Killzone 3 in 3D: Hands-on impressions of the first 3D shooter for the PS3

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The first lesson of game-testing is this: never blast your way through an early build of a popular franchise title in front of the two guys who are responsible for making sure it’s a major hit. They laughed, they smirked, they scoffed. “When you’re wearing the jetpack, there’s no need to climb stairs,” said one of them. The other producer left the room as I died at the hands of another Helghast onslaught.

After playing through three levels of Killzone 3 at the Sony offices in Santa Monica last week (in 3D mode no less), I realized my shooter skills are a tad rusty. Or maybe my Halo fingers are just too hardened for the Xbox 360 controller after 500 games of Madden 11? The other possibility is that Guerilla Games, who has worked on all three Killzone games, has upped the difficulty for this intense shooter that now has more massive set-pieces, better AI, bigger guns, and the aforementioned jetpack.

But let’s forget about those upgrades for a moment: the big news is that Killzone 3 will be the very first shooter for the PlayStation 3 that you can play on a 3DTV like Sony’s new BRAVIA model and those form Panasonic and Samsung. Killzone 3 is obviously taking cues from Avatar – the 3D effects are intended to draw you into the game world, not necessarily wow you with 3D tricks.

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In the opening level, as you descend on a platform, you feel as though you are very close to the screen while the other characters are off in the distance. Every character has a more rounded and realistic look, and when anything does come flying at the scree – bullets, bodies, explosions – they also have more visceral heft, as though they weigh more and can cause more damage. Interestingly, Sony has really taken a lead role in 3D games development. (Of course, recent games have all been in 3D but the change is that you wear goggles and perceive a 3D gameworld.) Killzone 3 has an amazingly rich look that feels more spacious and more detailed than ever before, making it easier to step inside the polygons and become even more immersed in the surroundings.

During the first level, I found that the tactical combat had improved since I played through Killzone 2. Sony has always emphasized the AI in the game as being a notch better than the “zombie running towards you at full speed” mechanics of other shooters. I ducked around one corner and thought I had a good perspective on one Helghast, but it turns out he knew what I was doing and came around the other way and surprised me. That’s about when the scoffing started, by the way.

Then, on the second level with the jetpack, I noticed that Guerilla is really going for an even more cinematic tone. With the jetpack, you can boost your way up in the sky (on this level, you start out jumping onto some massive ice formation) and then trigger an extra boost, which came in handy a few times when it looked like I was going to miss a ledge. The water – perfectly rendered – rolled around beneath me and I felt like I was in some action movie where one wrong step would send me into the icy depths. And, of course, I did make one wrong step and did experience the depths a few times.

That’s part of the new challenge in Killzone 3: there was very little coaching in the game, which reminded me of Uncharted 2 where you just see the set-piece and have to figure out where to go and how to fight your way through the level. (You can now press up arrow to see a navigational indicator.) The jetpack fires heavy artillery that seemed to blow up any unsuspecting Helghast. Although I also noticed that the bigger guns in the game also give enemies a chance to run and hide.

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In the polar region, wind swept across the icecaps in a convincing way and the buildings looked like they had been covered with ice for decades. The destructible environments – including boxes, bins, gates, and doorways – make the action more intense because you can first blast away any cover spots and then kill off the bad guys. I noticed that location-based damage – headshots, leg shots – was also more refined and well-detailed than the last game, possibly due to how the 3D effects give the world a more rounded and realistic look. The flying enemies on this level look a bit too much like the ones in Metal Gear Solid 4 for my taste – the winged creatures that go skyward and then shoot at you.

In the last level I tested, Killzone got brutal. A new weapon that reminded me of the one from Killzone 1 (you wear it along your hip) blasted out a series of rockets and, when you use the scope, drops a hellstorm from above, but also happens to use up all of your ammo after only two or three shots. The level didn’t last long – enough to fire off a few rounds – and reminded me of the Hammer of Dawn from Gears of War in that it’s almost too powerful. There’s balance though in that the ammo is limited.

Overall, Killzone 3 is looking and playing better than Killzone 2. The devs have paid closer attention to detail (including rich background images, huge snow drifts, and a few alternate routes). That’s important for the 3D version of the game – without the added detail, the 3D wouldn’t be worthwhile. I’m excited to see what else Guerilla Games can throw at me, even if they do it with a smirk.