KILLZONE: SHADOW FALL Review: Capable Fun, But Not the Killer App

Screenshot from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Credit: Guerilla Games/SCE

On Friday, November 15, 2013, the next generation of video games arrives, with the release of the PlayStation 4. In tow, Sony brings Killzone: Shadow Fall, the next chapter in the long-running first person shooter franchise that sets the player against the once-mighty Helghast empire, in this game reduced to refugees forced to share a planet with the very people that destroyed life as they knew it. While Shadow Fall introduces some basic “Next Gen” concepts and certainly bears the sheen of a shiny, new console, ultimately it is a first person shooter without a strong sense of self.

Killzone: Shadow Fall Boxart
Killzone: Shadow Fall Boxart
Credit: SCE

Story

The story of Killzone: Shadow Fall starts with the end of a war. A handy recap video brings players up-to-speed, whether they’ve played every Killzone title, or this is their first go against the Helghast. Thirty years after the events of Killzone 3, Helghan has been destroyed – the very planet itself was killed. The remaining Helghast have been moved to the planet Vekta by the ISA, the protagonist ruling organization of the franchise, where they are meant to share the planet, and indeed even its capital city (Cold War Berlin style) in an uncomfortable peaceful existence.

Of course, this is a first person shooter, not a first person tea party, so the uneasy peace naturally doesn’t last long. Taking on the role of Lucas Kellan, players begin his life as a child, quickly spinning events into his recruitment into the Shadow Marshalls, an elite group of soldiers within the ISA. As all-out war threatens to erupt, it’s up to Kellan and his ilk to stop the war and the Helghast threat before it can threaten all of Vekta.

The story moves into some morally ambiguous territory, and is at its best when dealing with those grey areas. The Helghast have clearly been wronged in some ways, and the question of whether they “brought it upon themselves,” and whether the millions of civilians should be made to answer for the military industrial complex is an interesting and poignant one. The problem lies with this grey area being forced into the situation, then pushed aside on multiple occasions. They lost their planet, and are a troubled race struggling to survive – but then extremists within their ranks actively seek all-out war through terrorism; there are civilians who just want to live their lives that we’re meant to relate to, but then their own military mercilessly guns them down, and from the very start does not honor the treaty that is supposed to be the new basis of society. If developer Guerrilla Games wanted a morally ambiguous game with a question of whether either side can ever be “right” or “wrong,” then they shouldn’t have simultaneously spent so much time showing us how darn “evil” the Helghast are. A commitment one way or the other could have made the difference between a muddled mess where the player is forcefully pushed into the opinions of the writers and a nuanced social commentary where they are instead guided into making opinions of their own based solely on the unbiased facts presented. While Killzone: Shadow Fall nearly had something to say about the nature of war and mankind’s greater struggles, it instead fell into basic propaganda and “twists” telegraphed from hours before they occurred. In an age where first person shooters flood the market (especially each Fall), a good story can make all the difference, and Shadow Fall just doesn’t quite fit the bill. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, but it certainly hurt any chances of greatness.

Screenshot from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Screenshot from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Credit: Guerilla Games/SCE

Gameplay

For the most part, if you have played a first person shooter in the last ten years, you’ll have a pretty quick handle on the basic controls of Shadow Fall. Guerrilla Games made good use of the much-improved Dualshock 4 controller, with every button mapped for quick access to your tools of destruction. Most weapons come equipped with a secondary fire mode, increasing your carry load from two to a virtual four. Controls are tight, aiming feels visceral, and the power of weapons actually hits levels that feels realistic. If you fire a charged shot from your converted rifle, the increased force will literally knock enemies over, often clear over a sheer cliff or off a building through a shattering window. Headshots kill, and a concentrated rifle burst will actually take an enemy down. On normal difficulty, that’s important, because the amount of Helghast that will gather and try to flank you hits high levels rapidly.

The new game element, and something truly only possible on the PlayStation 4 thanks to the Dualshock 4’s new touchpad, gives you control over the OWL Combat Drone. A flying drone device that can be deployed for various uses, the OWL is always with you, and is often the difference between narrowly escaping a large firefight with your life and being gunned down mercilessly. When deployed for combat, the OWL can be used to flank heavily armored enemies, or to distract groups while you time a well-placed grenade. A shock/flashbang system temporarily jams weapons and blinds enemies allowing for a “breach” scenario even in an open field. A mobile cover system and an all-too-handy zip line that can be deployed virtually anywhere (as long as you have the high ground, of course), round out the OWL’s capabilities. Swiping in any of the four basic directions on the touchpad selects the function you want to use, and simply aiming the reticle and hitting L1 sends the OWL on its way. This makes the first person shooter unique, with control of a virtual second player to allow for some advanced tactics. Unfortunately, there are times the OWL is a bit overpowered, almost allowing the player to just hide in cover while it takes care of business. While the level design early on encourages copious use of the zip line, as the game gets more linear, it has fewer opportunities for creative use and more guided moments.

Screenshot from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Screenshot from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Credit: Guerilla Games/SCE

Something should be said for a specific chapter of the game that flips a common shooter/adventure game convention on its head. Without spoiling the scenario, there comes a time when the player is put on the dreaded escort mission. The twist, however, is that Lucas Kellan is the one being escorted – you have to rely upon your guide/sniper to get you out to safety. It was a particular moment that stood out in the game as something that wasn’t just another run to point A, shoot people, blow something up, run to point B, repeat kind of mission.

Graphics

There is no doubt that Killzone: Shadow Fall is a beautiful game. Unless you have a high-end PC with a graphics card that costs the same as a console, you will have moments of true awe while playing. There is a strange shine to the game, however, that after the initial “woah, pretty,” makes the whole world of Vekta feel artificial. It seems at times that everything in the world of Shadow Fall is reflective, with nothing simply absorbing light. The bright colors and open-air environments of the early levels pleasantly depart from the commonly drab decorum of the genre, though some later missions are so full of the dark Helghast red-and-gray that you forget that earlier beauty existed. That seems intentional, another guiding element to the story, but nevertheless disappointing for the first major exclusive for a new console: this game should be the showcase of what the PlayStation 4 can do out of the gate, and only was some of the time, not all of the time. Still, nitpicks with the first person shooter genre as a whole aside, you can absolutely tell this game is on a generation past what you’ve been playing for the last seven or so years.

Screenshot from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Screenshot from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Credit: Guerilla Games/SCE

Sound

Sony’s Linear PCM optimized digital audio returns to the PlayStation 4 after delivering some of the best sound of the last generation on the PS3. The world of Vekta, with its two distinct sides, offers up plenty of ambient noises. Gunfire, shattering glass, and deafening alarms fill a surround sound setup, and audio cues can alarm you to the presence of enemies before your echolocation device can spot them. There are a couple of early lip-sync issues that were downright distracting early in the game, completely pulling me out of the narrative in what was supposed to be a strong personal moment. If your surround setup is not properly optimized, the mix can be a bit off, causing you to miss an important briefing note due to the sounds of alarms or a skirmish ahead – that may be intentional, but from a gameplay standpoint just doesn’t quite work. The newly added speaker in the Dualshock 4 is used primarily by Shadow Fall to deliver the collectible audio logs. It’s a neat trick that gives a little nod to the new functionality. Necessary? Probably not, but it does add a bit to the immersion of the experience.

Multiplayer

At a multiplayer event held by Sony, we tried several of Killzone: Shadow Fall’s MP modes. While it overall felt like standard shooter fare, the fast pace and large maps did lend a sense of urgency to the experience. A team deathmatch with no respawning was particularly fun, and incredibly gratifying if you happen to be the last man standing (also high-pressure from your teammates when going for that final kill). The now-standard multiple classes and loadouts are present, though in our time with the game it didn’t seem those classes meant much. Overall, Shadow Fall has fun, capable multiplayer, and playing it for a distraction, or for trophies, won’t get boring – but it also probably won’t pull you away from your current FPS franchise of choice.

Screenshot from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Screenshot from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Credit: Guerilla Games/SCE

Conclusion

As a new console generation dawns, Killzone: Shadow Fall does a lot to introduce the new control schemes and shinier (literally, unfortunately) look to the first person shooter. For better or for worse, aside from the OWL, it is still just that: a first person shooter. If you love the genre, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in Shadow Fall, and some exciting new concepts that sufficiently alter the gameplay to take you through the eight to ten hour campaign, maybe even a couple times to try for the collectibles. If you’re not a FPS fan, Shadow Fall isn’t likely to change that. The next-gen controls and graphics are there: now let’s figure out some next-gen concepts to go along with them. Killzone: Shadow Fall is a capable and mostly fun first exclusive for the PlayStation 4, but it is not the “killer app” you’re looking for.

The Good

  • OWL invites unique gameplay with actual tactics
  • Next-gen looks are what you hoped they’d be, even early on
  • A capable shooter, it’s an easy introduction into the PS4 with the whole controller used

The Bad

  • A disjointed story without a full identity hides possibility of brilliance under forced ideas of good and evil
  • Graphics sometimes have unreal shine to them, with everything from carbon fiber weapons to the trees looking like a reflective surface
  • Ultimately, another first person shooter – for better or for worse

'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

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