Feb 6, 2011

Killzone 3 Open Beta Impressions

If you pay attention to these kinds of things, you're probably aware that Killzone 3 is currently in open beta. Killzone has a long and storied history of mediocrity, the first game having been flagged as a “Halo killer” when everything was being called that, and then, predictably, proceeded to flop (at least critically). Killzone 2 enjoyed somewhat more success, thanks at least in part to some then amazing visuals, but still wasn't as well received as a game in the league it wanted to belong to. Fanboyism being what it is, many Sony fans will defend the franchise to the death in the same way a fanatical Microsoft lover will claim that it really was necessary to release five Halo games of (excepting the first game) varying degrees of mediocrity.

But conslol wars is a topic for another article. The purpose of this post is to discuss my early impressions of the Killzone 3 Open Beta (it's a demo, I really don't know why they didn't want to call it that).

I don't really have any history with the series, having only fairly recently acquired my PS3 and pretty much ignoring the other instalments aside from checking on the general gist of their reception, so I'm not going to be doing an in-depth comparison between Killzone 3 and past titles in the series. Likewise, I'm going to try not to refer too much to the Call of Duty series because, although some concepts are carried over, the two are really very different beasts.

Although I'm not going to segment this as I normally do with reviews, I'm going to start by saying that the presentation is fantastic. The game looks great for a console title – I'm starting to realise nothing I play on console is going to really 'wow' me - and the sound design is excellent, almost as good as Medal of Honor (but not quite). There's not much more to say than that, the game looks and sounds outstanding.

But more striking than that, at first, was the way the game feels to play. There's much more a feeling of weight and momentum behind your character than in most other games I've played. It's something that some people might find sluggish and off-putting, but I kind of liked the change in feel for movement. It takes a little getting used to, but I really don't think it's a bad thing. I think it made the game experience a little more immersive, and immersion is something that the online portions of games don't usually do very well.

As for the core gameplay itself... well, it's really, really strong. It might not appeal to folks who are diehard fans of other games, as it brings its own unique feel to the table, but for me it was a breath of fresh air. The weapons mostly feel great, the game feels like there's a lot of skill involved, and it feels exceptionally well balanced. The basic gunplay isn't really anything new, but it's very well done.

More substantial in terms of the game having its own distinct flavour is the class/level system present in the game. You choose from one of a few basic classes to play, all of which have their own abilities (more akin to suit powers in Crysis than to perks in the Call of Duty series) and separate unlock trees. You gain experience playing the game and each time you level up you get one point to spend on unlocks. I think most players are going to want to choose a class that they feel suited to early on, and specialise in that first, upgrading its powers and abilities, so that they can really compete, and then maybe move on to trying to advance the other classes. I don't really mind this – it means that your average player is specialised into a particular class. Some might find this system a little limiting, but it really didn't bother me.

To give you an idea of the classes, my favourite was the Tactician class. This class has a passive bonus to capture speed for objectives, as well as two active abilities. One of these is similar to the UAV in Call of Duty – it shows enemies within 30m of the player using the ability on the radar of himself and all teammates. The player using the ability also has markers in their normal view where enemies are that update every few seconds, allowing you to quickly see the positions of nearby enemies through walls. The tactician's other active ability is the ability to deploy an airborne robot that patrols an area and shoots enemy players. Both of these active abilities have cooldown periods before they can be used again, the radar ability lasting a short time – maybe 90 seconds – and the robots remaining in play until destroyed (although you can only have two active at once).

It might sound like abilities like this would really screw up the balance of the game, but every class has its own unique abilities and they're actually all very well balanced, which is a pretty impressive feat I think. My one balance complaint might be a couple of weapons that always seems to kill in one hit. This wouldn't be a huge problem, but it normally takes quite a while to kill somebody in Killzone 3 (relatively speaking anyway) and I can see these guns being the most popular by a long way. That said, both are a bit harder to use effectively than other weapons in the game.

The game features regenerating health, but it seems to regenerate much more gradually than in most titles, which I appreciate. You actually have a health bar in this game which, I again, I really liked, as it allows you to quickly and accurately assess your situation. In fact, the HUD overall is very good. It's a slick design and it gives you all the information you need.

There are no killstreaks in Killzone 3 for people to camp their way up to so they can press the win button, which is a really good thing. There's hardly any camping in the game and most people seem to play aggressively and really go after the objectives. There are incentives for doing particularly well, though, in that you earn ribbons during gameplay, which offer bonuses more akin to perks in the Call of Duty franchise. Things like faster reload time, more bullet damage, or faster aiming. Some of these are unlocked from getting killstreaks, some from completing objectives, and some from other miscellaneous actions. They also vary in duration, some lasting an entire match, others only for a short while.

There are three game modes in the open beta. There's team deathmatch (called something else, can't remember), Operations, and Warzone. Aside from TDM, these are actually some pretty unique game modes. Operations follows the model of one team trying to attack objectives and the other attempting to defend them – a gametype that I still refer to as Assault thanks to my Unreal Tournament days – but with the addition of the game being bookended, and the different stages of the mission broken up by, short cutscenes featuring players in the game (you can see their names above their heads). It's actually a really nice touch and brings home the story element of those types of missions, even though it's a multi-player game.

Warzone is probably the most interesting gametype in the beta. The game cycles between a variety of different objective types in one map. You'll be playing TDM to a kill limit, when one team wins you can suddenly find yourself tasked with assassinating a certain enemy player, or with bringing a package to a drop-off point, or holding some objective locations, or attacking or defending a couple of bomb sites. It's fantastically varied and gets you fighting around the entire (fairly large) map, and trying to control tactical spawn location (which can be held by either team, and are independent of the actual objectives, although obviously having a spawn point near an objective gives you a tactical advantage).

If the one map included in the open beta is indicative of the general quality and style of the maps in the game, we can expect very large maps which have sections of them cut off during gametypes with smaller player limits (you only get about half of the map in the beta when you play TDM). The full map combines tight quarters will large, open areas, making any weapon choice or playstyle equally viable. It's a really tightly put together, well designed map, that's also open-ended enough, with enough paths to support the flowing action of Warzone.

So, to sum up, I'm pretty impressed. Killzone 3 represents a very original, very tactical, and very enjoyable game. Some people might not like it because of its differences from what they're used to playing, or because of the feel of movement in the game, but I think it's a really impressive game that features new ideas, good execution, and a lot of fun. I don't know if it'll have the staying power of the mamoth franchises of the online shooter genre, but it's looking very good.

So, will I buy it? Well, only maybe. There are a lot of big shooters coming out early this year competing for my game-dollar, and there's a chance I'll let Killzone 3 slip by, if only because it's not on PC, my preferred platform, and I probably won't have the time/money to play every one of the big shooters of the year. But it's definitely piqued my interest, and we'll see what happens closer to release day. If you have a PS3, there's really no excuse not to at least download the beta. It's only 800mbs, it's absolutely free, and you might love it to bits.

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