rut of stupid behavior, like an ISA commander who repeatedly refuses to commit his forces to a battle that is going to stop an invasion of Earth. I mean, what commander could be so dumb? The only thing dumber are the enemy Helghast generals, who engage in infighting to a ridiculous degree. They fight and they almost kill each other, only to drag out the uncivility to crazy levels even as the ISA becomes a mounting threat to the existence of the Helghast.

Of course, with a video game, you can put up with the story if the game play itself is fun. In Killzone 3, you can play in much larger, sweeping levels. Bullets can pierce through then metal walls and it’s quite satisfying when you score a headshot on an enemy Helghast soldier, whose haunting orange-lit helmets are spellbinding to look at. You can fly over enemies with jet packs. The sound of the Helghast screaming through their muffled helmets is riveting. The combat is as close to realistic as this generation of consoles is going to get.

Fans who can stomach the violent first-person action and foul language of this mature-rated title shouldn’t miss it. I didn’t play the game in stereoscopic 3D, largely because I don’t like that experience for games.

But I played half the game chapters with a regular game controller and half with the Move, which is very much like playing a shooting game with the Wii but more accurate. I was skeptical that the Move would work well, with a movement control in my left hand and an aiming device and trigger in my right hand. But it does the job, allowing you to shoot very accurately.

By itself, that’s a big technological victory. For years, game developers have been trying to deliver accessories, such as the Wii remote and the Wii Motion Plus, that allows you to shoot accurately in a game. Most of the time, the aiming doesn’t work. I’ve always been much better off using a game controller than a pointing device in shooting games. But after a short time of getting used to it, I stayed with the PlayStation Move and finished the game with it.

I had to dial down the sensitivity of the Move controller by a notch because I found that the cross hairs moved around too much. Once I changed the sensitivity to a notch below what was recommended, I was able to get a steady aim. This didn’t turn me from a couch potato into an active gamer. Rather, I just sat on the chair and moved my fingers a little. That’s important because it’s very easy to get tired playing a game where you have to hold your hands out from your body for a long time. I managed to play Killzone 3 for hours at a time with the Move controller. If you want an even more realistic experience, you can buy a PlayStation Move Sharp Shooter peripheral that turns the Move into something resembling an assault rifle.

But the story is the hard thing to abide. Killzone 3 picks up where Killzone 2 left off, with the forces of the human Interstellar Alliance (ISA) forces stranded on the planet Helghan (homeworld of the Helghast race), where they have taken out the Helghast dictator, Visari. Tomas “Sev” Sevchenko and Rico Velasquez (heroes from the last game) are back in the middle of the action. The Helghast have counter-attacked (setting off a nuclear bomb in their own capital) and driven most of the ISA off the planet, save for a small contingent that has to survive in the planet’s war-torn ruins. The dark atmosphere of planet is one of the star attractions.

The plot starts out good enough with Rico rebelling against his hesitant commander, Captain Narville, and the Helghast leaders jockeying for control of the remaining Helghast forces. But the infighting devolves into a ridiculous civil war that makes the job of the ISA easier. The problem with the civil war is that it moves the focus of the story to the Helghast leaders, which you can’t play. You can only play the ISA grunts, who seem to be treated like a sideshow in the story toward the end.

I did enjoy playing with the jet pack, which added a third dimension to tactical combat in the freezing arctic installations on Helghast. And it was a lot of fun being inside a walking tank, known as a mech, with lots of cannon and machine gun firepower. Beyond city fighting, you now get to see more of the jungles of the planet Helghan and you have to face off against some very difficult and fast-moving enemies. A lot of the game has to be played in stealth mode, where you try to avoid other soldiers rather than fight them. But there just aren’t that many great places to hide in the terrain. Also, the frame rate, or speed of animations, gets unacceptabl slow at times.

There’s an interesting battle that takes place in zero gravity. When you shoot the enemies, they start floating up into the air. But your grenades become virtually worthless in that environment, as they fly forever and you can’t really aim them. I also enjoyed the “brutal melee” system, where you can close ranks with an enemy and engage in a brutal scripted knife fight. The finishing kills are animated in a particularly gruesome way. Believe it or not. For gamers, that’s considered innovation. The game has also gotten kudos for its addictively fun multiplayer combat.

Killzone 3 takes two steps forward with all of the innovative things it tries to do. But the story takes it one step back from being a great game. You have to admire the folks at Guerrilla Games for pushing the envelope. But it’s getting very expensive to swing and miss in the age of blockbuster video games. Fortunately, Sony has a very full slate this year, with big titles ranging from Uncharted 3 to The Last Guardian. Hopefully, one of those games will knock it out of the park.


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