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Killzone Shadow Fall

Killzone Shadow Fall

Killzone Shadow Fall has a difficult mission. Can it become the first must-have game for PS4 by overcoming the problems that have plagued the series, or is it destined to, once again, fall just short?

_bmUploads_2013-02-21_1456_KZ4_Blast3The reaction to Killzone Shadow Fall’s initial reveal says a lot about how people view the franchise. Easily the most impressive graphical showing of Sony’s first PS4 event, all the shine couldn’t hide a game that looked quite a lot like the FPS games we have already been playing. ‘Meh… it looks lovely… shame it’s a Killzone game,’ seemed to be the response from a vast number of gamers. It’s a franchise that has a reputation of being average, the first game never living up to its ‘Halo-killer’ title and suffering as a result. Guerrilla Games has a hell of a job on its hands.

Play was lucky enough to go hands-on with the PS4 recently and, of all the games on show, Shadow Fall was one of the most popular by some measure. Maybe games journalists just like first-person shooters, or maybe it has a special something, but there was never a lack of people queuing to try their hand at Guerrilla’s PS4 launch title.

It’s easy to see how Guerrilla has made an effort to distance Shadow Fall from previous Killzone games. The story is set 30 years after Killzone 3, and the war between Vektan and Helghast is slowly burning itself out. Helghast refugees have been allowed to settle on Vekta, and the two peoples are separated by an enormous sci-fi version of the Berlin Wall. The Helghast are fighting to exist while the Vektan fight for survival, leading to what has been described as a “cold war” by Guerrilla. It didn’t look particularly cold to us – there’s gunfire and explosions all over the bloody place.

The gameplay demo we played was an early level set around a Helghast outpost, high up a forested mountain. We began on an outcrop overlooking a watchtower and were immediately introduced to one of the most important new features of Shadow Fall. A robotic drone called an OWL accompanies the player, and controlling and commanding your little mechanical companion is the key to getting an edge in combat situations.

_bmUploads_2013-02-21_1462_KZ4_Flyin4The OWL has four powers, selected in one of two ways. Traditionalists can hold L2 to bring up a selection wheel, and then point the left stick in one of four directions to choose. The other method, which we quickly came to enjoy, is to simply flick a finger along the touchpad in one of those four directions, instantly selecting a power without having to hold L2. It’s easy, fun, decent at not reading your input wrong and a perfect example of the small ways the touchpad will be able to complement traditional games.

Of those four abilities, perhaps the most important is the zip line. As long as it isn’t too far away, aim at a spot and hit L2 to fire a zip line from your OWL that you can then ride down. It makes getting about a breeze and has allowed Guerrilla to open up its level design on a much larger scale.

We were guided through the demo by designer Eric Boltjes, who assured us that you can “zip line just about anywhere you want – including to your death. It made it ten times harder to design levels!”

The obvious intention is for the player to open the level by zip lining down to the watchtower, dropping off above the guard patrolling it and silently dispatching him with a knife to the throat. We here at Play do not simply follow the crowd however, so we quickly set about to finding other ways to begin.

The gun you start with is called a Shadow Marshall, and features two modes that you switch between with the left D-pad button. One is an SMG intended for close-range room clearing, the other a scoped sniper rifle for long-range precision. Boltjes promises around 22 weapons in the final game, most of which will feature a form of secondary fire. Being the testosterone-fuelled Rambo wannabe bastards that we are, we immediately disregarded stealth, switched our gun to sniper mode and popped the guard in his silly, squishy face.

Luckily for us, we were still far enough away from other foes that our shot remained unheard, and we promptly zip lined to the tower to get a better view of our goal. Helghast soldiers litter the landscape, and taking out as many as possible unseen seems the best course of action for those that want to survive.

_bmUploads_2013-02-21_1458_KZ4_Chase1Another new feature rears its head as we hold down up on the D-pad. This activates a radar that scans the environment called the Tactical Echo, highlighting the outlines of enemies nearby as it moves outwards. Guerilla has made sure you can’t abuse the feature, and a bar fills up as you hold the button down. Hold it too long and fill up the bar and the radar backfires, alerting nearby enemies to your location instead. It’s a neat bit of risk versus reward, making sure you get the most range possible out of your radar by leaving it to the absolute last instant to let go of the button.

Of course, this is all unnecessary, as stealth is for sissies. We quickly found the first pair of bad guys we could, knifing one in the back before gunning down the other in a blaze of manly glory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an alarm was sounded and we quickly found ourselves facing Helghast swarming us from all sides.

The stage was a vast forest, far larger in scale and more open than the corridor-based design featured in Killzone 2 and 3. Boltjes pointed out that it isn’t an open-world game – “we’re not Borderlands” – but Shadow Fall will feature much more freedom than Killzone fans might be used to.

“Killzone 2 and 3 were quite linear,” says Boltjes. “Most levels went in an A, B, C progression. We’ve tried to make it more open, so if you want to go to C first, and then do objective A, then B, you can. Obviously, not every level will be like this, but it’s our aim to make most of the game less linear. Past games were very story focused but this time it’s all based around the gameplay.”

With bad dudes closing in all sides, another one of our OWL’s abilities came in handy as it plops down a one-way shield, letting us shoot out of it but stopping enemy fire. It doesn’t last for long though, and we use a third OWL ability, shocking an enemy into inaction while we blast another one and leg it to safer ground.

Until we turn off the alarm the Helghast will keep coming, so we find the source and order our drone to hack it with a simple button press. It’s been a tough firefight and one that Boltjes admits might be too hard in its current incarnation. This is, after all, “pre-pre-alpha” code, so huge changes are still to be made.

As far as the actual shooting goes, it’s functional, smooth and fun, if not jaw dropping in originality. This is, past all the shiny features and graphics, basically the same FPS we’ve been playing for years. Some aim to define while others refine to perfection, and Guerrilla has taken the second approach. Killzone Shadow Fall isn’t aiming to blow your mind with new ways to play games. It wants to be the best damn FPS it can and nothing more.

We come across another group of soldiers and decide to be a bit more tactical this time. The final ability of the OWL is used to send it to attack the Helghast, drawing their attention while we flank to the side and take them out from behind. You might be alone for much of the game, but using the OWL as a pseudo-partner will offer multiple ways around problems.

_bmUploads_2013-02-21_1455_KZ4_Blast1To stop you abusing these powers, the OWL has a shield gauge that goes down as it gets shot. Once it’s empty the drone will return to you, and until it has recharged completely it’s out of action. It’s still a very powerful ally and, considering that without it the player is alone for the entire demo, having some backup is a literal lifesaver.

Like most post-Halo first-person shooters, Shadow Fall has a slowly regenerating health bar, but find yourself in a pinch and you can use a health kit instantly with the down button. This serves two purposes, as not only is your HP immediately restored but your character channels Max Payne briefly and goes into slow-motion when you aim down your gun sights.

With all these options, the demo left us to make our way to the objective point however we chose. With multiple options for stealth and aggressive approaches, Shadow Fall seems to have much more strategic scope than past Killzones. Of course, we promptly disregarded tactics, safety and rational thought and ran in headfirst like the Herculean heroes we are.

The core game might be quite similar, but lots of little things impressed us as we played. Enemy Helghast soldiers attempt to blind you with bright torches, shining right into your eyes. It really works, and the lighting is some of the most realistic we’ve ever seen in a game – a clear example of the power of the PS4.

“Most of the pressure to create something great comes from ourselves,” says Boltjes. “We always want to make the best looking game on the platform, which is an approach that Sony obviously likes! Ever since we finished Killzone 3 we’ve been working on this.

“Killzone has always been on the forefront when it comes to graphics but, gameplay-wise, we still have a lot to learn. We are always aiming to improve, through all the new abilities and stuff we have added. The end goal is always to explore ways to become better at creating a fantastic gameplay experience.”

One side effect of the new open level design was a couple of instances where we weren’t sure how to proceed or in which direction to advance. One section in particular had us zip lining between two sides of a ruined building, unsure of which exit to take. It’s not unreasonable to assume that small issues like this will be ironed out by the time of release, but it was still the biggest concern we had when playing.

Otherwise, the demo was a blast. We fought our way to the objective, placed some bombs and attempted to fight our way out, only to be greeted by an enormous Helghast gunship summoned by the fracas we had created earlier. You’ll be pleased to know we fought valiantly, Play readers, never giving an inch and staring directly into the face of death with a smile on our face. Then we got shot to pieces and died. Trying again seemed rude with a horde of people waiting behind us, so our time with the demo came to an end.

It’s obviously impossible to judge a game from 20 minutes of pre-alpha gameplay, but Killzone Shadow Fall seems to be shaping up nicely in all the right ways. Boltjes seems pleased with the initial reaction to the demo:

_bmUploads_2013-02-21_1454_KZ4_Wall“We do listen a lot to our fans. Mostly what they said was Killzone 3 was kind of more of the same. That’s why we’ve wanted to do something fresh, with a different world, enemy types, themes and abilities. So far the response has been really good. People like that we are going beyond what Killzone traditionally has been to explore new types of gameplay. Obviously, they love the graphics too!”

The payoff to all this hard work was Sony making the game their centrepiece in the initial PlayStation 4 reveal. “We started working on it, and it became so good that Sony wanted to make it the main game in the PS4 reveal,” says Boltjes. “It’s great! We get a lot of support, patience and backing from Sony that is invaluable. We even had a hand in developing the new controller. Sony came to us with prototypes throughout the process and we’d give them feedback, like making the triggers bigger and so on. It’s going to be much better for FPS games than the DualShock 3 was.

It might be time for gamers to put aside the misgivings they have about Killzone and look to Shadow Fall as a new start for the series. A franchise that has always been simply adequate seems to have found a new direction going into the next generation and, if Guerrilla can keep the good work rolling and stay the path, we will have one hell of a PS4 exclusive on our hands come launch day.

 

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF KILLZONE

Knowledge of the past Killzone games won’t be necessary to enjoy Shadow Fall, but on the off chance you are curious anyway we’ve got our finest fictional historian on the case.

 

KILLZONE – 2004 (PS2)

The game famously billed as a ‘Halo-killer’, the first Killzone was anything but – a mediocre shooter with ambitions it couldn’t reach. The game takes place in an era of space colonization as a war breaks out between the planet Vekta and the exiled Helghast. It wasn’t bad, but a recent HD upgrade showed that it hasn’t aged particularly well.

 

KILLZONE: LIBERATION – 2006 (PSP)

A strange top-down shooter for PSP that had dungeon crawling elements, Liberation continued the story of protagonist Jan Templar from the first game. Once again, it wasn’t bad, but merely unremarkable. A fun bash about if you had a PSP at the time, but nothing you need to play now.

 

KILLZONE 2 – 2009 (PS3)

It took a new generation of consoles for Killzone to really find its feet, but Guerrilla got there in the end. A decent campaign following the ongoing Helghast war coupled with some of the best online FPS multiplayer on PS3 and stunning graphics created an excellent, often-overlooked game.

 

KILLZONE 3 – 2011 (PS3)

The final game in the initial trilogy took some questionable back-steps that resulted in a poorer game than its predecessor. The war between Vekta and Helghast comes to an end in a campaign that feels anticlimactic, although multiplayer is still decent. It’s still a good game, just a bit disappointing after its excellent predecessor.

 

KILLZONE: MERCENARY – 2013 (VITA)

Killzone: Mercenary takes place across the whole series so far, placing players in the shoes of a (you guessed it) mercenary who works for both the Vektans and Helghast. It looks utterly stunning for a handheld game, and seems to be a faithful rendition of the franchise.




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