Killzone 3 Beta Impressions

Killzone 3
Killzone 3 Cover
Platforms PlayStation 3
Genre Murder Area III
Keep Playing? Yes
My experience with the Killzone series is rather limited. A couple months ago, I reviewed the first hour of Killzone 2's campaign, noting that I might keep going. I did end up running through another hour or so, but it takes something special to keep me interested in an FPS campaign, and Killzone 2 didn't have much of the sort. And though I planned on giving multiplayer a try, I never got around to it.

So when The First Hour was given a code for the Killzone 3 multiplayer beta, I wasn't sure I was the man for the job. I've never really been drawn into the world of online play in shooters -- the exception being Uncharted 2, which I played regularly for a few months when it launched -- so I don't have many comparisons to use for my experiences with the Killzone 3 beta. Luckily, I've heard plenty of commentary regarding Killzone 3 versus other shooters over the in-game voice chat that I can relay. And, surprisingly, I witnessed no personal attacks or foul-mouthed adolescents...and only one instance of a microphone playing Madonna hits from the 80s.

I've spent about four hours on the battlefields of Helghan, and I think I have a good enough grasp on the Killzone 3 multiplayer beta to make a report. I tried briefly looking around news sites and message boards for a comprehensive outline of the beta's features but didn't find any. With that in mind, I think I've constructed a pretty detailed outline of what's going on in Killzone 3 at the moment (as of Halloween, anyway).

All in all, despite my indifference to the franchise and its genre before jumping in, and the brief re-introduction to dual-analog control that saw many deaths and few kills in my first hour of play...I have to say, I'm enjoying the Killzone 3 experience a lot more than I thought I would thus far. Or, what little of it is available in the current beta, anyway.

For those of you as clueless as I was when I first started, here are the very basics. The multiplayer experience is, like most shooters these days, entirely based on team battles between two factions. In the Killzone universe, that means the Helghast Empire (red-eyed bad guys with accents) and the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance (snore-inducing good guys) are going at it at all times. There are no free-for-alls, multiple team matches, or humans vs CPU modes a la the recent Gears of War or Halo games, at least not yet. Basic controls are also nothing out of the ordinary. The left analog stick controls movement, while the right looks around and aims your weapon. Players can hop with the X button, reload or pick up weapons with square, perform context-sensitive actions (arming explosives, repairing turrets) with circle, switch between their two firearms with triangle, and sprint by pressing in the left stick. The rest of the actions are customizable, but the default scheme fires your weapon with R1, throws a grenade with R2, performs a melee attack with L1, crouches/takes cover with L2, and aims down-the-sights by clicking the right analog stick. Class-based abilities are triggered by pressing a direction on the D-pad, while the scoreboard can be brought up with the Select button.
Killzone 3 gun
The current stable of weapons available is pretty standard, featuring such shooter staples as a sub-machine gun, a few light machine guns, rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun, and a pair of assault rifles. Players can also use secondary weapons like the standard pistol, magnum pistol, shotgun pistol, silenced automatic pistol, grenade-launching Battle Pistol, and a rocket launcher. Finally, the handheld explosives include fragmentation grenades and proximity mines. I've always been a fan of stark differences between each firearm for the sake of variety, but Killzone 3 seems to be going for a more homogeneous, balanced approach. From my (limited) experience, none of the weapons seem to outclass each other, at least not by very much. The shotgun and sniper are as situation appropriate as you'd expect, while the sub and light machine gun offer similar functionality, though the former reloads much faster while the latter hits harder. The standard pistol is quite weak, and the magnum doesn't seem much more effective to me, despite its powerful description. The shotgun pistol makes for a nice counterpart for the longer-ranged rifle, but offers only three shots before its rather lengthy reload phase. The rocket launcher, despite its reputation in most games, seems like an inferior choice to most of the weapons when taking on infantry, though the weapon does quite well against turrets and mechs. Similarly, grenades seem effective only when used in the right circumstances. They take a brief second to prepare, and are easily evaded unless cooked for another second or so in your hand. Further, each player spawns with only one grenade and can only acquire more by visiting an ammo dispenser.

Speaking of unlocking, Killzone 3 features an experience-based upgrade system not unlike that of Call of Duty or Uncharted 2. As a player accumulates kills, achieves objectives and wins matches, the game awards experience points -- boldly emblazoned above your crosshairs every time you kill or achieve -- that allow the player to advance their military rank. Each time a player's rank increases, they are granted one or more Skill Points, which can be used to purchase new skills or starting weapons for each of the five playable classes. One class may start with a shotgun available as its primary weapon, while others will have to purchase the right to spawn with one, and still others may not have it available at all.

On the skill side, a few upgrades universal to all classes are available after acquiring certain ranks, including Proximity Mines to replace the standard grenades, bonuses to health and ammo, and the substitution of a secondary weapon type for an additional primary weapon. These upgrades can be chosen every time you spawn, but each of the five classes has two unique, upgradeable ability trees that aid the battle effort.

The Field Medic's innate Revive ability can bring back mortally-wounded allies with full health and a clip of ammo. That ability can be upgraded twice, allowing for more health, ammo, and explosives for revived comrades. The medic can also purchase a passive ability that regenerates health faster for himself, a hovering Medi-Droid that accompanies the medic and attacks enemies, and the ability to respawn on the spot where he was mortally wounded if the respawn timer reaches zero before the enemy can deal a deathblow.

The Engineer's Repair Tool can set up and recover his team's turrets, and that ability can be upgraded to steal enemy turrets and ammo caches as well. This ability can also activate and repair ammo dispensers, which are invaluable resource considering players spawn with only two or three clips of ammo and a single grenade. A Sentry Turret ability, allowing the Engineer to deploy up to three machine gun turrets, can also be purchased and upgraded to a more destructive drone that fires rockets every few seconds.

The Marksman can briefly become invisible with his Cloak Suit ability. At first, the effect is reduced when moving and disabled when the Marksman fires his weapon, but he can kill with a silenced weapon without losing the effect once the ability is fully upgraded. This class can also Scramble enemy radars, starting out simply by making the Marksman and nearby allies radar-invisible, but disabling enemies' radar altogether at its fullest.

The Infiltrator's Disguise works as advertised, transforming his model into an enemy unit, complete with username to really sell the effect. Aiming down the sights at a Disguised Infiltrator will reveal their true colors, however, so it's important to sell the effect with believable behavior to not arouse suspicion. The effect can be upgraded to even fool enemy turrets and keep the Infiltrator Disguised after using melee attacks or stealth kills, though firing a shot will dissolve the Disguise. A Survivalist ability can also be purchased to increase the Infiltrator's sprint speed and stamina, and can be upgraded to make Use actions (arming or disarming bombs, equipping jetpacks) much quicker to perform.

Finally, my personal favorite thus far is the Tactician. His Tactics ability hastens capturing spawn points, some of which also provide perks like jetpacks and mortar beacons. This can be upgraded to capture objective points faster as well. My favorite perk, however, is the Recon ability, which marks all enemy positions within 30 meters on the radar while also placing a target on every enemy in your field of vision, even through walls and Disguises. The Recon ability's upgrades allow the Tactician to deploy a flying sentry that patrols an area around a beacon the Tactician drops. The Recon ability is incredibly helpful for someone like me who easily gets lost in the intricate maps and can use the extrasensory awareness to get the jump on opponents with higher ranks and bigger guns.

Killzone 3 Highway

What's interesting is that many of these abilities can aid your teammates as well, provided you squad up with them. Before joining a match, you can squad up with others on your PlayStation Network friends list and enter matches together. You can also add players to your squad in-game by going to the scoreboard and managing them by username. Other than the benefit of moving between matches together, the squad also gets a pretty significant bonus in that squad members' class abilities can be shared with each other. For example, the aforementioned Recon ability for the Tactician will also extend to nearby pals as well, allowing a nearby Medic or Engineer to see those enemy positions through walls as long as the Tactician's ability is active. Conversely, if a Marksman activates his Scramble ability, all allies within 15 meters will also be radar-invisible to the enemy (and this will also counteract an enemy Tactician's marking ability). The result is a game where one varied and coordinated squad is much more likely to succeed than a team of equally-effective players operating as lone wolves. This is a huge boon for those who enjoy palling up when they hop online, though it slights players who simply want to play a few matches here and there and don't care to assemble a squad or join clans.

In addition to this collection of upgrades, fulfilling certain actions in a single battle will bestow ribbons upon the player. These ribbons allow for slight advantages for the remainder of that battle that do not carry over to the next. For example, I don't think I've gone a single match without being awarded the Silent Footsteps ribbon, which is earned by sprinting a certain distance and silences the player's footsteps for greater stealth. Additionally, I've also seen accuracy, damage, and ammo bonuses, though their affects are subtle enough as to not totally unbalance the player.

A few more, shall we say, "tangible" upgrades are available in the jetpacks and mechs that can be piloted in certain maps. When players equip a jetpack, they move a bit slower on the ground but can switch between their standard infantry weapons and abilities and their jetpack functions. The jetpack, when activated, allows for high jumps followed by slow falls, giving the player the ability to climb to places otherwise inaccessible. On the downside, an active jetpack makes the player a bigger target and does not allow them to use their standard weapons or abilities, meaning a Medic in jetpack mode cannot revive downed teammates. He can, however, make use of the effective machine gun and unlimited ammo built into the apparatus. Switching between jetpack mode and standard class abilities takes a few seconds, so don't try it in the middle of the battlefield.

The mechs seem a bit less balanced in their current state, but admittedly I haven't really explored the ways to take them down. Mechs are large, quicker than infantry, soak up plenty of damage, and have a strong machine gun arm and an alternate missile launcher with unlimited firepower for each. It takes more bullets than it's worth to take down a mech with weaker weapons like machine guns and assault rifles, but the rocket launcher will deal a heavy blow and a sniper rifle can pierce the mech's glass cockpit to kill the pilot inside. The mechs really seem to control the flow of battle in the scenario where they're available.

Speaking of scenarios, there are three game types in the beta. The least interesting is Guerrilla Warfare, a standard team deathmatch mode where the game ends once a kill limit or time limit is met. Another setup, Warzone, is essentially a best-of-seven match where each round features a different objective for your team, whether it's Bodycount (team deathmatch), Assassination (protect or kill a VIP), Capture and Defend (King of the Hills), or Sabotage (one team defends an area, the other attempts to plant explosives there). The dynamic nature of this gametype keeps it from getting stale and encourages you to change up your tactics and priorities throughout the match. Finally, the Operation mode depicts an ISA assault on a Helghast stronghold in stages. The first objective is to plant explosives in a certain area. A new section of the map opens afterwards with a new objective, and this continues in three stages. If the ISA team fails to achieve any one of their objectives before its time limit, they lose the match. Bookending each stage are brief cutscenes that illustrate the action and highlight new objectives.

As for maps, there are three available at the moment, but two of them are only available in the Warzone gametype. Anybody playing Guerilla Warfare or Operations will be limited to the Frozen Dam map, which mostly focuses on close-quarters combat and offers no vehicles. Jetpacks are only available in the more open Turbine Concourse SE-6 map, which has plenty of pathways restricted to those with the power of flight and features a device in the center of the stage that occasionally produces an electromagnetic pulse, destroying any turrets or jetpacks (and players attached to them) in the vicinity. Finally, the Corinth Highway map appears to be a bombed-out city, with surviving buildings and remnants of roads surrounding an open impact crater full of nooks and crannies to explore and mechs to patrol with. The maps all seem full of secrets, organic to many strategies, and well-balanced despite their asymmetrical layout.
Killzone 3 Jetpacks
In my short time with the game, I've come across a number of issues that should be addressed before Killzone 3 goes gold. The developers seem devoted to updating as needed: there was actually an 80MB update added to the game the night after I first downloaded it. Still, the following are matters that, I think, deserve some attention:

Spawn Camping -- The most frustrating issue in the game right now is the possibility that you won't live more than a few seconds after spawning, given the right conditions. If the opposition can coordinate enough to keep your team penned into a single spawn location, it is incredibly difficult to rebound from such a setback in the current setup. I've been trapped in the drop zone of the Frozen Dam in more than a few matches, with the other team's Helghast forces camped right next to the spawn zone and picking off me and my teammates as soon as we appear. This often happens when the teams are unbalanced, only causing more players on the handicapped team to drop out and exacerbate the problem. Which brings me to a more general issue...

Matchmaking -- I won't lie, it's convenient and easy to jump right into a match without any fuss. I can load up the beta from the XMB and be in a match in less than a minute. On the other hand, I might not like where I end up. I can specify map preferences for each of the three game modes, but that's the extent of my control over where I end up playing. I'd rather see a dedicated server list that shows the status of each game and allows me to choose one. It's a bit too frequent that I end up in a game where the teams are brutally uneven (potentially fixed by the addition of a team-switching option), or the game is completely barren and I end up playing from start to finish alone. Also, in the couple hours I've played Operations mode, I've never once been put on the defending Helghast team.

Framerate Dips and Screen Tearing -- There's no denying that Killzone 3 has some impressive visual effects going on. Watching the clouds of snow rolling along frosted metal as the wind picks up is a sight to behold. But it's just not worth it when the framerate can dip well below 30FPS, with plenty of screen tearing to make things even tougher to see in the middle of a particularly-busy firefight. I'm confident this will be fixed, as the game is currently running in alpha code and is nowhere near finished, but if it isn't, I'll be incredibly disappointed. When every millisecond matters, I'd rather see Call of Duty's plain but smooth visuals than Killzone's gorgeous slide show.

Geometry Quirks -- There are some pieces of geometry that don't allow for movement that makes sense. For example, a few staircases must be climbed in certain spots when they look otherwise accessible. Small quirk, but it's there.

Melee -- The neck-snapping, eye-stabbing, throat-slitting melee kills are brutally satisfying, but I'm not sure what the rules are for who wins a melee fight or when a cinematic (but slow) brutal kill is activated. There have been plenty of times where I've hit the enemy from what I thought was an acceptable distance, only to whiff and hit nothing but air. Then they'll turn around and snap my neck from what seems like a meter away.

Aim-Assist, Recoil, and Bullet Spread
-- One of Killzone 2's points of contention was its (relative) independence from aim-assist tricks, standard for dual-analog shooters of Halo and Call of Duty ilk. Many were frustrated by the unassisted aiming, weighty movement, recoil effect, and bullet spread in Killzone 2's online matches, while others were further drawn in by its unforgiving nature. It seems Killzone 3's multiplayer beta currently throws in a dash of enemy-following trickery in its cross-hairs and is affected less by recoil and spread, much to the dismay of hardcore Killzone 2 fans. I definitely noticed the invisible hand assisting my aim in a few instances, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't appreciate it at my current skill level. I've heard more than a few complaints about this from my headset, though.

Where's the Move support?
-- This is more of a curiosity than an actual issue, but I think it's worth contemplating. With the Playstation Move motion controls being integrated into the game, this will be one of the first major shooters to support both dual-analog and pointer-aim controls. The developers have noted some differences between players using the Playstation Move motion controls and those sticking with the traditional controller, so why haven't they enabled Move for this beta? I'd think they would want to collect as much test data as possible to determine if and how the two control schemes should be integrated together.


There are quite a few things for the team at Guerilla Games to contemplate before launch, but that's the whole point of a beta, right? I think the game already has a very strong base to grow from, but I am interested to see where the balance between depth and accessibility ends up. Even in this early alpha stage, Killzone 3 feels very complete and has managed to grab my attention in a way I didn't expect. If you're not one of the lucky few already in the beta and you own a PS3, I say keep an eye out for more invitations and make an effort to get in on this action. It's a good thing that's only going to get better.

Killzone 3 Dropzone