Killzone: Shadow Fall
Guerrilla Games’ Killzone series has always been something of a black sheep of the genre. The PlayStation exclusive shooter has yet to gain real traction with the mainstream, despite releasing two solid and technically impressive titles for the PS3. Now at the launch of the PlayStation 4 the series has been placed front and centre; but can it emerge from the shadow of Call of Duty and Battlefield and make a convincing case for the next generation of gaming?
Killzone: Shadow Fall gameplay footage
Well it certainly makes a good first impression. From the off it is clear that Shadow Fall is a truly gorgeous game, a fact that is further established as the game progresses. From desolate planets to futuristic cities and even abandoned space stations, the game’s strong use of lighting, architecture and scale provide frequent moments where you can’t help but stop and admire the view. It helps that the game utilises a far brighter and more varied palate than the previous Killzone titles. The game still has its fair share of ruined landscapes for you to venture through, and dark oppressive cityscapes but the attention to detail and strong art direction help make each locale feel part of a more coherent, but varied universe.
Story-wise however Shadow Fall is unable to make similar strides forward. Set around 30 years after the end of Killzone 3, Shadow Fall deals with the aftermath of the Petrusite attack of Helghan, and resulting migration of its survivors to Vekta. Here, separated by a wall, the two sides have formed an uneasy truce, but under the surface the desire for retribution grows and another war seems inevitable. You play as Lucas Kellan an orphan taken in by the Vektan Shadow Marshals, a sort of intergalactic spec ops team and charged with initially running classified operations into Helghan territory, only for things to escalate quickly as it becomes clear the Helghan have plans in mind to take revenge on the Vektans and finish the war.
It’s a largely familiar framing device that sees you whisked off on a variety of missions following order, and taking down opposing soldiers, however as the game progresses and you team up with an unlikely allay it becomes noticeably more interesting. Shadow Fall’s biggest failing (aside from the poor script) is that it relies too heavily on clichéd first person shooter staples, from ranting bad guys who you chase through levels, only to have them escape in a waiting ship, to blindly following orders from characters not afforded much in the way of personality, outside of ‘resident hard-ass in charge’. The biggest crime though is that you, the player, remain a cypher. The opening scene, designed to imbue you with some emotional connection, largely rings hollow, especially when unfavourable compared to the brilliant cold-open found in The Last of Us only a few short months ago.
The game has some interesting ideas to explore, the cold war and post WW2 parallels are obvious, and it is to the game’s credit that it shades both sides with a fair amount of grey. You may be spending much of your time shooting Helghast but the Vektan’s don’t emerge from the story covered in glory either.
Thankfully the gameplay itself has seen a quite marked improvement for the better this time out. The previous Killzone games have always been more measured than their trigger-happy brothers in arms, instead favouring atmosphere and the down dirty of a firefight to put you in the heat of battle, rather than having you single-handedly destroying half of every city your squad passes through. Here Shadow Fall splits the difference, there are certainly a few token nods to the Call of Duty style scripted sequence, some free-falling sections can be incredibly frustrating and in 2013 any game design document that includes the words ‘turret sequence’ should be rejected immediately.
That said the majority of Shadow Fall takes place in big open environments with the player left, more or less to their own devices. It’s telling at how atrophied gamers expectations of first person shooter campaigns are that being presented with a whiff off freedom immediately sets off unfamiliar feelings of confusions upon not finding a giant arrow indicating the precise route you should take to your objective.
This open-endedness can be slightly overwhelming at first, in an early mission you are introduced to your OWL, a remotely controlled sentry that assists you throughout the game. It can act as a shield, attack enemies (or provide a distraction) as well as hack alarms and consoles and provide a zipline to help you navigate some of Shadow Falls multi-levelled environments. It uses the PS4’s touchpad well to map these controls, however being immediately thrust into a rocky environment and swarmed with enemies is a baptism of fire into Shadow Fall’s combat mechanics. Once you get used to it though the freedom is very rewarding. Using your echo scanner to highlight enemies and plan out your approach is very satisfying and many of the game’s encounters use their environments and your abilities well to allow multiple forms of approach. I certainly found replaying earlier missions once I had adapted to the skills at your disposal made it a very different and enjoyable experience.
It’s a shame then that the usually decent enemy AI occasionally struggles to adapt to the environments at times, and that the campaign itself struggles to maintain the early momentum towards the very end, a frustrating final mission somewhat mars the surprising turn the story takes. These small cracks don’t spoil things, but act as the occasional reminder that this is a launch game where a little bit more tuning may have been beneficial.
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