Cards on the table, I never touched Killzone until now. It was a series created by Sony as a direct reaction to the success of Microsoft’s Halo: Combat Evolved. Three major console releases, all chronicling the epic and original struggle of a fascist military organization against a downtrodden working class fighting back against their oppressors… in space. I was uninterested in the series because it looked and sounded like a shallow and juvenile excuse to shoot guns awash in an industry that is flooded with similar experiences. But, to partially justify the purchase of my new Playstation 4, I gave Guerilla games the benefit of the doubt and got acquainted with Killzone: Shadow Fall.
The war between the Vektans and the Helghast is over. The final battle ended with the destruction of Helghan by a planet cracking weapon called the Terracide. Showing some grace in victory, the people of planet Vekta offered half of their planet to their enemy, separated by a giant wall. It has been a quiet and uneasy peace for roughly twenty years.
You play as Lucas Kellan, a newly appointed member of a covert branch of the Vekta militia called the Shadow Marshals, who has been sent to investigate Helghast activity on the other side of the planetary wall. It is while on this investigation that he discovers the Helghast are redoubling their resolve to strike back through terrorist action. This is only short-term, for the Helghast intend to use to start the war anew with the help of a special bioweapon.
What surprised me most about the campaign of Shadow Fall is how unconventional the narrative progressed. I was expecting a black-and-white piece of military fiction with the Vektans as the unambiguously good heroes and the Helghast as the red-eyed baby-eating monsters using shock and awe to showcase their reckless abandon for innocent lives. Instead, the story plays closer to a black ops spy thriller. Lucas manages to go behind enemy lines multiple times, the gunfights are more subdued compared to the explosion filled spectacle fests of more popular shooters, and the game manages to show the Helghast in a sympathetic light, as well as show that the Vektans aren’t completely noble themselves. It’s a morally gray story that manages to compliment the gameplay, even if the sympathy with the Helghast feels disingenuous when you’re still killing them by the dozens.
While on the subject of spies, Lucas arsenal wouldn’t look out of place on a future James Bond. In addition to some novel twists on the standard array of shooter weaponry, a personal favorite is the assault rifle that can change into a rail gun, there are some impressive gadgets on display. The most prominent is the OWL drone, which can attack enemies for you in short bursts of gunfire, create ziplines to help get around the environment, generate temporary shields to give you some desperate cover, and even stun groups with an EMP wave. All of these functions for the OWL are controlled with the Dualshock 4’s touch pad. I’ve been on record as a detractor of this hardware gimmick before, but now that I’ve had time with it, it’s works surprisingly well. A simple swipe is needed, it isn’t forced on you, and is very responsive. I’d even go so far as to call its implementation innovative.
It all comes together to give Shadow Fall the tone of a thinking man’s action game. Many gunfights I had in the game were made a lot more manageable by seemingly small advantages. Having five Helghast highlighted by my radar so I knew they were attempting to flank. Using my OWL’s guns to draw enemy fire while I got to a better position. Stunning a group so I can disable an alarm to prevent reinforcements. The list goes on. When this game works, it makes you feel like a tactical genius in the heat of combat.
If Shadow Fall had just this to offer, as well as some brief but nonetheless breathtaking zero gravity sequences, then it would be an absolute must have on the Playstation 4. Here’s the catch; almost all of the goodwill Guerilla has earned with its sharp AI opponents and diverse weaponry and gameplay styles is counterbalanced by some archaic and annoying level design choices. Just about any old form of padding or artificial difficulty from a shooter that hasn’t been seen in years is on display. Key-hunting puzzles? Check. Platforming sequences from first-person perspective? Check. Enemies with shields that can only be broken by two or so specific weapons? Check. Sprawling levels with limited interactivity? Check. Obtuse map layout? Check. It can be very jarring to be on a roll one moment, then slam into one of these annoyances, or worse, all of them.
Killzone has some decent multiplayer offerings. Warzone is a great mode of everchanging objectives that keep both teams of players on their toes. There is also traditional Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag mode. The OWL drone gameplay also carries over into these modes, as well as the ability to summon its meatier cousin, the ATAC. Much like the single-player mode, it’s a small flourish on the formula, but it adds a very tactical edge to online firefights and keeps things frantic and interesting. There are also the usual offerings of RPG style level progression and unlockable weapons, and additional loadouts. The maps are also varied and have some pretty solid design.
Shadow Fall has what I expect to see more of in this new generation: a marriage between graphical eye-candy and striking art direction. The game isn’t exactly on the bleeding edge of realism, but it’s hard to notice when the colors are aesthetically pleasing and merge together into a believable world. The lighting is crisp, the particle effects aren’t overblown but are utilized appropriately, and the framerate is silky smooth.
Special note most be made of the motion capture performances, because they are mesmerizing. They aren’t nuanced for the most part, but when it comes for certain moments of quiet, it is striking. Alternatively, if a character has to chew the scenery, the character model coordinates flawlessly, adding up to a stunning showcase. It must also be said that there are little to no loading screens, justifying the complete installation on the hard drive.
Shadow Fall’s score is inoffensive. Using strings and synths and a pulsing bass, the music manages to hit just the right notes. The voice-acting is also serviceable, and the sound editing is rock solid.
For all of its missteps, Killzone Shadow Fall moves at a brisk pace, with its campaign lasting a solid ten or so hours. The multiplayer is fast-paced with enough variety. As a launch title it does a great job showing off what the Playstation 4 can do from the subtle use of its touchpad to its raw processing power. If only there was a bit more polish with the difficulty curve and level design, this would be an unparalleled home run for both Sony and Guerilla Games. As it stands, the game leaps back and forth between being gorgeous and engaging to obtuse and frustrating, all evening out to something that passes the time but is painfully holding itself back.
If you’re a fan of Killzone, then Shadow Fall will be worth your time. However, if you are new to the series like me, there are some many minor issues that do get in the way of making this a permanent addition to your collection. The campaign is a great departure from convention, I just wish the moment to moment gameplay was better.
- Well Told Black Ops Story
- Great Gunplay and Hardware Usage
- Fantastic Sound and Art Direction
- Obtuse Level Design
- Artificial Difficulty Jumps
- Gunplay Can Become Exhausting