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Like its predecessor, Killzone 3 is immediately striking for its gorgeous landscapes and glowing lighting, which provide a hostile, not-quite-familiar backdrop to the heart-pounding first-person firefights that often occur on the planet of Helghan. But to dismiss this sequel as a mere visual showcase would be a disservice to the core action, which maintains the excellence that distinguished Killzone 2. There's a heft as you move, jump, and shoot that you rarely feel in shooters, but it works for Killzone 3, giving every shot that finds its mark a satisfying sense of impact and keeping you mindful of where you step before you wade into a sea of gunfire. Set-piece battles energise this foundation, mixing up the pace by putting you in a jetpack or inside a lumbering armoured suit. It's unfortunate that not every aspect of the game maintains the same high standard of quality. The storytelling is so awful as to be embarrassing, yet there's so much more story than before (72 minutes of cutscene, according to developer Guerilla Games), and its frequent interruptions injure the flow of the single-player campaign. And the tacked-on local cooperative mode is a missed opportunity, and problematic in its own right. Yet for these few steps back, there are steps forward too, making Killzone 3 an exciting follow-up to one of 2009's best shooters — and one of the most beautiful-looking games to grace consoles yet.

In Killzone 2, it was easy to ignore the story. There wasn't much context for what made the red-eyed Helghast so hated and feared, beyond the fact that they waved fearsome flags that not-so-subtly evoked images of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, the story focused on the well-meaning but interchangeable grunts on the front lines of the Helghan invasion to generic effect. In Killzone 3, the Helghan leaders, with their evil-scientist scowls and bushy mustaches, all too often take center stage. You see their atrocities first hand, but these caricatures and their teeth-gnashing war room antics are beyond laughable. The game spends far too much time elaborating on their political machinations, complete with pounding fists and wrinkled brows. You can skip the overlong cutscenes, but they intrude often enough that the flow of battle suffers. Granted, like the rest of Killzone 3, these scenes are gorgeous to behold. Blustery images of heroes Sev and Rico making narrow escapes are as slick as any sequence you'd see in an action film. But it's hard to be invested in the fate of characters you don't care about, fighting an enemy characterised not by their cause, but by the colour of their eyes.

Where the story stumbles, the action more than rises to the occasion. The M82 returns from Killzone 2 and remains a pleasure to shoot. Smooth animations make it enjoyable to go from standard shooting to peering through the sight of this assault rifle. Ruddy blood erupts from your enemies; weapons sound powerful; and animations effectively convey the jolts of bullets hitting armour. The boltgun, the flamethrower and other Killzone 2 favourites return, though the new weapons pack plenty of punch as well. With one of them, you can charge up a glowing green orb of energy that plows through scores of enemies, leaving corpses in its wake. It functions much like Killzone 2's lightning gun, in the sense that on the few occasions you get to wield this powerful beast, you feel like an unstoppable supersoldier. Another potent weapon lets you switch between two modes, raining artillery fire onto Helghast and vehicles. It's put to memorable use in a boss fight of sorts in which you take on an impossibly enormous walker firing upon your collapsing base with machine guns and missiles.

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