Saturday, 2 October 2010

Eurogamer Expo: Hands-On Killzone 3

Killzone 3 was one of the most anticipated titles that I wanted to see at the EG Expo. It would not only be my first chance to gain some much-needed hands-on time with the title, but also get the full experience in 3D. Seeing as the game has been singled out time and time again as the reason not only to own a 3D TV, but also to feature the distinct tangible benefits of this latest picture format more so than any other title, I was intrigued to see on whether it could really live up to those promises.

Guerrilla Games latest begins with you on board the series trademark Intruder attack vessel, an open-top substitute for the traditional futuristic chopper. Equipped with a mini-gun at this point, the game takes you through a brief on-rails ride shooting down the various enemy energy rigs situated directly below you. Filled with pyrotechnics and tons of particle effects, the carefully orchestrated set pieces of destruction are immense. More, so in 3D in which various particles, such as snow, smoke and debris all coming flying out of the screen.

Moments later you are shot down, and then strung out across the cold icy ground, left for dead by the enemy. At this point the game ditches the mini-gun, and sees you taking on the Helghast forces on foot, standard guns in tow as you venture further into their territory for a spot of good old-fashioned tactical shooting. It’s here where Killzone 3 really comes into its own.

Initially not much appears to have changed; the same level of intensity found in Killzone 2 remains fully intact, and as brutally realistic as ever. Gunfights see the enemy troopers constantly going in and out of cover, flanking, moving between spots, and intelligently retreating when being pinned down by your fire. However, it is now even easier to go into cover than before. The system is more responsive, allowing you to use it quickly and decisively when needed. At the same time you can still go in all guns blazing. The environment is more open, and appears to allow a levelheaded mix of cover-point shooting, and head-to-head run and gun bloodbaths.

One of the things that I also noticed was that the game’s controls felt smoother and slightly more responsive this time around. In KZ2 there was a noticeably higher delay between performing a button press or stick movement on the controller before it actually registered on screen. Originally this added weight to the feel of the weapons, although it also made for a very slightly laggy experience at times - more noticeable than Halo 3’s 100ms of latency. For Killzone 3 this has been subtly improved. You can feel the distinct change on offer here instantly, while the weight of aiming and holding the game’s various weapons has not diminished. Instead it feels very responsive now.

Smacking someone in the face instead of shooting them in the head has also seen changes. Now the melee system looks to be context sensitive, with you performing different moves depending entirely on situation. No longer are you just pistol-whipping the Helghast into submission. Stabbing then with the knife is a common option, as is a brutally visceral stealth kill when creeping up from behind. I barely needed to do any of this though, with plenty of ammo and weapons around from fallen Helghast troopers, it was definitely more a case wanting to do it for pure satisfaction purposes.

KZ3 also features what looks like being the current HDR lighting of the time, but for gameplay. It has jetpacks. These are activated using the L1 button, and feel far more realistic than those found in Halo 3. Altitude is strictly controlled, as is flight time, so it definitely looks to be more of a realistic integration with the rest of the series grounded nature. Personally, I found the use of jetpacks slightly clumsy in KZ3, although only tried them out very briefly given the limited time I had with the demo.

Visually, there is no doubt that KZ3 looks to be a massive jump over the second game, despite the fact that the image quality of the 3D rendering mode leaves a lot to be desired. There’s far more in the way of particle effects filling up the screen; subtle snow effects are kicked up by both the enemies, and your soldiers feet, as well as being found flying through the air. Smoke and fire particles return with their volumetric look really adding to the sense of intensity when being on the battlefield, and the games lighting system seems to have had a nice expansion of the HDR styled bloom effect from the first game. Lots of nice real-time shadows, and small glimpses of SSAO are present.

All demo units of the game were fitted out with the latest Sony 3D ready HDTV’s, complete with LCD shutter glasses. And of course the game was fully playable in 3D. However, the experience in Killzone 3 was both a shining example of what was possible with the format, and a bitter disappointment given the game’s graphical quality in this mode. Props should be given to Guerrilla for not cutting back of any geometric detail, or pairing back the amount of stuff being displayed on screen at once. It’s incredible to think that in 3D that Killzone 3 is rendering everything twice with no reduction in art assets being used, which is no mean feat I can assure you.



Sadly the use of 3D in KZ3 is no work of a miracle. Instead massive cuts have been made to the game’s framebuffer resolution. Rendering in a mere 640x716 with MLAA, the game is extremely rough around the edges. Harsh jagged lines and bouts of pixelation littered the screen, as did the additional softness caused by some heavy upscaling. In fact at various points the game looked to suffer from as many artefacts as Wii games do when being upscaled. Not so great to be fair, and all these blemishes completely ruin the added depth perception and sense of immersion that the actual 3D effect provides.

The lower resolution effects in the standard 720p 2D mode also looked noticeably worse, suffering from all the same issues as the rest of the game. Now halved down to 320x360, smoke and particles appear heavily artefacted and really messy, distracting from the rest of the scene although still aiding in keeping you immersed in the experience.

That said the 3D mode in Killzone 3 still gives the feeling of bringing the player closer to the action. No matter how rough and poor looking most of the game appears in 3D, distance and depth are far easier to judge. And the impact of this can clearly be felt during play. It is easier to both accurately throw a grenade, and more natural to perform a close quarters melee attack knowing that they are pretty likely to hit as you expect them to. The use of 3D doesn’t improve poor judgement, but it does make things easier, when of course you can properly see what’s going on.

The build I played was the same Pre-Alpha code that featured at this year’s E3 - the very same one that I performed a tech analysis of some screens on earlier in June. Most of what I said back then still stands today. Other than perhaps when I mentioned that upscaling might well be less noticeable in 3D given the various reactions sighted by the gaming press in general. While this may be true for some, for me it was mostly the exact opposite, with the 3D separation limiting the rawness of the upscaling, but certainly amplifying its softness and the overall lack of image quality caused by it.

Of course there is still some six months to go before the game gets released, leaving plenty of time for last-minute optimisations, and a small but still slightly beneficial increase in overall framebuffer resolution. There’s also the exceptionally stunning looking 2D build, in which none of these aforementioned issues apply, and all the gameplay enhancements remain. So, either way you’re going to have a choice in the matter.

Overall, Killzone 3 is looking like a superb follow up to arguably one of the most technically accomplished titles this generation. The basic game plays even better than before, with larger set pieces and more responsive controls. And despite the extremely poor image quality, the use of 3D has obvious benefits amongst the heavy downsides required for its inclusion. Sure enough, in it’s currently messy state 3D isn’t going to blow you away visually, but it does take a vital stepping stone into showing what’s in store for the future.

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