Killzone: Shadow Fall review
Let’s get the bloody obvious out of the way first, shall we? Killzone: Shadow Fall is hands-down the best looking game you’ve ever played on a Sony machine. It is, quite simply, stunning to look at and unlike anything else you’ve ever seen to date on console hardware.
And even if that somehow doesn’t leave you sufficiently impressed, then let it be known that Guerrilla Games is quite clearly very impressed with itself. The stalwart Sony studio devotes an inordinate amount of time in the game’s opening to its astonishing technical achievement, giving the player ample opportunity to absorb every last inch of its immaculately created sci-fi visage. The first few minutes alone overdose on extreme close-ups of its characters to such a degree you can almost smell the Listerine, yet it’s impossible not to be impressed by the visual advancements on display. Smoother animations, a huge amount of texture detail and a nuanced array of mannerisms imbue the game with a tangible sense of human drama (sadly, only let down by the less-than-inspiring story – but more on that later).
The environments are particularly spectacular, and the first (again, overindulgent) glimpse of Shadow Fall’s Vekta (the glittering citadel that functions as the game’s primary location) is the sort of graphics porn that’d make the palms of any slider-twiddling PC purist sweat. Cloud-piercing skyscrapers shimmering in the mid-morning sun, queues of incidental NPCs littered across multiple districts and an insane level of micro-detail gives off the impression that Guerrilla might just be showboating.
Lighting especially seems to be where the developer has invested heavily, and it’s clear that the artists have utilised the enhanced power of the PlayStation 4 to create the most striking environments we’ve seen in any Killzone title, drenching the screen in sun-soaked vistas, mesmerising reflections and the most overt use of lens flare in videogame history. Far from the orange and brown landscapes of its predecessors, the game consistently delivers whether on a scale big or small. In particular, later levels set among the dirt and desolation of the Helghan people’s ramshackle, post-planet-obliteration existence demonstrates an eye for precise detail that says much for what will be possible in the future on Sony’s new hardware.
Further to the studio’s credit, it has also managed to actually create locations that feel part of a much larger fantasy universe. There’s a high quality of design here that has more in common with BioWare than any of its genre contemporaries and the game feels much richer and more immersive because of it. Whereas Killzone has always felt malnourished as a legitimate sci-fi universe in the past, the painstaking detail implemented into each of Shadow Fall’s locations sells the world as part of something much bigger.
There’s also an unexpected dynamism to the majority of the stages, each with its own unique flavour and clear influences. Levels get blown-up, have holes torn through the centre of them and then, as if that wasn’t all traumatic enough, get catapulted into the sky. It constantly demands the player to adapt to extreme circumstances, brace for impact and inventively navigate through some of its most perilous dangers.
One mission involves investigating a derelict space station; a parade of horror tropes are underlined by a sparse soundtrack that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Dead Space sequel. But then it shifts gears, again and again and again. It jumps from survival horror into a tense shootout via zero gravity a couple of times before making a pit stop for an environmental puzzle, then settles into a rocketing action sequence for its climax (using the proximity of the sun to melt platforms and set fire to enemies caught in its harsh rays for too long). This is Killzone: Shadow Fall at its best; an immensely creative, unpredictable and gratifying rollercoaster of action.
Inevitably, it fails to maintain this momentum and later levels opt to up the difficulty quite substantially without backing it up with elevated spectacle or new toys to play with. The last couple of missions almost wholly consist of disabling large artillery units, while the climax of the game is set within a location that was ripped out of Sci-Fi Videogame Level Design 101. And when the game removes the ground from beneath the player for further zero gravity sequences – a late planet-based level features erupting pockets of anti-gravity matter – it’s as if Guerrilla ran out of ideas entirely.
Nevertheless, there are a several additions to the Killzone formula that help to enliven the gameplay. New to the franchise is the inclusion of OWL – a robotic companion that can aid the player throughout the vast majority of the campaign. He has six different functions, four of which – attack, stun, shield and zipline – can be selected using the DualShock 4 touchpad (acting most reliably as a second D-pad of sorts), while the other two are a context-sensitive hack function and a last-second medkit-aided revive. OWL is never pressed upon the player (aside from the odd terminal that needs to be hacked to proceed or a gap that needs to be traversed) but its usefulness and skill that it brings to the battlefield make it indispensible. As Killzone’s already excellent, smart and tactical enemy AI gets a behavioural boost, OWL’s assistance becomes fundamental to making it out of a shootout alive, as squads of enemies constantly flank from every side.
In fact, one of the biggest disappointments of Shadow Fall is how underused OWL can feel at times. There’s a stage early in the campaign that enables the player to explore its entire functionality without restraint; a huge open forest setting that allows for players to zipline quickly between treetop platforms, stun enemies, disable alarms in advance and get the edge on opponents. It can be quickly mastered and invites the type of slick, techno-infused gameplay that the Crysis series has always sought to deliver, yet it’s one of too few instances where the new feature is given room to really standout, as the campaign becomes more linear as the game progresses. By the time you reach the last few chapters of what is in general a very well-paced campaign, OWL proves itself more useful as a simple defensive weapon – either to shield you against an unrelenting attack or to suppress incoming fire.
It then comes down to how Killzone: Shadow Fall performs among the high-ranking first-person shooters in the genre, and once again the series delivers when it comes down to the fundamentals. Shooting is tight and hefty, boasting that satisfying response and weightiness distinct to each weapon, even if the game doesn’t give you much reason to use anything but the rifle you’re equipped with from the very first mission. There are a couple of other notable fumbles in the basic set-up: jumping lacks basic inertia, losing the momentum built in the run-up before launching off a platform – almost as if you’re a toddler being kept on a leash. Then there’s the auto snap-to-cover, which is frustratingly inconsistent – it was quite common to find ourselves trying to aim over cover, only to be rather ironically obstructed by it. Ignore these minor infractions and you have the mechanical makings for an incredibly polished entry in the genre.
But you’d expect what is in essence the first fully-fledged first-person shooter of the next-generation to at least rise to the standards of the generation just past. The real question is, despite all the whizz-bang of its visuals and immersive nature of its refined animations and physics, how does Guerrilla take advantage of the extra power and grunt of the PlayStation 4? The truth is that there isn’t much evidence to suggest it does.
The new features it implements invite interesting combat scenarios but the game rarely gives you an opportunity to make use of them in a meaningful manner. Spaces become increasingly confined and the lack of verticality bottlenecks play into unfortunate pop-shooting, while enemy AI, impressive as it is, doesn’t seem to have a made a significant leap from its franchise predecessor.
It toys with the idea of offering something progressive and open to players. A mission to rescue hostages across several floors that gives players the option to either storm in or take the stealthy approach is a rare example of Shadow Fall presenting tactical options. However, anything other than a direct approach doesn’t feel viable and levels soon downgrade to corridors, with all the strategic freedom all but forgotten.
Guerrilla had clearly run out of something, be it creativity, money or time. It’s just a shame that it fails to maintain the momentum demonstrated throughout the first few hours of the campaign. Despite this, even when Killzone: Shadow Fall falls into the routine of FPS at its most uninspired, it’s a hell of a ride; punchy and consistently tense, it does much to satisfy the bloodthirsty gamer with pounding waves of enemies waiting to be mowed down in Killzone’s inimitable over-the-top manner.
While Killzone 3 tried to have a bit more fun with its conceit, shifting its tone from the wartime drama to something more awkwardly dudebro, Killzone: Shadow Fall slips back into a more comfortable shoes as it deals with shady politics and dodgy military actions. Playing as Lucas Kellen, you’re an ISA Shadow Marshal who undertakes a series of covert, black ops-style missions in a bid to protect the human side of Vekta – a city split between the Helghast and native Vektans, separated by a big old analogous wall. For the most part it’s cliché-ridden sci-fi nonsense that lacks any real intelligence to elegantly explore its complex themes, and ultimately delivers on the bad guy switcheroo that the franchise has hinted towards over its previous PlayStation 3 outings. Despite this, the cast deliver some impressive performances and the quality of motion and facial capture is high, even if it doesn’t quite hit the level of Quantic Dream or Naughty Dog.
Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot in the plot to offer much variety in the way of objectives. The majority of it involves inserting giant batteries into generators to power machines (boring) and doors (even more boring), occasionally mixing things up by powering up a generator to specifically blow it up (slightly less boring). Everything feels a little lost outside of all the slaughtering of enemy troops (fun).
It’s far from a terrible game, but rather fails to live up to the promise of its early triumphs – the open-ended level design and inventive techno-ally – and sets itself on a downward spiral from about midway through its eight-or-so hour campaign. Nevertheless, while its gameplay and story aren’t a particular revolution, Killzone: Shadow Fall does more than deliver what you’d expect from a next-gen system in regards to exploring the potential of the console, more so than any other launch game we’ve played. Running at a native 1080p resolution and 30 frames per second (60 in multiplayer) with nary a sign of texture pop-in or other technical hiccups that usually blot a game of this ambition, it’s a hugely impressive technical feat that underlines the core gameplay.
And for the most part that gameplay is classic Killzone, all visceral action and confident punch, enhanced by the PlayStation 4. Even the DualShock 4 makes all the difference which, alongside audio logs playing through the controller’s in-built speaker, makes subtle improvements to the way in which you play. The sticks, for instance, remove the dreaded dead-zone that irked some DualShock 3 users, making for more precise aiming. In fact, you won’t even notice that Guerrilla elected to remove auto assist, such is the vast difference in performance it creates. Let’s also talk about those new triggers, the curve of which makes for more weighted and satisfying shooting.
And that’s really the crux of what Killzone: Shadow Fall is: an incredibly refined and exhilarating first-person shooter that shows flashes of genuine ingenuity within the genre. It’s fair to say that its reach far exceeds its grasp, which is a shame given that it comes very close to achieving so much more and being more than just another routine shooter; its early bursts of brilliance, which successfully juggle spectacular scenery and open-ended environments with immersive mechanics, fade to be replaced by familiar corridors and regrettably superficial design.
Despite this there’s plenty of fun to be had and it’s without a doubt the first exclusive to really demonstrate the power of the PlayStation 4. In that regard, it sets a very high benchmark for what can be achieved on Sony’s new console, while only giving a hint at what innovative gaming experiences are waiting to be discovered in the hardware’s future.