Peace and quiet aren’t qualities you expect from the Killzone games, third instalment included. So it’s something of a shock when, during an underpopulated round of new “narrative-driven” (well, there are cut scenes at either end) mode “Operations” on the Frozen Dam map, I realise that all I can hear is the pounding surf. No muffled boom of frag grenade, or waspish crackle of submachine gun. Just the breakers barging against the pier beneath the window.
I thumb the menu screen. Ah yes, it seems the other players have quit out. Can’t blame them, really. One versus two doesn’t make for an enthralling shoot-out on a map of this complexity, with its many staircases, inconspicuous closets and side-rooms, its squint-inducing billows of hail. I’d better quit out too.
But I don’t. Instead, I seize the opportunity to poke around unmolested. A desk sags pathetically in a corner – I fire a burst at it, watching individual drawers pop out, Helghast paperwork rotted to mush inside. I spend a minute walking to and fro along a gallery, wintry light raking the bullet holes in the window shutters, ice particles flaring and subsiding as I pass. I step down to the dock and watch spray fly from the heaving crests, study the mountains on the other side of the bay.
Yep, planet Helghan is as storied and magnificent a setting as ever – the kind of setting that inspires amateurish flights of anthropology, as you tour the ruined Corinth Highway with fine-toothed comb in hand, piecing together the economic processes that once powered its haul of thuggish, corroded machines.
Defending control points on the Turbine map, you want to kick back with a bucket of popcorn as the vast ring-shaped generator at its heart amps up, gouts of energy shrinking to a focal point in mid-air before spilling over into a fireworks display that bleeds radars white, shorts out cloaking devices, implodes automated turrets and bends the audio into figures of eight.
Don’t kick back for too long, though, because Helghan is still a place that’ll kill you if you stop and stare. Bowed under the elements and the weight of their gear, with no zoom-locks or SPARTAN genes to put zest in their turns and bounce in their jumps, the Helghast and ISA troops can hardly afford to waste potentially life-saving seconds drinking in the sights and sounds.
Killzone 3 online adds a little extra incentive to stay mobile by making all five character classes – down from seven last time – available to play at entry level. Which means that Marksmen, with their invisibility cloaks and scopes, and Infiltrators, with their subtle disguises and not-so-subtle shotguns, are at large in multiplayer matches from the get-go. There’s no one-size-fits-all Rifleman class this time to keep you at arm’s length from the special abilities, no purgatorial wait till you’ve earned enough ranks to start tailoring your approach.
It’s the smartest of the tweaks to the returning experience system. One of the more galling things about the second game was the way it hid staples of FPSdom right at the top of the ladder. Take sniper rifles, for instance – in most multiplayer shooters, you can expect to get your hands on one as soon as you walk through the door (whether you’ll know what to do with it is another matter). In Killzone 2, you had to make General first.
As before, all classes get a primary and secondary weapon, handheld explosive and special ability. Going up ranks produces unlock points, which (surprise surprise) are for unlocking stuff. Each class has its particular unlockables – only Infiltrators get shotguns, for instance – with no sign of the old mix-and-match functionality at present, but there are a few passive, more generic abilities, like boosted health or an extra primary weapon, that are available to all classes.
Guerrilla has tilted the balance of play towards support roles. The in-your-face Assault class is gone, his rocket launcher handed over to higher level Tacticians and Infiltrators. In place of the slightly random medical packs, prone to landing out of cover when deposited in a rush, Medics get an idiot-proof healing aura plus a support drone and the capacity to respawn at the place of death.
Tacticians now capture pre-set spawn points, three per map in the beta, rather than generating their own by tossing down a smoke flare, which takes the pace out of the offensive game and, I’d venture, a little of the reward out of learning the levels. Greater security from uber-campers is a solid pay-off, mind. The Scout’s old Spot & Mark ability, flagging the positions of nearby enemies, has gravitated to this class – a sensible shift, given that Tacticians are more likely to be down in the thick of the action, where timely updates on hostile movements are of most use.
The old Warzone mode, cycling between team deathmatch, objective destruction/defence, item capture and kill-the-VIP modes at adjustable intervals, remains a brilliant way to expose the ins and outs of each map and oblige players to keep switching and swapping classes. A winning distribution of assets in Search & Destroy might be turned completely on its head by a shift to Assassination, as dug-in Engineers find themselves suddenly called on to protect a player in a cellar two hundred metres away.
Jetpacks, found on the battlefield and “primed” before use by holding D-pad down, function much as expected, allowing those in haste to close quickly on objectives or choice vantage points at the expense of discretion and a steady aim. Noisy, smoky and thoroughly underpowered (a few hops is enough to empty the tank), they gel well with both existing mechanics and the fervent griminess of Killzone’s particular breed of sci-fi.
The same can’t be said of the new two-legged mechs, confined to the Corinth Highway map for the moment – instant, brainless, lone wolf gratification at its finest. Easy enough to kill with practice (and access, perhaps, to the new WASP mounted cluster-rocket launcher), they add nothing to the equation save bombast and bluster – and if there are two things this franchise isn’t short on, they’re bombast and bluster. Here’s hoping these towering mechanical oafs have gone the way of the dodo by the time Guerrilla’s double-barrelled shotgun blast of a threequel hits stores in February.
The 22nd to be exact, if you live in the States. Pumped, readers?