In the months that led up to last week’s debut of Sony’s hotly anticipated PlayStation 4, the industry was abuzz regarding the ‘next-gen’ console’s launch line-up. From day one until launch day, said list was regularly revised and edited, in order to reflect developmental changes and their results. This included both forward and backward movement, as games were either pushed closer or encountered necessary delays, resulting in the removal of titles like Driveclub, an interesting-looking racing game that was to release alongside of its console. As a result, the powerful piece of tech was forced to debut with only a couple first-party exclusives, those being SCE Japan Studio’s Knack and Guerilla Games’ Killzone: Shadow Fall. For the purposes of this review, we’ll stick with the latter title, which is, as expected, the system’s showpiece launch title.
Developed across the pond in beautiful Europe, Killzone: Shadow Fall is the latest entry in a popular franchise that has now spanned three different generations and appeared on multiple Sony platforms. However, while previous entries in the first-person shooter series have proven to be both enjoyable and beautiful, they haven’t managed to push the boundaries of their genre, resulting in their omission from its top tier library. It’s not because there’s been a lack of polish or fundamentals, though, but because the term tried and true is something that is too easy to attach to the franchise. Sure, it’s done what it’s promised to do over the last number of years, but it’s never really stood out as a result of anything other than its visual prowess.
With the above being said, it’s easy to predict that many educated gamers are stuck wondering whether this particular iteration stands out above its peers by delivering an exceptional experience that is worthy of a blind, sixty-dollar purchase. Now that I’ve played through Shadow Fall‘s ten mission-long campaign and its accompanying multiplayer mode, I’m in the position to let you know my thoughts.
Before we go any further, though, let’s note a simple truth. That is the fact that Guerilla’s latest is perfect for those who are looking for something beautiful to gawk at as they blow away countless, red-eyed foes with lead-based projectiles, energy-based emissions and thunderous explosives. Simply put, this is more than a game: It’s Sony’s first retail tech demo for their highly touted new device. As such, you can expect graphics and visual effects unlike you’ve ever seen in a console game. However, that’s not to say that you can’t also look forward to a good, bullet-filled time. Just don’t go in expecting a masterpiece, because that’s not what you’ll get.
Set thirty years after the conclusion of Killzone 3, Killzone: Shadow Fall picks up its franchise’s lore at a time where civil unrest is threatening the planet Vekta, which is now shared by both the ISA and its previously-despised Helghast. Made possible through the uneasy signing of a treaty, this truce, if you will, has the two races living in the same city, with walls as separation. On one side lies the original city and its more traditional, albeit futuristic buildings that represent an artistic take on humanity’s perceived evolution, while dark and brooding constructions create a sense of doom and gloom on the other side of the divider. It’s a contradicting look, which fits well within lore that has centred upon the war between the ISA and the red-eyed Helghast since its inception, and the idea of putting the two together on the same planet was a smart one. Then again, it’s not like the ISA had much choice, given that it ended up rendering its enemy’s home planet of Helghan uninhabitable through catastrophic, weapon-based means.
The game’s storyline centres upon one Lucas Kellen, who’s introduced as a child during its first mission. After losing his father at the hands of the heinous Helghast, who lack patience and seem to care more about killing innocent members of their neighbouring race than keeping things peaceful, this newly-minted protagonist finds himself playing the role of adopted son to a high ranking ISA general. As expected, this means that he’s brought up in a military way, wherein he’s taught to show little sympathy, understanding or appreciation for the Helghast. It’s the old, “They’re obviously up to no good” type of speech, which is prevalent through the six to eight hour-long campaign.
When Lucas is sent out on his mission to investigate the Helghast, who, as previously-mentioned, seem to be up to something, he’s a trained soldier and a respected member of his nation’s armed forces. He’s trained long and hard for what he’s undertaking, and that’s made clear, but the truth is that he simply doesn’t know what he’s up against. This creates an interesting dynamic, within which the beloved pupil enters the battleground and finds that what he was taught may not have been entirely correct.
The general principals behind Shadow Fall‘s plot are interesting and well thought out, but they’re unfortunately marred by both a script and designed sequence of events that evoke more confusion than anything else. In order to accurately follow what’s going on, you’ll need to have a lot of prior knowledge regarding the Killzone franchise, including important people and events. Newspaper articles that are hidden throughout the in-game world will help newcomers catch up, but it depends on whether those folks can find them, or whether they bother to actually take the time to read them. The same is true of audio logs and comic book pages, which also dot the jaw-dropping landscapes.
When it comes to the presented gameplay, players will also find a mixed bag. Although the game does a great job of showing off its next-gen wares, while also controlling extremely well, thanks to the PS4’s great DualShock 4, it doesn’t show any outward thinking. As a result, the experience ends up being more about remembering tactics from previous first-person shooters, as opposed to learning new things that take advantage of the new tech that Guerilla Games had at its disposal. Sure, tried and true is fine and okay, but it doesn’t stand out.
From start to finish, players who enlist within Lucas’ mission parameters can look forward to a lot of shooting, then a lot of hiding (while waiting for health to regenerate) and then more of the same, all within environments that range from closed-in buildings to more open-ended locations. Those mechanics work quite well overall, but frustration is impossible to avoid when the game’s enemies are able to shoot its hero through seemingly adequate cover. It doesn’t happen all of the time, but a lot of cheap deaths do result from this issue. I got angry several times when, even though it seemed like I was safe, my screen continued to turn red and I then had to restart from a previous checkpoint. Thankfully, most of the automatic save points are generous.
If you’re a veteran first-person shooter fanatic who has played multiple other titles on their most challenging difficulty levels, then you’ll probably be happy to hear that this particular genre release is a somewhat difficult affair. That is the truth, but said fact is sometimes the result of unfair design choices. For example, in certain instances, enemies can sometimes shoot through or over cover, nailing you in the head or some other (unexpectedly) exposed body part. Going further, there’s also the fact that Guerilla chose to utilize choke points in order to increase its game’s difficulty, meaning that you may find yourself swearing at the TV after being nailed by one of numerous attacking enemies whose accuracy seem to be nearly flawless. I played on hard and came across quite a few aggravating areas, though I was able to get through them by outthinking the above-average artificial intelligence. It wasn’t easy, though, and the provided tools were sometimes barely enough to survive on.
Speaking of tools, it’s important to mention two things. First, there’s the newly-introduced OWL, which serves as Lucas’ robotic ally, and can be used to create ziplines, emit shields, attack or stun enemies and revive the hero. Essentially, said flying drone is a jack of all trades. It’s certainly helpful, and is easily controlled using a combination of both directional swipes on the DualShock 4’s touch pad and the L1 button, but it must be used wisely. Every time it’s employed, the OWL must recharge, and the same is true at times where it’s shot out of the sky. Plus, players can only be revived through the use of adrenaline packs, which are tough to find when you need them and easy to find when you don’t. Note that they can also be used to boost Lucas’ skills, allowing him to enter a slow-motion state during aiming.
Of course, as you surely know, Killzone: Shadow Fall isn’t comprised of only a single player campaign. Expectedly, it also offers a full competitive multiplayer mode that supports up to twenty-four players per match. It’s an unsurprising and solid addition that makes the title’s sixty-dollar retail price easier to digest, but it won’t blow you away. Unfortunately, just like its story-based peer, the online part of this game emits feelings of deja-vu. Outside of the more detailed and undeniably impressive visuals, the presented (and customizable) battlefields are comprised of things that we’ve all seen before. There are the customizable loadouts, complete with unlockable abilities for each class, as well as familiar, objective-based scenarios and team deathmatch options. The good thing is that players can create their own variations on each gameplay archetype, but it’s still not enough to push the online arena into standout territory. Plus, you’ll have to deal with cloaked snipers, which may annoy you.
Tech-wise, there’s little to complain about here. Things run well without any obtrusive issues, but you may encounter a couple slight hiccups along the way. I noticed some texture pop-in during my time with both the campaign and the multiplayer, but it was never prevalent. Additionally, there were maybe two or three moments where the frame rate seemed to dip, but that was about it.
From start to finish, the game looks great, sounds very good, runs extremely well and does a good job of showcasing what next-generation gaming will really be like as a result. It’s vibrant, thoroughly detailed and possesses a great amount of visual shine that simply wasn’t possible on the PlayStation 3. This leap forward is most noticeable when it comes to each of the sequel’s beautifully-rendered maps, as well as all of its presented character models, who look extremely realistic thanks to tons of painstaking detail work. I was especially impressed with the fantastic lighting and bloom effects that Guerilla’s team members delivered, but would’ve been happier if more outdoor stages were included. You’ll spend a lot of time indoors, crawling through dark metallic vents and scouring across catwalks and walkways, on both your home planet and in space. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the outdoor levels definitely popped a bit more than those ever did.
In conclusion, Killzone: Shadow Fall is a very solid and entertaining launch title, although its developers’ inability to explore creative options holds it back from ever being great. There’s definitely a good game here, but it’s one that could’ve been better if more thought was put into its design. Still, it’s hard not to notice the blood, sweat and tears that went into crafting its spectacular-looking character models, levels and effects.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 exclusive.
With Killzone: Shadow Fall, developer Guerilla Games has given early PlayStation 4 adopters an entertaining shooter that doubles as a great-looking tech demo. However, by resting on its laurels, the European developer has once again failed to deliver greatness, opting to release a tried but true experience instead of anything revolutionary.